(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.
(As a reminder, this is part two 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.)
I’m on a lot of blogs and facebook groups for people interested in self-publishing. One of the most commonly asked questions, in some form or another, is “What should I price my book?”
It is a complex issue, and every veteran self-publisher seems to think they know the answer. I won’t say I’m all that different, but I will admit that I only think I know the answer. With so many things to consider when deciding on a price, I don’t think anyone knows the right answer for everyone.
In this roundtable post, I’m hoping to identify as many of those things you need to think about as possible. My goal isn’t to tell you what to price your book; in this business, things can change so fast that any prices I recommend could be obsolete tomorrow. Rather, I want to give you what you need to consider when trying to set a price yourself.
STATS: WHY THEY DON’T SAY WHAT YOU THINK
There is a lot of data about e-book sales out there, but little of it is convincing. A lot of it is raw or poorly interpreted. Some of it seems to say one thing, but says something else entirely. And some conclusions can be drawn from these surveys, but rarely should they be drawn univerally across all books.
Take, for example, the Smashwords Survey. One of the most commonly cited surveys giving statistics on sales based on things like title length, price, book length, etc. All important information.
Unfortunately, some things need to be taken into context when considering that data It refers to a “subset” of ALL books published through Smashwords and distributed through its affiliated bookstores. Which means:
It does not distinguish any of the data by market (Barnes and Noble, Kobo, Smashwords, etc.).
It does not distinguish any of these stats by genre (Science fiction\fantasy, Thriller\Mystery, Romance, etc.).
It does not distinguish many of these stats by the author’s prior publishing experience (new author, veteran self-publisher, transitioning from a trade publisher, etc.).
With regard to pricing, it does not distinguish books by length (short story, novella, short novel, novel, long novel).
Different markets are more successful at different prices; different genre are more successful at different prices; more experienced authors can can sell books successfully at higher prices than less experienced authors; longer books can sell successfully at a higher price than a shorter book. All of these things matter.
Take, say, genre as an example. The Romance genre has, historically, been a genre that sells a large bulk of low-priced books. Higher priced books in the romance genre rarely sell well.
But the audience for mystery novels typically doesn’t buy low-priced books in bulk. There used to be a pulp detective audience, but that market has dwindled. Sell a mystery novel at the price that you sell a romance novel and you won’t get the same bulk sales that Romance novels do. In fact, there is some evidence that modern Mystery readers would avoid that book, thinking the lower price suggests inferior quality.
So if the Smashwords survey tells you that more ebooks sell at $3.99 than at any other price point, that’s probably true. But when you consider that the bulk of those sales are Romance novels, should you — as a Mystery writer — take that as gospel?
Amazon’s KDP program offers a pricing tool. So far, I have yet to determine what formula they use to suggest book prices; if I were to follow Amazon’s advice, however, I would raise the price of all of my books by $1-2 to maximize income. This would put my books well past the price that the various surveys suggest books sell best at… but then, I have yet to find any surveys on how successful Amazon’s pricing tool is.
So, for now, I stick to the prices I’ve already set. Those prices seem to be working out, so far, at least . I could possibly tweak the prices either way, for a multitude of reasons, but there we get into…
DIFFERENCES IN PHILOSOPHY
When a self-published author is setting the price for their books, they need to decide what their sales philosophy is. Are they aiming to sell massive quantities of their book in bulk, hoping to make up for low prices through sheer numbers sold? Do you want to be able to have promotional discounts (sales)? Are you only releasing this book to build up your platform? Etc., etc. There are lots of things to think about before you set your price.
Do you believe you have produced a professional-grade product?
Are you interested a pulp sales (sometimes called a discount) model? (Hint: If you are writing romance, your answer should be “yes.” If you are writing science fiction\fantasy, your answer should be “maybe, depending on how fast you write.” If you are writing mystery\thriller, your answer in this day and age should be “no.” If you’re writing in some other genre… uh, I’ve got no idea).
Would you rather expand your marketing possibilities but reduce your potential customer base (by going exclusive with Amazon and signing up with KDP-Select), or would you rather have a broader customer base but fewer marketing opportunities (spreading your books through Nook, Kobo, iBooks, Smashwords, DriveThruFiction, Libiro, etc. in addition to Amazon)?
There are some writers who don’t believe they’ve produced a professional grade work, but who self-publish anyway. Some are just out for a quick buck (most of those don’t make much), but others view this as a “practice” effort.
If you aren’t going to charge anything, and you don’t think your writing is at a “professional” level, you’re better off posting your work to a free distribution site like Wattpad or Fictionpress. That’s where practice pieces are expected, and there is little or no risk to your reputation posting there — in fact, it can be a stepping stone towards building your fanbase for future professional-grade material. If you insist on charging money for your practice work, however, the price needs to reflect that. Of course, that means that when you do start producing what you consider “professional grade” work, you will need to raise your price accordingly… and hope that your reputation is strong enough that people will buy the higher-priced work.
But some people lower their prices for reasons other than the quality of their work. Lower prices can also be a smart business decision, too, and are a requirement for pulp sales models.
What I’m calling a pulp sales model (some call it a discount or bargain sales model) relies on trading low prices for bulk sales on a large number of books. If you are a very fast writer, and you think you can release professional-grade books at a fast enough pace pace (say, for example, you can consistantly release a new full-length novel every month), you’re probably ideal for the “pulp” model. To keep up those bulk sales, you need something “new” and “fresh” released all the time — it doesn’t really have to be every month, but you do have to be able to manage a pretty quick turn-around.
It can be tiring, but if you can pull it off (and it’s hard to believe for slow writers like me, but there are writers out there who can) this method of pricing can be very rewarding. A lot of self-publishers are making a living with this model.
Trade publishing, on the other hand, likes to price new-release eBooks very high — above the cost of a paperback — in order to encourage people to buy the print copies instead. Then they gradually reduce the price for people who refuse to buy a book at that high of a price, until a year or two after they’re released the prices are down around the level most Indie models keep them.
I’m not sure what it is formally called, but some self-publishers succeed using what I would call a “modified trade” model. Basically, you charge the maximum amount you’re comfortable with on your book (ensuring it is large enough that a discount matters). Once you get book two or three out, you start discounting book one. By book three or four of that series, you make book one free. With each “phase”, you’ll open your books to a whole new customer base, some of whom will buy all of your other books once they’ve read the first.
Whatever sales model you use (and there are more models than the ones I’ve listed here), you have to decide on the exclusivity issue. Exclusivity with Amazon can effect your prices. I would argue the largest impact exclusivity has on price is on print sales (which we’ll go into below), but there is one point to consider: Going exclusive through Amazon allows (and only makes sense with) participation in the Select program. The Select program offers the following:
Automatic Enrollment in the Kindle Unlimited program, one of several attempts to create a “Netflix for Books”
The ability to discount your book for a limited number of days over the course of the 90 day enrollment. Please note that discounts are only possible if your book is priced over $0.99.
The ability to make your book free for a limited number of days over the course of the 90 day enrollment. This ability is unaffected by price.
The ability to purchase KDP Select ad campaigns.
Kindle Unlimited is a virtual library program Amazon offers. In it, customers pay a flat fee to be able to “borrow” up to ten books in the program at a time. The authors used to be given a flat fee when 10% of the book was read. For many authors, this was a very hit and miss prospect, and a number of them were dissatisfied enough to leave Select over it. Some people were taking advantage of it by “serializing” long novels, or publishing extremely short stories, as you got paid the same amount for someone reading 10% of a 100 word flash fiction and 10% of a 100,000 word novel. It also ignored how much you charged as a cover price, so reading 10% of a $0.99 flash fiction gave the author the same amount of money (in some cases, more than the cover price) as the author of a $9.99 novel whose book some borrower read 10% of.
Very recent — and controversial — news has come out declaring a complete revamp of how Kindle Universe handles payments for borrows. There is no real way of knowing how much the new system will change things, but it’s pretty much guaranteed that it will change things.
And that isn’t the only incentive the KDP Select program offers that is of dubious value — the KDP Select Advertising program hasn’t yet built a track record that makes it seem all that useful. It’s still very new, however, and I am confident that someone has had some success with it, somewhere — otherwise, I doubt it would exist.
That leaves the two more useful things KDP select offers — scheduled discount days and free days. And these are biggies — most of the more successful advertisers out there (BookBub being the best known and most successful) require you, or at the very least strongly encourage you, to have a “price promotion” (a discount, sometimes all the way to free) every time you run an advertisement with them. It is technically possible to do these promotions without KDP Select, but it adds layers of complications.
For this to make sense, you must price your book high enough that a discount, in fact, is recognized as a discount. If you’re charging $0.99, you simply can’t discount (outside of making your book free). If you’re at $2.99, any discount halves your royalty rate (so you will need to make at least double your normal sales just to break even).
As always, I’m not trying to tell you how to price anything — I’m just giving you things to consider.
I’m mostly using print pricing for my examples, here, but the point stands for every form of published work (or any product, for that matter): You need to know what books similar to your own are priced at. This means Trade publications, not just other indies.
One of the things some self-publishers find hard to understand is what their print books are actually competing against. I have seen authors horrified that Print-on-Demand books are so expensive, judging them against the price of Trade publishers’ Mass Market Paperbacks. These self-publishers believe they can’t put them in Expanded Distribution because it forces the price too high, or even that it’s so expensive there’s no point in producing a print book at all.
This is a mistake on their part. They’re comparing apples to oranges. Full length novel-sized Mass Market Paperbacks (MMPBs) have list prices (I used to have a links, here, but they no longer distinguish MMPBs from other types of PBs, so that is temporarily removed) that run between $7.99 and $9.99 (please note we’re talking list price, here, so look for the crossed out number). The minimum price for a (roughly) 350 page Createspace-printed novel (the equivalent length of several of those novels) in Expanded Distribution runs somewhere between $12-13, wholesale (leaving no room for profit for the author, mind you). (Note: To clarify, by “wholesale,” I mean for people to purchase from expanded distribution. You will still be buying your book at the same wholesale price, whatever distribution service you use or price you set). So, it would seem impossible to match a Createspace-printed novel against Trade and enter it into the Expanded Distribution program.
What the people who use this line of reasoning don’t consider is that POD books are not MMPBs. They are Trade Paperbacks. MMPBs are intended to be cheaper and more disposable, while Trade Paperbacks are intended to be lasting and collectable. There are differences in size, paper quality, and more. The production of a Trade Paperback is more expensive than a MMPB, and so the prices of Trade Paperbacks are higher.
If you look at a similar list of trade paperback costs, you’ll find that list prices tend to run from $15-20. Now, with POD, if you want to avoid exclusivity with Amazon you probably will be required to price it in the middle to high range of that; otherwise, Expanded Distribution won’t mean anything (for reasons which we’ll go into more, below), but even if you remain exclusive you aren’t gouging your customers if you price at the low end of that window.
Now, when it comes to eBooks, your competition is all over the map. Other self-publishers might publish brand new novels as low as $0.99 or even free; trade publishers frequently publish new novels in ebook form at $12.99 (I’ve seen them higher, in fact, but this is a fairly common price point for Trade publishers) but will price their backlist titles all over the map. Amazon strongly encourages self-published writers to price between $2.99-9.99. And if you’re doing non-fiction or textbooks, the price range gets even wider (from Free into the hundreds of dollars).
There are people who will not buy your book if it is more than a certain amount (say, for example, $5). There are also people who believe if a book is priced for less than a certain amount (say, for example, that same $5) they must be priced that low because they are an inferior product, and hence are worthless.
I won’t say the numbers are equal, but there’s enough variation between the groups that, perhaps, the number of customers lost by pricing higher can be made up for by the higher prices of the books. (This is debatable; I’ve seen surveys which disagree with this assessment. As the earlier section on stats mentions, however, those surveys aren’t definitive. They (a) do not distinguish by genre and (b) were conducted by a self-selected audience of book-bargain hunters. The numbers they talk about are probably correct if you’re selling at a promotional discount, but beyond that….)
So what I’m saying is, with eBooks, don’t be afraid to price your book at, well, whatever you feel is reasonable. If the quality shines through, you’ll find readers who will buy it.
EXPANDED DISTRIBUTION’S LESS-OBVIOUS COSTS
I mentioned, above, that books sold through expanded distribution must be priced on the high end of Trade Paperback prices in order for expanded distribution to be worth anything, and that I would explain why, later. Well, it’s later.
Please note: The numbers used in this example are all fictitious, but are close (probably within rounding in most cases) assuming you have your book printed and shipped inside the US. Amazon is said to outsource printing in other countries for their Expanded Distribution chain. What effect this may have on sales outside of the US I don’t know.
When you are selling a Createspace-printed novel without Expanded Distribution, Amazon will sell it even if you set a price that pays you nothing in return. The reason it will is that all of its expenses and all of its profit are accounted for in their minimum cost. Say, for example, that the minimum price, no expanded distribution, of your book was $8. $5 (roughly) would go to Createspace — the wholesale cost of printing your novel. The remaining $3 goes to Amazon. This $3 is profit for Amazon, but frequently would be dipped into for Amazon’s discounts or to cover the cost of the “free” shipping some customers get. This ‘profit’ is, therefore, not guaranteed; $8 is approximately their worst-case-scenario break-even cost; they only make a profit on something better than their worst-case-scenario.
“Expanded Distribution” costs more, however, because there are more people trying to pull money out of that purchase price.
Createspace Expanded Distribution offers three potential channels in addition to the Amazon.com channels:
“Bookstores and other Retailers” (this is actually Ingram, which is the largest book distributor in the United States; possibly the world, but I’m not certain about that. However, this gets you listed, at least for special or online orders, in bookstores like Barnes and Noble, Books-A-Million, and Powells)
“Createspace Direct” (this is a wholesale distribution service run by Createspace itself. It claims that independent bookstores and book resellers use this service, but I cannot find verification that anyone actually uses it)
Libraries and Academic Institutions (this is actually Baker and Taylor, the second-largest book distributor in the US (an increasingly distant second). This service is only available if you use a “Createspace-assigned” ISBN. I’ll go into ISBNs in a later post, but unless you’re doing high-price textbooks this option is unnecessary; anyone who uses Baker and Taylor as a distributor is just as likely to use Ingram)
Which of these services your bookseller or library use to acquire your book is irrelevant; all that matters is that, if you are trying to get people (or libraries) to buy your book, they must go through one of these services first.
So, take that book which had a worst-case break-even of $8 going through Amazon. Well, if a distributor buys that book, Amazon still gets its $8. Then the distributor’s cut is added onto that — say, another $3, just to make it consistant with Amazon’s cut. Also, there are shipping costs (add an average of $4, though it can ship for a little more or a little less) that are tacked on to the price. That brings the cost up to $15. And that’s before the bookstore gets to sell it. Your profit and the bookstore’s profit are split on top of that.
To make the bookstore to want to put it on his shelf (and this does not guarantee he will put it on his shelf, mind), he needs to make a profit. Kristine Kathryn Rusch suggests that minimum profit needs to be $2, but I imagine that’s up to your local bookstore. Regardless, if you aren’t making a profit, your bookstore isn’t making a profit either. So, just for argument’s sake, add $4 ($2 for you, $2 for the bookstore) to that $15. Then drop a penny, because it looks nicer. $18.99 — on the high end for a Trade Paperback, but still within the range of prices you can find in stores.
Now, these numbers are — admittedly — fictional; the real numbers would never be that clean (that $8 figure would probably be $7 and change, for instance; the shipping is a variable number; the cuts going to Amazon and the Distributor are percentages, etc.). You could probably knock a dollar off that price in real-world numbers and still get that $2 bookstore profit. You might, if your printing costs are high (due to illustrations or whatnot) have to add another $1 to get to that level. Regardless, if you want to be on a bookstore’s shelves, you need to price it at the higher end of the Trade Paperback costs rather than the lower.
And if you don’t want to be on a bookstore’s shelves, why are you bothering to put it through Expanded Distribution, anyway?
I have seen discussions about pricing in fiction become quite heated. The thing is, as my subject title suggests, there is no “magic bullet” formula for determining exactly what you should price your novel. Books can sell at just about any reasonable price point; there are multiple factors which make one price better than the other, but nothing is right for everyone, or even for the majority of writers.
But if you consider the stats, business strategies, and other factors, maybe you can figure out the right price point for your own books.
(As a reminder, this is part one 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.)
When an author decides to self-publish, they must assume responsibility for turning their raw drafts into a finished product (arguably, that’s true even if they decide to go through trade publishing, today — submitting a raw draft to a publisher is a surefire way to a rejection letter). That means, in addition to doing the writing, an author must deal with getting the book edited, designing the book’s interior, and attaining an attention-getting, story-appropriate cover.
Covers are the first thing your reader will see of your book. They will sell your book to more “new” readers than anything else you can do. Arguably, of the three components you are most likely to outsource in the production of your book, the cover might be considered your highest priority.
While covers attract new buyers, well written and well edited text will keep them. Readers are willing to forgive some small mistakes if the story is engaging enough, but good editorial work will make it so they don’t have to. This usually requires multiple passes through your work (one thing about writing and publishing: There are exceptions to just about everything), but that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to hire multiple editors (more on that below) to get a quality product.
Of these three most commonly outsourced objects, Book Design is the easiest to DIY. Now, if all you’re releasing is an eBook, you should be able to handle this one with just a bit of research.
Key word there is “should.” Having seen some rather horrid eBooks in my day, I’d argue that indie writers may be more than likely to get this one right than trade publishers, but I’ve seen both do things that ruined otherwise fine books. Print books, on the other hand, require more training to get right — this can be self-taught, to a degree, but there’s a lot more work involved in making a print book look professional.
There are a few people out there who are, in fact, capable of doing all of these things themselves. And there are even more people who think they are capable of doing all of these things, themselves; if you disagree with them, you’re disagreeing with their mother\father\husband\wife\brother\etc. who told them so, and don’t you be insulting their mother\father\husband\wife\brother\etc. by calling them a liar! *sigh*
To create a good product as a self-publisher, you need to be able to recognize your own limitations. That’s true of a lot of things, but I’ll add this to it: There are some people who think they’re able to “learn on the job,” who recognize that their editing\cover design\book design\etc. isn’t up to par but think they can learn those things after “getting their feet wet” by publishing a book or two, first. I suggest that such a person is not able to improve from experience unless they also have a guide to help them figure out their mistakes.
Some people may have professional skills or training that allow them to handle certain tasks. Others are self-taught, using blogs or books to learn how to draw or design or edit their own work. Others pick things up from a friend or relative who has such skills. If this is the case for you, great! But there needs to be some starting point beyond just jumping in off the deep end — if you know nothing about art and start trying to design your own cover, don’t be surprised if your book winds up on LousyBookCovers.com. Even if your friend\relative\barber who is a “pretty good” artist gave you free artwork to use, you can still mess things up if that artwork is inappropriate, or your typography is horrible, or if you place the title over the artwork’s best feature, or if… well, you get the idea.
For myself, I think that I’m decent with book design. It’s one of the only parts of this process that I’ve actually had formal training in. It has, admittedly, been more than a decade since I took those college courses, but re-learning this stuff was much easier for it.
Despite that, I think that I made a few minor design mistakes with the print version of In Treachery Forged (nothing worth the effort of releasing a second edition, but I could have — for example — chosen a better font). By the time I got around to producing The Kitsune Stratagem, I think I’d worked out most of the kinks and managed a better, more “professional grade” product. With two more books hopefully coming out in the next few months (though they’ve both already faced significant delays), I expect to continue improving until what I produce is better than merely “professional.”
That doesn’t mean I necessarily do things the same way every established book designer would — I don’t always agree with modern book design, and I do still make the odd flub — but I’ve learned enough about it I’m comfortable on my own.
However, while I may know something about design, I am not an artist. If I want good cover art, I have to employ someone else to draw it.
Likewise, I may feel capable of editing my own books, to a degree. I was taught how to edit by my late father, a librarian and all-around book man who, among his other industry credits, professionally edited translations of foriegn poetry (and other things, but I’ve always been most impressed by that). However, I am also mildly dyslexic, so there are some grammar and spelling issues I know I cannot be certain of without a second set of eyes.
I think it’s important that an author know how to design a book, make a book cover, edit a book, and how to find and hire people to do all three.
ON BOOK DESIGN:
As I said in the introduction, of the three things most commonly outsourced, Book Design is probably the easiest of the three for an author to do by themselves. Ebooks require little in the way of design to look good — you don’t have to worry about hyphenation, widows and orphans, justification, and any of a number of other things that are a component of print book design; with dynamicly formatted ebooks, it’s all handled automatically.
But that hasn’t stopped some people from ruining their ebooks with poor design. For most trade publishers, that usually comes about with their backlists when they do OCR scans of print books and don’t bother proofread afterwards. All sorts of wierd graphical artifacts (and strange spellings, bizarre margin errors, inexplicable hyphens, etc.) get left behind, sometimes to the point of rendering the book in question illegible.
Self-publishers usually mess up their Book Design in other ways — after all, most self-publishers (unless they started in trade publishing and so have a pre-existing backlist of their own) aren’t converting their print books to ebooks.
One book design flaw indies make in ebooks is re-designing the wheel. Now, I have heard people making decent cases for using block paragraphs instead of indented paragraphs in their ebooks. I have heard people who want to move the table of contents around for technical reasons. I know self-publishers who are required, for one reason or another, to embed monotype font in one particular section of their books in order to properly line up characters vertically as well as horizontally, but leave the rest of the book as a different (or undeclared) font.
But then there are authors who feel that hey, we’re self-publishers, the gatekeepers are gone, we don’t have to follow any rules! In some cases, these authors do things just because they want to take it to “The Man,” and make design decisions specifically because they want to make their books look as little like print books as possible. They think these books look good, but in the end what they’re doing is trying (and in most cases failing) to “re-invent the wheel” of good book design. It’s a self-defeating effort that makes their books look unprofessional.
Things I have seen show up in eBooks (both self-published and trade) include: Books using both block paragraph style and indent paragraphs at the same time, ebooks without a table of contents (in this case referring to the .ncx file, which allows you to navigate between chapters), books in double space (a book is not a manuscripts; manuscripts are double-spaced to leave room for comments. A little extra space between lines is acceptable, but double-spacing a book makes it look… unfinished; a subconscious tell, to me, that the book hasn’t been fully edited), and books which change fonts (and\or font size) just about every paragraph. Heck, I’ve seen a trade-published book that had graphical scene seperators (which can be a nice addition, depending on the book and the graphic) that were over-large and cut across multiple page-turns, and which seemed to randomely rotate in design with other scene seperators for no apparent reason.
It need not be that extreme to look garish. If you don’t know your coding well, a single drop-cap at the start of each chapter can turn an otherwise professional-looking book horrid and ugly. Even a simple embedded font can mess up a book (for example, changing all the text in your novel to comic sans in an effort to make it look “handwritten.” Yes, I’ve seen people do this).
If you know what you’re doing, there are little things you can do to tweak your ebook away from boring and basic without crossing the line into gawdy. Embedding a font for titles, for example — you can decorate the front of your chapters without overwhelming your readers by trying to make them read your book in, say, Lucida Blackletter from start to finish.
And yes, it is possible to embed a font into an eBook; despite what some veteran self-publishers think, embedded fonts will not ruin your book. Those veteran self-publishers had a point; back in the early days of the Kindle — for generation one and two and part of three — there was a glitch that made it impossible for the e-reader to interpret embedded fonts. Those characters were replaced with blank boxes or gibberish characters that made the book unreadable. That was a software issue, and it is my understanding that this has been corrected (confirmed going back to at least the Kindle 3\Kindle Keyboard version), though this shouldn’t be taken as license to fiddle with the fonts of your book willy-nilly. Readers will frequently change the basic font type and size at will, so trying to ensure that your whole book is 10-pt. Garamond won’t do you much good.
The key thing here is, if you want to try something… unusual, say, for your ebook, run it by someone unbiased, first, to see if it makes sense to them. This can be a book designer, another experienced author, etc., and it gives you a sanity check over whatever it is you plan to do.
Print books are another matter entirely. Book design for print is much more complicated, and if you are unable or unwilling to educate yourself (and much that can easily learned in theory can still throw you in practice, even with simple book designs), I would strongly recommend hiring a book designer instead of just winging it.
Unless you are writing non-fiction (and even then, narrative non-fiction looks better if it more resembles fiction in design), you almost certainly don’t want to use block paragraphs in a print book. You never want to use ragged right (or, worse, ragged left) justification. You don’t want it doublespaced. You don’t want to use comic sans. Heck, you don’t want to use any bizarre or ornamental fonts.
Doing these sorts of things makes you look like an amateur, and I don’t care if “there are no gatekeepers so I can make it look like I want,” you’re far better off not re-inventing the wheel, here.
That doesn’t mean there are no areas where you can disagree with “modern” typographical and design choices. Designers love to go on about how they hate “rivers and channels” in fully justified text which they claim are produced by… well, just about anything the are obstinately opinionated about — hyphenation, the spacing after a period, even line spacing and font choice. Two spaces after a period is wrong, they tell us, and it’s always been wrong, they lie. They love hyphenating words to change where word wraps take place — it think its ugly, and interferes with reading flow (in fact, I’m looking for a way to turn the automatic hyphenation off on this blog. Any wordpress veterans out there know how?).
Those are stylistic choices, they haven’t been enforced universally for decades and decades on end like the “no ragged right” rule, and I’m sure some typographer or book designer can come in and give a long explanation as to why what I think is ugly is “best for readability.” Honestly, it only matters if the readers care, and I’m pretty sure most don’t even notice those things. As long as there’s a significant precedent somewhere in the history of publishing and typography, it’s okay to disagree.
If you go your own way, though, you need to learn that there’s only so far you can push things. A “line break after every sentence” would be very strange, and your readers would notice. You might get away with it in, say, poetry (where doing unusual things is part of the job), but if you wrote a novel that way you would drive your readers crazy. If you worry that your favored design choices might be pushing the envelope too much, that is the time to hire a book designer. Using one at least once in your self-publishing career to help you figure out where the “unbreakable” rules are can help you learn where these design choices are really rules and where they are simply guidelines.
Book design for novels should be relatively cheap. Last time I priced it out, I found reputable book designers willing to handle simple (if your novel isn’t illustrated and isn’t poetry, it’s usually simple) book design for $200-350. It’s been a couple years since then, but I doubt the cost of book design has skyrocketed, considering the other services I’ll be talking about in this blog have remained fairly steady in price. A warning, though — if you’re doing something more complex than a basic novel (for example, you’re writing a non-fiction book and you’re going to be putting in lots of illustrations, charts, tables, etc.) that cost will skyrocket into the four or even five figure range.
Finding a reputable book designer is fairly easy. There are people who specialize it, but the easiest way to find one is to package the book design with your cover design, as the two services are often offered together. Now, finding a cover designer….
Recall that the title of this blog post is “Cheap, Fast, and Good: Pick Two.” Well, that’s the problem with finding cover artists and editors — it’s almost impossible to find someone who is all three. It’s not exactly all that easy to find a cover artist who fits even two of those traits, sometimes.
You need a good, high-end cover in two weeks? Well, you can get that… for about $1000. You want a cover for free? You might be able to stumble across one or two free covers somewhere on the internet, but good luck getting exclusive use rights to it. Don’t want to spend much money and want it fast? Well, there’s always Microsoft Paint to the rescue!
If you have no time and need a good cover now, it’ll cost you in one way or another. If you’re on a budget and need a cover, you either need to DIY it — and if you aren’t a good artist, readers are getting better at discerning (and disliking) DIY covers — or you need to find someone cheap.
The “money” part of that doesn’t have to be too much. Indie Designz, while it isn’t my style, offers quality book covers for far less than that $1000 mark I mentioned above. Those covers are build around stock imagery — an effective method, but it can have a few flaws: You (the author) won’t know how much the final design will cost until the stock imagery is chosen, some stock images get used on so many covers that they’re mocked when they are identified, and the style required by using stock imagery does not work for every genre.
There are other options. Here was how I took care of my covers:
I started getting “In Treachery Forged” ready to publish almost eight months before it came out. I knew I needed a good cover, but attempts at home-made covers (my brother gave it a try) were… well, I knew they weren’t what I wanted on a book cover.
I was on a very tight budget (after the money I’d hoped to use was re-allocated to repairing a non-functioning hot water heater, I had to borrow money from my mother for the cover), so I knew that those $1000 covers were beyond me. I also knew those Indie Designz covers weren’t to my taste. While my brother continued to try and refine his design (you might find the final result of his effort buried somewhere deep in the archives of my Facebook page), I tried a longshot: I went to the artist behind one of my favorite webcomics (as background, I had never met the man before, nor was I very active in posting in the comments section of his comic, so there was no pre-existing friendship of any kind there) to see if he was willing to do it, and how much he would charge.
To my surprise, he was quite willing… and for about half of what I was expecting to have to pay. The search for an artist took a while, and negotiations took some time, but three months before the final release of the book I managed to hire him for the cover.
Now, my experience may be atypical, but I’d heard stories of professional artists that weren’t experienced with book covers who failed to understand their requirements. My new cover artist was not a cover artist by trade, so I made sure we discussed the following things before signing him on:
What rights was I getting? (In addition to both exclusive rights to the artwork for ebook and print book covers, I needed to be able to use the artwork for marketing. That included the right to make slight modifications — such as cropping — for use in different formats)
What fees did he charge for changes? (Up to a certain point in the design process, they were free. I wound up being charged a small fee because my mother, who was bankrolling the cover, insisted on a significant tweak after that point. Some cover artist specialty services limit you to two or three changes, total, or charge a fee for every change; you will probably need your artist to make tweaks, at least, so keep that in mind)
How and when to pay (we agreed to no payment until completion, but some cover artists will want pay in advance, or a split payment part in advance and part at completion)
Once we agreed on these things, I had to give him instructions on the artwork itself. I’ve heard horror stories about artists who got the scale wrong, or the dimensions wrong, or didn’t leave room for a title. So, in addition to giving him a pick of scenes to choose from as possible cover illustrations, Imade sure he knew the following things:
The exact dimensions needed. Since this was for both eBook and the front of the Print copies, I needed to account for bleed edges on three sides (the fourth side would be the spine), the proportions of the image, room for cropping to account for the different proportions, and the size of the book (I did mention the size by pixels, too, but it turned out that the pixel size was smaller than the dimentions of the print cover size — 6″ X 9″, not counting the aforementioned bleed edge and cropping space)
How far from the edge the title needed to be. I also warned him that I would need space for a few additional lines of text (author name, series title, and possibly a space to incorporate a line from an editorial review in the future).
I warned him that it needed to contrast well in grayscale\black and white, as it would frequently be seen on an e-ink reader (such as the Kindle\Kindle Paperwhite\etc.).
I offered to place credits for his art wherever he wanted (on the cover, inside the book, etc.)
Now, I was a little concerned that — in giving him such instructions — I might be venturing a little too far into “teaching grandma to suck eggs” territory (ugh… who came up with that phrase, anyway?). My artist didn’t take offense at all.
From that point to the completion of the cover, it took almost exactly two months. That was after about a period of querying, negotiating, and so forth — much of that delay on my end, as I was investigating other options, but I would say at least a few days to a week should be budgeted in order to vet and negotiate with your cover artist. It may take even longer, depending on the artist.
The second cover artist I hired proved this was not a fluke. I was quite satisfied with my first cover artist (and just recently opened discussions with him about producing the cover for “In Forgery Divided”), and will continue using him as long as he is interested, but I was starting a second series. When it comes to multiple series, there is always the possibility that you will be in the production phase of two different books (editing, covers, books design) at the same time, so I knew I’d need to find another cover artist.
This time, I went a different route: I went after someone with experience designing book covers, but I still wanted original artwork and not photography. I found a half-dozen veteran cover artists and sent queries asking if they were taking commissions, what their rates were, etc.
I got one reply. The artist wanted close to $1000. Now, my budget for this cover was a bit higher than the last cover (and I didn’t spend to the limit for that cover), but $1000 was too much. I was stumped, but then I found the name of an artist listed in the amazon.com credits of a book I liked the cover of.
Once again, I took a chance and asked him to do a book cover for me… and I got back a bid to do this cover for even less than my first cover. I went through roughly the same process as before on roughly the same timeline. Even though this artist had a few dozen more credits to his name and probably knew things like how to leave space for the title and so forth, he still didn’t react as if I was “teaching grandma to suck eggs.” And I think I got some pretty good artwork in the end — better than I would have gotten from that $1000 cover artist I’d found.
My point is, (1) don’t be afraid to approach any artist you like to make your cover. Yes, the likes of Michael Whelan won’t do anything for you (he says so in his FAQ), but you’d be surprised who will. And (2) when you do find a cover artist, it is okay to give them precise instructions. They will listen, and not be offended.
Note: Ironically, this article needed editing after I posted it. (The final revisions I made didn’t save when I clicked the “publish” button)
And now for the job the fewest number of authors can, or should, attempt: Editing. I’m not saying it’s impossible for someone to edit their own work — their are outliers who do that and do it well — but more people think they can edit their own work than actually can. That doesn’t mean that doing your own editorial pass is worthless, or that you need to spend great gobs of money on editing, but — if for nothing more than a sanity check — someone else (and someone who knows the basics of both your genre and the English language, please) who you know will give you an honest opinion should look at it first.
Let’s start with something I’m sure most people who’ve done any research into the process already know: There is more than one type of editor out there. I usually see it broken up into proofreader, copy editor, and developmental editor.
But then there are:
SEO Editors (better known as marketers)
project editors (mostly found in trade publishers, but sometimes someone working on an anthology would be called this)
acquisitions editors (which should be, by definition, exclusive to trade publishers)
layout editors (another name for book designer, as is design editor)
…and probably one or two I’m forgetting.
To add to the confusion, many publishers use different editors (assistant editor, associate editor, editor, senior editor, editor-in-chief, and a couple others) to place people in their corporate hierarchy rather than to indicate any editorial skill in their employees.
While one group or another (some with official status, such as the “Editor’s Association of Canada”, and others with less official status, such as “Seth’s Blog”) have tried to define each type of editor, I’ve never seen two groups (even two “official” groups) agree on every definition. But let’s try and group these editor types into “what you kinda\sorta need these people to do for you” types. (Some of these job types will be in multiple categories)
If you are done writing, but you think your beginning is a mess, your middle is just full of continuity editors, your climax is misplaced, and don’t think you can fix these things yourself, you want:
Stylistic Editor (heh… more on this below)
Of course, if your book is in that bad a shape, you might not be READY for an editor. I’d recommend self-editing, using beta readers, maybe even consulting with friends and family asking them for advice (which may be useless, but even if it is useless it might inspire you to fix it yourself).
I’ll probably get in trouble with one or two of my Facebook friends for saying this (as some of these are their job titles), but you’re more likely to find frauds and scams in the above editorial types than you are anywhere else in the editing field. To be clear: There are a lot of legitimate editors who use the above titles.
However, a lot of old, classic vanity press scams used to send authors to shady “editors” or “book doctors” with the above titles. These so-called editors charged exhorbitant rates, and their service was sub-par at best. The scam vanity presses don’t employ that strategy as much, these days (they have other ways of extracting money from authors), but a lot of those ex-“book doctors” have hung their shingle as freelance editors to try and swindle authors on their own.
If your book is in pretty good shape in that regard, but you need a grammer overhaul to go along with a sanity check and maybe a little more smoothing of your manuscript, you might want (at least one of):
If all you want is a typo hunter and last-minute grammar checker, you probably want a:
Please note, technical editors are usually for business writing, not fiction, though there is some crossover there. Also, if you want to employ a “stylistic editor,” read their own description of what they do. Sometimes a “stylistic editor” means they fix the “broad strokes” style of your book, trying to make your story flow better; other times, it means they go through and change your otherwise gramatically correct book to convert it from one style guide (say, Turabian, which was an “interpretation” of the “Chicago Manual of Style” my college insisted of for every course) to another (say, the Oxford Guide to Style — a.k.a., you’re converting your book from American English to British English).
Sometimes an editor doesn’t actually know which of these types of editor they are (for quite understandable reasons, since the definitions seem to be so varied). They will hang out their shingle as a line editor or a structural editor, but when they write out what they think a “structural editor” is, they turn out to be a developmental\content editor. Sometimes, they’ll call themselves a copy editor but will actually be a proofreader (I’ve heard a copy editor described as a “proofreader on steroids” on occasion, so this one isn’t that big a stretch).
This doesn’t necessarily mean they aren’t any good — in fact, there are a lot of very good freelance editors who think they’re one kind of editor while they really are another one — just that you need to make sure you know what sort of editor you’re hiring.
The editor will generally say what they do with each type of edit they offer, but if you want to really experience their editorial process, don’t be afraid to ask for a sample edit. Most editors will do the first thousand or so words of your book as a sample. You can also ask them for editing credits and contact past clients to see if they were satisfied with the work. Basically, whatever kind of edit you want to get done, make sure you check out the editor to be sure they’ll do an edit you’re happy with.
Editors cost money… usually. With In Treachery Forged, I made a deal for an editor in exchange for babysitting services (at the rate babysitters are charging, nowadays, I’m not sure that was all that much of a bargain). It helped that we were related, but I’d nearly negotiated an an exchange of the services with another editor I’d never met (again, I did research him, just to be sure) for one of my mother’s art quilts. (As I’ve said before, my budget was tight with that book, which was partly why it took so long to get it out the door). So, if you want editing services and are tight on cash, don’t be afraid to try and go the bartering route.
The EFA calculates its rates based on the overhead of its most frequent employer of the past fourty or fifty years — New York City based publishing houses. New York City-based publishers had to pay their freelancers at a rate that allows those freelancers to pay the overhead for living in New York City, since they needed to be able to meet with those editors in person. As the internet has taken off, editors could find work living in places much less expensive than New York City, and many of those editors were able to undercut the New York City based editors. But those NYC editors continued to find employment at the EFA rates.
That doesn’t mean that people who charge the EFA-suggested rates are trying to rip you off; it most likely means they’re probably getting enough business from bigger publishing houses that they don’t need to compete with the outside-of-NY houses. And those editors who do undercut the EFA-suggested rates aren’t really “cut-rate” editors — they just don’t have the same overhead as the other editors, which allows them to price their service for customers on a budget.
There are processes for “self” editing, as well. Now, as I said before, I don’t really recommend publishing your book without getting a sanity check on it, at a minimum, but I think a lot of expense can be saved and quality added to any edit by first completing one or more “self”-editorial processes.
The reason “self” is in quotation marks is because not all of these processes are not done alone. Dean Wesley Smith suggests a process involving multiple beta\first readers, for example.
There are options if you’re on your own, however. For example, Holly Lisle’s One Pass Manuscript Revision technique can be done entirely by yourself, but her process isn’t for everyone.
Then there’s a technique I’ve heard from everyone (though it was first introduced to me by Allen L. Wold): Give your manuscript a dramatic reading aloud; where you stumble (and I will add the caveat the stumble shouldn’t be related to a dry mouth, an unexpected phone call, etc. Only a “natural” stumble), you need to make a fix.
Or you could just go through and make line-by-line revisions, just the way you would edit anything else. Yes, it’s hard to retain objectivity, but that’s why you get someone else to give you a sanity check.
I’ll remind everyone that this whole blog series is built around a panel I was putting together for CapitalCon. And this is only part one. Obviously, I’m presenting more information here than I would have had time to mention at the convention itself. I was preparing for discussions, and filling in (usually with anecdotal information) where I thought needed. The added content kind of obscured my intended theme for this section, “Cheap, Fast, and Good: Pick Two,” but I think I’ve given you all some good information.
But I’m still one of those “intermediate” self-publishers I mentioned in Part Zero. I think I’ve got a little experience and am pretty well-researched; I believe I’ve done a good job of seperating wheat and chaff in the realm of other people’s self-publishing advice; but I know there are self-publishers out there who have more experience and more knowledge than I do. There probably are people out there who have less experience than me but still have some insight on the topic. That was why I wanted this to be a roundtable discussion.
With that in mind, I’m inviting anyone who wants to speak on the topic to comment below — I’d love to discuss this with you.
Well, I was SUPPOSED to be running a Self-Publishing Roundtable this weekend at Capital Con DC. This panel was supposed to be a roundtable discussion amoung self-publishers (especially targetting what I’d call “intermediate” self-publishers. I.e., those people who actually had SOME experience self-publishing, but who might find some of the advice written for veteran authors (people who have a history in traditional publishing or who have dozens of self-published titles under their belt already) ineffective) to share thoughts and ideas for improving the efficiency and skill of their self-publishing enterprise.
Unfortunately, even though I had done a lot of the preparation for my panel already and had adjusted some things in my schedule to account for the convention travel, Capital Con had to cancel at the last minute after problems arose with the hotel (I sincerely hope this isn’t the end of the line for them; from what I could tell, they had taken the time to do everything right getting this convention started).
I’d put together an outline for the panel, and did a lot of research (well, okay, much of the ‘research’ was just finding citations for things I’d already figured out or had researched previously) for the topics I planned to discuss. Now, since it’s largely in ‘scattered notes and outlines’ form, I actually had more material than I anticipated needing for the convention (just in case we covered some things faster than I expected). Also, I’ve edited out a couple things that I’d rather cover from a different perspective (for example: I had mentioned in my “In An Effort to Actually Use This Darned Blog Thing…” post that I wanted to discuss the software I use in writing and producing a book. One of the topics I was going to raise in the Roundtable was what software people found was best for producing epub\mobi files; I know I’ll be covering my opinion on that topic later, so I’ve omitted it here).
Since the convention isn’t going to happen (at least, not any time soon), I figured I’d give the presentation here, on my blog. If any other authors with self-publishing experience want to chime in with thoughts, please go ahead — I was hoping I wouldn’t be the only one with ideas at the panel.
The Outline listed six parts. This is part Zero. The series will run as follows:
For months now, I’ve been trying to figure out something I could do with this blog. I wrote up one convention report… and then I still couldn’t figure out anything for several months, at which point I came out with another convention report. Most likely, my next post will also be a convention report, as Capital Con is lingering just around the corner. (Of note: I am scheduled to appear on a panel at Capital Con. My first time as a panelist since self-publishing my first book, and my first at an science fiction convention (though I used to regularly do fanfic panels at local anime conventions, including multiple Katsucons, Otakons, and the very first Nekocon). I was hoping to have a book or two to release during this period, but I’m way behind on them. And, really, I don’t think you want to read me talking about how “I wrote another 376 words today! I’m that much closer to finishing things off” every day. Trying to devote more time towards my books to complete “In Forgery Divided” has also contributed to my lack of blog posts.
But those are not the only reason this blog is so sparse. I have no desire to use this blog just for convention reports and book releases, but so far I haven’t really come up with any content that seems worth posting to a blog.
Excerpts for upcoming titles? Um… maybe some day, in the run-up to publication, but I’m not ready to start those, yet. Advice on writing? Well, maybe sometimes, but it seems like half the author blogs do that — I want to be a little more unique than that. I love getting reviews, but I’m not comfortable writing them myself (my review style is to look for and write about what’s wrong. Now, I only do this for things that I like enough to feel like commenting on, but I’ve known people who took things wrong when I did that).
I do have some ideas for things to post, but most of what I can think of only really works once this blog has at least a small following. That makes these ideas catch-22s: I can’t write these blog posts until I build an audience, but I can’t build an audience without having more blog posts.
Well, for the past few days I’ve been brainstorming to try and figure out something to add as content. So far I’ve come up with the following ideas:
1. A blog series on quirky things I’ve researched for a book… and never used. I would avoid mentioning those sorts of things that might get you put on some sort of watch list, but instead concentrate (at least initially) on “things you wouldn’t think you needed to research until you need them,” I would include details about why I was looking for this bit of research, how I went about it, when I gave up on it, and why I ultimately decided not to use it… or at least, why I’ve decided not to use it so far.
2. A discussion of the software that I use to publish a book. This would include programs like Adobe InDesign, Microsoft Word, Scrivener, the (rumored defunct, but I’ve seen a release since hearing that rumor) freeware project Sigil, the Hemingway App, and more.
3. A very few specific writing posts on certain things (such as a why and how for House Style Guides for the self-publisher… which might also include a small diatribe on the Chicago Manual of Style. Though most of what I’d say on the later has already been said by CJ Cherryh here).
4. Once I’ve built up a few posts on other topics, I might offer some author interviews (cross-promotion! A subject I will probably mention at my Capital Con panel, among a dozen or so other things). And, of course, I will continue to talk about conventions I attend… and, hopefully soon, I will actually get around to finishing those two books in my pipeline, and can post about them as well.
I’m back from Ravencon, rested, and finally ready to type up my experience attending. A wrap-up of events, if you will.
I will start by listing panels that I wanted to attend, but for one reason or another (usually a conflicting panel, but not always) couldn’t:
Genre Blending: The New Weird
The Portrayal of Nuclear Power and Engineering in Fiction
Urban Fantasy: Using Real-World Settings and People in Your Fiction
Critiquing: The Right Way
Indie Publishing: Pros and Cons of Self-Publishing
Just Line the Last Time, Only Different (a panel on sequels)
The Science Behind Science Fiction
Alien Worlds and Races
After the First Draft: The Next Step for the Aspiring Writer
Finding the Right Publisher
Elementary, My Dear Watson
The How and Why of Short Stories
The Art of the Book: The How, When, and Why of Development
How to (Not) Ruin Your Writing Career
Why Editing Matters
Allen L. Wold’s Writers’ Workshop
Tips for Aspiring Writers
You Did (Not) Attend this Panel in an Alternate Universe
It’s Only a Flesh Wound! Realistic Injuries in SF and Fantasy
Why Science Fiction Matters
The Business End
Baen Traveling Road Show
Shooting a Movie Short on a Shoestring
Authors vs. Artists Pictionary
Successful Indie Publishing: Trick and Traps
Writing Critical Hits
Plotting and Pacing a Short Story
Webcomics/Manga: How to Write a Story
Ask A Scientist (this one really hurt to miss)
The Eye of Argon (this makes the third time I intended to go to this panel and missed it)
Indie Publishing: Marketing Your Work
No Right Way to Write: Techniques for New Writers
Making Magic Work
Things Fantasy Writers and Movie Directors Get Wrong About Horses
Webcomics/Manga: How to Find an Artist
Let’s Build a Space Habitat
Pantsing vs. Plotting
If Mary Sue if So Awesome, Why Does Everybody Hate Her
Stupid Superhero Powers
There were enough programs in on that list to equal the number of panels I normally find interesting at two (and then some) average conventions. So, Ravencon is pretty densely packed with programming.
Now, about the panels I actually did manage to attend…
I made it to the hotel in time for a belated lunch… which, unfortunately, I couldn’t have in the restaurant itself. Apparently, the hotel decided that their restaurant should be closed between 1:30pm and 5pm no matter what. They sent me to a back room (technically a dance club, but there was no dancing at the time) where lunch was slow serviced (they were short-staffed that afternoon, according to the only person working there) but the food was pretty decent. As was the conversation — had a chance to chat with a couple other early-arrivers. I don’t think I ever got their names, and nothing all that memorable was said, but it was nice to start the convention with good company.
After lunch and a quick rest, however, the convention itself began. The first panel I attended was called “Playing God: Building Your Own World,” with Kate Paulk,Kevin Kelleher, Lawrence Ellsworth, and Mike McPhail. For a Friday 4pm panel, it was VERY well attended, and quite informative. I was able to ask a question (which was, effectively, “When mixing together mythologies that each require significant worldbuilding background, how do you put them together without your book becoming bloated?” The consensus answer was to focus on one mythology per book. As I was referring primarily to the struggle I had with The Kitsune Stratagem, which features alliances between a family of (Japanese mythology, though I also drew slightly from Korean and Chinese variants) Kitsune and (Shetland Island folktale-based) wulvers, a battle between the aforementioned Kitsune family and (aborigonal Australian folktale-based) Bunyips, and included a quest to find a particular type of (Scandinavian mythology-based) Väki Haltija, I wasn’t able to do that.
Then I went to the Allen Wold Plotting Workshop (distinct from the Writing Workshop, which — as mentioned above — I had to skip). This is a fun thing to do at most conventions he attends, and I’ve found it is constantly evolving and improving. At this particular plotting workshop, I came up with the plot for a future book (or maybe just a novella; we’ll see) around the inspiration line of “It all began when he brought a trebuchet to a sword fight.”
Following that was a workshop entitled “Living the Dream: Planning a Sustainable Creative Career,” presented by Rob Balder of Erfworld fame. Now, when it came to my own career planning, it was largely recap… but he went through how to come up with these plans from different business models. While my own would be a self-publishing model, he described a so-called “Free Content Model” of artistic-oriented business which brought to mine my mother’s own quilting business. What notes I took and the worksheets that were handed out I am turning over to her, because I think they could help her with her own business plan.
That turned out to be my last panel of the day (dinner break leading into a longer-than-planned break leading to me just missing the rest of the panels I wanted to go to). Unfortunately, an “early night” didn’t wind up helping me rest up, as I thought it would — I learned that the hotel’s beds were soft. Very soft. Too soft for my comfort; I tossed and turned all night. Worse, I had set up a morning room-service breakfast so that I would be SURE that I had time for breakfast before the first Saturday panel I wanted to attend at 9am.
That breakfast never showed up. The hotel staff said I filled out the time on the card wrong (I am suspicious of this, as I was referencing the filled-out card when setting up my wake-up call in the morning, but I won’t argue). So, on top of almost no sleep, I also had no breakfast.
I rushed into the Science of Cryptozoology panel; given that I write with so many creatures which might be considered cryptids, this panel (presented by L. Jagi Lamplighter Wright,Randy Richards, and Bob Blaskiewicz) should have been very interesting, but I was distracted (I still hadn’t straightened out that issue with room service) and wound up leaving almost twenty minutes early.
Still without breakfast but with things now straightened out, I went to the 10am panel on Writing Dialog. This was presented by Kate Paulk, Lawrence M. Schoen (accompanied by “Plush Guest of Honor Barry Mantelo“), Lou Antonelli, and Noah McBrayer Jones. I was most intrigued by the discussion of dialects and how to depict them, and having someone whose background was in acting and screenwriting (Noah McBrayer Jones) in addition to the novelists (two of whom had, or were raised with, very regionally distinctive accents) gave an interesting perspective on the subject. I have to admit that my attention was wandering at the start of this panel, but by the end I was finally alert enough to follow along, and eventually found myself laughing as the panel became a series of amusing anecdotes on the differences between regional dialects.
I had originally planned for a late lunch, but after missing breakfast I skipped the next hour to attend part of the Tangent Artists room party and nibbled on the snacks they had left out to get me through until then. There I met someone who I had sat next to during the Hobbit movie trilogy back at the Alamo Drafthouse back in December. We had an interesting conversation about Hobbit and Lord of the Rings trivia during that marathon (before, during the intermissions, and after), but unfortunately I never got her name. Despite continued interesting conversation, I STILL never got her name before I had to leave. Ah, well.
I rushed off (a touch late) to head to a panel entitled “Indie Publishing: The Economics of Self-Publishing.” It was presented by Chris Kennedy, Christopher Nuttall, Robert Sommers, and Stuart Jaffe. I probably should have stayed at the Tangent Artists party, or have gone to a different panel, or maybe should have just gone to lunch. This panel had a lot of good information, but unfortunately all of it was too basic for someone at my current level. I continue to believe there needs to be some sort of panel for self-publishers that are at an intermediate stage of their career — they’ve successfully released a book or three and know the basics of getting good covers and finding an editor, but they don’t yet have enough books to enact the strategies (“make the first book in a series free and it’ll help sales for the entire series”, for example) that veteran self-publishers with dozens of titles to their name use to attain success.
Following this panel, I went to a workshop entitled “Ignite Your Worldbuilding,” presented by J.T. Glover. While advertised as a workshop on worldbuilding, it felt more like a discussion of research (and the application of research). They can be related fields, but they aren’t quite the same. Ah, well — I suppose that’s what I should have expected from a research librarian. (Note: My late father was also a research and acquisitions librarian for most of his career. This is not said to disparage research librarians. That said, much of his advice was stuff I learned at my father’s knee).
After that workshop, I returned to my hotel room. I intended to have lunch while watching the Washington Capitals’ playoff game (we lost that game, but later won the series). Instead, I turned on the game and let my lack of sleep from the previous night catch up to me, falling asleep. I woke up just in time to see us lose. *sigh* I also decided it was high time for me to eat something more than the few snacks I grabbed at the Tangent Artists party, and didn’t get back to the convention proper until 8pm.
The next panel I attended was, um, a mistake. It isn’t that I didn’t like the panel (I actually was quite interested in the subject matter), I just mixed up which room I was going to; instead of the “Writing Critical Hits” panel in Cove, I wound up at the “Star Wars: Not the Tropes You’re Looking For” in York. This panel was presented by Darin Kennedy, Genesis Moss, and John C. Wright (there was supposed to be a fourth panelist, but IIRC he never showed), and it was quite interesting… but it wasn’t what I wanted to go to. By the time I figured out I was at the wrong panel, I decided I might as well stay and enjoy it.
I did promptly rush to my next panel when it was over, which was in the same room of the panel I had INTENDED to go to the first time. This panel, “Schmoozing 101,” was moderated by Kevin Kelleher and included Ian Randal Strock, KT Pinto, and R.S. Belcher. Here, I learned the importance of getting booze for other writers. (Okay, okay — there was actually quite a bit mentioned about socializing and interacting with writers and editors at conventions and the like… but the first piece of advice, and once that was repeated at least twice, was “buy them booze. Writers\Editors\G.R.R. Martin\etc. never turn down a free drink.”)
After the panel on drinking — I mean Schmoozing — I went to one with the intriguing title of “The Villains Journey,” with a panel of D. Alexander Ward, Emily Lavin Leverett, Jean Marie Ward, and Kate Paulk. I was sort of expecting a discussion of John Campbell’s Hero’s Journey, and comparing and contrasting it with various well-known villains’ portrayals in books and movies, but that wasn’t what I got. Instead, it was a more general discussion of how much backstory a villain needs to be a really good villain.
That was the end of my Saturday. I had planned to attend more panels, but despite my nap in the middle of the day I was worried I wouldn’t be able to stay awake through any more. I returned to my room, and actually managed to get one good night’s sleep despite the overly-soft hotel beds. (This was the ONLY night I slept well, mind you; I stayed a day later so that I would be well rested for the return trip, but I wound up tossing and turning most of that night as well).
I slept so well Saturday night that I was late for Sunday morning’s panels. Between that and not wanting to miss breakfast that day (or rather, “brunch.” The hotel restaurant switches its normal schedule so that it only has a Sunday Brunch buffet, and then it closes; after that, you can only get room service), I didn’t get to the panels until noon, where I attended a panel called “Visibility 101.” This panel, with D. Alexander Ward, Gail Z. Martin,Meryl Yourish, and Michael A. Ventrella, was on the all-important authors’ skill of marketing (you know it’s important because there were three panels on the exact same subject, just all with different names). There was a discussion of whether writers should present their political views (I’m in the camp of the possibly apocryphal Michael Jordan quote, “Republicans Buy Shoes Too“, but I do recognize that many authors have built a following through their politics), suggestions for ways to build interest in the author through blogging and facebook (I need to increase my blog output and find ways to cross-promote with other authors), and a little bit about advertising on Facebook (it has mixed success, at best, though one of the panelists was quite enthusiastic about it).
And then my final panel for the convention, “The Best Critique Group for You.” Everyone on the panel, and a few people in the audience (note: There were five panelists and six attendees. The panel got increasingly less formal as it went on), were on previous panels I’d attended (Darin Kennedy, J.T. Glover, Lawrence M. Schoen, Meryl Yourish, and Robert Sommers were the presenters; I recognized and briefly talked with Jean Marie Ward in the audience). This was mostly a bunch of “bad critique group incident” anecdotes, which were quite amusing, and a few suggestions for things to look for to find a good such group. (I am familiar with two local critique groups\writers circles. I THINK one of them would be a good one — I know who runs it and he’s a good guy — but it meets at a time I can’t possibly attend. The other one… well, let’s just say that I could have contributed to the silly critique group anecdotes if I’d been asked)
The convention trickled to a close after that. I walked through the dealers room looking for last-minute deals (I didn’t buy anything; probably a good thing, as I’d spent far too much on the convention already) and looked through the lounge to see if anyone interesting was lingering behind (sadly, by the time I got around to it the lounge was empty).
Overall, I had a few problems, but it was a great convention. Next convention for me: CapitalCon DC.
I am pleased to (finally) get around to this convention report. Since this blog’s debut post, I’ve been too busy putting together my new, improved Convention Calender (see the link in the header, above) to work on this promised write-up. Then I let this half-finished con report sit, forgotten, in draft form, for a couple weeks. Oops. Just to get this thing out there, I’m finishing it off and then posting it as-is, unchecked and unrevised.
Anyway, I arrived at Marscon opening day (I had considered going down to Williamsburg for the convention a day early in order to get a good parking space and get settled in early, and was looking forward to some of the Thursday entertainment they were having for early arrivals, but it turned out that waiting was a good decision — it snowed on Thursday but was clear again by the time I left on Friday). The Hotel gave me a free upgrade to a larger suite (because it was the only King-sized bedroom available at the time), and after a few hours to catch my breath it was time for the convention.
I skipped opening ceremonies but went to the Baen Travelling Road Show, catching their upcoming releases for the year. With David Weber in attendence, it turned out to be quite entertaining. A few titles caught my eye (The Future Wars and Other Punchlines anthology and Catherine Asaro’s Undercity being the two I, er, remembered the titles of well enough to find on Amazon), and I had plenty of fun, but after the show I skipped a lot of programming I had planned to attend in order to eat and rest up some more — the trip down to Williamsburg tired me out more that I’d care to say.
That isn’t to say I ignored all of Marscon’s Friday programming. Later in the evening I attended a panel entitled “Honor Bound: Working with David Weber.” I was expecting a panel on collaborating with a (more) famous author; it turned out to be a panel on the history of BuNine Consulting. Still interesting, but not quite what I was hoping for.
I only managed Saturday morning by having ordered a room service breakfast the night before; I overslept, skipped the 9am panel I had intended to make it to (fortunately, nothing I was particularly interested in), and if I had relied on the Marscon con suite or tried to eat in the restaurant I would probably have missed the 10am slot as well. (Incidentally, I found the food at the Fort Magruder Hotel was significantly better this year than last year’s Marscon; it wasn’t fine dining, by any stretch, but nothing was overcooked or dry or whatnot like it was, sometimes, last year)
The 10am slot of panels included five panels I would have liked to attend. Unable to be in five places at once, I skipped the Allen Wold Writer Workshop, Star Trek Roundtable, Myths and Realities of Fantasy Combat panel, and the Starships 101 panel in order to go to “The Care and Feeding of an Author” panel (featuring the Author Guest of Honor, David Weber, the YA Author Guest of Honor, Katherine Kurtz, and their respective significant others). Again, not quite what I expected (there was a lot less about the sort of diet and exercise a writer needs to have, and more droll anecdotes about working with bad copy editors and the authors’ family members’ wondering whether a writer playing computer games is brainstorming or merely procrastinating). I enjoyed myself, but I might have found many of those other panels a lot more useful.
The next panel I remember getting to (it’s now been over two weeks since I last worked on this thing) was the Pets in Science Fiction panel. It might have been interesting, but the moderator was horribly distracted by her children (who were heckling her from the audience). I had seen this moderator on other panels, and she’s usually an interesting guest, but the heckling kind of ruined things.
This panel was immediately followed, however, by a related panel on Horses in Fantasy and Science Fiction. There was still a problem with this panel — it never ACTUALLY related horses specifically to Fantasy, though it did refute a few myths about horses generally found in all types of fiction — but it was very amusing, nonetheless, as two particular horse ranchers talked extensively about horse behavior.
That was pretty much it for Saturday — for some odd reason (that, from what I can tell, was unrelated to the wedding which took place at the convention, though that was my first thought), a lot of the non-musical-oriented programming ended after 6PM. I participated in Marscon Match Guest (an audience-as-players sci-fi variant of the classic Match Game, featuring various convention guests as the celebrities) and came in second place. I slipped down to the halls and lobby area so I could look at some of the costumes. And I met a few times with the head of the new CapitalCon venture (though I only had time to do more than wave in passing once).
That left Sunday, which actually turned out to be one of the best “last days” of a convention I can remember. Usually, Sunday programming is pretty sparse, and this was no exception, but both panels I attended this day were quite fun.
There was a sort of interactive worldbuilding game involving eight guests (including the aforementioned GOH, David Weber, and several other colorful characters) building a world based on suggestions by the moderator and incorporating elements from the audience. I’m afraid I’m the person responsible for inflicting both worths with the horrible medical condition of exploding eyeballs. Actually, I just wanted to work “eyeballs” in somewhere (this goes back to the sixth grade, when I challenged a fellow student to give me any word and I would write a story around it. He gave me the word eyeball; I’ve been regretting the story I came up with ever since), but the guests took it and ran with it. I can’t really do justice to the worlds that the two teams of authors managed to come up with, but if you’re on Facebook and have the right permissions you might want to check out James Beall’s take. (remember to cycle through the pictures for the whole story)
Then there was the Allen Wold Plotting Workshop. This is different than his regular Writing Workshop (a two day event focusing on the first hundred words, or the “hook,” of your story), focusing instead on creating characters, settings, obstacles, etc. While the regular writing workshop, which I’ve been to at several conventions, is fun (I make it a point of going any chance I can, provided there are no scheduling conflicts), and offers constructive criticism from a panel of writing veterans, I think this one is the more useful at this stage in my career. I may very well have saved a science fiction novel I had written and abandoned half-way through (because I learned that my plot was far, far too close to the plot of Timothy Zahn’s “Night Train to Rigel,” a book I had never read), allowing me to take what I’d written and revamp the plot to something more original. One of these days, I may even be able to get back to it… but I think I need to complete “In Forgery Divided” first, at a minimum.
And, when Marscon was over, I was able to go out to dinner with Williamsburg-local family members — a part of the family I used to see quite frequently, but (to my regret) only see about once a year, nowadays. Had a wonderful meal (though I forget the name of the restaurant) and no-one complained about my convention-induced mental fatigue.
A few bumps in the road, but I even enjoyed the panels that weren’t what I was expecting. Overall, a wonderful time, and I hope to go back.
I’ve had this blog set up for a couple months, now, but I haven’t posted anything because I was hoping to make it a really “Big” post. However, I’ve been too busy to really bother making anything “Big,” so my blog has just been sitting here with the default “Hello World” post for days. I’ve come to the conclusion that I should just quit waiting for the chance to write a “Big” post, and just post, well, anything.
I plan to use this blog for several things:
Occasional status reports on my writing projects
Discussion of my writing philosophy (because it seems every writer who had a blog occasionally talks about either the “how-to” or the business of writing).
Book release announcements.
Fennec Fox Press news (for ex., I’m considering opening an online storefront; if that comes out, expect an announcement here)
Convention Reports (I attend 2-4 conventions a year)
Possibly occasional “interviews” with other writers, characters, etc., if I ever find anyone interested.
Maybe some sports commentary (I’m a hockey fan. My team is the Washington Capitals. You can laugh or commiserate as appropriate).
So, coming tomorrow (I know I said on Facebook it would be today, but after writing it all up I accidentally deleted it and will have to start over; I’m still learning this blogging software), I will be using this blog for #5 on that list with my Convention Report on Marscon 2015.
I may also be moving my Convention Calender over from the Fennec Fox Press site to this blog; the software I’ve been using there has gotten too buggy to regularly update that calender, and there may be a plug-in for this site that will work better. I’ll test a few of those out over the next few days, so you may see it appear and disappear from this site over the next few weeks.