As a reminder, this is the fourth part for my Weird Things I’ve Had To Research series. You can find my series introduction, which will include a (growing) table of contents, here.
If you’re a fan of science fiction and fantasy, you’re probably aware that J.R.R. Tolkien was a linguist, and he invented multiple languages over the course of writing the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings saga. A lot of fantasy and science fiction requires the writer to create an entirely new language for their characters to speak; after all, it’s highly unlikely aliens or foriegn elves or whatnot would be speaking English (or Common, or whatever you call the your viewpoint characters’ default language). The technical term is “constructed language.”
J.R.R. Tolkien may be best known for it (he created not just individual languages, but whole families of languages with dialect trees and the like), but he was hardly the only person to ever create a new language for a book. Edgar Rice Burroughs actually came up with one for his “A Princess of Mars” before Tolkien’s first sample of Elven appeared in the literary world. There have been multiple languages created for the likes of Star Trek, Star Wars, Dune, Game of Thrones, Babylon 5, Avatar, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, and many, many more. Heck, a very basic form of constructed language was a central plot point of the video game Skyrim.
Well, when I was first writing In Treachery Forged, I gave serious thought to construction one or more such languages for the novel. I got the rudiments down for one of them, and came up with a thing or two for another… and then I quit. I didn’t really need to have a complete constructed language for these characters — a few words here or there for flavor, sure, but nowhere in my plans were any of my characters conversing in one of these constructed languages.
And… well, I am not Tolkien. I did enjoy some parts of constructing a language, but other parts of it became a grind… and it was those grinding elements that had me stop.
Of course, I did save a lot of my notes, and I’m having my characters largely follow those bits of grammar and so forth I’d developed whenever one of these unfinished languages come up, so I might complete things some day. Who knows? But I think, from what I did manage, that it’s quite possible to construct a language for your books (or video games, or movies, or whatever other reason you might want your own language) even if you aren’t a trained linguist like Tolkien.
Constructing a language requires a number of elements: You must create some rules of grammar, add in a set of vocabulary, and then figure out how best to include your language’s use in your story. Tolkien managed to do it a lot of times… but most of us aren’t Tolkien.
NEEDING NEW LANGUAGES
J.R.R. Tolkien created not just one or two languages, but whole language trees. Several types of Elvish, Dwarvish, Numenorean, and probably others I’m not thinking of. Tolkien’s passion, however, was languages; mine was not.
But while writing In Treachery Forged, I was thinking about the possibility of developing multiple languages. I couldn’t use Tolkien’s languages without permission (not that I really wanted to), and didn’t really know them anyway, so I had to construct some new languages, myself. (Note: Calling this an article on research is perhaps a bit strong; think of it more as applying pre-existing knowledge to your writing career)
My Human culture was a formerly single civilization in diaspora, so some of the language issues (namely, the difference between Porosian, Sviedan, maybe even Oregalian) could simply be dialect choices; Sviedan is portrayed as English; I have yet to have to portray native Porosian or any of those other foriegn dialects (well, in what’s published), so I haven’t had to do much in that regard, but In Treachery Forged did encounter Elven, Dwarven, and Tel’Curlan as seperate languages.
Tel’Curlan, I’d determined, would have been a cross between Porosian, Dwarven, and Elven languages (reflecting the country’s origins). I also felt the Nekoji and Merfolk would have their own languages, but they would be languages that were beyond Human speech.
But I needed seperate Elven and Dwarven languages. And because of the first in-novel encounters with these two languages, one I started with my focus on grammar and the other started with a focus on vocabulary.
I had no prior experience or education in creating a language. I’m not sure many do, and I’m not sure if there is an established method for creating one. I couldn’t find any “Complete Idiot’s Guide to Constructing Your Own Language” type books, if there are. So I had to come up with my own method of creating a language. I reverse engineered the foriegn language courses I’d taken and came up with two.
I am a native American-English speaker, and for the most part the grammar in my head is American-English style. I have a passing familiarity with the differences between that and British or Australian English, but I really have to think about it.
I’ve also studied (never to fluency, I’m afraid) two foriegn languages in my life. One of these was Japanese. It was a difficult language for me. Even if I resumed practicing my studies on a regular basis, at best I’ll be functionally illiterate in the language: At one point I knew all the ‘letters’ (syllables?) in both hiragana and katakana, but never managed to learn to read them when put together as words; I have what is usually a mild case of dyslexia, but when I look at Japanese writing — and knowing that it might be written in any of three directions based on context — I can never figure out what order to read those Japanese characters should be read in. For me, it’s the equivalent of trying to learn to read, and every word looks like this:
I had a lot of reasons for wanting to learn Japanese, however (yes, I am a fan of Japanese anime and generally prefer those shows with their original Japanese voice actors, but my interest came from other places as well), so conceding to the idea of being a functional illiterate in another language I concentrated on learning verbal Japanese.
Curiously, I never learned much vocabulary in these lessons. A bare minimum, I would say, that would be necessary for the primary thing they were teaching: Japanese grammar.
So, when I got started on the Elven language, I started with the structure of the grammar.
I began by looking into sentence structure. English is generally subject-verb-object. In Japanese, it can sometimes be subject-object-verb. I didn’t want my Elven language to just be wordswapped English, because that felt… cheap. I also didn’t want it to just be wordswapped Japanese for the same reasons.
Then I came up with a wonderfully original — and, in the end, awful — idea: Bifurcated verbs, one part to indicate the actual action and the second to indicate the tense of the verb. It would go subject-verb (action)-object-verb (tense). I liked the idea of it, and in the samples I constructed it gave the language a truly foriegn feel while still allowing a strong sense of “yes, there are real grammar rules I need to follow.” That one rule, by itself, gave the language its own character.
It might have worked for the language I was building, but it made things very difficult for the novel. This rule gave my Elves a unique verbal tick, but it became horribly confusing when rendered into English. All too frequently I found myself losing track of what I was doing. The phrasing, which initially seemed quite lyrical, became horribly awkward half the time. My editor didn’t understand it and corrected it wrong, and I’d make an even more wrong mistake trying to correct him.
In the end, at least when they were speaking in English, all that survived of this plan was that the Elves would frequently repeat their verbs (usually with one of those two being a contraction and the other the full word, but not always) at the end of most sentences.
I had other “rules of Elvish grammar” I was employing, but this was the most central of them… and it proved too complicated to make it viable. Oh, words of the language I’d been working on have and will surface from time to time, but I doubt I’ll have any of the characters conversing in Elvish, very often.
Remember me saying I studied two foriegn languages (outside of various official forms of English)? Well, while my study of Japanese began with grammar (and only just enough Japanese vocabulary to learn this grammar), when I was in Junior High, High School, and even College, my classes all tried to teach me Spanish by focusing almost entirely on vocabulary.
I never enjoyed those classes… but when I started on the Dwarven language I found myself starting here by working out some vocabulary lists. I figured these lists could also, eventually, be used to fill out the Elvish language, as well.
But how to create these lists? I couldn’t just grab a dictionary and go through it (too many words would be too irrelevant, as I found from the very first page when I tried it), and it would be unethical to just steal another language guide’s vocabulary lists. So how should I build them?
Well, I started by trying to think of book-relevant verbs. Dwarf or Elf, the characters would want to be able to call out that they were surrendering (verb: To Surrender). I make Dwarven archers a serious component of the armies, so I needed something “to shoot.” And that reminded me of other martial commands — to attack, to march, to hone, to punch, to kick, to burn, to follow, to train, to provoke, etc. And then these are Dwarves, and I kept some of the stereotypical Dwarven characteristics (such as business accumen being critical to your social standing). That would require words like to trade, to buy, to count, to add, to subtract, to bribe, to want, to serve, to appraise, to offer, etc., etc. Then I went into figuring out verbs specific to various jobs that I figured characters in a fantasy might need. And so on, and so forth.
So I started with these verb lists. I had somewhere between three hundred and four hundred verbs that, I figured, had a good chance of coming up in my books. But a bunch of job-specific verbs do not a language make; even if I duplicated English grammar, I still needed more vocabulary to make things work. Nouns, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, prepositions, expletives, etc. I couldn’t build even one sentence with all of the vocabulary lists I’d created.
I combined all of these “100 most common English Words” list and came up with a few more than one hundred words:
the, of, and, a, to, in, is, you, that, it, he, was, for, on, are, as, with, his, they, I, at, be, this, have, from, or, one, had, by, word, but, not, what, all, were, we, when, your, can, said, there, use, an, each, which, she, do, how, their, if, will, up, their, about, out, many, then, them, these, so, some, her, would, make, like, him, into, time, has, look, two, more, write, go, see, number, no, way, could, people, my, than, first, water, been, call. who, oil, its, now, find, long, down, day, did, get, come, made, may, part, only, other, time, new, any, over, such, our, man, me, even, most, after, also, off, before, must, well, back, years, much, and where.
Put those together with the 300+ words I’d already come up with, and you’re starting to get enough words to make complete sentences. Your Elves, Dwarves, and whatnot can start talking to each other in their own languages, and you can add more words as needed.
WHAT YOU CAN DO WHEN IT’S TOO MUCH WORK
Well, “too much work” is probably the wrong way to put it. “Too much of a distraction from my writing” might be, however, as I found myself putting all my time into developing these languages and not in writing. Again, I’m not Tolkien, I don’t have a special interest in linguistics, and I really don’t want to have to put that much time into a constructed language when I’d rather be writing. I still have pages of notes full of vocabulary lists, sketched out grammar rules, and more for both of these languages I was working on, but development has been halted on them for more than ten years, now. Writing the actual book was far, far more important.
Building a language was getting tedious. I’d overloaded myself, and was losing interest. Rather than giving up on the book, I gave up on the new languages. I have done my best, since then, to keep the books compatible with my old notes, but I haven’t really made any advancements.
Well, I take that back. There were a few times I added a word or two of vocabulary when needed (a specialized Elven weapon would be referred to in Elvish, for example). Or when I wanted to apply the “rule of fun” for a 4th-wall joke, like when I gave a Dwarven Inn a Japanese style bath and called it a “fu’ro bathing system” (basically, the Japanese word for that kind of bath with the fantasy cliché apostrophe in the middle).
Creating a language as I was writing the book was too much work… but keeping to the rudiments, and adding the odd additional word or two on occasion, will allow me to finish these languages some day. If I ever need them.
Creating a language is a lot of work. You may find, like I did, that it’s too much effort for what you’re trying to do, or for where you are at this point in your writing or your story.
But if you really want to, nothing is stopping you from making up your own words, developing your own system of grammar, and constructing your own language.
(Incidentally, if you haven’t already heard, I have updated the Convention Calender this week. I added two new conventions, and put in 2016 dates for several more. I’m always looking for new suggestions for appropriate conventions)
I mentioned this in my last post, but didn’t explain. A problem with Windows 10 had me downgrading to Windows 7; unfortunately, that downgrade didn’t work right, and I wound up having to wipe out my C drive and reinstall all my software) ate most of the time I had to work on my blog this week. It did, however, remind me of another series I was considering: Reviewing “Software for the Author.” It was never my intention to only run one series at a time, especially as open-ended as the Research series is, so I figured I could introduce this new planned series even if I’m not ready to start the actual articles.
Now, DO NOT EXPECT THIS SERIES TO START NEXT WEEK. It requires research (hm…), and I’m not prepared for it. I’m only adding this post now because I didn’t have time to do any of the other blog posts I have planned.
Keep in mind I am not a technical expert on these pieces of software. There are things I will not, or do not know how to, test (for example, I can’t test cross-platform compatability for many of the products that claim this as a feature). There are things that you might think are vitally important in a piece of software, but I don’t even think to look at them because (in my experience) they’ve never come up. This is just based on my personal experiences with this software (or, at least, simulations of my normal experience, if I’m doing a comparison with something I haven’t used often).
In some cases, I will be comparing the latest version of a freeware program (such as Scribus or LibreOffice) with older versions of professional software (I intend to do a review of Adobe InDesign, but I refuse to use their latest, cloud-only offering. I have access to Microsoft Office 2003, 2007, and — if I borrowed my mother’s computer — whatever version of Microsoft Word she got off the cloud, though not any of the other parts of the suite)
I also have no intention of testing every feature of this software. These will just be reviews of how I use them, why I — as a writer — might choose them over various alternatives, and what I think a writer would be most interested in with them.
Now, I reiterate — don’t expect me to start this next week. I hope to go right back to the Review Series (with something on Constructing Languages and why I’ve only made rudimentary efforts, so far) — but below you will be able to find an index for what I plan on reviewing (not necessarily in order; depends how long I have to test some of these things), below. I’ll add hotlinks when I start.
The Hemmingway App (vs. Grammarly, perhaps?)
InDesign vs. Publisher (2003 and 2007) vs. Scribus (this one may be bumped down, folks; I’ll need to figure out something I can use as a sample to compare these with)
EPub to MOBI
LibreOffice (vs. OpenOffice vs AbiWord vs. WPS Office Free vs. Microsoft Office 2003 vs. Microsoft Office 2007 vs. whatever other free Office packages or word processors I can find between now and then, perhaps? Recommendations might be nice)
Jutoh, maybe? (I haven’t bought it, yet, but I will if there’s interest. Yes, that means I need at least ONE comment, somewhere, if you want me to test this)
As a reminder, this is the third part for my Weird Things I’ve Had To Research series. You can find my series introduction, which will include a (growing) table of contents, here.
For months, now, I’ve been working on the sequel to In Treachery Forged. In the middle of the new (still with the editor and cover artist) book, I had a situation where I wanted to use the phrase “Let’s make lemonade out of lemons.”
I typed out the line, but then I had to pause and think about it for a minute. This is a fantasy novel, set in a fantasy world. Would they have lemonade? Is the environment of this world even capable of sustaining lemons? I mean, I’ve created this world, but there are some references which just wouldn’t make any sense without some real-world concerns. At the very least, it might throw someone out of the story.
And that’s the point of this “wierd research” article: How to deal with things that throw your readers out of the story.
WHAT MATTERS AND WHAT DOESN’T
The word “anacronism”, according to Wiktionary, means:
A chronological mistake; the erroneous dating of an event, circumstance, or object.
A person or thing which seems to belong to a different time or period of time
If you are writing historical work (fiction or not fiction), you’re probably concerned with the former. For my purposes, however, I’m going to refer to the later: Something which seems to belong to a different period of time. It might even be proper to refer to it in that period, but if your reader thinks its strange it could be an anacronism.
For example, the flush toilet. If you had a fantasy set in roman times and you described a scene where a character went to use the flush toilet, it might draw a very strange picture in your reader’s head. “That can’t be right — toilets didn’t exist that far back!” they would think. If they’ve seen certain shows on antiques and antiquities, they might even add “Crapper didn’t invent his toilet until 1897!”
True, the modern flush toilet didn’t exist until the 19th century (and Crapper, while not the only contributor, helped with the design). But, going as far back as neolithic britain or the prehistoric Indus Valley civilization, we’ve had some form of hydrolic flushing toilet. Yet if you were to include one in your fiction — at least without somehow describing their mechanism and how they differed from the modern flushing toilet — a flush toilet would strike most readers as anacronistic.
So, it isn’t so much “would lemons\lemonade exist in my world” so much as “would they seem out of place in this fantasy world?”
So, where does the research com in with this? Well, if I were writing historical fiction, I’d want to be careful not to create a first-definition anacronisms (the erroneous dating of an object, event, etc.); but in fantasy fiction, it’s “what do I need to know to avoid an anacronism?” You can have a line about lemonade only if you establish that lemons exist in your world prior to the scene it comes up; you can have a flush toilet if you explain it’s one of those classical Roman-style hydrolic flush toilets instead of a Crapper toilet.
IS IT REALLY RESEARCH WHEN…
So, what, exactly, am I doing here? I’m trying to write my way around the real-world-specific phrase or (apparent) anacronism that I actually want to use. So, where is the actual research in this?
Well, despite making a quick check to find that lemons could theoretically grow in some of the environs I pictured my characters living in (for those who read the book, not in the heavily forested areas or cultivated farmlands or mountainous regions or river deltas on the mainland, but on the Borden Isles), I scrapped the “lemons into lemonade” phrase and moved on.
But I’ve run into other cases where I needed to spend some time in research to figure out how to work my way around the issues. In The Kitsune Stratagem, for example, I had several incidents where I had a technology or a measurement I needed to describe that was named after an all-too-recognizeable real-world location. There was no Greece or Rome in this book, but I needed to figure out how to describe things that were analogous to Greek Fire and Roman roads.
I thought Greek Fire would be complicated, but it was easy enough. You can describe it as “liquid fire” and add in the rough approximation for a (theoretical) recipe and people should be able to figure out what you’re talking about.
I figured Roman roads would be easy, but they proved more difficult to portray accurately. Outside of their longevity, I had to figure out what distinguished them from your average, ordinary newly-built cobblestone road.
I had books in my library on Roman roads and architecture. No Wikipedia research on this one (well, mostly none; I found several references to Roman concrete, which was described as being different (and in many cases better) than modern concrete, but I found nothing on why it was so unique. I went to Wikipedia for that)
There were several types of Roman roads, but I picked one of the more durable to portray. Part of what made them different was the complex and deeper-than-average foundation, and part of it was the drainage system built into the roads. Those things helped the roads to last, but in looking into them I found some information out that wound up solving another story issue for me.
One thing I learned, though, was that they built various types of outposts every twenty (Roman) miles along these roads, and more complex outposts every hundred (Roman) miles. I hadn’t known about these outposts when I started the story, but it was the perfect setting for a confrontation I hadn’t fully fleshed out yet.
These roads involved elements that needed further research. The foundation used Roman concrete (I wound up learning a lot about Roman concrete in my research; I used some of it, but none of it wound up in the roads). Distances — should I use modern measurements when explaining the locations of these outposts or some other measurement? If fictional, how do I portray what those measurements mean? If modern, do I convert from Roman miles to modern miles for accuracy’s sake.
Heck, how long would a mile be for my books? A Roman mile, it turns out, is four thousand eight hundred fifty one modern feet long (or five thousand Roman feet long). Modern miles include the nautical mile (at least six thousand feet long; the exact number depends on whether you are using the mile to figure speed (Knots), read a map, or use a radar) and the U.S.\International mile (five thousand two hundred eighty feet).
I don’t remember, exactly, what I settled on (I could re-read my own book to find out… or maybe one of this blog’s readers could read that same book and remind me. And yes, this is a shameless plug; sorry about that). I do remember I did such things as measure one of my own paces to start my own system that I could convert measurements to (my own pace was about two and a half feet; that became my “closest equivalent to a yard” measurement in the new measurement system; one third of that would be a measurement that would be the closest equiv. of a foot, and so forth (dividing by the foot equiv. by ten for the inch equiv, and multiplying the yard equiv. by two thousand for the mile equiv.).
Research, after all, is not just reading and relaying the information in the book; while you need to read up on topics, too, sometimes your “research” is experimental, or experience-based. In “In Treachery Forged,” I had a character go through a natural cave system. In my high school and college days, I was part of an Explorer Post (I’m not sure if they even exist, any more, but back then they were a young adult, co-ed version of the Boy Scouts. Well, officially. Our post wasn’t exactly as formal as most Boy Scouts units; the anime or R-rated movie nights weren’t exactly in character with your standard Boy Scouts organization). This Explorer Post went “caving” (spelunking) in natural caves about once a year or so. When it came time to write that scene, I had a lot of experience-based knowledge to draw upon.
I’ll be honest; I had a lot more to talk about for this blog. I had computer problems this week, though, and my time to work on it was severely cut. My points were made, I think, but I had more examples I wanted to use. Maybe I’ll revisit this topic, some day, when my laptop is actually working.
The computer issue should be fixed this week, but it might cut into my blog writing time. Because of this, I may not manage a full length post again next week, but we’ll see. Regular posting should resume Sunday after next, regardless of these laptop issues.
(Heh… maybe the next “weird research” post should be on things other than writing topics that need to be researched for your book… things like “how the heck do I fix my laptop this time?”)
As a reminder, this is the second part for my Weird Things I’ve Had To Research series. You can find my series introduction, which will include a (growing) table of contents, here.
As I said in my last research post, In Treachery Forged‘s first draft was finished a long, long time before I published it. I probably should have worked on the sequel, in all that time (In Forgery Divided would have been out months ago, if I had, instead of with the editor as it is now), but I was trying to sell it to a trade publisher. While I worked out an outline for the entire series, I wasn’t sure I wanted to put the time into writing additional books if I never could sell it. (Then self-publishing became practical, and I finally cottoned on to the practical side of self-publishing, and now…)
During many of those years, however, it was sitting in various agents’ and publishers’ slush piles — it was in one particular publishing house’s slush pile for over four years — and I was trying hard to figure out how to get a publisher to take it. I went to local conventions whenever an editor, agent, or publishing head was going to attend, hoping to glean some trick that would help me get noticed. I was also reading blogs belonging to publishers, agents, other writers, etc., always looking for new information. Sadly, most of what I heard was the same recycled stuff, over and over and over again.
But over the course of one year, at three different conventions and on a few agents and authors blogs, I heard the following sentiment (maybe not in exact words, but something pretty close):
“If I see pull one more manuscript from the slush pile featuring Elves or Dwarves or Dragons, I’m going to throw it across the room in frustration!”
Now, this puzzled me. Outside of a few licensed properties and Tolkien, I wasn’t all that familiar with this deluge of books featuring Elves and Dwarves and Dragons. I’m not saying they didn’t exist, but these same editors, agents, publishers, etc. seemed to have no problem taking on manuscripts featuring certain mythological creatures that seemed far, far more played out to me (*cough*VAMPIRES!*cough*). What was wrong with the trope creatures and races of the Western-style fantasy genre appearing in fantasy genre novels?
But whatever. Agents, publishers, and editors didn’t seem to want Elves and Dwarves and Dragons, and the book I was trying to peddle had all three. Most of the other fantasy novels I had planned, in the Law of Swords series or elsewhere, also included Elves and Dwarves and Dragons. Hm….
Idea: Why not take one one of my Western-style fantasy plots, but replace the Elves and Dwarves and Dragons with creatures from other mythologies?
Problem: While I knew a couple creatures that might fit into the plotline I had in mind, I wasn’t that familiar with them. You might think “these are mythological creatures, so it doesn’t matter what you say about them,” but look at the criticism Stephanie Meyer gets for her sparkling vampires in Twilight — that doesn’t mean you need to get every detail right, but you probably should be familiar, at a minimum, with the basics of the myths behind these creatures, at least, or you risk annoying a lot of people. I had to delve into the research.
I only needed a few animals for my bestiary, to make the book work, but I wanted more than just a “few.” In that quest, I read up on hundreds of mythological creatures, most of which never made it in. Some of the ones which didn’t are merely “didn’t yet,” though, and others have sparked ideas for other stories. This was a lesson that even when you know what you’re looking for you can get a lot of misses in with your hits, but that can still be a good thing.
To start my research, I went off to Wikipedia. Now, I reiterate that Wikipedia is actually a very poor source for research (although sometimes it gives you enough information for certain purposes). It can be a good jumping off point, however, if the topic is too controversial. And it is a wonderful source of lists. Thanks to Wikipedia, I could create my new bestiary by pulling from the lists: Extinct animals, Mythological (now called Legendary) Creatures, and Cryptids.
I skimmed most of the articles (it took days just to do this much with all of them, but this was the heavy research period). I bookmarked a number to consider for potential roles in the book, set aside one I had already decided on using, and discarded a bunch for being either too common (anything related to vampires or zombies, basically) or too ordinary (I can’t remember which one it was, but there was one that broke down to “it’s a meat-eating cow! A cannibal cow! Run!” Er, yeah).
But for most of them, I had to do a lot of reading, even just on wikipedia, to figure out what made these mythological (or not-so-mythological, in the case of a few of them) creatures theoretically tick.
I will say that the Kitsune, especially, I tried to fit with the myth most in terms of tangible characteristics… but not necessarily in attitude and character. I tried hard to make sense of some things.
For example, they were said to always have a ball (or jewel) called a “tama.” If this tama was taken from them, they would panic, and give anything to get it back. In the myths, they claimed these tama would do nothing for humans, just for Kitsune. But what the tama did for a kitsune, there was no explanation (well, none that I could find; I am hobbled by not being able to read the original Japanese myths, and have to make do with someone else’s translations).
Kitsune were known as tricksters with the magic of illusions and several other, similar traits… but I saw no evidence of this whenever they approached someone who had taken their tama, even though I could concoct a myriad of ways for them to retrieve their tama if they did use these powers. Well… it isn’t explicitly stated, but doesn’t it make sense that these tama would be the “power source” (or focus, or whatever — similar to magic wands in Harry Potter, in my view) for the Kitsune’s illusory magic?
I’m not going to reveal everything about what factors were research and what were logicked or made up about the major players in my book — the Kitsune, the Wulver, the Haltija, the Bunyips, etc. — because, well, that would spoil a lot of the fun in it. In fact, beyond what I’ve already stated, I’m not going to mention them at all. Instead, this is going to focus on a sampling of the cryptids I did research: Why I chose them, what I learned about them, and why I ultimately didn’t include them in the story.
If Elves, Dwarves, and Dragons are considered “cliché,” I figured horses, chickens, oxen, and so forth must be as well. They appear in so many books, you know?
Okay, so I didn’t get rid of ALL the horses, chickens, oxen, and so forth, but I figured I should expand my fictional world’s selection of livestock beyond these “cliché” animals. I figured most mythological creatures would be a little too strange for human domestication, but perhaps I could find a set of extinct animals instead.
The first extinct animal I considered were Moas. Now, I didn’t really think I needed to do much research on moas — after all, they showed up in a lot of Discovery Channel shows on extinct animals as the prey species all those extinct post-dinosaur preditors ate. We’re talking a 300-500 lb. flightless bird, here. Basically, a giant kiwi (or ostrich, or tinamou…). I could include them in the story as part of the setting — someone might be a moa farmer; domesticated moa for food, moa drawing carts, moa being hooked up to plows, etc. The most common “background” animal in the game was there, waiting for me, without a single bit of research required.
Then someone reminded me of Final Fantasy, and the video game creature the Chocobo.
Well, as I didn’t want my fantasy world to too closely resemble one of the most recognizable video game series in the history of video games, I scrapped those ideas. I may have left an artifact or two of my original plans (I can’t remember for sure if any of the Moa survived the purge from my manuscript), but I couldn’t use them quite as prolifically as I had planned.
But horses, oxen, cows, and so forth are boring (at least as boring as Elves, Dwarves, and Dragons, right?), so I went looking for something else.
I considered Dire Wolves (too Game of Thrones), Mylodons (interesting, but no opportunity to include them), Camelops (too indistinquishable from camels), and Aurouchs (those almost made it in, but I instead used a different critter). Really, my scouting of extinct species wound up being something of a bust.
I may have, however, solved a bit of a family mystery… but that leads us into our next category of critters.
A cryptid can be many things — a creature that is, as Wikipedia describes it, a creature that has been suggested to exist, but has not yet been scientifically documented.
This can mean creatures of myth and folklore that there might be some sort of real-life basis for, or creatures that have been declared extinct that are rumored to still exist.
My mother used to teach English in Kanazawa, Japan. While she lived in a city, there was the occasional bit of wildlife wandering the streets. One night, my mother recalls, she literally walked right into the middle of a pack of Japanese red wolves. She was understandably shocked, but they didn’t bother her and she was able to walk through them without any issues.
They are, however, a cryptid: There were sightings of these wolves for decades after they “went extinct,” but there wasn’t any scientific documentation of them. Now, it’s been over fifty years; even if they were still alive back then, so if there were a few lingering packs of this breed of wolf still alive back then they probably are all gone now. However, finding that these wolves were cryptids (or rather, that she wasn’t the only person who sighted them after they were declared extinct) makes the idea that they really weren’t extinct more realistic than the thought she walked through a pack of ghost wolves.
And it wouldn’t be the first time a supposed cryptid was found to be real. Witness the Okapi: A sort of cross between a giraffe and a zebra. It was believed to be pure folklore, but one man spent fourty years trying to convince the world it existed. Not only did it exist, it was a common animal, with large herds to be found throughout Africa. The end result became the poster child for those who feel cryptozoology is more science than psuedoscience. (Literally; the Okapi was adopted as the symbol of the now-defunct International Society of Cryptozoology).
The problem is that cryptids aren’t all extinct animals that might still be around, or common creatures we just have a hard time believing exist until confronted by whole live specimens. Cryptozoology is a fringe science, at best, because too many cryptozoologist (especially amateurs) are little more than the stereotypical Bigfoot Hunter — chasing a myth in the least scientific way imaginable. The discipline hasn’t had a real success since a name for it was derived.
But, that bit about cryptozoology aside, there are quite a few creatures that fit into the category of Cryptid that are good material for fiction — even cryptids which are known hoaxes.
If I were writing a Terry Pratchetesque Light Fantasy, I might consider including something like a Wild Haggis into the story… but that wasn’t what I was going for. I did, however, have an interest in adding Jackelopes to my plans.
Well, researching Jackalopes turned up quite a few critters I’d never heard of (or only heard brief mentions of), before — Wolpertingers, Rasselbocks, Skvaders, Al-mi’raj, and any number of horned rabbits. Most of these are derived from taxidermic hoaxes, and a few may have been the result of a viral disease, but it didn’t matter: I had a whole set of related creatures I could use for populating my fictional world. I could make some of them domesticated breeds, some wild, some of different sizes or shapes….
I did a lot of research into the myths of horned rabbits. They actually made it into the book… but while I had done hours of research on them, I think they contributed little more than a paragraph or two to the story.
On the other end of the spectrum, there was the Amarok (which I would, forever after, mistakenly type as Aramok. My dyslexia strikes again. I think we eventually got them all corrected to the proper spelling, but I’m not sure). I read the Wikipedia article and never followed up on my research. I planned to include it, but only as part of a throwaway scene. Yet, because it fit in so well with something I needed doing involving a Kitsune character (Kitsune, I had learned, were afraid of dogs and wolves; a giant wolf was the perfect creature to play upon a Kitsune’s worst fear) I wound up featuring the Aramok in an inciting background incident — far more of an appearance than the brief mention of the various horned rabbits I’d spent hours researching.
I think I did just about the right amount of research on some creatures I wound up using, but while they might appear on lists of cryptids, I think they’d be better discussed in the final category I was drawing from for my bestiary: Creatures from Myth and Legend.
Humanity has come up with a lot of mythological creatures in the millennia upon millennia of human history. Some of these turn out to really exist (though their mythological properties may not be quite what the myths claim), like the Hoan Kiem Turtle of Vietnamese myth. Others are possibly misinterpretations of other critters, like oarfish being mistaken as sea monsters. Some are fairly believeable and realistic, like the Poukai, which may be a cultural memory of the extinct Haast’s Eagle.
Many of them, though, are pretty hard to believe. I mean, suppose you heard about a creature that was a water spirit, greatly dreaded by the locals. It is described as a giant starfish with a “dog-like face, a crocodile-like head, dark fur, a horse’s tail, flippers, walrus-like tusks, and a duck-like bill.” A supposed corpse of this creature was measured as “eleven paces long and four paces in breadth.” Would you believe such a thing might exist?
But that is the Bunyip. A creature of aboriginal Australian folklore, the Bunyip never appears described in the same way twice… but it inspires fear and terror. Every account claimed they were a large monster, preferred living near rivers or wetlands, territorial, deadly, and fiercely protective of their young… but their physical appearance changed with every person who spoke of them.
Not much to go on, is it? But hey — sometimes ambiguity can help you. Suppose the reason all bunyips are described differently is that they’re shapeshifters? Suddenly, you’ve got something. Keep them very deadly, maybe add a story-specific power or two, and hey — you’ve got a creature that can be a deadly danger for your characters.
And in another “good for the story, but I can’t find much there,” I had the haltija. Known by about a dozen different names (including Vaki, which I used in the book), they are a sort of “guardian spirit” from myths of Finnish origin. They come in a lot of varieties (distinguished, in the book, as different breeds of vaki), but most are small, playful brownie-like creatures with powers related to the element they are guarding; until you get them mad. Then… well, it depends.
There are a lot of mythical creatures, however, who simply don’t work in the kind of fantasy story I like to write… and I’m not just talking the hundreds of variations on vampires, zombies, and werewolves out there. I mean, I was looking for intelligent humanoid creatures of myth, but I couldn’t figure out what I’d do with angry humans who could run fast despite backwards feet (the Abarimon), or headless men like the Blemmyes. I needed beasts of burden, but a camel with the head of a donkey (the allocamelus) is just boring. And while I wanted background animals, how the heck would you use a fairy hedgehog? (Don’t answer that — I think I’ve got an idea. But it wouldn’t have worked in this book).
I did, however, find a number of creatures I could use… but I didn’t need to do much research on them once I found them (basically, all I had to do was confirm that they were myths and not fiction. Wait a second, here… um… confirm that Wikipedia hadn’t come up with these myths on its own? That there was some actual myth behind these myths? Okay, that works): Firebreathing chickens (basan), donkey-sized “unicorns” that would work as beasts of burden (abada), venemous crocodile-shark hybrids (wani), and more could add a lot to my world without requiring huge amounts of research (or large amounts of description).
But for some of these creatures, I had to dig deeper.
At a certain point, I figured I had enough critters to fill out a bestiary. It was time to start the more intensive research.
For major races (substituted for the Elves and Dwarves) I had Kitsune, Wulvers, and Haltija. To replace the great beasts (Dragons and the like) I had the Amarok and the Bunyip. And for color and background, I’d decided upon moas (whose role was later diminished), aurochs (whose role was taken by the abadas), abadas, wani, basan, and various horned bunnies I’d bring together under the general term “jackalope.” And I figured I could include real-life critters like normal chickens, rabbits, cows, pigs, birds, and fish, no matter how cliché these creatures might be.
Time to start writing! Or not. I may have already spent several days just reading the Wikipedia articles, by this point, but I hadn’t done any intensive research. My first stop was to the library… again, or not. The local public library has a lot of reference material, certainly, but most of what I would need to confirm or get additional details on these critters just wasn’t there. I had some books with Kitsune myths in my private library, but our collection on mythology focused more on the Greco-Roman tradition than anything else I was looking for, just like the public library.
For most of those lesser critters, I didn’t need to do much research. Once I confirmed at least one other source (whether it said the same specifics about them as Wikipedia or not) mentioned the amarok, wani, basan, abada, moa, and aurochs I figured I had enough material for them. Bunyips, well, I glanced around enough to know that no two sources agreed, so there’s nothing “definitive” on the subject; the wikipedia entry would be enough for them, too.
The haltija proved to be a real challenge. Clearly, they were popular Finnish myths (often associated with Christmas, strangely enough), and I found a number of references to them on the internet, but most were in Finnish (which Google translate isn’t very good with, though the results were sometimes hilarious) and those that weren’t provided very little actual information on what they were. I did find, somewhere (the link has been broken for a couple years, now; the site went down in the middle of writing the book), a list of what the various breeds of vaki were called. I had roughly the same information on Wikipedia (it has since been edited out, but it used to be here; you might still be able to find it if you dig into that article’s history far enough), but it was good confirmation.
I copied the list into my notes, thankfully, so at least I had the right names to distinguish them. The rest of the information on them I needed for my story I had to piece together with, say, a single line of description in one place and a brief paragraph in another. It was a lot of work, but in the end I put it all together. And probably used nothing that wasn’t in one of the two Wikipedia articles… (though this was a lesson in saving notes and not just references; I cannot remember the various types of vaki off the top of my head, and I can no longer find the list online, but I still have it in my notes).
Wulvers were another problem. The only thing I could find on them was a single, short paragraph on Wikipedia. They were perfect for what I had in mind for my story, though. In desperation, I checked out Wikipedia’s sources. I found a reference to a single book — a 1932 book on Shetland Traditional Lore by Jessie Saxby.
A quick trip to bookfinder.com later (bookfinder, by the way, is my favorite tool for finding specific out-of-print titles for purchase. Not very useful for browsing, but that’s what a used bookstore is for) and I bought the book. It wasn’t much help — I found that the Wikipedia article was basically a copy of everything that was in the book — but, again, it confirmed that this was not something someone put up on Wikipedia as a joke. It made it a little more clear that the wulvers were actually just one wulver, singular, in the “traditional lore,” which meant having a whole race of the creatures might be a bit much…
But then, I’ve seen stories where phoenices (phoenixes? It’s not supposed to even have a plural, so I’m not sure which would be correct) were a relatively common type of magical bird, and the myths usually agree that there was only one. I went ahead and used the wulvers anyway.
Jackalopes are easy to find material on, and I had a ton of books (both “myth” and, in the form of manga and anime, “fiction”) on Kitsune.
Now my research was done, and it was time to write. Well, my research on mythological creatures was done, anyway….
THE END RESULT
Well, you can see my final interpretations of these creatures in the book.
I do plan on sequels. If I can ever justify taking the time to write it (hint: Buy the book if you want more!) I’ll probably use a few more “rejected” creatures, which will mean more research. And, to keep all those editors and agents and publishers happy, even though I’m self-publishing, I won’t ever use an Elf or Dwarf or Dragon in these books (at least, none of these by their more recognizeable names and varieties).
That said, my book with the Elves and Dwarves and Dragons has done pretty well, so I think I’ll keep them around in my other works. Cliché or not, they work.
As a reminder, this is the first part for my Weird Things I’ve Had To Research series. You can find my series introduction, which will include a (growing) table of contents, here.
When I started my writing career, I figured that the hardest things I’d have to research would be biggies: The distance between stars (actually, with the right software, that’s pretty easy), ancient methods of creating steel (surprisingly, this (a) hasn’t come up and (b) I actually caught a nice tutorial on early Japanese methods for creating steel on TV just the other day, if I ever do) Eastern Philosophy vs. Western Philosophy, that kind of thing.
Philosophy, it turns out, has never really come up… but it’s a bit surprising what has.
I chose to start this series with “underwear” because, well, it’s funny. However, this “research project” was the first time I realized that it was the little things, the things I didn’t think about, that could take the most time.
Now, what I mean by underwear, specifically, is that I was researching pre-elastic styles and forms of underwear. I was writing a scene, in In Treachery Forged, where my characters were stripping down in order to swim across a river. This was a mixed species, mixed gender group, and I realized I had no idea what they’d have on under their armor — or what they would be exposing to each other.
The problem: Even though that technology is available in the In Treachery Forged universe, few — if any — of the characters use steel plate armor. The magic system I employ makes steel plate armor very cheap, but very flawed, so it isn’t very popular. Just about every character in this scene was wearing something different. And the type of underwear you wore under your steel plate armor wasn’t necessarily the type you would wear under other types of armor, or under what we would call western-style clothing, or under what might be considered eastern-style clothing.
I’m going to insert a read more tag, here (something I have yet to do in any of my blog entries so far) because the next section contains spoilers, and my version of WordPress doesn’t have a spoiler tag feature. If you’re reading this through and don’t want spoilers, don’t click the read more option. (If you don’t have the read more option and still don’t want spoilers, stop reading now)
When I completed the Self-Publishing Roundtable series, my plan was to go straight into another set of weekly articles just to keep the momentum going. Unfortunately, because I’ve been so busy with the edits, I had to set the first article of this new series aside, half-written, to go back and fix those. I’ll be working to finish that article this week before going back to the edits, and hopefully those won’t take too long and I’ll be able to get something else out for the next Sunday.
The topic of this new series (as you might expect from the title): Research. In this case, I’m going to a series of anecdotes about my experiences in research. While I will discuss my research process, to some extent (at least, in as much as there is a process; my research techniques aren’t quite that… uh, formal), my primary goal is to talk about the things I wasn’t expecting to need to research.
Basically, I’m talking about the moments where you go “I want my characters to do simple chore X. Wait a minute… do I know how they do simple chore X with that level of technology? Is it even possible back then? Uh oh….” And why, sometimes, you go through hours of research, figure out exactly what you need to know, and then don’t use it after all.
Now, writers say “I’m sure I’m on a watch list somewhere for all the weird things I’ve had to research.” I’m sure I’m on a watch list somewhere for all the weird things I’ve had to research, too, but I’m not going to talk about those things here (heh).
The first article, for example, is going to be about underwear. No, seriously. (And not the ‘sexy’ kind, for the most part; I mean the non-elastic kind. Because you just might need to know what your adventurer is wearing under his armor when he goes for a swim…)
This article will be the index of all the articles in this series, and will be updated every time I add a new entry in the series. Unlike the last series, this one has no particular set number of articles. Also, I’ll probably intersperse articles from this series with other series, follow-up articles, and maybe an actual new book release announcement or two. So stay tuned!
(As a reminder, this is the sixth (and final?) part of the series discussed here. This series was originally concieved to be part of a roundtable discussion, so don’t be afraid to comment, disagree, offer new suggestions, etc.)
This is being posted in draft form. It has not been edited (I’m still catching up on editing the past posts, but that meant I didn’t get a chance to go through this one). I hope to get to it over the course of the next week, but I am a little further behind than I’d like.
Unlike the other article edits, there may be substantive changes when this article is revised. I am ALWAYS learning new things about marketing, and I’ll probably be thinking of new things I “already knew” to add to this article, as well. So, even after it’s edited, don’t be surprised if I revisit this topic, again, on a later date.
I will start by saying that I really don’t know what works, in marketing. If I did, I’d probably have multiple bestselling novels by now. That doesn’t mean I’m completely clueless, however.
I know many things that don’t work. And I know a few things that sometimes work. I know some things that used to work pretty well but don’t any more. I even know a few things that almost always work, but only to a point. But no-one, and I do mean no-one, knows something that will always work, for everyone, unconditionally.
So, in this post I’ll tell you what I know might work, what I know doesn’t work, and what I really, really would like to try and see if it works, and maybe that will help those of you trying to come up with marketing plans of your own.
WHAT WORKS FOR SOME PEOPLE…
Word of mouth is unquestionably the best form of marketing. It sells more than anything else — if you have someone recommend your book to someone else who trusts their tastes, that’s a guaranteed sale. Have a dozen people do it, that’s a dozen sales… plus a few from the people who those dozen have told, plus a few more after that. Find a thousand people enthusiastically mention your book to their friends, your book should be more than successfully launched.
But there is no way for an author to induce word-of-mouth advertising. Paid advertising is probably the best type of marketing you can hire… but when it comes to authors, not all advertising works for everyone. In fact, some of the most effective advertising doesn’t work unless you’ve already had success.
For example, Bookbub only advertises full-length novels (so if you write short fiction, don’t bother with them). They have few specific requirements, but they are notoriously selective (if you don’t have dozens of excellent reviews already, you’re pretty much out of luck; also, they admit they’re more selective in some genre than others), so debut novels (which need the marketing the most) struggle to get into the store, and many excellent novels can never qualify.
Or you could advertise at a place like The Romance Studio; they are supposed to be pretty effective. But, uh, given the name, you might struggle if you try advertising your military sci-fi novel there. Other advertising sites which might be effective are less subtle, but usually are most successful with some genre and not others. You need to be careful to select an advertiser that actually works for your genre… and even then, it may not be possible to advertise with them.
Of course, advertising (or at least this type of advertising) isn’t the only way to sell your book. One of the most effective ways of promoting yourself (as an author) is cross-promotion. Cross-promotion takes many forms: Guest blogging, being interviewed by another author (hopefully one with his own audience), and joining an anthology writing project.
The idea is that the fans of author A will come and see the blog\interview\anthology with author B, and fans of author B will come and see the blog\interview\anthology of author A. Bits of the fanbase for each author will join the other fanbase.
And it works… well, most of the time. There are a few conditions, however: You need to be sure that the authors involved aren’t “preaching to the choir,” if you were — if the members of the Author A’s fanbase and Author B’s fanbase are too identical (in other words, if most of author B’s fans are already fans of author A and visa versa), then you aren’t likely to be introducing the authors to anyone new.
Also, if none of the people involved have much of a fanbase to share, it won’t be especially effective. This actually works best when a small-fanbase author can leech publicity from a large-fanbase author (but only for the small-fanbase author), or when two large-fanbase authors work together. Another way it can work is if the cross-promotion is an anthology project, where you can collect a lot of smaller fanbases together all interested in the same book. Of course, that only works if you have an “in” with such an anthology.
Conventions also make good marketing for some people. Being a panelist (like I was supposed to be at Capital Con… before it was cancelled, prompting this series of blogs) or a guest at a convention gives you an opportunity to make new fans; to interact with other authors; to show off your hard work. I know I’ve bought books from people just because of meeting and talking with them at a convention, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. However, you need to learn (brace yourself, here) public speaking. There are a lot of recluses, or people with social disorders, or just complete introverts among the authors of the world; if you can’t overcome that and speak before an audience, it won’t do you any good to appear at a convention.
Also, you need to behave properly — and respectfully. Remember, you’re probably a small fry at most conventions, at least until you build your reputation up a bit. Don’t have a diva fit with the convention staff, try not to offend the convention attendees, and try not to make any enemies among the other guests (even if you’ve become a big name who hits the New York Times Bestseller List and are a GoH, there are people at most conventions who have been in the game longer and who have the respect of the others on the convention circuit, even if they don’t have as many sales as you do. Offend them, you might find yourself having a hard time finding other conventions willing to take you on).
Another way to market your book is, well, “social” implies something else nowadays, so let’s say “engaging the Community.” It doesn’t help, much, to join somewhere new and go “hey, I sold a book,” but there are undoubtedly communities even the most anti-social of us are a part of. Your friends, your church, your local library staff, the waitress at your favorite restaurant, the people on your favorite sports team’s online forum, etc.
If the goal is word-of-mouth advertising, this is the closest you can come to induce it — the people in the communities you’re involved with, if they read and enjoy your book, are far more likely to recommend it to other than someone who just picks it up casually. That doesn’t mean the guy who picks up your book off of some random advertisement will never provide any word-of-mouth advertising, just that the likelihood of it happening increases significantly when the person knows you in even the most abstract of ways.
The effectiveness of this, however, is limited by how many of your community acquaintences you can convince to read (and enjoy) your book without annoying that community in general — plastering announcement after announcement about your book does far more to turn people off than it does to get them to read your book, after all, and not everyone in these communities (unless it is “The Military Science Fiction Book Club”) is going to want to read any epic military science fiction novel, much less one of yours. So, if you make a plug for your book on a 2000-member hockey fansite that you are a long-standing and engaged part of, you might find, oh, a dozen or so people willing to buy your book and read it. Maybe one of those will even recommend it to someone else.
So, it depends on your engagement level with the community, the size of the community, and that community’s interest level in your genre. And even then, you have to decide if it’s worth it. That dozen or so people from the hockey fansite? Well, a dozen or so people is a good result if all you put into it is the time to briefly announce “Hey, I wrote a book!” in a forum. But it, to get them to read your book, you have to visit a meeting room in-person and physically hand all of these people free copies, well, you’re putting more time and money into this effort than is worth it. In other words, it’ll work for some of you (if you use common sense and don’t annoy your acquaintances too much), but it won’t do much, if any, good for others..
It should be apparent, but just in case I should add that your family is not in your community, at least in this regard. Reviews from family members rarely count among these communities (although you should encourage them to engage their own communities, if you can; I’ve had a little success in this thanks to my mother engaging her fellow quilters).
But, regardless, these sorts of communities are pretty good targets for trying to build that word-of-mouth marketing in… but there is a reason I chose the word “communities” instead of “social groups.”
…DOESN’T NECESSARILY WORK FOR OTHERS
Those “social groups?” Well… “social” implies “social media,” and advertising on social media is… well… it may work for some people, but for a lot of writers it’s just a waste of time.
I have seen — and been on — Facebook groups which do nothing but send out book promo after book promo. Initially, I thought these sorts of groups might garner at least a few sales — they had thousands of members each. After months (I sometimes have… stubbourness issues) of getting the same book covers in my Facebook feed over and over and over again, at least weekly if not multiple times a day, I came to realize that these groups weren’t working. They may have thousands of members, but all those members are other authors hoping to plug their own books, and no-one actually joined them looking for new books… or if they did, they probably got so overwhelmed by people flooding the feed that it all becomes a big white noise, and little if nothing ever gets sold from it.
And just as bad as being lost in a crowd is being the only one in the room. If you are attempting a “promotional discount” and no-one is around to see it, you’re probably not going to gain anything out of the promo.
Promos in places like Amazon and Barnes & Noble can be very effective; there are a lot of people casually browsing the lists on those sites, and if that isn’t enough you can try boosting attention to your discount promotion by bringing in Bookbub or someone like that. A Bookbub advertisement during an Amazon promotion is known to earn authors hundreds of sales.
But not all bookstores are created the same. Take, for example, Libiro. I like Libiro — they are a bookstore fully committed to indies; they’ve built a good author dashboard, they have sales terms that are a little better than Amazon’s, and they make discount promotions just a couple clicks away — no questions (or exclusivity requirements) asked!
Libiro is a very small operation. While it’s been around a few years, now, it’s still very much in the start-up phase when it comes to attracting a native customer base; I hope it will continue to grow until it becomes a popular place to go looking for books, but it isn’t there yet. People generally don’t usually go there to browse; they go, for the most part, already there knowing what they’re going to buy. The very few who browse its virtual shelves probably won’t catch anything that isn’t already one of Libiro’s best sellers or is a new release.
So, suppose you use Libiro’s very simple-to-use tools and set up a half-off sale. Bookbub and similar advertising sites might very well not know Libiro exists. There are very few people just browsing that store at any given moment. That means if you have a promotional discount on Libiro, no-one is going to know about it unless you are the person to tell them. It won’t grow your customer base (or fanbase, if you prefer) at all; the one thing it might do is get the “fence sitters” within your existing reach to finally buy a copy.
A third option that might work for a few people, but won’t work for most, are Youtube trailers. If you’re unfamiliar with Youtube trailers, here is an example:
So… I suppose if you were an avid reader of the previous books in the series, this might interest you. Maybe. But only if you actually saw the ad….
A Youtube trailer is an interesting concept — sort of like a television ad for your book. But said youtube trailer suffers the same problem as your book does: No-one will see it unless you push it, same as with your book. And you need it to be interesting enough so that if people do see it, they’re willing to buy it (and you have to assume that both the book and you are unfamiliar to the viewer, mind you). Frankly, you’re better off pushing your book directly than a youtube video.
Of course, it might work for some people. If they do it right. If you make a very interesting trailer, and somehow manage to get buzz about it, you might generate sales from it. Generally, that only works if you are able to get your trailer on a popular youtube channel that your target audience is already a part of… and trust me, a youtube channel that shows nothing but book trailers isn’t going to do it. No, you want it on a channel that people actually visit and watch… or you want someone that big to link to it.
For the least offensive of all possible examples of how it might work: If you have written a Japanese cookbook, and you somehow manage to get enough of an endorsement from Cooking With Dog (this is a real Youtube channel that deals with Japanese cooking; as far as I know, they don’t endorse cookbooks, nor are they interested in doing so; note that over one million subscribers watch that channel — that number is partly why I picked them) that they will link to your cookbook’s trailer, it might be somewhat effective (you might get 1% of their viewers to click through to your site, and maybe 1% of those will buy it… which could get you one hundred sales). If the only person who shares your cookbook video is the “Flood Viewers With Boring Book Trailers” channel (doesn’t really exist; if it did, any subscribers it would have would likely be bots or authors looking for their own works. Which may number in the thousands, but no-one would click through), it won’t do any good at all.
Basically, what I’m saying with all of these methods is that the way most people do them, they won’t do you any good; they are effectively invisible (either because no-one is there or because they get lost in the crowd). Unfortunely, people keep trying them because they’ve heard they were the “secret of success.” And when they try it, they do it wrong… and sometimes, even if they do it right, it won’t work because it almost never works… even if it used to.
THINGS THAT USED TO WORK
The landscape of marketing has changed significantly over the years. In the six weeks since I’ve started this blog series, Amazon has redesigned the Kindle Unlimited program’s paying structure, started stricter enforcement of certain aspects of its review policy, and has opened a one hour same-day delivery service in select cities (London has it, I think, for example). All of these things could change how effective your marketing are, so it’s a good idea to keep a close eye on things.
The only thing about marketing you can say for sure is that it’s changing. There are a lot of things you’ll read about working, or will have demonstrably see working once, that do not work any more (at least not like they used to).
For example, it used to be that you could price your book “free” on Amazon, and without any further promotion hundreds if not thousands of people would download it. Those downloads used to boost your sales ranking, so a free day could boost you onto a bestseller list or three, and a lot of book browsers go through the bestseller lists. A day of free giveaways could result in hundreds of sales across the rest of the week.
But then Amazon changed things; “buying” a free book no longer counted as a sale. Suddenly, giving away free copies over Amazon became less attractive. I was hanging around indie publishing Facebook groups and blogs at the time that change was made, and it took almost a year before some people figured it out (even after the announcement). And still people promote their free days far heavier than they do their discount days.
Now, free books are still able to do something for your marketing. Sometimes. You might be able to get a few reviews from it, though those are hard to predict at best. Make the first book of a long series free, and that can encourage people to buy the rest of the series.
Some book promotional sites will only advertise your book when it is free, and while you get no visibility boost on Amazon from these promotions, there is still a lingering period of a sales boost… but that usually comes from people who got the promo in the e-mail, but lingered too long and didn’t take advantage of it. Personally, I think advertising somewhere that won’t even let you use a discount price promotion instead of a free promotion isn’t going to help you… unless you combine it with the “first book in a series” strategy mentioned above.
Another thing authors have tried as promotion that used to work — at least, it did some thirty years ago, long before eBooks made self-publishing a practical and viable solution, but authors of all origins still try it today — is sending cheap swag to bookstores. Now, in this case what I mean by “cheap swag” is postcards, bookmarks, business cards, maybe even small catalogs. Once upon a time, bookstores made their midlist book purchase decisions based on such things… but no longer. Most bookstores recieve hundreds, if not thousands, of such mailings every day… and most of them just throw these things out, unread.
If you’re a local author and you’ve convinced an independent bookstore to carry your book on its shelves, you might be able to talk the cashier into putting your business card or bookmark on the counter at the checkout line, but don’t bother sending these things to them in the mail.
That’s not to say getting such things printed is worthless. It’s always nice to have a business card, for a variety of reasons (and one of these days, I’ll actually get one printed and find all of the errors in the e-mail and web addresses before I start trying to give them away. *sigh*). Business cards, post cards, bookmarks, and the like are especially useful at any conventions you might attend — there is almost always somewhere where you can put such things out for free, and there are almost always a few attendees who will grab as many different pieces of promotional junk as possible while at a convention (I know; I’m one of those people). Sometimes, those will even result in a few sales.
And, of course, T-shirts, coffee mugs, hats, and other “more expensive” types of swag are helpful, as well. If people buy these things with your logo or book cover on them (or even get them for free, sometimes, but giving these sorts of things away en masse can easily cost you more than you gain from it), it might interest friends, co-workers, etc. Basically, the people who get such things become walking billboards for your books whenever they use them… at least, as long as they are in public. (Giving swag to recluses might not do much for you, in other words. Selling them or giving them to the people at your author table at a convention, however, might be… even if some of your fans are recluses).
Which brings up book signings (it does? Well, we’ll get there). Once upon a time publishers or agents would schedule book signings for their authors. Then they would run publicity for the event, which tended to make the author look like a celebrity in the public’s eye. These resulted in a lot of people getting in line to buy the book and have him sign it — because hey, who doesn’t want a celebrity’s autograph, right? Some of those people would read the book and mention it to their friends. Others wouldn’t read the book, but would still mention it to their friends because, “hey, I met a celebrity at the bookstore!” Instant word-of-mouth promotion for your book.
Well, bookstores still do book signings, and sometimes publishers or agents will even make the arrangements. But that’s as far as they go; any publicity is generated for the signing is incidental, often consisting of a mention on a website or a single facebook and\or twitter post. That means book signings are no longer the celebrity spectacle they once were; and by themselves, without that publicity, you’d be lucky to have a single person come for your signing… unless the author already has enough of a fanbase to draw people in by their mere presence (and once people see a crowd of fans, it generates the same effect as the old publicity machines did… though on a smaller scale)
Note that I’m not saying that book signings are worthless, but they aren’t really of any value unless something is done to encourage people to see the author as someone whose signature is worth having, or unless someone is really pushing things. I know of one local bookstore that really likes to promote local writers. Even though it is primarily a used book store, it has a small section that is dedicated to selling new books from local (including indie) authors.
They also really like having author signings. They think (intelligently, in my opinion) that a good author signing will draw customers to the store, so they help push that author as well. They co-ordinate these author signings with a monthly town-wide event (“Leesburg First Fridays“) to double-down on the promotion. They encourage the author to push, as well, and the end result is something of a mild success.
And here is where the swag I was talking about comes into play: Signings — if you can get people to come to them — are one of the best places to give away your swag. People at a signing event are usually quite happy to recieve a baseball cap, shirt, novelty pen, coffee mug, etc., and (at least if it’s in the cap-shirt-mug range) will gladly display those things to their co-workers and friends by wearing or using them. Like I said, they become walking, talking billboards for your book.
Of course, even if you can arrange a signing at your local bookstore, there’s no guarantee they will do as much as mine does. But if you can arrange for a ‘draw’ for your signing beyond just, well, you (sorry, but in most cases, you are not enough of a draw on your own), you might be able to get something out of it. Not as much as you used to, but something.
Despite the name of this section, many of these things can still work… but where they once worked for almost every writer, now they only work if you do them the right way, and\or sometimes only if you have specific opportunities that aren’t necessarily open to everyone, and\or only if you use a specific business model, and\or only if you target things just right, and\or only if you’re lucky. So you have to decide whether you want to spend
THINGS THAT REALLY DO ALWAYS WORK…SORT OF
Okay, so I’ve gotten this far by insisting that there is nothing that works all of the time. I still assert that’s true, but there are a few things you can do that make all forms of marketing that much more effective. That are marketing tools, in and of themselves.
For example, it’s extremely important to set up your categories and keywords correct. The keywords are important because they allow your book to be found in searches. However, they’re also important (at least on Amazon) because they can get your book entered into more than the two categories, if you pick the right keywords.
And you want your book in as many categories as possible. Every category it’s listed in is another bestseller list you have a chance to show up on, and that makes it all the more visible for the casual browsers. (Please don’t try promoting your book by trumpeting your rank on these bestseller lists too much — depending on the list, you could be making one sale every three days and still in the top hundred. Pushing the idea that you’re a “bestseller” because you’re on one of these lists is not only dishonest, your customers will know you’re dishonest because disreputable self-publishers have tried this before. It can only hurt you, so don’t do it)
It helps to build a fanbase (you’ll often see this called a “platform” in articles about the business) even before you publish your first book. It doesn’t matter how you build this fanbase — writing fanfiction, doing a political blog, making funny youtube videos, etc. — but having a pre-existing fanbase to market to will help you a lot. Easier said than done, I know, but it doesn’t have to be a very large fanbase, and while it can really jump-start your success, it isn’t absolutely necessary. With one, and applying a few of the other marketing techniques I mentioned, you might be able to get enough sales together to start hitting those category bestselling lists.
But there are some things that if you don’t do them, there’s very little chance your marketing will be effective. The first is — WRITE A GOOD BOOK! If you don’t do that, no matter how many people you attract to read it, you won’t have any repeat customers. Go back to part one of this series and look up everything I said (and everything else you can find) on how to make sure your book is well-edited, as well. A good book gets you good reviews, which will attract other customers. A poor product makes all of your other marketing efforts useless. You’d be surprised how many people self-publishing books don’t think this matters.
The second thing is — GET DECENT COVER ART! I know people say “you can’t judge a book by its cover,” but I’m sorry — that’s just what readers do. Now, you don’t need it to be ‘award winning,’ but it does need to look professional. If your cover art doesn’t look to be of professional quality, potential readers will assume the book wasn’t written by a professional, and therefore are less likely to buy it. Your marketing efforts won’t be worth anything if your cover scares away all your customers.
Oh, and make sure your book is, you know, actually available for sale where someone might buy it. Don’t go exclusive to someplace like “All Romance EBooks” unless you’ve written a romance novel (and even then, I would advise against exclusivity with them). I know there seems to be a segment of the publishing community who simply cannot comprehend the idea that Amazon could potentially do things good for the publishing industry, but excluding Amazon from your sales plan is like cutting off your nose to spite your face, as the saying goes.
Finally, write more. I’m a bad example at this, because I’ve been so slow about releasing my latest couple of books, but I’m convinced that the best way to market one book is to release the next one. And then release the one after that. And then the one after that.
The theory is that, with each new release, you have old people who’ve followed you, before, buy the new book, and new people discovering your writing for the first time going back and reading your other work. That’s probably the case, but regardless — every new book is a new revenue stream. With more books, you can do more creative marketing (like reducing the price of the first book in a long series, or making it free, in the hopes that new readers will enjoy it and buy the rest of the series). With more money, you can afford better adverting, possibly better covers, more and\or better editors, etc.
If you get your keywords straight, get your book into the right categories, have an existing fanbase, write a good book, give it a decent cover, and put it up for sale where people might see it, whatever marketing techniques you apply just might work. Repeat a few times, and things can really get going. Heck, you just might be able to generate a decent number of sales without any additional marketing, if you’ve got all that.
THINGS I’D LIKE TO TRY SOME DAY
Now, there are things I’ve heard are effective that I would like to try some day and haven’t. Some of those are things I’ve already mentioned: I would like to participate in a multi-author anthology (I had one opportunity, once, but I was not in a position, at the time, to do so). I would like to be able to get a book trailer on youtube, done in a fun and interesting way and linked to from (perhaps) a youtube celebrity. I would like to be a full-fledged guest at a convention (and not just a single-panel panelist).
But there are other things which I’ve never tried and can’t find enough information on to tell whether they’d be good marketing opportunities or not. In some cases, I’m not even sure how I’d go about doing them… but I think they’d work, if I could. And some of them just sound fun.
For example, I would like to be able to get a group of local indie authors together and have the bunch of us go to, say, the regional manager for Safeway (and possibly Harris Teeter and Wegmans) and see if we can get print editions of our books into their stores. The stores in this area have fairly decent book sections (similar to Walmart’s reputed book sections, in some respect)… and, at one point, the local Safeway had a section intended for “local authors.” Since they had trouble distinguishing local authors from national authors while buying solely from Big-5 publishers, that section languished until it was eventually re-labeled for something else… but I know there are enough local indie authors that it could have been a lot more successful if we had been included. However, approaching them as a single author, alone, probably wouldn’t be enough to get them to re-open it.
Would it work? I don’t know. If it did, would it generate any significant sales? Again, I don’t know. But I would like to find out some day.
Also, I would like to know if getting a quote from a “Big Name Author” for the cover of my book(s) does anything for sales. I’ve heard it can, but I don’t know if that’s true any more — especially for eBook sales. But I would like to find out — I just don’t know who to go to that might give me one, or how to approach them.
Book clubs, perhaps? Wikipedia suggests there are two types, and of those to I am not talking about the “Book Sales Clubs” (I would consider sites like Oyster, Scribd, and Kindle Unlimited an outgrowth of such clubs; the original being the “Book of the Month” club that Random Penguin-owner Bertelsmann originally built its publishing empire on before abandoning just a few years ago). In its original form, this is the realm of the Trade publisher; I’m sure a group of indies could manage such a thing, but I’m not sure why one would not that the “evolved” forms of such a thing are out there, and are widely open to indie publishers.
I’m talking about getting some “Book Discussion Clubs” to buy copies of my book. In theory, it would mean a number of initial purchases and, considering the reputed purpose behind such clubs, a lot of word-of-mouth publicity. But does it actually work like that? And how would I, as an indie writer, get my book considered for a group like that? And if I could, are those groups large enough to make a significant difference? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I’d like to find out.
If I could find the time, I would like to take one of my books and turn it into a game with something like RPG Maker. I suppose some writers are able to sell the rights to a software developer and get them to create a game for them, which can net the author significant money, but the rights to every book cannot be sold in that way. But I could make the game, myself, and distribute it freely, and use the game to build interest in the book… (and its sequels). With a video game version of my novels, I could make use of some of the alternate paths and alternate endings I had considered and later discarded. While something like RPG Maker would be a good shortcut, it would take a LOT of time and effort to complete (which is why whole software development companies can be formed around a single game, sometimes), and I’m not sure the cost-benefit ratio would be worth it, even in the long run. I would like to find out, some day, though.
I want to be more creative in my marketing; to come up with ideas that others haven’t. But I don’t have the time, or the connections, or the finances, or even the number of titles needed to do all the things I want to try.
I still need time to write, after all.
THE RULE OF TEN
The problem with marketing, in part, is that it takes time from things you’re better off doing — like writing. It takes time and effort to build your platform, time and money to get advertising, time and skill to put together a book trailer, time and charisma to get your print book in bookstores and libraries where it can be visible, time and energy to go to a convention, etc., etc.
But if you can get yourself and\or your books to a certain point, the rest is effectively automatic; you don’t really need to do any more marketing for that book. At least not until the next one in the series comes out, anyway.
I would like to call this the “Rule of Ten.”
If you can get ten reviews, you can start placing your book on advertising sites like the Fussy Librarian and similar easy-to-use marketing ventures, without having to wait to be approved like at Bookbub.
If you can get ten sales on Amazon, your book starts showing up on Amazon’s “Also-bot” lists. That means Amazon starts doing a little marketing for you, and hey — who doesn’t like someone else doing your marketing for you?
If you can get ten sales in one day on Amazon, you’ll start hitting most of those genre bestseller lists. That, again, boosts visibility and is “free” marketing.
If you can find ten people who are consistantly willing to boost your signal unsolicited, you probably don’t have to go chasing down advertisements at all — that’s your word-of-mouth advertising, for nothing.
If you can get your book on the shelves of ten bookstores and get them selling, you can probably get these bookstores to start shelving your books without having to make in-store visits; all you need to do is let the bookstore know your next book is out and they’ll shelve it based on their past sales (I have to admit, I haven’t managed this one, yet, but I’ve been assured this is true).
Finally, if you can get ten backlist (“I’m no longer advertising these”) novels all are selling just an average of two to three copies a day, each, (a realistic number, based on what mid-list indie writer (and incoming SFWA Vice-President) MCA Hogarth has said she gets from her indie writing), you’re pretty darned close to earning a living wage (in some parts of the country) from your backlist alone.
And that’s the end… not just of this blog post, but the entire series. There are edits to make (sigh… remember, still learning WordPress, here). There are lots of things I didn’t think to cover (such as audiobooks, which I have no experience in and didn’t have on my outline), and other things I know I could have gone into more detail on (such as book design… though there’s a whole blog on the topic by someone more experienced in the field than me. Oh — marketing opportunity: If you have a new release with a good book cover, check out his monthly EBook Cover Design Awards). There are some things I just didn’t have enough experience to feel comfortable discussing (like translations, or dealing with foriegn markets, or… well, any number of things, really).
And things change fast. In the six weeks since I started this blog, there have been three big things happen that could completely change everything: (1) Amazon changed the Kindle Unlimited payout system. (2) Amazon began stricter enforcement of its review policy. And (3) the Nook ebook store shut down its international market. Those are all pretty big, but just how they will change the business hasn’t been fully seen, yet.
So, some day, if there’s interest, maybe I’ll write an epilog to this series. Something like “Everything I Forgot To Cover In The Self-Publishing Roundtable, And The Stuff That’s Changed.”
(As a reminder, this is part five of the series discussed here. This series was originally concieved to be part of a roundtable discussion, so don’t be afraid to comment, disagree, offer new suggestions, etc.)
Ah, yes. ISBNs.
A topic that comes up all the time on blogs, in Facebook groups, in forums, and even at conventions, whenever self-publishing is discussed. One that has voices crying out with opinions, loud and strong. It is an argument that has people spouting facts — often incorrect facts — about what an ISBN is useful for or what it can do. It is a raging conflict that, really, matters so very little that it’s hilarious there’s this much debate about it.
Do you even need an ISBN? And if not, why not? And if so, what’s the best way to get one? Well, I can’t claim to be the most authoritative voice on the subject, and I’ve been taken in by some misinformation in the past, but I do like to think I’ve become fairly well researched, now, and know what I’m talking about.
You can have a successful publishing career and never spend a single dime on ISBNs. On the other hand, I do think there are reasons for purchasing them, albeit reasons that others might not find so important. There are real problems with the system, and a lot of things to watch out for. I’ve been burned, myself, but I think — between some experience and a lot of research — I’ve finally figured it out.
So, with all that in mind, let’s start with the most unsavory bit of dealing with ISBNs.
OPTIONS FOR PURCHASE
Let’s start, right away, by re-iterating: You do not need to buy an ISBN. It can be a nice thing to have, but it isn’t a requirement. We’ll get into the “whys” of buying one in a moment, but first let’s discuss the “wheres.” As in, “where should I get one?”
Well, in some countries, the answer is, “the government gives them away for free.” I don’t live in one of those countries — I live in the U.S. If you live outside of the U.S., you might as well skip this section.
There is officially only one place to buy ISBNs in the U.S. — it’s a legal monopoly — but there are other places from which you can acquire one.
Many self-publishing outfits (Createspace, Smashwords, and a few others) offer you a “free” ISBN. For the purposes of this blog, the benefits and drawbacks for all “free” ISBNs are largely the same (whichever outfit is giving them to you), but since they’ve enumerated them so well we’ll go with the descriptions given by Createspace.
Using Createspace’s “free” ISBN leaves Createspace as the imprint-of-record. The ISBN can only be used with Createspace (so you probably do not want to use it if you’re using a print strategy of Createspace for Amazon and another printer for Expanded Distribution, as that can cause confusion).
For some reason unique to Createspace, this is the only ISBN option which also gives you access to another method of distribution, which they call “Libraries and Academic Institutions.” But this does not mean you cannot get your book into Libraries and Academic Institutions without going through this channel.
Createspace’s Expanded Distribution program goes through one of three distribution channels. Createspace Direct is one (I don’t know who uses Createspace Direct to buy their wholesale books, but I have to assume someone does). The other two channels, however, are listed not by name but by description.
“Bookstores and Online Retailers” refers to Ingram… and just about every bookstore, academic institution, and library buys books from Ingram in addition to other channels. “Libraries and Academic Institutions,” as I mentioned in my blog on Printing, is a euphemism for Baker and Taylor. Just about every bookstore and online retailer that Ingram covers is also covered by Baker and Taylor. The differences between the two, as far as you are concerned, are slight (yes, there are a few exceptions which are exclusive to one or the other, but thay are minor). Now, why Baker and Taylor insists that Createspace be your publisher-of-record (this does NOT mean they are your publisher; it’s a technical term purely used for indexing) I don’t know, but that appears to be what the distribution deal between Createspace and Baker and Taylor requires.
Now, if you don’t want Createspace (or wherever else that isn’t your publishing house name) as your Publisher-of-Record (at least one reason why this might be preferable was in my last post, on print editions — namely, that there are a (very) few bookstores out there who, anecdotally, will refuse to buy your books if Createspace is their publisher of record), there are other options. Createspace gives you a $10 option that allows you to name your own imprint-of-record, but which you can only use within Createspace; if you want to use Createspace for your Amazon books and another printer (usually Ingram) for their expanded distribution service — a strategy that several self-publishers have employed for a variety of reasons — this option will not work; you will still need to buy (or otherwise acquire) another ISBN for the other printer. As a final option, Createspace also offers a $99 option that bypasses this requirement, though I do not recommend it — there are better options once you get to that price point.
If you plan to put more than two or three books into print, you probably are better off buying ISBNs in bulk from Bowker.com, but this only saves you money in the long-term. ISBNs purchased from Bowker can be used with any printer or distributor. Buying them in a batch of 100, you can cut the per-unit price of ISBN to $5.75 (at current prices). Unless you are using them very quickly, that many should last you for a long time — possibly a decade or two, possibly your entire career.
“Best practice” is somewhat disputed (Bowker, of course, favors any option that makes you use ISBNs more frequently), but in general you want one for every different edition. Initially I took that to mean (and Bowker encouraged this belief) that you needed one ISBN for your audiobook edition, one for your .mobi (Amazon) edition, one for your .epub (most other ebook stores), one for your .pdf edition (almost never used in self-publishing for fiction), one for your .lit edition (format defunct, but in the early days of eBooks this was Microsoft’s proprietary version), one for each print edition (one each for paperback and — if you have it — hardcover, and after significant enough edits (fixing a few typos is minor; the number I’ve seen is “10% of the text has changed”) or cover changes (if you change your cover design imagery, that’s generally considered a new edition; fixing a minor flaw, like a slightly misaligned spine, probably wouldn’t be)), etc., etc.
Bowker’s advice seems a little… overagressive, but they have been the authority on ISBNs since before 1967 (when the standard was formally adopted). Their word seems like it should be the authoritative one… but the end-users of ISBNs (basically, printers, bookstores, libraries, and anyone who creates book catalogs) have gone against them, for once. The end-users seem to want different ISBNs for each Print edition (as described above), one for any audiobook edition, and one for ALL ebook types (so .mobi and .epub are the same). Unfortunately, if you’ve already assigned an ISBN to multiple electronic formats of a book unnecessarily, you can’t reclaim it.
(EDITED TO ADD: This article on technical debt has me thinking that Bowker’s advice in terms of having seperate ISBNs for each ebook type might have some merit… but I still wouldn’t bother distinguishing between ePub and .mobi, as the formatting standards for these two file types are reasonably identical. If you sell a .pdf version, however, I’d strongly consider it for the purposes of future-proofing)
And speaking of Bowker, you should never buy anything from Bowker other than your ISBN as a self-publisher. Do not buy barcodes from them, even though they like to include them in (frankly, overpriced) “package deals” — there are dozens of ways to create a barcode from your isbn number for free (such as this one). That’s assuming you even need one — Createspace puts a barcode on your print covers for free, regardless of what ISBN option you use, and they are useless with eBooks.
Bowker also offers the following services: Ebook creation, cover design, editing, rights management, QR Codes, a “look inside the book” widget, book publicity, SAN numbers, and ISNI numbers. Few of these are worth the money, and none of them are worth the money for a self-publisher. Even ISBNs are just barely worth it, in my view. Assigning your book to a particular ISBN will list it in Books Into Print, which is the only other thing of marginal worth Bowker does, and that’s free with purchase.
MYTHS AND USES
So, what good are ISBNs, anyway? Ask two different people, you’ll get two different answers. The amount of misinformation on ISBNs — both from ISBN advocates and anti-ISBN advocates — is horrific. Half of the rumors are things someone, at some point in some author’s career, told as a lie in order to exploit that author, and the author fell for it. It’s led to a lot of self-publishers wanting nothing to do with ISBNs, and admittedly the value of an ISBN is very… insubstantial, and rarely does much directly for the author.
I once sat in a convention listening in on a “self-publishing workshop” where the “expert” giving the workshop said that the free ISBN number gave Createspace “exclusive publishing rights” to his print books.
For the record, an ISBN number is an indexing tool. It has nothing to do with “publishing rights” of any type. All that Createspace owning your ISBN does is say you cannot use that same ISBN with another printer; you can still apply a different ISBN to the same book and publish it elsewhere. Even the “publisher of record” bit is insignificant, as that is merely an indexing tool… (though some people who use those indexing tools view a listing of “Createspace” as a signal that the book is self-published, even though some small presses use it as well. If you’re trying to sneak your book into a bookstore that won’t normally deal with self-published authors, like Hudson’s, you’d better not have Createspace listed as your publisher of record).
Now there might be a few distributors and niche bookstores who require ISBNs on your eBooks. I think just about any significant print distributor requires one, as well, as does Barnes and Noble (at least if you want to be shelved). But most eBook retailers do not require ISBNs — Kindle doesn’t, Nook Press doesn’t, Apple iBooks used to but doesn’t any more. Libiro doesn’t….
Who does? Well…
Kobo doesn’t require it, but warns that you will not get full international distribution without one.
Smashwords wants them for their “Premium Catalog” (distribution service), but they will give you a free one.
Xinxii requires one for some of their channels (but will apparently offer you a German-based ISBN if you don’t have one, according to their FAQ; I’m not sure how to apply for it).
Google Play doesn’t, but appears to require it if you get to them through a third-party distributor like Xinxii.
It appears as if Overdrive does, though I can only guess what would happen if you managed to go to them direct instead of through a 3rd party distributor such as Smashwords.
I’m not even going to guess about the international bookstores that can only be accessed through one of those third party distributors I’ve already covered.
Ingram requires one, as do most legitimate printers with any significant distribution. Ingram does not assign you a free ISBN, so if you want to skip out on paying for ISBNs you should probably go through Createspace.
The point is, despite the assertion of some anti-ISBN advocates, there really are a few bookstores which require it, though you can usually get a free ISBN (typically with the same conditions as Createspace’s free one) if you need to. And there are a few self-published authors willing to sacrifice those bookstores if it means getting out of having to use an ISBN, as well.
But what good is the ISBN? Beyond gaining entry to a few obscure online bookstores and some printers, ISBN is useful for cataloging.
Okay, but surely there’s more to it than that, right? It wouldn’t be such a big deal if it wasn’t.
Well… not on the publisher’s end. Even for marketing, the effect of an ISBN is insubstantial — some people used to say that having an ISBN made your book look more “professional” and therefore would encourage readers to buy it, but most readers never even notice if a book has one or not when making purchasing decisions.
ISBN is for the benefit of the end-user. I phrase it that way (instead of “reader”) because the person most likely to care about it are the people who shelve the book; the bookstore workers and the librarians. Even book collectors might desire an ISBN — trust me, I know from experience that when you have a personal library of thousands of books, having an app that will catalog your book for you by scanning the ISBN is very handy (but only so long as your collection has ISBN numbers. If less than 10% of your collection has ISBNs, those apps can only help you so far)
So the question becomes: Do you want to make the lives of the bookseller, the librarian, and the book collector easier? Or, let’s put it another way — do you want to do something nice for the person who sells your book, who helps market your book, and\or who buys your book? If the answer to that is “yes,” then you might just want to use the ISBN system.
And yes, I would recommend buying (in bulk) from Bowker over going with a free one, but that’s my personal opinion — since I’m going to use them anyway, I like the idea of owning them myself instead of sub-licensing them. But this is definitely one of those “your mileage may vary” issues.
OFF TOPIC: COPYRIGHT
This is just a quick mention of copyrights; it’s not related to ISBNs (got that? Copyright and ISBN have nothing to do with each other), but it doesn’t really fit anywhere else, and it isn’t a big enough topic to justify a section of its own.
Your book is under copyright from the moment it is completed. So, why do you need to register, and when should you do it?
Well, the biggest reason for registering your copyright is that you effectively cannot file a lawsuit to enforce your copyright until it is registered (well, you can, but your options in doing so are limited). “Timely” registration (within three months of publication, or before any infingement has taken place) will increase your chance of success in such a lawsuit. You also set the damages for a violation to $150,000 and, in many cases, you can force the violator to pay your legal bill. (I’m not sure what damages you can cover if such registration isn’t timely, but it’s considerably less. If you don’t even register, well, you might be able to “enforce” your copyright with DMCA-Takedown notices and the like, but you’ll get no financial compensation even in a lawsuit).
As far as “when” to do it, this is one of the most confusing things for new authors to grasp. The U.S. Copyright Office may now have a mechanism in place for you to pre-register your copyright, but they prefer that you hold off on registering your copyright until after you publish. Now, it’s best to register in a timely manner (within three months… or as soon as possible), but don’t bother even trying until you’re done.
Also, be smart — register on-line. It isn’t really any faster (it takes them months to review your application), but it’s a lot cheaper (I think around $50 cheaper, now; it used to be an even greater difference), and only requires an electronic version of your book to get your copyright registered (note: There is some confusion about this; your copyright should be registered with just the electronic copies. To file it with the Library of Congress, however, you must mail in a “best edition,” which is usually your print edition. But if you don’t have a print edition at the time you file (when you submit the forms, not when they complete the registration) — and I usually don’t release a print edition until a month or so after my eBook edition has been published, and you can’t mail them what doesn’t exist — they do take electronic editions).
Oh, and one last warning: The Copyright Office is extremely slow (though I understand there might be ways of speeding it up, if you need the certificate in a hurry). In Treachery Forged went nine months between my registering and the certificate arriving; the certificate for The Kitsune Stratagem — which I registered in August of 2014 — arrived on earlier this month (I’m writing these blogs a week or two in advance; at the time I’m writing this, it showed up today, on July 9th, 2015). And that was with no issues; if they had asked for any clarifications (which they might, especially if you’re filing for copyright registration on something complicated such as an anthology or collection) who knows how long it would have taken.
And that is copyright in a nutshell. It has absolutely nothing to do with ISBN, and ISBN has absolutely nothing to do with it.
For some reason, ISBN numbers seem to spark a lot of passion in the self-publishing community. I have sat back and watch self-publishing bigwigs get into knockdown, drag-out fights on Facebook over the issue of ISBNs. I know people who evangelize on the importance of including them, and others on the horribly waste of money that they are.
Why? This whole argument just seems silly. ISBNs are a thing. They are worth… well, something, at least. They are not, however, worth getting into fights over.
I am the son of a librarian. I am sure my late father would roll over in his grave if I ever put a book out there without an ISBN number, so I certainly will include them on all of my books… but they are conveniences, not requirements, for the publishing process. It costs a little money, but it isn’t horribly expensive spread across several books, and its a nice thing to include for your end-users.
But some people seem to think if you advocate paying anything to add a convenience to your books, you are somehow damaging the self-publishing cause, and so you should bitterly fight against them.
(As a reminder, this is part four of the series discussed here. This series was originally concieved to be part of a roundtable discussion, so don’t be afraid to comment, disagree, offer new suggestions, etc.)
Many, many times — in indie writer forums and facebook groups — I have seen authors who are successful (sometimes more successful than I am) publishing their ebooks, but who seem utterly perplexed when it comes down to print editions. Not just the design (as I said in part one of this series, you can hire people to do both the book design and the cover art, if it really gets to be too much for you), but simply with the whole idea of picking a POD service, getting those books into print stores, and even with what you want a print edition for when most of the money, for an indie, is in eBooks.
Print books, for the self-publisher, are difficult to handle. You have to set high retail prices, book design is much more complex for print than it is for the eBook, print books doesn’t sell much, etc., etc. There are a few self-published writers, out there, who just don’t see any reason to publish their books in print.
So why would you ever bother to put your book in print? Well, why not? It may take a little time and effort, and there are things you need to watch out for, but if you know what you’re doing there’s no real reason not to.
PICKING A POD SERVICE
There was a time when Print-On-Demand books were considered the hallmark of a shoddy publisher. The books produced are of low quality (well, not any more, but it was true of some POD companies in the early days), bookstores don’t like stocking them (once again, this used to be true, but — with a few exceptions — this is no longer the case), and they cost more to produce than offset printing.
If you are fortunate enough to be selling hundreds or thousands of copies of your print books, you might want to consider offset printing. It is cheaper per book, wholesale, but you have to deal with warehousing and distribution, and you can’t guarantee that every copy you print will sell. In order to see the savings, you have to print your books in bulk. Most self-publishers sell print books slowly (if at all), and the cost of warehousing and distribution for that many books more than offsets the savings.
POD, on the other hand, has no warehousing and little or no distribution costs. The might be some set-up fees (or there might not be, depending on POD provider), and distribution costs (which may be nothing, depending on POD provider). And you should probably factor in the cost of buying at least one proof copy ($8-10, roughly, for a 300-400 page novel). But those are relatively minor costs and can easily be avoided (though I really do think you should be sure to buy a proof).
There are three major POD providers that most self-publishers deal with in the U.S. We’ll go into a few others you might want to consider dealing with in a later section, and a few to avoid (including one that goes by many, many different names, and actually has its tendrils in one of the major ones, but more on that later), but for now we’ll focus on these big three. They each have different costs, focuses, and abilities. If you’re at all experienced with POD publishing, you probably already know their names, but just in case let’s go over them again.
To begin with, there is Createspace. This is the big one, the one most people will start with. Well, in the United States, anyway — this is not an option in some countries. Createspace automatically (or, if the bot misses it, with a quick e-mail) associates your print book with your Kindle-published eBook, charges no set-up fees, charges no distribution fees, and distributes through Amazon.com and (domestically) Ingram. The wholesale price per copy is easily the cheapest of these POD producers (at least for black and white books; if you want a color interior, there are better options) and shipping is cheaper as well.
Createspace is not perfect. They do not print their own books outside of the US. They do service customers outside of the U.S., but they outsource their printing for sale on Amazon.co.uk and various Amazon.eu services. Who provides that printing is not clear (I communicated with an Ingram UK employee; while Ingram does some printing for Amazon in the US, they do not print books in the UK for them), and the quality can very be hit and miss.
But if you are an author and you order a proof, you’re ordering it from the U.S. Printer. This means, if you are in the UK or Europe, you are paying to ship your proofs and wholesale copies across the Atlantic (a cost that is often greater than buying it retail, as those purchased retail are shipped from the country they are printed). Since your proofs come from not just a different printer, but an entirely different country, this can cause problems in assessing the quality of the proof.
In the U.S., Createspace has multiple printers of its own, yet occasionally will still outsource some production to Ingram. The quality of its books in the US are generally pretty good, but the multiple printers are inconsistant and frequently make changes in paper type and quality. I’ve had them print my spine crooked or up to an eighth of an inch off-center on the spine for one batch, yet have it perfectly lined up the next with no change in the book cover design.
Some bookstores (the evidence I’ve heard is all anecdotal, and a couple years old, but seems well-supported by other local authors I’ve talked to) simply will not (officially) carry Createspace-printed books. However, the only way they have to tell if a book is printed by Createspace is via ISBN number; if you do not list Createspace as your publisher-of-record (i.e., if you use the $10, $99, or custom ISBN options) they cannot be certain your book is printed by Createspace (note: This issue is discussed in more detail in my article on ISBNs).
Other bookstores refuse to carry Createspace-printed books because Createspace does not fully support the classic returns system (though the returns system is not necessarily something worthwhile, it can be necessary to get into some bookstores).
Createspace does not print Hardbacks (well, they used to, but only by special arrangement and not for distribution; it was never a practical thing for self-publishers, and I learned from a recent Facebook discussion that this service no longer exists).
Finally, I would recommend against using the “professional services” (the in-house editing\layout\cover artist\marketing) for any and all POD companies. Many are worse than Createspace (I’ll discuss why, below), but even here they aren’t worth the money.
Yet despite these flaws it’s still the best option for most (if you are doing a children’s book, photo book, or other heavily illustrated text, you might want to consider one of the other options I list below) self-publishers looking into POD. It’s inexpensive, low-hassle, and reputedly has the best customer service of the bunch. For the amateur, it has one of the easiest-to-use user interfaces in the business, good tutorials and a built-in support community. It’s cheap and easy, it produces an acceptable product (well, usually), and it makes your book available in print anywhere in the U.S. and on Amazon.
But there are alternatives, some of which offer options Createspace does not. Some people chose Createspace and another printer, others choose to stay with just one printer. Createspace isn’t even an option in some countries, and isn’t always the best choice even where it is available.
One popular alternative is Lulu. Lulu’s popularity, in part, is because they have been around for a while, and they produce decent books. I do not recommend Lulu in any circumstances, but they are a viable alternative if you are careful when dealing with them.
Lulu has no set-up fees (just like Createspace). It has a hardcover option (though the costs of a Lulu hardcover, after distribution fees, are far too high for it to be worth it). It provides distribution through Lulu.com, Ingram, Amazon, and Barnes and Noble. And its books (at least at the “premium” level; they offer lower-grade books, but they are not eligible for distribution, and are not worth the cost) are of decent, professional-grade quality.
However, Lulu’s books are more expensive. Comparing the cost of a 300 page perfectbound paperback book (of quality that allows for distribution) on each of the three major POD companies, Lulu’s books routinely cost $1-2 more to produce… at least in the U.S. (I cannot compare the numbers, myself, but through Facebook I know someone from South Africa who says that Lulu’s paperbacks are the cheapest where he lives, so if you aren’t in the U.S. you’ll have to doublecheck these numbers).
Lulu offers price calculators on its website which are very up-front about the raw costs of book production with them. Like Createspace, they do not participate in the Returns system.
I’m going to emphasize this here, even though I’ve already said it elsewhere: DO NOT USE THEIR “PUBLISHING SERVICES”. Lulu’s “Publishing Services” are outsourced to a company whose reputation (and the lawsuits accompanying that reputation) makes it seem like one of the worst scams in publishing, today. If you are curious about the details, read the part on Author Solutions in the next section.
A better option (and yes, that is my unequivocal opinion… at least over Lulu) is Ingram Spark. If you are moderately successful with print sales, Ingram is the company to go to. Now, Ingram Spark is the “entry level” version of Ingram’s Lightning Source POD program (and offers offset printing services, as well; Ingram is the largest printer in the country, serving many publishers of all sizes). You may have heard of Lightning Source, but for the sake of brevity we’ll only talk about Ingram Spark; most services offered by one are offered by the other, and Ingram Spark is the one you’re most likely to be dealing with.
Ingram has some set-up fees; $49 per title (though this can get waived, if you sell enough books early on). They also have distribution fees of $12/year, and a rather annoying $25 fee for correcting mistakes in your files after uploading (which effectively means $25 for any post-Proof corrections). Black and white books produced are slightly more per unit than Createspace’s (though the difference is negligible), but are significantly cheaper than Lulu’s.
Color books, however, are far cheaper per copy; less than half what Createspace costs, and almost five times less than Lulu. The print quality for all of their books are compareable to Createspace’s best.
The price per copy from Ingram can drop if you have heavy sales, much like with offset printing. Distribution is better, despite the cost (Amazon only uses Ingram’s domestic distribution service; Ingram is also the largest international book distributor in the world). And Ingram offers three things the other POD providers don’t:
Control the return policy. Returns can help in getting your book stocked on bookstores’ shelves instead of just buried in their online bookstore. Still, you might not want to deal with it — Ingram gives you the option of accepting returns or not. (Please refer to the article I linked to, above; “returns” may not mean what you think it means)
Ingram produces and distributes hardback books for a reasonable price. I would say that this is the only practical way to get sellable hardbacks from one of the big three POD producers.
Adjustable “discount rates.” This is the percentage that your book price is discounted when a bookstore purchases it. Adjust it one way, your royalties increase; increase it the other, the bookstore pays less when ordering it for their shelves.
A note about discount rates: SOME sources claim that Createspace only gives booksellers a 25% discount, whereas the industry standard — and the default for Ingram Spark — is closer to 40-45%. I’ve also seen others say that this policy has changed for Createspace, and it now provides the standard discount. I don’t have the insider information to know which is true, but it’s something to keep in mind.
This does not mean Ingram is always the best choice for a self-publisher. Far from it — the set-up fees and recurring annual distribution fees sour me on it, a bit — but there are times it might be.
Basically, questions to ask when considering Ingram over Createspace:
Are you regularly giving away or hand-selling fifty copies (the amount needed to waive most set-up fees) of your novel in the first three months? If so, consider Ingram.
Do you expect a large part of your print-book customer base to be outside of the U.S.? If so, consider Ingram.
Are your overall sales heavy enough that offset printing is starting to look good? If so, consider Ingram as an alternative — they can offer some of the benefits of offset printing (bulk discounts) even using POD technology.
And finally, are you printing books with a color interior? Consider Ingram… though there may be other alternatives.
I would not say “Createspace is for beginners and Ingram is the Big Leagues,” but I might say that Ingram can be the better choice for those self-publishers with larger and more established print markets. If you’re just starting out and you don’t know, yet, how your book will fare in print, stick with Createspace.
OTHER POD SERVICES
We’ve covered the biggest POD options, but there are others. It’s hard to find adequate data on some of them, and while one or two might be useful there are problems with a lot of them. I’ll give you some examples of what to watch out for, and one or two which are pretty good.
One of those “pretty good” POD options is one I might better call a “supplemental” POD distributor: The Espresso Book Machine.
This wonder of a device can can be found in a number of bookstores and some libraries (I attended the “grand opening” of an Espresso Book Machine in my local library about a year ago. The books it made were pretty good). These are (relatively) tiny Print-On-Demand Machines that will get you your book in roughly six minutes, if you can find them.
If you are with Lightning Source or Ingram Spark, your book should be put into the EBM catalog automatically (I’m not clear on the procedure, but I’m told it’s an opt-in\opt-out channel in your distribution agreement). If you go through Lulu or Createspace, however, you’ll have to put yourself into the catalog manually. Until recently, you had to go to an EBM representative in person in order to get this to happen, but (and I have yet to determine how fast or successful it is) they now have an online option for listing your books.
Please note, putting your books into the Espresso Book Machine catalog will not put your book into Ingram or any other distribution service; it will not be for sale on Amazon, at Barnes and Noble, Books-A-Million, or anywhere else unless there’s an Espresso Book Machine present. That is why I’d call this more of a supplemental option to your regular POD service.
Now, if you are interested in POD but for some reason refuse to do business with Lulu, Createspace, or Ingram, there might still be a viable option or two.
I’ve heard good things about a smaller POD company named Blurb. This one is favorably compareable to Lulu, but until recently they were not equipped to handle novels; I’ve been taking a bit of a “wait and see” approach to them, but I’ll tell you what I know.
Before the middle of 2014. Blurb’s specialty was high quality photo books. They wouldn’t be especially useful if you were producing any other kind of book, so I’ve essentially ignored them. But, in 2014, a press release announced that they would be offering more options… including some that are quite adequate for novels.
Reviews I’ve read say that they produce the best “coffee-table” photo book in the POD market (even better than some digital offset printers). They claim to distribute through Amazon and Ingram, and do appear to have both paperback and hardback options.
While I haven’t done much intensive study of Blurb so far, I’m looking into them more and more. My mother is putting together a book on quilting, and I’m considering suggesting she put it out through Blurb. Perhaps I’ll have a supplementary blog on their service once that is complete.
If you still aren’t satisfied with your POD options, however, there’s… uh… well… I’m not really sure if they’re an option or not….
Several years ago, in response to Ingram’s creation of Lightning Source, Baker and Taylor created its own POD service: Textstream. Now you know as much about them as I do.
Well, okay, maybe I know a little more. Textstream opened with little or no fanfare, never had web-based access (you would have to make arrangements for your book’s production through e-mail and telephone conversations), and never really became a big-name player on the market… but somehow survived, and their website insists they still exist. How that happened, I’m not quite sure, but if it exists it might be able to take on your projects.
Mind you, I only know of one self-publisher who even tried to deal with them. He ordered some comparison proofs from them; his sample was adequate, but he complained extensively about the difficulties he had getting his instructions and files out to them. This comparison shopper later decided to go with Ingram, so take of that what you will.
That was back in 2009, when Textstream was the new guy on the block; Createspace and Ingram have improved significantly since then, while Textstream… well, I really can’t say if what’s happened to them is an improvement or not.
Two years ago Baker and Taylor bought out a company called Bookmasters in an effort to create some sort of web interface for Textstream. I think it is aimed more at the small press traditional-style publisher, however. I have yet to see how you can use this web interface as a self-publisher; just to get a quote for their print service, you need to submit project details that include an order for a hundred books.
That doesn’t seem like it takes advantage of the best features of POD service, to me — namely, the ability to make print runs that are smaller than is practical with digital offset printing. However, I’m betting (I have no proof, mind) that there’s an undocumented way to use them. I suspect, if you went to them through e-mail and telephone (as with the original Textstream), you might be able to make special arrangements for the printing and distribution of your book.
I would not attempt it unless I was writing in a genre Baker and Taylor would be a better distributor than Ingram… which pretty much limits you to Academic or Christian publishing. Even then, well, they don’t give you their terms of service anywhere, so you’re still probably better off with either Ingram or Createspace. (Baker and Taylor, you could make yourself a legitmate contender with just a little work. I know you are a well-respected distributor, so why aren’t you even trying to keep yourselves competitive?)
Full disclaimer: I’ve never talked to anyone who actually used Bookmasters, successfully, either before or after their acquisition by Baker and Taylor. What I can tell you, however, is that as difficult as it may be to work with them, I haven’t seen any scam warnings about either company. I have seen some cautionary tales about Bookmasters in the form of Yelp reviews, but only regarding those issues I’ve already mentioned (they’re hard to work with). From the few reviews I was able to find, the quality of the books they produce is quite decent, comparable with Ingram, and Baker and Taylor distribution is fairly good (on par with Ingram, domestically, but with a bit more emphasis towards certain genre).
The biggest recommendation I can give them is that Textstream is generally competent in production and distribution once things are set up, and does not appear to be intentionally trying to rip off authors. The same cannot be said for all the alternatives.
Smaller POD companies have to be carefully examined. They aren’t necessarily rip-offs, but they can be lacking in some other area. Take TheBookPatch as an example. Their prices are a touch high per book, but are compareable to Lulu’s (distributable) books. The books they produce are, per reviews, fairly decent in quality. If all you’re looking for is one or two review copies and that’s it, they’re more than adequate. Now, I’m not sure why you’d go to the trouble of prepping a print book and then only produce a couple review copies, but if that’s all you want The Book Patch is adequate.
The big catch is that they don’t offer distribution — the books they produce aren’t listed on Amazon, they won’t go through Ingram or Baker and Taylor, and they won’t be in any local bookstores. So, you make yourself a print book and you can’t make it for sale.
So, the Book Patch is only of limited use. There are worse options out there — companies you should never deal with.
About a decade ago, there were a lot of independent POD companies with distribution through Ingram and Amazon and the like. One was Lulu, and is still around. One was Lightning Print, which eventually became Lightning Source (and now includes Ingram Spark). One was eventually bought by Amazon (Createspace, then known as Booksurge).
But a lot of them — of varying reputations — were bought up by a company called Author Solutions Inc. Author Solutions also developed “self-publishing” (*snort*) arms for larger publishers, each under different names. Author Solutions, therefore, controls POD (and eBook production) companies under the names iUniverse, Trafford, Palibrio, AuthorHouse, Book Tango, Wordclay, XLibris, Partridge, Book Country, Archway (Simon and Schuster), Hay House (Balboa Press), Crossbooks (Lifeway), Guideposts (Inspiring Voices), Westbow Press (Harper Collins), and probably a few other names. They also appear to run the Nook Press’ print division and Lulu’s Author Services (which is why I made special warnings against Lulu’s author services in the section above).
Author Solutions is owned by the parent company of Penguin Random House (or, as I like to call them, Random Penguin). You would think that would mean they were a legitimate organization (though you might also remember that the Famous Writers School was operated by the pre-merger Random House back in the 60s, and that didn’t exactly legitimize it). Unfortunately, it is (“allegedly,” for the lawyers out there) a scam — instead of legitimate POD and self-publishing assistance, they are a worst-practices vanity press of the highest order, and still peddle their services despite an ongoing lawsuit. A typical experience publishing with them was recounted here.
Recall me mentioning that Author Solutions runs Nook Press’ print division? Well, not only does Nook Press insist on using Author Solutions’ worthless services, they don’t offer any kind of distribution — not even on Barnes and Noble’s website! So, you spend thousands of dollars getting a print book produced (being gouged all along the way, thanks to Author Solutions), and then no-one can buy it. If you don’t want distribution, go with TheBookPatch; they at least offer honest service.
In other words… if you find a POD service I haven’t mentioned here, you might want to be very careful while investigating it. Find out how they are distributed, if they are at all. Read reviews (though don’t trust every article — Author Solutions fakes a lot of comparison reviews to make themselves look good). Look for warning signs. It just might be another scam printer.
USES FOR A PRINT BOOK BEYOND THE OBVIOUS
Once you’ve found someone to publish your print books, the “obvious” thing to do is to sell them on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and whatever other bookstores you can get them in.
But many indie authors sell so few print copies they make little or no net profit on them… so why spend the time and energy getting them produced? Well, First off, you need some as giveaway items.
For example, good reviews help get your book launched. Sometimes, these reviews come naturally; other times, you have to go out and track them down. One way to get those reviews legitimately (Amazon recently reformed their review system to reduce the amount of paid for or otherwise unethically produced reviews; there’s been a bit of flack because the net is catching a few honest reviewers, too) is to give away review copies. Sometimes, these reviewers insist on print copies.
The giveaway print copy is, for lack of a better word, your portfolio. Do you want to apply to be a guest at a convention? Well, name recognition is the best way to get a spot… but the second best is to sending the convention organizers a free copy that show them your stuff as a writer — and usually, they would prefer a print copy (though do inquire, first).
Once at the convention, displaying a free copy on your panelist table is like posting a billboard with your book on it. Heck, just carrying a copy around so that the cover is visible (if you’ve got a good enough cover) might generate sales. Have it on display when you’re traveling mass transit, and people get interested. I’m not saying this sort of thing will put you on the bestseller list, but it could help; at least, it’s reputed to have sold books, before.
And then there are library copies. Sure, libraries now sometimes allow self-published ebook to grace their virtual walls, thanks to companies like Overdrive. Overdrive doesn’t exactly put your book front and center, however (especially the books put into their system from Smashwords; evidently, your book is placed on some sort of super-secret “this book was self-published” list, which is nearly inaccessable unless you already know its there. No, really!
Put a physical book on the shelves of your local library, though, and people might actually see it on occasion. Most libraries do have some form of purchase request system; some will even shelve a book if you donate it (check first, though; far too many public and academic library systems insist (as a policy that a mere local librarian is forbidden from overriding) that any donations be put into book sale fundraisers, only, so your book still won’t end up on their shelves).
And, of course, you want to be able to sell your books. Your local bookstore usually prefers selling your books in print.
GETTING YOUR BOOK IN BOOKSTORES
There is a trick to getting your books into bookstores. That trick is to make sure that the bookstore can acquire one to be sold (no, really — that’s the trick!). You put your book through one of the major distributors (like Ingram, either directly or through your POD producers distribution system, as Amazon does), and most bookstores serviced by that distributor will list your book for sale on their web store.
Don’t believe me? Well, if you have a print book in the Expanded Distribution system of Amazon or similar channel, and you paid attention to the section on print books during my blog on Pricing, check Powells. It might be missing your cover, but it will most likely listed there.
But having your book in a bookstore’s online store is quite different than having it on that bookstore’s shelves. And you want it on the shelves, if at all possible.
Now, there are a variety of ways to get books on bookshelves. Whichever way you go, however, you need a good book — if you’re one of those authors who are trying to publish “practice” work or similarly feel as if your book is of otherwise inferior quality, it might be best not to try until you come out with what you might be willing to call “professional-looking.”
But once you have a good book, there are a few paths to success. There are the old ways — which are probably too complicated for the average “intermediate” self-publisher, but not completely out of the realm of possibility. I don’t bother with them, so I can’t really say anything on them, but Kristine Kathryn Rusch put together an extensive description of the process, if you’re interested.
Ugh. Who wants to do all of that? Worse, who can do that while still finding the time and energy they need to write the books they’re trying to sell? This method is probably quite effective, but I’m not sure the cost-benefit ratio is there (in terms of both financial costs and time) for most self-publishers.
Fortunately, there are less… let’s call it “labor intensive” ways to get your book onto some bookstore’s bookshelves. I’ll admit few are as effective as the old ways, but they should be a lot more palatable.
There are effectively only two major bookstore chains remaining in the U.S.: Barnes and Noble and Books-A-Million Both of these are theoretically open to the self-publisher in the US., with some effort. (There are smaller chains in the U.S., such as Hastings — which is less and less interested in books, period — and Hudson’s, which mostly runs Airport bookstores. As of the last time I checked, both these smaller chains refuse to carry self-published books) But smaller, independent stores are growing more and more open to independent and self-published authors.
Start by searching the ABA Member Directory for your state (and any other nearby state you think is “local” enough for you to get to in person; for example, if you live along the Potomac River, you want to look into stores in both Virginia and Maryland). And yes, search by state — checking by City, Zip Code, or Company Name won’t get you enough results. Identify the independent bookstores from that list who service your genre… and go visit them. In person. (Incidently, you might as well try used bookstores; my books went onto the shelves of a used bookstore that also had a “local authors” section)
Talk with the owners (or the manager, or whoever is present that can make decisions). Let them know you are a local author (the more local the better). Ask if they are willing to carry your books. You may have to supply these books yourself (many only take them on consignment), but most of the time they’re willing to carry it for you.
Note: As I will cover in ISBNs, sometimes — and I emphasize that this really isn’t common, but anecdotally it happens — an indie bookstore is hostile to Amazon yet still open to indie books. If they go to order your book and find that it was printed by Createspace, they might reject your book at that point. This can be revealed when they look up your book’s ISBN number for ordering and find Createspace listed as the publisher-of-record (a technical term referring to the ISBN’s owner, but I’ll get into more detail on that in the ISBN post), so there you have one of the few remaining legitimate cases for purchasing said number yourself.
Okay, there — you’ve got the local indies on board. But what about the national chains, Barnes and Noble and Books-a-Million? Well… with them, things get a little more complicated.
Once again, I have to talk about things I’ve only heard about other people doing, and not things I’ve done, myself. Personally, I’m trying to build my experience a bit before I try it (your chances of success may be better when you have a larger “portfolio” of books you can point to), but I know quite a few writers who report success using this procedure, so I’m guessing it works.
With Books-A-Million, you have to contact your local store’s manager… or the regional manager, perhaps. Depends on the bookstore. Books-A-Million’s system is rather nebulous; does it require that you accept returns? Must you have an ISBN? Will they even take self-published writers? I’ve heard from different people in different parts of the country who all say different things about what the answers to these questions are. I think your best bet is to ask the regional manager what he thinks the ‘corporate policy’ is; if they’re at all open to the idea of adding self-published books to their shelves, they’ll tell you what you need to do.
Barnes and Noble is a bit different. Now, I’ve heard that sometimes a store manager or regional manager will claim that Barnes and Noble has a policy forbidding self-published novels. However, there really is a policy in place, and it’s there for anyone to see on the Barnes and Noble website.
To sell your book, they say, they want you to:
Become a “Vendor of Record.” If you don’t want to click on the link, what it says is that you need to fill out a form; they will check out your eligible titles (they say titles are only eligible if you have an assigned ISBN with a hardback or paperback cover (no comb bindings).
Once they are done checking, you will be asked to send “a copy of the book (no manuscripts, please), along with marketing and promotion plans, trade reviews, and a note describing what makes the book unique” to their small press department. Before sending that information, you might want to check out this (curiously seperate and unlinked-to from the Vendor of Record application) document here, describing what they actually want in that communique. To sum up, they want an ISBN number and bar code, quality binding, competitive pricing, wholesale availability, and a marketing\publicity plan.
Convince the store manager that people in the region will be interested in your book. (So, in other words, at this point the procedure is largely identical to the local independent bookstores, except Barnes and Noble is far less likely to request you sell your books on consignment)
Now, this is the national corporate policy as laid out on their website. The regional managers, however, sometimes have their own rules (which they sometimes claims are “corporate policy”), such as the book needs to be in the returns system. I’ve heard some people get their book into their local stores without being in said system. If your regional manager insists on it, however, protesting won’t do much good. If that same manages absolutely refuses to carry your book because it’s self-published… well, item 3 on that list pretty much says it all; you’re out of luck in that region’s stores.
Dealing with bookstores can be tricky. It doesn’t help that you probably aren’t the first self-published author who’s approached them, and likely won’t be the last, and that so many self-published authors have done stupid things dealing with bookstores that it leaves them gun-shy. It doesn’t help that there is still sometimes a stigma to self-publishing among the veteran bookstore set, who tend to be the regional managers you have to deal with. It doesn’t help that there are a lot of self-publishers out there who really aren’t good writers or who act badly; enough to reinforce the self-publishing stigma among those who still have it. All you can do is be as professional about things as you can be, and hope that’s enough.
I’ve seen lots of people try different things. Some people their book with Createspace to sell on Amazon, but opt out of Expanded Distribution so they can also publish with Ingram Spark (using the returns system, variable discount, and the lack of a connection with Amazon to help make their case) for Barnes and Noble and similar bookstores. And there are those people who walk into the store, talk to the manager, and get their POD-printed, non-returnable, Createspace ISBNed book placed without a hassle; these people don’t seem able to comprehend that this isn’t necessarily a typical experience.
But, with a little work, it can be done.
Okay, you’ve found a printer, sent some copies off to reviewers, made sure your book was on the shelves at your local bookstore, and paraded a copy of your book around the local sci-fi convention. That’s more than you usually have to do to get your ebooks selling. So the money should just start flowing in… right?
Well, probably not. Most of the time, self-publishers don’t sell as well in print as they do e-books (and I’m no exception). And they probably never will, since huge print sales success depends on bookstores marketing for you (making your book more visible… sometimes literally), and it isn’t likely most self-published authors will get much marketing support even if they are able to get their print books into the stores.
But sales do slowly trickle in, and with POD the book never goes out of print. I’m not sure of the stats (and I wouldn’t trust the numbers if I saw them), but there’s still a large part of the market that refuses to read eBooks. You’re shutting yourself off from those people if you don’t set up a Print edition.
Still, your print books won’t sell like your eBooks. In fact, maybe they barely sell at all — my print sales amount to about 1% of my publishing income. Now, I haven’t done everything I could to sell my books (I haven’t even done everything I’ve told you can be done to sell books), but I doubt that I could make my print sales match my ebook sales when my best efforts would only grant me regional bookstore distribution. I might get sales compareable with your average small press, at best. That rarely matches (in the number of sales, at least) what you can make with eBooks.
You can boost your print sales, to a degree, by hand-selling (a term that means selling your books in-person) or selling signed copies direct from your website. The return per book sale is better than the sale through any other store (including Amazon, even, if you can keep your shipping costs down), and I have known a few authors who pay their convention expenses by hand-selling their books at an authors table or in the dealer’s room.
Keep in mind, though, that when hand-selling, you change the model of business you’re in as a writer. Selling your books exclusively through retailers is different from hand-selling your books in a legal way. If you only sell books through a retailer, probably (check your local laws; I’m not a lawyer and cannot give legal advice) the worst you need to worry about on the business end (tax wise) is filing your taxes quarterly.
But if you start hand-selling your book, you open yourself up to more red tape. You are no longer just a supplier, you have become a retailer of books. This changes a lot of things — for example, you have to account for sales taxes, yourself. Again, check your local laws, but in most cases you will need to fill out forms outside of whatever forms your locality requires to establish a self-publishing business in order to deal with retail sales.
In my case, if I were to fill out that form (I did have one prepared through Legalzoom, but decided to hold off on going this route… for now), I would need to make monthly sales reports and pay a small monthly fee. I would also have to keep a closer track of the sales I made (a lot of things which are automated on Amazon or similar retailers you need to do, yourself).
You have to decide if it’s worth the effort — in my case, I figure I don’t have enough titles, yet, nor are my print sales strong enough, to justify the added expenses in accounting time and money.
Note: Should I decide to sell direct from my website, I’ll probably do it under the auspices of my mother’s quilting business — signing her to a contract that would make her a “distributor” for my books — as she recently set herself up with all of these forms and monthly accounting statements so she can add a storefront (coming soon) for her quilting business. It just makes sense, as I’ll probably be acting as her publisher for a book on quilting that she’s writing, as well. But the way things are set up I would only be able to do business on the web or in Virginia; if I were attending a convention just barely across the state line, in DC or Maryland, I would need to file a different set of tax documents for those two locations.
Just something to keep in mind. I assume most people who are reading this series have at least looked into the very basics of self-publishing, but I don’t expect you to necessarily have looked into this sort of issue, so I’m covering more of the basics than usual.
So, there’s no question that print books can be complicated. You can set yourself up with old-style print runs through difficult-to-interact with printers, warehouse said books once they’re printed, market your books to bookstores, market them to readers, and set yourself up as a retailer which requires accounting for sales tax, etc.
On the other hand, you can go through Createspace and treat it just like you do KDP, Nook, and any other ebook store… just with a little more set-up in the book design phase. You won’t sell as well, but you’ll open up some time to work on your next book and the print version will be there for those people who refuse to buy an e-book.
It’s all about trade-offs, in this business. Put it more time and effort and you can sell more books… though perhaps not enough to justify that time and effort. But if you are asking whether you should make a print edition at all?
(As a reminder, this is part three of the series discussed here. This series was originally concieved to be part of a roundtable discussion, so don’t be afraid to comment, disagree, offer new suggestions, etc.)
As I start writing, I fully expect this to be the shortest article in this blog series. I am not a hybrid author, so I can’t say the sorts of things about it an expert (or even a journeyman) hybrid author might.
That doesn’t mean I know nothing (I’m not Jon Snow). There is a lot you can learn just from research, from talking to others who’ve done it, from talking with others who’ve failed at it, from simply reading other articles on the subject, etc. I’ve been doing that for years, and this is what I’ve learned.
Hybrid authors are those authors who choose to self-publish some works while also pursuing traditional publishers for their other works. Many people who have tried all three types of publishing (trade, self, and hybrid) believe it to be the best of all possible options, but there are some things to watch out for is you wish to pursue this option.
The first thing is something a lot of articles on the subject seem to neglect mentioning:
You cannot choose to be a hybrid author.You can only choose to try to become a hybrid. You can only choose to submit your writing to a publishing house; then you wait and hope against astronomical odds.
I do not know what the stats are, now, but when I was in college some fifteen years ago I was frequently told by industry professionals that 99.9% of submissions for publication to any legitimate publisher were regularly rejected. 90% of submissions were rejected, unread, because the author failed to read submission policies correctly. 90% of the remainder were rejected because they believed the writing was flawed. 90% of the remainder after that were rejected for other reasons (such as “We have too many books with Elves\Vampires\Robots in them already!” or “I don’t like the author’s obvious political statement!”).
The odds of getting accepted are even more astronomical for those who wish to pursue a hybrid career. Not because some publishers look down on you for self-publishing (that’s a bit of a mixed bag; some publishers do, some don’t care, and some take into consideration your sales history). If you are looking into becoming a hybrid author, however, your choice in publishers is limited — you should only be looking publishers large enough to expand your potential market. That eliminates most (not all; as I have mentioned in past articles, nothing is universally true in this world of self-publishing) small-press publishers, and almost all electronic-only publishers.
Incidentally, in part zero of this series I mistakenly called this part of the series one on “hybrid publishing.” I have since corrected that mistake, though I think it is an easy one to make. This is an important distinction, as some publishing scams (or vanity presses mascarading as “new forms of publishing” or “assisted self-publishing” or whatnot) chose to use the term “hybrid publishing” as their business model’s moniker. This confusion may or may not have been deliberate, but either way it is something to avoid.
ADVANTAGES OF BEING A HYBRID
There are a few reasons someone may want to try and become a hybrid author. I would caution writers considering becoming a hybrid that a few of these “advantages” aren’t actually advantages you get from being a hybrid author.
What I mean by that is that some people go looking at Trade publishers hoping to find certain things, like “expert marketing,” “legitimacy,” and “a chance to work with a real editor!”
Unless you’re already a celebrity or you’ve had the self-publishing success of an HM Ward or a Hugh Howey, you will almost certainly enter the Trade\Hybrid field as a midlist writer. Marketing at the midlist level is spotty, at best — at times, the publisher expects you to spend your advance (one of those “things a trade publisher offers you don’t get from self-publishing”) on your own marketing.
Okay, that’s not entirely true, and I will make exceptions. Notably, Baen Books has one of the most reader-centric marketing programs in publishing, and pushes their mid-list almost as hard as they do their big-name writers.
Most publishers, however, aren’t marketing their midlist books to readers. (note the distinction) They may be willing to send you on a “book signing tour” (frequently at your expense), but that’s mostly as a sop to whiny authors and provides little real-world marketing help.
And “legitimacy”? Legitimacy is a buzz-word, in this context, to mean “I lack confidence that I am a real author; it doesn’t matter how many sales I can generate as a self-publisher, or how much money I am sacrificing to go to a trade publisher, only they can provide proof that I am a real author!” Sigh.
Confidence-boosting is only worth so much. I really don’t mind people who want the legitimacy of a trade publisher’s endorsement, but I do mind how people have used that hunt for legitimacy to talk themselves into signing really bad contracts unnecessarily, or to pursuing trade publishing deals that will do nothing for their career.
Finally, “a chance to work with a real editor”? Really? What do you think those freelance editors I talked about in part I of this series were? (And I’ll warn you — a number of publishers, including some of the largest, are outsourcing much of the editing for their midlist, often to the very same people you can hire as a self-publisher)
Okay, enough about the advantages which aren’t. What about the advantages that are?
The first can be summed up as, um, “legitimacy.” (sigh, I know) Having the endorsement of a Trade publisher should not matter to you one iota in the legitimacy of calling yourself an author, but it sometimes matter to others you might do business with: Producers looking to buy movie rights, newspapers doing book reviews, translators looking to buy translation rights, conventions looking for guests, etc. That isn’t to say that these people never work with purely self-published authors, just that having the endorsement of a Trade publisher makes it easier to deal with them.
But the real advantage of Trade publishers is print distribution. Now, I like small press publishers, but most lack the resources for strong print distribution. That makes many small press publishers useless for the careers of a self-publisher, as they can offer little or nothing that a self-publisher cannot do (sometimes better) themselves.
But this is where the so-called “marketing power” of larger trade publishers really comes in. As I said, trade publishers don’t put much effort in marketing their midlist to readers… but they will market them to bookstores. In theory, it’s up to the bookstore itself to push the marketing to the readers — in reality, midlist writers once again get short-changed, but if you can at least get your book on the shelves it has a chance of selling.
Self-published authors, with a bit of work, can have success getting their books into local bookstores and libraries (I will get into this more extensively in my article on print publishing). Trade publishers, on the other hand, can get books into bookstores and libraries nationally — sometimes even internationally. And that can, in turn, make it easier to convince your local bookstores to stock those books you self-publish, too.
There are other things a Trade publisher can give you (advances, logistical support, free covers and editors (at the loss of control), etc.), but these have no effect on your career as a self-publisher. Rather, these are the trade-offs anyone makes when they chose between self-publishing and pursuing trade publishing. You may or may not want these things, and they will neither help nor harm your self-publishing career.
But be careful, for there are things in Trade publishing that can harm your self-publishing career….
WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR
The Holy Grail of hybrid publishing contracts would be a “print-only” deal that allows you to retain all electronic rights to your work. Not many publishers are willing to sign writers to one, and most that do will only give them to those Hugh Howey\HM Ward level self-publishers mentioned above. If you can get one, it’s almost unquestionably worth it.
But if you do, there are things you need to watch out for. Things which can harm your career as a self-publisher. Things which could even end your career as a self-publisher.
It starts with agents. A lot of publishers won’t deal with authors, of any persuasion, without an agent — Big-5 publisher Hatchett’s parent company proudly boasted of the requirement in their business statement for investors. (Note: That entire investment presentation should be a warning to authors when dealing with trade publishers. Some of the things said in it are downright scary)
Now, agents aren’t necessarily a horrible thing. Even if you are purely self-published, you may (eventually, not right away) want an agent who can handle, say, negotiations for movie rights or translation rights (please note: The agents you want negotiating your translation or movie rights are different from the agents you’d get to deal with a trade publisher, anyway, though there may be some amount of crossover within the agencies they work for).
You don’t need an agent when dealing with certain publishers (you probably want a lawyer to look over your contracts, but that’s not the same thing), but if you have a chance at a “holy grail” type of deal it’s worth trying to get one.
But if you do get one, make sure of your terms when approaching them. There are agents out there who will do almost nothing for you, and in exchange demand control over all of your business deals and 15% of sales for every book you have published, are currently publishing now, and will publish in the future… even if they have had nothing to do with those books.
And that’s true even of some “good” agents who aren’t in the business solely to rip authors off. Now, don’t get me wrong — there really are some agents who do look out for the good of the author (a very few, and most of them are fully booked) — but the horror stories of dealing with agents get pretty bad. Kristine Kathryn Rusch has collectedquite a few.
But in some cases they are a necessary evil, so keep as close an eye on your agency agreement as you do your publishing agreements… which should be the same sort of eye you keep on a jewel thief in a room full of loose diamonds. Make sure that there’s no overreach. Try not to give them powers over you and your work that they shouldn’t have. And then monitor them to make sure they don’t exploit rights you never signed over to them, anyway.
But worse than agents, there is a certain contract clause Trade publishers like to insert in their contract clauses that really can kill your self-publishing (in fact, your entire writing) career: The Non-Compete Clause.
Non-compete clauses are supposed to prevent a writer from trying to publish anything (either self-published or with another publisher) that might compete with their own book (as published by that publisher) for a specified period of time. This can be acceptable — a two or three month period right after the book is released can be okay, but sometimes the period of time is egregious; remember that “as long as the book is in print” potentially means “forever” in the days of POD printing.
Of course, what is interpreted as “competing” with your book is rarely, if ever, fully defined. Sometimes there’s a “gentlemen’s agreement” handshake deal about it, but that is absolutely worthless. Most publishing houses don’t get this extreme, but I have read about authors who have basically been told that anything they write for another publishing house is “competing” with the book, even if that writing is in a different genre and written under a pen name.
Also, in the current publishing era, you want to be careful about reversion clauses (when you get your rights back, allowing you to self-publish the book or sell it to someone else). Too many publishers retain the old “until it goes out of print” language in their boilerplate contracts even though — as said above — with eBooks and POD, books can be made to never go out of print.
And, of course, there’s everything else that goes with trade publishing. There are scams to worry about (check sites like Writer Beware for more on those). It takes much longer to get that book out than it does in self-publishing. You have no control over the cover, no final say over the edits, etc., etc. In other words, the same things that had you deciding to self-publish in the first place. They haven’t gone away — it’s just that there are other issues that the self-published author has to pay more careful attention to.
As I am not a hybrid author, I obviously cannot speak to everything there is to know about being one. I know a lot of hybrid authors speak to the successes they’ve had working as hybrids, and how it is the “best path” out there, but it isn’t a path you can just “decide” to go on. It’s a decision someone else (a Trade publisher) has to permit you to make.
All I could talk about was the things which were, well, general warnings you hear all the time and common sense reasons for doing it at all. For some reason, though, there are a lot of writers who seem oblivious to these warnings and ignore all common sense, so it needs to be spelled out for them.
I would like to hear more, from other authors who have gone through the Hybrid Authorship path to publishing, on what they view as the biggest advantages they’ve recieved, the things they’ve learned you need to watch out for, and their opinion on the best way to get on this path.