Friday, July 22, 2016

Calculations

Last night I was at an author reading at the Strand, New York's premiere overpriced used bookstore. I have to give them credit as a store for building and marketing their brand so well that people will work for them despite accusations of discriminatory hiring policies.

Anyway, the author was a favorite comic strip artist of mine who now had her first collection published, by a traditional publisher and everything. She was swamped by fans, and the signing lasted over an hour and a half, so much so that I went down to the main store, bought some books, then came back up, and there was still a huge line. I wish her all the best.

The Q&A was a bit awkward. People were happy about her success, but seemed to be under the impression that because she had one books published, she was rolling in dough and spending all of her time writing new comics to post on Tumblr, and those hand sales of the night were really helping her out. Meanwhile, I was estimating that if she made 7.5% (an average rate, though maybe not for illustrators) per copy at a $15.00 cover price, that meant she made ... $1.13 per book. Given the average costs of living in New York, even if her book is wildly successful, and she got some kind of advance, she'll be lucky to break even the first year, and beyond that, well, here there be dragons.

When I got into fiction writing as a career, I was told that for the first book, I would make about a $5000 advance, then about $35,000 for each additional book, meaning if I put out a book a year (a very reasonable rate for me) I would do okay. In fact I would do better than being an editorial assistant at a publishing company, where the salaries I was offered were from 28-30K, which could move up to 35K in five years, provided I was promoted. So that seemed like a plan.

Instead, my first advance was $1000 (after I talked them up from $500), my second advance was $2500 for a two-book deal, and several books continued in that vein until I was offered no advance at all and started self-publishing. At this point I have about fifteen major publications, between the novels, novellas, and short story collections, and I can't begin to make ends meet. (Skyrocketing health care costs don't help)

What I really wanted to ask this poor author, but didn't, was "So what's your other job?" Because I'm curious. Most writers who are not also English teachers guard their actual source of income from the public as a source of shame, which ends up misleading aspiring authors. I didn't want to shame her; I was genuinely curious myself, as I find myself at a career crossroads. But I didn't ask for obvious reasons, though she did mention in passing that she got started on comics when she was bored on a night shift security job, which got me wondering how I could score a sweet job like that that let me sit at a desk and write all night, because those jobs usually prefer to hire beefy guys and she was not a beefy guy.

What writers are doing for a living now has become a genuinely interesting question to me. An established pop culture writer, whose books I own, recently posted to social networks that he'd been hired to do an article but was posting to GoFundMe because he couldn't afford the transportation costs. In other words, the company had not paid him the money required to even get the assignment done, resulting in a loss for him. What was he writing for - exposure?

If anyone wants to sound off on this, anonymously or otherwise, I would be interested. It would be good for upcoming writers to know what they're getting into. Not that I want to put you off from writing that novel. I just feel that if you're that committed, it'll happen anyway.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Not-So-Old Mail

Hello Anonymous reject, I am a University drop out. I suck at everything I do. In the year 2000 I rejected a publisher that offered me a $10 advance on a short story I wrote. It was a science fiction story. After fourteen years later, I finally picked up the courage to rebuild the story I wrote back in the year 2000 to turn it into an adult fantasy with mild sexual context. I must admit I have not had any luck with any publishers. A few have called my stories fascinating but not really what they are looking for. I feel that my style of writing contains too much strong language and I need advice on writing a better query letter and finding an agent or publisher with a stronger backbone. 

Awww. I don't have any context for this, but I'm sure you don't suck at everything you do.

"Not what we are looking for" is a generic rejection phrase. There's not much to read into there, but it's honest. There was something they didn't like about the book, so they didn't take you on as a client because they didn't feel they could sell it to a publisher. Agents don't tell people why because we're not in the business of kicking people when they're down. (Trust me, you don't want to know our reasons)

I don't think strong language and mild sexual content was the issue, considering sales of erotica on Amazon topping all of the charts, but if you think it was, just write another book that doesn't use strong language or contain sexual content. But definitely write something new; if your old book has been rejected everywhere that's a good sign that you should move on.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

It's the End of the World as We Know It (And I'm Kind of Grouchy)

Welcome back, readers! I decided to make a rare post to promote a fiverr service, only to log in to my old email and discover that Yahoo had decided to stop forwarding my mail about 3 years ago, so I was receiving mail at the Rejecter account and it was just sitting there. Since I used the account so rarely, it passed my notice. For all of you who waited for responses, if your questions are still relevant, I will try to get to them.

I'm no longer working as a query reader. For years and years I was an assistant to various agencies based on availability and their needs, but that time has passed. I was busy going back to school and my job became increasingly computerized, which really cut down the available working hours. Way back in the day, I had to go into an actual office, open up the office, get the mail from the mail room, open the mail, read the mail, then scribble a reply or stuff the form reply in a return envelope, then send it out again. Sometimes there was fussing over there being no SASE or we would get those tickets from overseas submissions that acted as a coupon for American postage but we still had to go to the post office to mail the letter back. Gmail cut all that down to "look at query letter and hit reject." And then my boss stopped taking new fiction clients altogether because there wasn't enough money in it to justify his time, and that was that. Honestly, I was getting tired of reading mediocre thriller after mediocre thriller, as we seemed to have a glut of those for a while, so it all worked out for the best. And now I'm underemployed like all of my friends who also live in New York, and getting by on royalties from my books, most of which are self-published at this point.

But enough about me. What about publishing? Well, there's one big secret in publishing today and here it is: No one knows what's going on in publishing.

Sure, within their niche markets people might think they have a handle on it, but then again I see the signs of people shifting around, out of their traditional markets and into new ones, and old school authors don't do that unless they have to. The sci-fi/fantasy market is traditionally stable, but then again Chuck Tingle got nominated for a Hugo and I'm not totally convinced he isn't a sophisticated computer program. The category romance network, the bread-and-butter-but-you-tell-everyone-else-you're-gluten-free backbone of publishing, is being severely undercut by badly-edited fanfiction that's selling for 99c a pop. I got some contract offers to write novellas that I had to turn down because my desire to make a living (hey, work is work) was slightly overwhelmed by my inability to write anything that I knww will feature a naked guy on the cover. I called one series I was almost hired to write for "Werewolves Don't Know Much About Informed Consent."

On the other hand, some authors are making a bundle. To be clear, for my original three books that were published by a mainstream publisher, I make 3.5% of cover price for digital sales, and 70% for my self-published stuff, so I can afford to make the books cheap and still make the same money. That benefits the reader (who saves money) and the author (who makes the same or more), so it's hard to tell who's losing, but very few people are winning.

It is truly a period for massive creativity and an expansion of available content. I got a contract with Kindle Worlds to write a survivalist dystopia novella and, in doing market research, discovered an entire thriving sub-genre I didn't know about, where ex-military people explain in novel form why they would definitely survive the apocalypse and also be better than the other survivors. The quality of the content varies from author to author, but they sell to each other and their numbers look good.

Meanwhile, traditional publishing is behaving like you do when your fire alarm goes off in the apartment complex at 4 am, and you know the fire's not in your apartment, and you really don't feel like getting up because it's probably someone's burnt popcorn, so you wait fifteen minutes for the fire trucks to start showing up and decide maybe all those fire safety classes you sat through in grade school meant something, so you put on your winter coat over your pajamas and decide to see if the bagel store next door is open while this all gets sorted out. I know that's oddly specific, but I don't think traditional publishing houses are burning down (metaphorically). I just know there are some contained emergencies.

I've been to a bunch of conferences now on new media and new models for publishing, and everyone seems to have their own, and boy are they sure excited about it, at least until someone asks the inevitable follow-up question, "And how are the sales?" Because remember, publishing is a business. It employs people, who work for money that they need to purchase goods or services. A publishing house could employ an entire department of professional designers with the appropriate degrees to design all their books, and give them a low-to-medium salary and maybe health and dental, or each author could hit up people on Fiverr and spend $5 to maybe come up with a halfway decent cover in a few days. I pay out $50 a pop to a friend of mine who's a graphic designer to work on each cover, which is based on minimum wage for the hours he's working, plus the fact that we're friends, plus the fact that I do about 50% of the initial design work myself and he puts a professional polish on it. It's not a lot of money but it's what I can afford and I want my friend to get money for his work.

So while it's fun to be down on traditional publishers in their ivory towers, and watch self-published books take off on Amazon, there's a workforce that's under fire. Most of my friends who worked in publishing either no longer do, now have a second job, or have switched to a different field within publishing as their job transformed. You, the desperate author (because what author isn't desperate? Come on guys) may not see any of this, but it's distressing. And distressed people are less likely to take risks on new books.

No one knows what's going on in self-publishing, either. Maybe it's that Amazon either launches a new program that no one can see the metrics of yet or it's just changed up something complicated about how discounts work in an affiliate program about once a month, or the collapse of Amazon alternatives, but we're all winging it. People sell their eBooks on the sophisticated algorithm they developed to boost their Kindle sales, involving sacrificial roosters and only selling in the coinage of Cappodia on Fridays for all I know, and by the time you get around to reading it the information is moot. There was always a part of publishing that was magic, in that it didn't adhere to logic or reason, and that's carried right over to the self-publishing crowd. At least there'll always be some markers of stability.

Things That Have Not Changed in Publishing:
1. Hiring a publicist is about are useful as tossing your money into a dark pit in the woods, without the excitement of getting to visit a dark pit in the woods.
2. Too much erotica involves a really hot guy essentially raping a young, inexperienced woman but later she's cool with it, so it's okay. (And women write these things! So there's no excuse!)
3. There is not enough diversity in publishing, a problem I didn't really know existed previously, not because I'm white but because I never know what authors look like. Usually I can't even remember the author's name. But apparently I was wrong; it's a huge problem.
4. Book stores make me excited to be a writer, even if my books aren't always in them.
5. There are too many cookbooks.

If You Still Want an Agent
I've had an agent for years and she's been really handy in getting me contract work. She's actually not my original agent - she retired - but I was handed to someone else in the agency so I'm not completely free-floating, career-wise, even if she doesn't rep everything I write because she's not interested in certain categories. If you want to get traditionally published, you still need an agent (or a relative who works in publishing as a high-level editor who is also a cheap drunk). If you've been self-publishing and you're totally sick of doing all of your own publicity all the time because it's the worst, you could probably use an agent. If you've written a novel about the secrets of the universe as revealed to you by a dove sent by Jesus's brother and you need someone to talk you down before you embarrass yourself in public, you should at least be sending queries to agents so that after the first 40 rejections, you can take a hint.

Long story not short: I'm now offering a query letter review service on Fiverr. It's cheap, it's honest, and if you're going to be sending out to as many agents as possible and you're already investing the time and energy in that, it's worth your time. So check it out! (Please!)

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Checking In

The Rejecter, I've been reading up on your blog all the advice you've dispensed about self-published authors seeking representation- and i'm assuming by the beginning of this sentence you can tell that I am one of them. Why did I self publish when I want now to be published by a big house? Simply because I wanted to, i've always been a go-getting 'do it yourself'er. Now I see the potential my book really has with the right marketing, so here I am. The issue isn't just in that i'm self published, but in how in the world to even query it. My book is a non-fiction parenting humor book (I don't want to go as far as to say memoir, but it is about my life). What concerns me is that I don't have thousands upon thousands of sales to tout to agents as a strong selling point, but I have received amazing reviews and have a decent platform. That to me speaks volumes, but what about to an agent? Will the sales really hurt me that much? Am I really not to even mention that I have self-published my book without being able to say that i'm a "success"? 

We're getting a lot of self-published pieces at work, and now that self-publishing has some legitimacy to it (I started self-publishing a fiction series when my publisher decided to shut down its fiction unit after the 4th book) this is a question a lot of people are probably wondering about - if you should bring your successful self-published book to an agent, and when should you do it?

A lot of people go into self-publishing first now, either because they didn't succeed in getting their book published or because they didn't see a reason, and then they become successful and think, "But what about outside the Kindle/Smashwords market?"

When I see a query pitching a self-publishing book, there's two things I consider:

(1) How "successful" has it been, really?
(2) How much of its audience has this book already eaten?

Despite how much money Amazon will give you for your self-published book (which is an awesome policy of Amazon's, as is paying on time), you have to be talking thousands to be talking success, because publishers rarely do print runs under several thousand, and they do runs of books they want to sell.  So if you're under a thousand, count yourself out. Most agents will say 3000, but this is a magic number the industry came up with years ago and I don't know how much it applies anymore.

The second problem is a larger concern. If your book was going to be lower mid-list and sell 3000 copies, and you've already done it, what's it going to do now? Back when it was nearly impossible for consumers to get self-published books, this wasn't an issue. Now even PODs are reasonably-priced and people can give away their eBook for free, or at the .99c range where people will indiscriminately click "buy." If you've been self-published for a while, you've definitely used up your relatives, friends, livejournal pals, and people you could talk into doing you a favor and reviewing it because you helped them move their couch. This issue is going to make agents a little more hesitant about picking up well-selling fiction. If it's doing fine in its own market - which is now a pretty large market that reaches a lot of people - that might be the shelf-life of the book, and there's no reason to go further.

Also, we don't care about Amazon reviews unless there's tons of them. If you've got 60 Amazon reviews, OK, we're legitimately interested even if some of them were bad. That means you had a lot of readers. Fifteen good reviews means maybe you've had your friends and relatives throw up sock-puppet stuff and then paid a bunch of people on fiverr to do a few more. I'm above paying people for reviews, but it's not like I didn't pressure relatives who already read the book to throw together something for Amazon even though they had never written a review in their life. Everyone does it, which means everyone sort of has to do it, because a book with less than 5 reviews starts looking suspicious. It's a misleading trend but let's all admit that you will do what you have to do, especially if it's your livelihood (I don't make a whole lot reading queries).

And chances are we won't look at your Amazon page unless we're being paid hourly and we already read pretty fast and damnit, rent is expensive and the ConEd bill is always shooting up. And even then, probably not.

You're in a weird position. Not admitting you've self-published successfully is a big omission at this point, but we also aren't going to be thrilled to hear it. My advice to you, if you've had success in publishing and want to try a different area of publishing with more professionals involved, is unequivocally this: Go write another book. Because if you've only got one book in you, and you've written and published it, don't bother with the tricky world of publishing. But if you've used self-publishing to get off the ground, churn out as much good material as you possibly can that is new and interesting and unseen by the public. And then we may be interested.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

BEA 2011 Post

(I'm only "semi" retired)

My trip to the BEA is over. I generally do everything I need to do in one day, the first day of the floor exhibitions. The BEA is really too exhausting to me to go back. Observations this year:

(1) The digital printing booths were slightly more centralized and slightly less deserted, but they were still pretty deserted because they didn't have cool books to look at and most people don't need to talk to them. Also exactly what each company does is confusing, because their posters just have a bunch of buzz words on them, so you have to ask, "Do you publicity?" or whatever you want and they tell you yes or no. They are very polite, though.

(2) Google Books had a funny sign, like "Check us out!" or "Come and join us!" or something like that, as if we're all afraid of them rather than mad at them for massive copyright infringement. Then I could not actually find the Google Books booth.

(3) I still have no idea why self-published authors buy booths to promote their book. It's got to be a ridiculous amount of money (a badge to get in was something like $400 for authors - my publisher paid my way), like thousands of dollars, and it's not as if publishers are wandering around, looking at booths and saying, "I want that. That thing that no publisher picked up if the author even tried." Seriously, if you are a self-published author and you want to promote your book, save your money and buy a publicity package from Lulu or CreateSpace.

(4) As usual, the only Jewish presses had titles I had never heard of or only heard of via Amazon recommendations, and their books had no Hebrew in them. Serious Judaica (not general Jewish books that are published by imprints) is a specialized market sold to Jews by Jews in Judaica stores, syangogue gift shops, or online. Artscroll has no reason to be at the BEA. Either I'm going to buy the new English translation of the Talmud Yerushalmi or not; no serious promotion is needed there, or needs to be done within the general industry.

(5) That guy who likes burning Qur'ans? He has a publisher, and they had an abandoned booth with a manniquin wearing a burqa. The sign on her chest said, "Hello, my name is Zahra. I have to live in this cage in Afghanistan. Can you ban it in America?" Which, you know, has part of a good cause (international women's rights) mixed with a healthy dose of racism.

(6) Chinese presses are always a little creepy because they're government controlled unless they're outside the mainland, and their material basically says, "Everything is awesome in China. There are definitely no problems you've been reading about in other sources." The Beijing Review magazine was especially bad - nothing but positive articles about how amazingly cool everyone is doing, especially those victims of the Sichuan earthquake who are now totally over it and they love their new housing. Also, definitely nobody was arrested for trying to publish the names of child victims, especially not an important artist. I am not really exaggerating here, just using different language than the magazine used. It's a shame, because there are a lot of good books released by these presses in English, but you have to wade through disquieting stuff. I mean, there are definitely a lot of countries with major human rights problems, but very few of them are at the BEA, on a full-scale offensive of promoting how there are no human rights problems in their countries.

(7) I picked up 2 books. One was actually not a giveaway - it was one of the books on display, and I told them it was on my Amazon wishlist for a long time, and they gave me their extra copy, which was very nice. The other was at a press where I'm published and they were doing a signing and I felt compelled to support the author. But my apartment is getting pretty crowded and I really don't need piles of fiction I don't want to read and couldn't sell for serious money even if it's signed.

(8) There's always one Buddhist monk wandering around. This year he was Tibetan (and he was white). Last year, a Japanese nun I think? Or maybe Korean. I don't remember.

(9) Small presses really shine at the BEA. I only say this because from my perspective, the big presses are booths I don't really need to visit, because I know what they do and I know their titles, but the small presses who might actually have decent sales I would never otherwise see. And their representatives have time for you and are as under-dressed as you are.

(10) Did people see that company that reproduces medieval manuscripts using the same materials? That was amazing! I couldn't believe they actually let us flip through their books, which were really creative masterpieces even if they were copies. Must cost a fortune, though. I didn't even ask.

(11) My business card which was a rushed job on ugly paper last night while I was recovering from a sore throat was so bad that people loved it. Someone said, "I think I would end up paying an ad company $200 to come up with this."

(12) If you are going tomorrow, bring a sweater. The exhibition floor is freezing.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Retirement Post

A number of people have emailed me to ask me where I've been, which I think is really sweet, especially when they implied something might have happened to me. The truth is the more obvious: I've been really busy. I have two novels coming out over the next 4 months, both of which had major revisions recently, and I'm working on a proposal for a non-fiction book. I also got another job (two wasn't enough) with another agent, and now have two part-time bosses on top of my writing career. I am proud to say that in the years since founding this blog, I've gone from unpublished writer to someone who supports herself mostly by her writing, albeit not very well. There are only so many words in me a day, and since most of the questions I've gotten are repeats, I don't feel the desperate need to post constantly, or at all. So I'm going into a state of semi-retirement. I'll keep this blog open, as your question has probably been answered already, and I may post from time to time, but otherwise, don't expect a lot from me.

I will answer a final question which I get constantly: "How do publishers feel about eBooks?"

I may not be a publisher except for a small press I ran for two years, but I also work for two agents, have an agent, have worked with three different publishers, and attend conferences on eBooks, so I think I can safely answer the question.

Ready? The answer is: We don't know.

The eBook market (and thanks to adjacency, the self-publishing market) is a constantly-evolving new market based on technology and social media which did not previous exist. It's one where the store, not the publisher, determines the retail price that's listed on the back of a real book. Stores are experimenting with how to price and promote books, publishers are demanding higher prices and percentages and getting ignored, and authors and agents are depending the same from their publishers and similarly getting ignored, because no one knows how it's going to pan out, just that at the moment money is being made and it is going disproportionately to the retailer. Except when the retailer sells at a loss, of course, to undercut other retailers, which Amazon constantly does to make sure people buy the Kindle and not the Nook or the Sony eReader. This is why I have about 200 books on my Kindle and have paid for two of them, and one of them was .99c.

What we do know is it does not spell the end of print publishing. I have a Kindle, but I do most of my reading on Shabbos, when I can't use electronics, so it's not as helpful as it could be. I also buy a lot of academic books (which are usually not tremendously marked down in their Kindle version if it's even available) on the used market, where things are tremendously cheaper, or at Salvation Army and other shrift shops, where books are like a dollar. So my buying habits have not changed tremendously as a result of owning a Kindle, but this is not true for a lot of Kindle readers.

What does the future hold for publishing? Self-published authors insist they are the future, and that the big houses will be crushed under the weight of the awesomeness that is their 400,000 word fantasy novel that's the 1st in a trilogy that was rejected last year. I can't imagine this is so. The publishing industry provides an essential service to the book industry: it separates the wheat from the chaff, finds good material, pays authors for it, then edits it and produces it in a neat little package for the consumer. Doing this without the help of the publishing industry is actually tremendously time consuming and generally difficult. Sure, sometimes publishers miss big hits (especially since they're currently so unwilling to buy anything), but most times when they reject something, there's a good reason for it. The same goes for agents.

For all of the doom and gloom, what we're in is a transition period without a clear end in sight, but things will eventually pan out. The industry will look different, and the way money flows will change, but it will be an industry that is at times marginally profitable. The good news is that more people are reading more books, as anyone who drops down enough money for an eReader will tell you. Making books more available at lower prices to people who've dedicated themselves to reading more by plunking down hard-earned cash for a reader can only result in more people reading more in an increasingly literate society, and people will always seek to profit from that. I could imagine a point in the future where the agent/publisher has merged into one stop shop for aspiring authors as software makes it easier and easier to put a book together and promote it, but we're not there yet. Stop holding your breathe. Exhale, and let life resume its natural flow.

And to all my readers, the aspiring authors, the published authors, and the industry insiders: So long, and thanks for all the support. But not the fish. I hate fish. Gross.