Some people are never satisfied

I'm back from a trip to attend my friend's memorial service. A lot of the people there were folks who I haven't seen in some time, so I had the following conversation.

PERSON: So, what are you up to these days?

ME: Writing, like always.

PERSON: What are you writing?

ME: I'm working on a series of four science-fiction novels. I've published the first, the second will probably come out in the spring, and I've started writing the third.

WHAT I'M THINKING: Wow, saying that out loud makes me realize that that's a lot of work! No wonder I've been feeling busy--I'm juggling three projects here!

PERSON (clearly unimpressed): So, what else are you doing?

The entrepreneurial mind-set

One of the things I used to really enjoy doing as a business reporter was interviewing entrepreneurs--people who had struck out on their own and started businesses. Sometimes these were small businesses--local chains--and sometimes they were businesses that you and me and your Aunt Sally all know.

What made these stories so much fun to report and write was that the entrepreneurs were all completely insane. They had all done it wrong. We're talking dropouts, dyslexics, bozos who couldn't hold a job for more than two months, financing their businesses by maxing out credit cards, living with their parents, and just plain crossing their fingers. These people did not cautiously climb the corporate ladder--or if they did, one day they just went crazy and kicked the ladder out from under them because they thought they could fly.

Totally entertaining. I mean, artists and writers like to think of themselves as misfits and bohemians, but Jesus Christ, we have nothing on these people. (If you think I am exaggerating, read this profile about the woman who founded Stila--OK, fine, she has an artsy background, but even the ones who start accounting firms are more like her than not.)

In short, these are people who have what I would characterize as a rather extreme faith in themselves and their way of doing things. It's not the normal way of doing things, which is why they tend not to do so well in corporate settings.

That kind of self-reliance I think is really important for writers--in general, really, but especially when they approach the business of publishing books today.

The Wall Street Journal recently had a profile of best-selling self-published author Darcie Chan (excerpts available here if you can't get behind the pay wall). Chan is a lawyer who wrote a book, put it up on Amazon as an e-book, did some promotion, and sold 400,000 copies! (Wow!)

That's all great, except that it looks like she's spending all her energy now trying to find someone else to take care of this property. She got an agent, who has not been able to sell the book to traditional publishers. (Does this make me look like a total ass? Possibly--although I'll turn it around and say that I expect the publishers who survive to routinely pick up successful self-published books.)

The problem? She's selling the book for 99 cents, and traditional publishers want to sell it for $26. Of course.

Call me crazy, but I think that having to sell things at really high prices is traditional publishing's problem, not Darcie Chan's problem. I think she needs to start thinking in terms of self-reliance, instead of looking to traditional publishing to take care of her.

Part of the issue, in my opinion, is that she's not monetizing her success: She's treating a gold mine like a nickel mine and thinking she needs help because she's only a humble nickel miner. Obviously pricing is something that is constantly debated, but when you've sold 400,000 copies? At that point, you don't need to introduce yourself to people. You can raise your prices. She's made 35 cents per book, so since May, when she put the book up, she's made $140,000. If she raised the price to $2.99, she'd make $2 per book. Even if her sales over the next six months plummeted to 100,000 copies, she'd make $200,000--and if they hold up, she'd make much more. Maybe her mind doesn't work this way, but for most people, once they've made a million dollars or two, they start thinking that maybe they're capable making good business decisions and don't need someone else to do that for them.

Another reason she wants a contract with a traditional publishing house is so that she can make a paper book that will be available in libraries and bookstores.

Uuugggghh. Because as this blog has amply demonstrated, it is impossible to make a paper book any other way. (She already has a cover, she just needs to hire a layout artist--hell, CreateSpace will do that for you for $249. I think she can afford that at this point.) Libaries do carry self-published paper books. And to the indie bookstores where she lives, she's a bestselling local author--I'm fairly certain they'll stock her.

Darcie Chan seems like a smart woman, she's willing to invest in her book, and I'm sure she'll find her way. But this sort of thing is why you see such frustration coming from people like Dean Wesley Smith and Joe Konrath--it takes relatively little research to discover that you don't actually need a publisher to lay out and print a paper book. It takes relatively little research to realize that the main advantage a publisher brings is with marketing, and hell, Chan's done an excellent job with that.

But you have to be willing to do business research. You have to approach this as an entrepreneur.

Some entrepreneurs can't go it alone--and it's very much to their disadvantage. Have you heard of a CT scan? Several people had the idea, but the machines were so insanely expensive to build that for years it never went anywhere until someone came along who had connections with the right kind of manufacturing firm. Likewise you might have a brilliant new concept for the design of a computer chip or a car--but unless you also own a chip- or car-making factory, good luck implementing it.

Writing is not even remotely like that nowadays. It's much more like software, where some guy working in his garage can change how everybody works, socializes, and thinks. You can go it alone, and increasingly, you'll have to. (I mean, publishers don't want a book that sold 400,000 copies in six months? WTF?) Writers have to be self-reliant in order to write--you have to believe in your vision and your product. Is it really such a challenge to extend that self-reliance into the arena of producing and distributing your book?

Now that it's all cleaned up, I can see what's wrong with it!

The Trang proof came today, and I realized that the placement of many of the chapter numbers causes them to get lost in the book's gutter (tricky, because it looks fine as a layout printed on a large piece of paper--those have no gutters). So I decided to fix that, plus one or two other little things.

We'll see how that goes--with the exception of one minor correction, the only thing I did to the interior file was change the placement of the chapter numbers. But CreateSpace's automatic error-checker freaked out, claiming that every sentence starting with an italicized f was now outside the margins. I finally just clicked "Ignore Errors and Submit"--we'll see if I get anywhere with that.

Doing useless things very well

(I was looking for a clever quote to encapsulate the title's idea (I can't imagine that Gilbert & Sullivan never touched on this subject), and I found this, which is irrelevant but pretty funny anyway.)

Anyway, the other day when I was reading M. Louisa Locke's blog, I saw a post in which she bemoans her lack of Twitter followers. Now, this is a woman who was recently able to retire from teaching on the strength of her book sales. Clearly, she is doing something right, and while she may not be doing Twitter right, that apparently does not matter.

I've also seen people fretting over whether Amazon can do everything for a writer that a traditional publisher can do as it moves into becoming more of a full-service publisher. This, despite that fact that Barry Eisler recently said that, more or less, he made more money with Amazon's publishing offshoot in two months than he made with a traditional publisher in ten years.

I'm sure there are plenty of things a traditional publisher can do better than Amazon--for example, getting books into bookstores. The problem is, they don't matter. Newspapers were shockingly good at distributing huge quantities of paper very quickly to millions of people. And if they're going to survive, they'll have to stop doing that.

It's silly to say, Oh, Amazon just sells cheap stuff--traditional publishers have the mojo to push $26 books and $13 e-books. The fact that traditional publishers sell a really expensive product means nothing to the author if the author is making peanuts. It's already something of a given that, if you have decent sales, you make more money self-publishing. As contracts by traditional publishing get more and more draconian, that difference is going to become a yawning chasm.

And I wonder how that's affecting people within the industry. I mean, most people go into publishing because they love books and want to help make good ones. It's got to be pretty frustrating to be in an environment where you aren't allowed to do your job and where your company is screwing your writers so badly that they can't make a living any more.

That's what I think that infamous Hachette memo is about: I think the brass is trying to assure the rank-and-file that, really, they do have a purpose (other than sucking every last drop of money out of their writers for the benefit of their corporate overlords, who will doubtless reward them with a layoff). And I think the people who really want to help writers create good books will eventually either strike out on their own or join up with the more-reputable companies offering services to writers. Maybe I'm projecting from my own preferences, but I hated feeling like I was just spinning my wheels for a paycheck. Why be useless when you can use your talents for good?

Just a quick note

Just letting everyone know that I'm probably not going to be horribly productive over the next week. I'm attending my friend's funeral and memorial service, which is not taking place anywhere near me, and I've got a lot of year-end housekeeping to do.

Interesting theory on pricing

This is a guest post by Elle Lothlorien on Joe Konrath's blog about pricing. I've read complaints about "the kind of reader" who buys 99-cent books, with the general implication that they're not the sort of reader one would want. That struck me as both kind of snobby and a way of deflecting rough reviews--you know, "99-cent book buyers are cretins who just don't understand my art!"

Her theory accounts for the phenonmenon of getting more tough reviews when you drop your price (which she saw when she dropped the price of her book from $5.99 to 99 cents) without, you know, sounding like a major whine:


Here’s what I suspect was happening: At $5.99 . . . [y]our customer wants to like it. After all, they’ve read the reviews and it looks like everyone else liked it, right? If they get through the first few chapters and begin to suspect that the book just isn’t for them, they’re very likely to return it for a refund. Hey, six dollars is six dollars. And if they do like it, they want to jump on the review bandwagon and let everyone else know just how much they liked it. 

At $0.99, the reader isn’t as heavily “invested” in your novel. If they didn’t like it, they may not bother to return it to get their dollar back. Instead they’ll find their way to your review page and let you have it by way of a negative review.


She's arguing that the person wants to like it because it's kind of expensive, but I think it's more that, if a person is going to spend $5.99 on a book, they're going to 1. think about whether they're going to like it before they buy it, and 2. return it for a refund if they decide a few chapters in that it's no good. Whereas if they're just interested in a bargain, they'll snap up something cheap whether or not it's really their thing, and then, as she notes, if they don't like it, instead of returning it, they finish and keep it, and therefore feel entitled to leave a bad review.

This is interesting from a marketing perspective, because one of the challenges for a book that's not a commercial, mass-market thing is to find an audience. You want people who are going to appreciate what you have to offer--people who like to read what you like to write. You don't necessarily want to market to everybody, because there's a large contingent out there that's just never going to like the kind of book you wrote. And the implication here is that higher prices might help accomplish that. One of the great things about e-books is that they make it really easy for people to buy and read books, but maybe there's something to be said for having a (small) barrier to entry--like a speed bump. Nothing serious, just something big enough to make people think for a minute about whether they really want to buy it.


Trang is done, done, done!! I uploaded it hither and yon and thither and thon...oy, my neck hurts. It's interesting to see what's new: CreateSpace now does an automated, immediate "You need to fix this!" thing, which was both appreciated and really, really annoying, mainly because the errors were, of course, the result of Word deciding to get wacky. ("You set those margins? I don't think so! I think this line is going to be a little closer to the gutter! What? You're pointing out the margin settings? Nya-nya-nya--I can't hear yooouu!!")

Anyway, since the corrections also affected the e-books, I took the opportunity to try Amazon's new we'll-include-the-interior-cover tool. Of course, you can't tell if it works, because the preview tool doesn't show if it does. Annoying? Yes!

Writing for non-writers

Today was a family-filled day; however, I did wind up spending some time talking about writing with someone who does not write.

That's always an interesting experience, right up there with discussing attending Harvard with someone who only knows about it from the movies, or discussing living in New York City with someone who thinks you deserve a Congressional Medal of Honor for having ridden the subway.

The primary miscomprehension that people who don't write have about writing is what it takes to write. It takes 1. a chair, 2. something to write on, 3. a willingness to sit in #1 and work on #2 for long periods of time. That's really all it takes.

This person began with, Don't you need to do oodles of exciting things in order to gain the "life experience" you need to write! Just like Ernest Hemingway!

Ah, sigh, yes, Ernest Hemingway. Let's look at Ernest Hemingway. Such a talented writer. And yet, such was his dedication to "life experience" that he "life experienced" himself into severe alcoholism, which made it so he could not write. And then, in despair because he could not write, Ernest Hemingway shot himself in the head, which really made it so he could not write.

Moral of the story? Howzabout: Don't be Ernest Hemingway? Lay off the sauce, and don't buy that gun--those are not helpful habits. Screw "life experience" if it leads to you developing debilitating disorders and then shooting yourself. Parking your butt in that chair (#1) and attacking your writing tool (#2) despite the temptations of booze and suicide are far more fruitful activities.

No. No one wants to hear that. Writing should be about sex! and excitement! and substance abuse! and mental illness! and suicide! Forget that many, many people are exciting bipolar sex-and-drug addicts who die young without writing a Goddamned thing, because they were too busy with the s! and e! and sa! and mi! and s! to do #1 and #2.

I hate to break this to you, but writer--real writers, who actually write stuff--have boring lives. The Hemingways are the exception. Let's put it this way: I used to work for a publishing house that produced young adult biographies of notable people, and one of the editors hated having to do books about writers. Why? The life stories of most writers are painfully dull. They sit in a chair (#1) and apply themselves to writing (#2) instead of going off and doing crazy things.

Writers write. And that is the sad, sad, boring, unpopular truth.

Balancing feedback

Today I also got preliminary feedback on Trust from one of my beta readers--he was confused about some things (he hasn't read Trang--I told him not to because I wanted that perspective), and he had some suggestions for improvement. At this point I know my initial reaction will be all ego-y and "My deathless prose!" so I just don't think about it, and an hour or two later when I'm, like, making lunch my subconscious serves up a bunch of fun and exciting ways to incorporate the suggestions into the book.

I think there's a real art to taking feedback--I worry about the people who just change and change and CHANGE AND CHANGE things. At what point does it stop being your book? And what happens if you first give your manuscript to an adrenaline junkie, and then give it to someone who loves to unwind with poetry? Do you just make a million changes on Tuesday, and then unmake them all on Wednesday?

But on the other hand, feedback is something that everybody (even Joss Whedon!) can use. My feeling is, it's about knowing what's vital to your story, so that you accept what will help and reject what will hinder the telling of it.

Dean Wesley Smith argues that "Work-in-progress workshops are death!!!!!" (bold in the original, oh, yeah), and I have to say that I've seen people try to write and workshop at the same time, and I don't think it works. I feel like the problem is that they haven't sorted out what their story is yet, so how can they possibly tell if a suggestion is going to help or hinder? It's a little like gardening: You have know what's planted before you can figure out how to make it flourish, because a cactus is not going to want a lot of water and rosemary does not like fertilizer.

Sometimes it take a surprising amount of time to figure out what your story is, and a workshop or group can help if someone says, "OK, your story's about X, so focus on that." But I feel like once that is said (and the writer goes, "A-HA! That's exactly right!"), then the writer should just pack up and go home to revise. I think when people get insecure and start accepting everything, they forget that writing is, at the core, a solitary pursuit. You have to overcome things like plot problems on your own--and with any luck, you'll figure out a really cool and unique way to do it!

Progress report

OK, I finished reading over Trang and inputting the corrections. For the most part they were very small, but I did find a place where I added 600 to 150 and (later in the book) got 850. Wow.

Tomorrow's busy, so presumably Monday I will (deep breath): Compile the Acrobat files into one file, compile the cover files into one file, upload all that to CreateSpace, convert the DOC file into proper ePub files, and upload them to B&N and Amazon (I've already uploaded to Smashwords). That actually doesn't sound so bad after all this layout work!

Progress report

Today I read through a little over half the revised manuscript. The idea was to just find new mistakes--ones I put in there laying it out again. But of course I found a few others: One of the downsides to cleaning up a manuscript is that it makes it easier to spot the really minor errors.

I did input them into my e-book file and will do one last round of uploads. At some point I am also going to update the large-print edition, but that is a very low priority.

It seems really funny to still be working on Trang at this point, but I think it's gotten cleaner and better-looking. Certainly you can argue that this focus on detail is counter-productive, but I think that you do need a professional-looking product, and this is what it takes.

The nice bit is that I don't mind reading through it--I figured I'd be bored to tears at this point, but it still entertains me.

Progress report

First, some sad news: The friend who I was worried about earlier was having serious health problems, and she passed away early this morning. Rest in peace, Sylvia--your friends and family love you.

Obviously, that was a hell of a downer, but I guess glumness is the appropriate mood for inputting proofreading changes, because I finished the last five chapters of the Trang layout today. And that was despite Word doing what it does best--suddenly and inexplicably developing major issues. I've been using the Merge feature to incorporate the proofreads into the layout with no problems for 18 chapters, and then chapter 19 comes along and Merge suddenly starts working in a different and much less helpful way. I have no idea why--I experimented with different settings to no avail--and I have no clue if the next time I use it, it will resort to its former self or remain this new, decidedly less-helpful creature.

Also I was trying to pull up a word by kerning a line, and Word would not tighten it up until I kerned up the entire paragraph. That got the word up, and then I went and un-kerned all the lines except for the one I had kerned in the first place. And the word stayed up, because Word is apparently just that lazy.

I am probably going to switch computers in a few months because mine is quite elderly. Whatever I get, I smile knowing that because I am no longer a freelancer and because Smashwords will soon accept ePub files, I will not have to use Word again.

Progress report

I input corrections to a whopping two chapters today--the aptly numbered chapter 13 and the relatively benign chapter 14. I did so little mainly because there have been certain errands I've been ignoring, and I couldn't ignore them any more, so I got quite the late start. But the other reason was because chapter 13 felt obligated to live up to certain negative stereotypes about numbers.

To wit: There were some errors early in the chapter, and when I fixed them, they altered the layout. No huge deal, I laid out the chapter again. But then it turned out that, with the new layout, the chapter was a page longer than it was before.

NFW--I was not going to lay out the entire latter portion of the book again. So I went back and laid out chapter 13 a third time.

What saved my sandwich was the decision to replace the ornaments that marked breaks within the chapter with blank space. There are, for whatever occult reason, quite a few breaks in chapter 13.

You know what's nice about blank space? The way you can make it bigger or smaller, and people don't care. In fact, I'm going to guess this is why publishers stopped using ornaments--when you vary space around a little landmark like that, it's a lot more noticeable.

Progress report (the I'm back! edition)

I got some work done today--and I expect extra credit for it, because I really didn't feel like doing it, the printer was annoying and wonkus, and the cats want me to spend every single moment of the day petting them to make up for the horrible trauma I caused by sending them to the nice, clean kennel over Thanksgiving.

Anyway, I input the changes to chapters 10 through 12. In keeping with this post's general theme of "I feel whiny," the changes caused all sorts of layout problems, and fixing those caused other problems later in the chapter. So it was all a big pain, wah-wah-wah, woe is me.

At least it's done. I've got child care tomorrow, but after that there's only seven chapters left to do. Then I read it over one last time and give it to CreateSpace.

And you know, if I really can't stand to do this another day, I could start writing Trials again. It's not like I have no options. I want to get it up by Christmas, but it's not a huge rush.

You can tell when someone is honest because they don't lie to you

This is a good post about Penguin's self-pubbing service, called Book Country (titled "Sucker Country," hee). If you read it, you'll see that Penguin is engaged in a delicate balancing act. It has to imply (but not promise) to newbie writers that they are going to be published by Penguin! OMG!! This is the major leagues!!! At the same time, it has to make sure that Book Country is legally separate, otherwise the authors Penguin publishes and their organizations will say, Oh, Penguin is now just a sleazy scam of a press, I shall take my business elsewhere!

I assume something similar happens when someone hangs up a sign that says "digital publisher" and asks for $3,000 or half your royalties to do more or less what I spent part of an afternoon doing last Friday. They say, Oh, but I'm a PUBLISHER! I'll PUBLISH your book, and then you'll be PUBLISHED!! and the writers, zombie-like, reach for their wallets.

Here's a reality check: It's the pricing schedule for Book Baby, which will produce an e-book for you (and design your cover) if you pay them. I haven't used them, but I know people who have and were happy with the work. More important: File conversion (complete with table of contents!) and distribution is $99, plus a $19 annual fee after the first year. The most-expensive "deluxe" cover design is $279.

Total technophobe? Afraid to do a cover? Don't even want to try doing it yourself? Fine--there's your price range.

When people start asking for five or ten or thirty times that amount of money, you need to become DEEPLY skeptical. They are NOT five or ten or thirty times better. Remember, experienced professionals typically charge you less because they are more efficient and can handle a large volume of work.

And nobody--NOBODY--can promise your book will become a best-seller. NO. BODY. The people who say that they can make that happen are lying to you. The people who hint that they can make that happen are misleading you. The people who want all your money to make that Penguin. It's sad.

See? See?

The Passive Voice featured this post by a person in charge of digitizing a publishers backlist. The highlight for me?

When it comes to the actual conversion I honestly thought that if you sent someone the inDesign or PDF of the book then the eBook you got back would be relatively clean, but sadly that’s rarely the case so you need internal resources to check the eBook thoroughly (if you want to produce good eBooks).


See? Even the publishing houses have to check the books after they are converted. So must you!

Progress report

I did chapters 5 through 8 today. Holiday craziness is upon me, though--yesterday was pre-Thanksgiving Thanksgiving, which is apparently a thing now. I'm actually glad I have something I can stop and start and work on in what random spare time comes my way....