Saturday, July 24, 2010

On being too young

I was disappointed to discover yesterday that at the turning point of heading into middle age (yes, dear readers, I am to turn 35 this year in November) I am too young to enter the CAL Scribe Fiction Prize. Designed for authors over 35, entrants must be 35 by the closing date of the competition (15 September 2010), and that means ... not me.

Now, usually, I'd be delighted to be told I'm too young for anything. I'm the kind of girl who coos proudly when I get "carded" at a nightclub (an event which happens all too infrequently now, mostly because I'm more likely to be found in a library than a club). Parts of me feel positively ancient at times (particularly the grey matter this morning after a Friday night that was derailed by several glasses of white wine and a lot of research into creating ePub documents). But the Scribe Fiction Prize is a different matter.

You see, the dirty thirties (as people often colloquially call them — probably because we 30+ writers are reluctant to sacrifice our writing time to shower, eat, sleep or do anything else that might be considered "dirty", rather than for any other reason) are an interesting time of life. While awards and competitions abound for young writers, once most writers reach 25 they are expected to be able to make it alone.

Forget that writing's few "Cinderella" stories, such as JK Rowling and Stephanie Meyer, happened when success  knocked at those 30-something writers' doors, by the time you're 35 your dreams of world publishing domination must have come to fruition, right, or been abandoned to the dusty drawer of forgotten dreams ... or not. The CAL Scribe Fiction Prize throws open a window of hope to late starters, mothers, fathers, weary office workers with a dream of something more creative, basically any of us oldies who have several characters inside just screaming to break out. And, because I'm too young, I'm urging all of you who aren't to enter.

Get writing fellow "oldies" and bring your maturity, wisdom (or grumpy middle-aged malaise) to the world. You can download an entry form here.

Friday, July 23, 2010

A turn up for the books

Well, well, well, the phrase "a turn up for the books" has rarely been more apt. MacMillan is less than impressed that agent Andrew Wylie has gone digital with his client list, all of whom signed on before ebooks were a twinkle in Amazon's eye and thus did not assign digital rights.

While I agree it is a conflict of interest for an agent to turn publisher, I also feel that authors who haven't signed away digital rights should not be obligated to sign with their print publisher.

"But ... but ..." cry the naysayers, "publishers depend on backlist titles". And they do, but they are also offering authors a measley 25% at present, where self ebook publishing can provide as much as 80%
 (and Wylie is offering considerably more than 30% thanks to the deal he has done with Amazon). There is also, at present, very little evidence that publishers will be able to sell ebooks in larger quantities than the big players will, e.g. Apple, Amazon, as the method of distribution is the same (and exceedingly cheap compared with distribution of old) and most ebook lovers will head to the big store fronts rather than direct to the publisher. So I do believe that until publishers start to feel the loss of authors,  and authors start to reap the rewards, big publishers better prepare themselves for the inevitable drop in their bottom line or work out equitable business relationships with authors that will alleviate the problem. Some publishers such as the newly formed Pantera Press and Cursor are doing just that.

Canny publishers will be trying to negotiate digital rights with the authors on their list now, and offering them something more than 25% RRP.  Here's a good article to check out about the skirmish.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

The Writer's Web

I touched on this in a previous post but wanted to revisit it because I think it's crucial to the success of the modern author. What I mean by the Writer's Web is not that vast conglomeration of information that is the internet —although that's a large part of it, but the networks, associations and communication channels (both virtual and in the real world) that radiate outwards from the author and act as the mechanism by which the author (in analogy to a spider) attracts and "captures" their audience (poor little flies don't know what they are in for, do they?). As well as those hapless flies, your sticky little web may also attract other authors, publishing professionals and eventually even an agent or publisher, all of which will up your author appeal and provide you with a solid support network.

The first thing authors need to recognise is that even once the hard work of securing a traditional publishing deal is done more elbow-grease is required. Few authors have the luxury of a publisher that furnishes them with a blank-cheque marketing budget, and many small independent publishers appreciate an author who is "self-promoting" (the self-saucing puddings of the publishing world, for those of you who have a sweet tooth). For self-published authors, promotion and publicity is even more crucial.  Either way, the more publicity gigs, speaking engagements, signings and promo tours you can generate, the more sales you can generate. Aside from that, however, other elements of your "web" require attention:

1. An author website. You need a home on the web — a place to direct your unaware flies to. You also need to ensure it will have a high google ranking by optimising keywords on the site. What is your book about? If it's about divorce, make sure your web content has a high hit-rate for that word (and any synonyms or associated words), without sounding unprofessional.  Include your name — a lot  (e.g. writing in third person) — it'll be one of your most useful keywords for those who want to find you. Also make use of links to related services or sites. The more links from your site to other high-traffic sites, and the more links on other sites to your site, the higher your google ranking will be.

2. Develop an author blog. You can blog about whatever you like: random musings, political and social science, gardenias. It doesn't matter what you blog, it matters that your readers want to read it and that they feel it connects them to you in some way, either as a "go to" for the topics they're interested in or just to see what you're going on about this time. You'll also need to promote your blog in a sea of blogs, which means directing traffic to it by letting all of your database of contacts know where it is and suggesting they share it with others.

Link your blog to your website — hell, plug your website shamelessly if you like. Like this,  (See, that didn't hurt a bit now did it?) For most authors, I recommend having several blogs. They're free to create with huge blog sites like wordpress or blogger, and often your web creation company will also have blog options. Blog on, peeps! Don't be afraid of it, but also recognise when it is acting as a procrastination tool to stop you doing what you do best: writing. (Like now, in my case. But it's okay; when I hit a small impasse in my novel, I blog it out!)

3. Forums. There are countless writing, publishing, speaking, gardening, relationship ... you name it ... forums out there on the worldwide web and most are free to join. Every time you post, you're adding a sticky filament of gossamer to your own personal web because you should include your name (or pseudonym) and links to your blog or site. This way others on the forums can start to develop a relationship with you not only as a forum member, but as an author.

4. Up the "freemium". Don't underestimate the power of a good freebie. Giving away some of your writing for free at sites like Scrib or Authonomy or TextNovel can help you establish fans. In the world of direct selling, those slick, greasy salesmen have a motto: "You have to tell most people the benefits of something at least 3 times before they'll buy it". The same is true for you as an author. Fans are made not bought, but giving them something for nothing will make you look like a lovely, generous author and also, if you're good enough, suck them into your writing. Once they're sucked into the web, they're yours for life (assuming you treat your fans well with special offers and a regular stream of "personal" communication). Also, if you've got spares and you self-published, gift your local library with a signed copy of your book. Self-published titles can struggle to get library representation but doing so might just have the librarian asking you to come and take a community writing group or do a reading there (if your work is good enough).

5. Network, network, network. Go to industry events. Run industry events if you can. Mingle with other writers and with readers at writing groups. Join online social networking sites like Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and Linkedin and promote yourself on those too. The more threads your web has, the more successful it — and you — will be. Hand out business cards by the boxful, just get your name out there.

6. Treat others how you would like to be treated (even if you are a lurking spider). Hate those companies that bombard you daily with crud as soon as you make the mistake of signing up for their free newsletter? Even if it is something they're interested in, most people don't want to get an update every 20 seconds. RSS feeds on blogs aside (because people know they're going to get live updates and that's what they want), don't "overload" your audience or mail too frequently to your database. Aim for "top of mind" awareness contact say once every three weeks as a maximum. Of course, if you run a forum or a site where your audience can comment, always respond to comments or thank members for commenting. If they make contact with you, then by all means, reciprocate, but don't be pushy.

There are many other strands you can add to your web, e.g. promotion through print media, magazines and newspapers, advertising via your car and business, or establishing cross-promotional deals with others in a relevant field or business, as well as utilising the power of "the referral", but I'll deal with them in subsequent posts, because right now ... I've got my novel mojo back.

Cheerio ... Karin

Is the ASA being unrealistic?

New recommendations released by the ASA about e-book royalties are advising Australian authors to aim for 35%. The author part of me thinks that's great and agrees that authors shouldn't be making less money because ebooks are priced lower than print editions. But, just like the ASA's suggested author pay-per-word rate, which still hasn't caught on with publishers, will publishers embrace it at this stage in Australia's ebook journey? One thing is certain, if they don't, authors will simply do it themselves, accessing Amazon through self-publishing options like smashwords to make themselves a greater cut of the profit.

The ASA does a wonderful job of informing authors about their rights, but like many industry organisations it fails to sometimes realise that the reality is, you're worth whatever someone is willing to pay you. If you do it yourself, you set your own price. What could be better than that? The only downfall I can see is in publicity and promotion, but if you're an author with a good handle on marketing and promoting your work, I'd fully recommend going it alone. Entrepreneurial authors should recognise that now is the time to (a) approach their publisher asking questions about digital editions and addendum clauses (find out what your publisher's plans are, and take a copy of this report with you) or (b) if they haven't contracted away DR, put in plan a way to have their work published as an ebook themselves (especially for out of print editions), but check that you don't have a competing additions clause in your contract.

The ASA's recommendations will be a huge help for those authors still wondering what their rights are when it comes to digital rights management. Check them out here or read about what bookbee has to say on the matter here.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The book: dead, dying or simply reincarnating?

Over the past decade, much has been written and postulated about the future of the book. For years publishers have been blithely ignoring the bleeding obvious and turning a blind eye to the telling and ever-increasing marketshare of digital "options", such as iTunes in the music industry. They've been whispering cagily to themselves: "This won't happen to us: books are revered, respected, the last bastions of elitist intellectual superiority". However, since Amazon and Apple first began their sortie on "traditional publishing" several years ago, things have changed, namely public perception of what the book is and what it can be. Such radical thinking is starting to force traditional publishers to rethink their rather precarious position.

Digital media threatens to transform the book into something that is no longer an object but a concept. For centuries the tangible has made books hot commodities (and no doubt the printed book will never "die" as some hyperbolic commentators have suggested). But now, it is the intangible: the potential, the melding of new media and the inclusion of features that transcend the traditional "noun" of the book to add a richness of features that act as the "adjectives" and "adverbs" of digitised content. These concepts will serve to amplify what the book truly is — a way to communicate with others and share a world (albeit fictional in many cases), and the internet will become an important extension of that author-to-reader communication. 

Yesterday I attended a fascinating seminar series produced by if:Book Australia and the Queensland Writers Centre and titled: Next Text. As always, Kate Eltham, CEO of the QWC, was a sterling representative for authors, publishers and booklovers. She was joined by Richard Nash, formerly of Soft Skull Press, who added several unique perspectives from the point of view of a former Indie Publisher now establishing a "new model" publishing venture (Cursor) that focuses on win-win solutions for authors and independent, enterprising publishers.

Overwhelmingly, the message that rang true to authors and publishers in attendance was that the book industry is undergoing a revolution. I don't mean the "quick get the guillotine and put the agents, editors and publishers' heads on the block" bloody uprising that I often see wild-eyed wannabe authors call for (particularly those already wounded by the rejections of established publishers). I mean a throwing open of the gates, a changing of the guard,  a broadening of possibilities for all authors, publishers and publishing professionals.

According to Nash, the days of publishers wielding the big stick and throwing authors a small carrot are over. And the author side of me barracks, "Vive la Revolution!" The publishing professional side of me, however, wonders if I will have a job five years into the future. Might be time to write the big one, methinks!

Digital media circumvents the laborious, political chain of command that has dogged the book industry for so long: author to publisher, publisher to distributor, distributor to retailer, retailer to reader (or, all too often, retailer back to publisher as "returns"). It alleviates the need for a sale or return supply model and it allows authors —those mercurial and often hermetical "primary producers" of the industry — the chance to access a greater percentage of profit from their work and to directly connect with their readers in real time, should they wish to.

The meteoric rise of social networking media, print-on-demand companies and all things "digital" has woven the chain of command into a complex web of opportunity for authors willing to exploit this sticky social gossamer. I call it the Writers Web and it allows numerous ways of attracting your "flies" (readers). Give away your content free online, but parcel up portions of your brain and make them available to the highest bidder in one-off editions? Sure, go for it. But don't expect that all traditional publishers will embrace your newfound anti-capitalist writing exercises.

The opportunities are there for entrepreneurial authors who have talent, and many will be snapped up by traditional publishers eventually and will no doubt relish that vindication. But there will still be plenty of mediocre authors who attract only a small online presence and earn enough to fund only their caffeine habit (which is still better than a poke in the eye or a form rejection letter).  Ah, but traditional publishing will be vanquished, vamoosed, I hear some authors, struck by the pangs of unrequited love for a big publisher, snigger. But I don't think so.

So what does it mean for publishers? Will the traditional guardians of the written word be buried under a flurry of ebooks? The answer, I believe is that some will. I believe the traditional bookstore will suffer more  (vengeance for demanding 50-60% of RRP or more for so long? Possibly. They too, will have to adapt or face slow extinction and it may be that they team up with PoD and develop virtual and literal bookstores where a range of options are available to booklovers).

Back to publishers. Those who are unethical, authoritarian or inflexible will struggle to attract authors (especially those authors savvy enough to know they should individually license off their multi-facted "rights" as profitably as they can).  Those who offer new methods, more appealing contracts and better royalty payments will also be able to move away from the distribution and chain-store model into web shopfronts, where they keep a greater percentage of the RRP and are also able to give authors a bigger slice of the pie. In return, authors will still get books on literal shelves, will benefit from a larger marketing budget, and will have the credibilty afforded by being "banked upon" by a traditional publisher. Authors, I believe, will unconsciously become the gatekeepers of quality and the printed word purely out of their desire for print validation.

The cost of printed books will undoubtedly rise, and boutique, rather than chain, bookstores may stock only the best, most popular titles and authors, and offer high-priced premium and limited additions as well as become "events management" sites for direct author-to-reader interaction in the flesh — super signings, if you like.

What about other publishing professionals? The availability, accessibility and affordability of ebooks and even PoD has already resulted in a significant downturn in DIY offset publishing, and authors are buying into the success of net marketing doyens, such as Doctorow. As a freelance editor and publishing professional as well an an author, I all too often feel a decidedly chill wind when I walk into a room of disgruntled wannabe authors (and it's not about the lentils). Words like "shark", "scam" and "vanity publisher" are all too often erroneously bandied around on author forums and in writers groups, making the assumption that all editors, agents and publishers aim to channel funds away from the writer. (Oh, how many times have I heard the old chestnut, "Money should flow towards the writer" and thought "if only they'd build a bridge over that fast-flowing river of potential Meyer-esque riches they'd have so much more chance of the traditional success they seek but simultaneously deride!") This attitude, and the affordability of "publishing" with Lulu or Smashwords or CreateSpace has meant authors are increasingly unwilling to shell out for professional editorial, jacket design or publicity/distribution services, which IS affecting the quality of the books hitting the (admittedly figurative) shelves of online bookstores. It is also likely to effect the role of both editor and agent in the future, and we need to think about how to change the perception of what it is we do and why we do it, and to ensure that our colleagues work ethically. 

The challenge for all publishing professionals is:

(a) how to stay relevant in an age where there is "no fence". Don't want to publish an author? Fine, they'll jump the fence (if there even is one anymore), publish themselves, and sell their book on their homepage for two dollars a pop. Offer them shitty contracts demanding all digital rights lumped into one and 10% RRP of net receipts — goodbye! Publishers need to look towards models that satisfy both parties, similar to Richard Nash's hinted-at business model for Cursor (which is fledgling but appears promising).

(b) how to reverse the damage done by traditional publishing to encourage ALL authors that services such as editing, distribution and book design are valuable, worthy and, here's the big one — ethical. Part of this is in weeding out those who do suck, or who prey on the naivety of authors (and they are out there). I think this will occur by natural selection as the industry constricts. The rest will be more effectively communicating to authors that editors and agents are advocates for the written word, not the "policemen" of it. An editor's job is not to wring the author's ego right out of the page and an agent's job is not to "screw" the publisher (or the author) but to negotiate a satisfactory outcome for both "stakeholders". Editors are lifesavers in the sea of words — think Pamela Anderson in Baywatch but substitute the little red floatation device for a red ballpoint and the red one-piece for, well, something less overtly sexy. They'll drag your gasping text out of a frothy dumper more times than you can count if you let them, and they'll do it so quietly and effortlessly no one will even know you were floundering.

(c) how to remodel the way publishing professionals attract, entice, deal with, pay and promote authors in order to keep print publishing viable and alive. This could be a variety of licensing methods or new publishing mechanisms and models that, as of yet, haven't even been conceived. One thing is certain, all of them will mean rethinking the "cut" authors make out of the publishing process and finding ways to give the authors and the readers more credit. And that, in my mind, can only be a good thing ... just don't tell my publisher. :-)