Saturday, April 02, 2011

The Age of Service

Once upon a time, long, long ago -- and it was a very long time ago -- you would drive up to a gas station and a man in a starched and ironed uniform would hurry to your car, greet you and ask if you wanted a fill-up. Whether for two dollars or a full tank, he would then proceed to pump the gas, wash the windows, check the oil and air in the tires (replacing where necessary) and take your money with a smile, offering green stamps in return that could be exchanged for lovely gifts.

All of that is gone now with do-it-yourself and self-serve where gas station attendants stand or sit in booths behind glass and stainless steel walls and shove metal drawers at you with a nifty and handy little weighted cup to send back money, credit cards and receipts. The age of the polite and tidy service attendant is gone. Service has been glassed in or sent offshore.

This morning I was strongly reminded of the age of service with Dean Wesley Smith's blog post about what Joe Konrath calls estributors, which are distributors of electronic books and content. In other words, e-book packagers. This is what Konrath believes agents and agencies will morph into, a one stop service for proofing, formatting, book covers and uploading e-books. What it comes down to is cost. Should we continue to pay the estributors 15%, as in the old agency days, or should they be paid a flat rate that isn't tied into a book's earnings. There were compelling arguments on both sides, but I think we know on which side of this argument I weigh in. Like Dean, I don't what to pay what he calls "day labor" rates for someone who does so little. Barry and Joe were willing to give up 15% of all their future earnings to be able to write and produce more work for agents to take 15% of.

If the future looks anything at all like the present, it won't be long before agents will have authors doing more of the work for their 15%. Remember? The age of service is long gone. If the services remain, authors will have to pay an extra annual fee for the cost of doing business: long distance phone calls, copying, overnight mail, postage and paperclips. Not for me.

It all comes down to value and perception. We have been taught that an agent is key -- and in some cases necessary according to some big publisher's rules -- to get through the gate to be published. Authors have been taught that it is the way things are done to hire an agent and pay them 15% (what happened to the days of 10%) of earnings for their services. After all, the agent introduced you to the publisher and got you a deal. The publisher reciprocates by paying the agent, who then takes his percentage (the cream) off the top of your check and sends you the rest (you hope). You get to send in a 1099 at the end of the year to the agent, who has been keeping the books, so the government knows how much you paid the agent. Not all agents are honorable or even honest, but that's a tale for another time. One hopes the agent hired is of the honest and forthright type, and there is a clause in every publishing contract where the author gets the check first and then deducts the percentage and sends it to the agent. I wonder how many authors know about that little detail.

As for me, I figure if they're going to charge me for postage anyway, I should get to send them a check; it's my postage after all.

The best solution is for the agent to submit a bill each month, or quarterly, detailing charges and pay the bill. No more 15% with me doing most of the work. They get paid, I get to keep more of my money, and I stay in control.

In this increasingly serviceless age where the emphasis is on doing it yourself (gas stations, grocery stores, Home Depot, etc.) I keep wondering how much of that mentality will leach back into the system. Publishers and agents expect authors to do most of the marketing and publicity for their work, a task that once upon a time was handled by agents and publishers and the author just had to show up. (Check out Return to Peyton Place for a look at the good old days when publishers edited and publicized authors.) What's to say that the future agencies won't end up requiring authors to do more of the proofing, formatting, and uploading once they have their 15% locked in?

As Dean says, that is doing business the old way, the way we've been taught -- and have come to expect -- to do it. Times change.

Although it's more work, I'm used to doing things for myself and having control over the end result. I don't mind doing all the hard work, especially since the work gets easier with practice. It's not that much different than working a full time job in order to continue writing. I hope for a time when I can just write, but I doubt that will ever happen.

I've tried to come up with a better corollary for an agent's percentage than Dean's. He uses a gardener who, for keeping the outside of a house looking nice, gets 15% of the worth of the house. That doesn't really work. A gardener is day labor, but we need a stronger example.

I thought of pirates. On a pirate ship, the captain gets the biggest share of the booty and the rest of the crew, right down to the cabin boy, get smaller shares. The booty is a finite amount. Whatever is captured is divided up according to shares, sort of like a doubloon and gold ingot pie. While I like the pirate motif, and it does feel right, there really is nothing that compares outside of owning shares in a company. Those go on hopefully forever -- if the corporation continues.

For doing little more than loaning the company capital by buying shares, the shareholder gets a return on the investment.The problem with that example is that the shareholder puts up something of value -- his hard earned cash -- and gets a return based on how the company profits by using the shareholder's money. An agent puts up his connections and contacts and expertise to promote a book, so that is sort of like capital, and earns a return on the proceeds of said work in the form of a percentage of royalties, except that many agents don't put up enough capital. It's like expecting a shareholder who bought five shares to have more control than someone who bought 40,000 shares, which is the split between what agents and authors contribute. I still like the pirate motif.

At any rate, in this do-it-yourself world, it's best to be the head of the corporation delegating tasks that are compensated with flat rates. I do the writing and work, choose cover art and send out the marketing team to do their jobs, and I pay them and keep the rest for myself. I earned it and the others are just day laborers. I would feel different if agents and publishers did more of the work and offered more for their share. Since they have gone the way of the service station attendant and stand in a glass and steel booth shoving a metal drawer at me, I'm going to pay the amount on the pump and go my merry way with the rest of my money intact.

Now, if they start offering green stamps, I might reconsider.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Another Step on the Self-Publishing Road

A lot goes into publishing a book, and self-publishing, if it's going to be done right, and that means knowing the extent of strengths and weaknesses. My strengths include a good sense of artistic design and writing books. My weaknesses are more on the publicity, marketing and writing synopses side. I'm also good at pitches and queries, having won more than my fair share of book contracts for myself and others.

I have another strength, and that's knowing when to do it myself and when to delegate. That is why I hired a couple of top notch artists to do the cover art for my books. I also took the advice of a good friend and let her do the synopsis that will appear on the back cover of Among Women when it comes out in print. I also took another good friend's advice and let her take a crack at the synopsis; I'm using hers as the description on Amazon.

Self-publishing has a bad reputation, mostly gained from people who are rejected by publishing houses and decided they know best and publish their books anyway. In a way, I fit that category because I couldn't interest an agent or a publisher in my book. They were enthusiastic about the project, but not enthusiastic enough. They also couldn't get a handle on how to market the book, which is something I will have to deal with. Among Women is not easily shelved or pigeonholed. I'm looking to word of mouth to get the ball rolling and I'll take it from there. Advertising will help, and that's something else I'm not good at, but I am good at talking about my projects, so I'll work the publicity from that angle. Unfortunately, marketing is all about starting a buzz and, as long as I stay away from bees, wasps and hornets (I'm allergic), I should be all right. I'll wear veils and masks and gloves to protect the more sensitive parts of my skin -- and hide my identity. So to speak.

I'm also good at controlling things. My sister Tracy calls me a control freak, "In a good way," she says. Self-publishing gives writers a lot of control. I'm good with control, and I know how to decide what to delegate and what to do myself, like editing.

A good book needs a really good editor, and I have one with a taste for blood -- the red pencil kind. She doesn't spare my feelings or sugar coat anything; she just tells it like it is and we compromise, as long as it has nothing to do with grammar. Spelling, I've got that cold, and I have a few medals to prove it.

Self-publishing has a bad name because of all the bad books published that shouldn't be published, but that is changing almost as fast as the publishing business. Computers have made self-publishing so much easier and very user friendly. There are still glitches, but it's a learning process and we're all learning. We learn from our mistakes and from what has gone before. And we learn from big publishing, which seems to have lost its way.

Traditional publishing had one big advantage over self-publishing, or vanity publishing, as it used to be called. Vanity publishers are still out there, but that's a different topic for another day. Traditional publishing offered savvy editors, proofreaders, copy editors, line editors, marketing, distribution and a sales force. A lot of that has been marginalized for the sake of the bottom line. The first cuts seem to have been in editing: copy and line editing, proofing and concept editors. A writer, no matter how much of a genius s/he is, can only get better with a great editor. Most of the books I see from big publishing houses these days are full of wrong words, grammar mistakes, typo, writer's tics, and all kinds of continuity and concept errors. I cringe whenever I hit one of those brick walls. I wanted better for my book, so I hired an editor.

I learned a long time ago that I cannot do it all. I have limitations (we're back to strengths and weaknesses) and a second, or even third, pair of eyes will only make my book better. I have the best. I'm willing to share her, but not give her up. Mary Ann is the best editor I've worked with in a long time, and if it ain't broke, you don't fix it. I don't even mind (too much) her slash and burn technique where it's warranted. I need that sometimes. Keeps me on track.

In order to get my book into e-book and print, I used my brains and got help. I got two young and talented artists for the cover art and a great editor. I'm the general (control freak) and I marshalled my troops where they would do the most good. The book that came from all our efforts -- I could not have done it without them -- is a better book and good enough to publish. How do I know? Because a publisher told me he would've published the book if I'd sent it to him. I'm considering talking to him since he might be willing to help me get wider distribution for my book in Europe. Every little bit helps, and I'm not afraid to color outside the lines.

Sometimes it isn't what you know, but who you know, and that is very true of self-publishing. I chose my self-publishing company because I had the option to do most of the work myself (control freak) and yet could employ the talents and strengths of others to balance my weaknesses. I'm very happy giving up some control as long as I have the final say. One of my artists keeps telling me that I don't have to settle for less than what I want, for less than perfect. I don't -- at least as far as I know.

One good thing about self-publishing and the user friendly systems available is that I can make changes (when I find mistakes) and not have to wait for another print run of 50,000 books to do it. I can make the changes and see them within a day or two. Now that is power.

I also gave up some power where synopses are concerned. I do not do them well. It is one of my big weaknesses. When a good friend suggested mine was crap (she said it needed work), I asked her to write it. What she sent me is what I used on the back cover. I know good when I see it. Another good friend suggested my synopsis was missing something, so I asked her to write something for me, and that one is the description on Amazon. A good control freak knows when to step out of the way and let the professionals handle things. I would rather eat worms than write synopses, but that's just because I'm awful at it. For me, it's like calling someone and getting the answering machine or voice mail. I never know what to say and whatever I do say, unless it's business and I have a specific reason for calling, makes me sound like a dithering idiot. I usually just hang up or say as little as possible. It's the old saying about people thinking you're an idiot until you open your mouth and remove all doubt. That's me. The idiot on the recording.

As long as writers are willing to give up some power, or at least find people with strengths to match their weaknesses, self-publishing will become less about vanity and more about quality books, and that is what's important. Being a control freak helps, as long as no micromanaging is involved. The proof is in the pudding -- or, in this case, in the book. The proof, I mean. It's in the mail now and I'll be able to look it over on Friday. In the meantime, I'll try to focus on work. It should be easier since my book was reviewed in record time, in about 12 hours, as opposed to the 48 hours I was expecting, but then I made sure my book was as good as it could be before I hit the publish button.

Monday, March 28, 2011

A Newbie's Guide to Publishing: Guest Post by Mark Coker, Creator of Smashwords

A Newbie's Guide to Publishing: Guest Post by Mark Coker, Creator of Smashwords

Where Mark Coker of Smashwords thinks big publishing is going. I'm not certain at all that big publishing is finished or on the ropes, but I do agree that the business must change and the first step is by getting rid of their overhead. Of course, that means firing people, but maybe they can find jobs with Smashwords and other independent publishing companies.

Marketing and Publicity: Don't Make Me Do This!

While finalizing the details of my on-air interview on Wednesday, March 30, with Jennifer Walker on BlogTalk Radio, Jennifer told me she doesn't do e-books. She doesn't have an eReader and she doesn't like to read books on her computer because that is her time away from the computer. I get what she's saying, especially after staring at a screen for sixteen or more hours a day. She's not that plugged in and it doesn't look like she wants to be. I get it. I find it strange, but I get it. After all, not everyone who interviews an author actually reads the book. They are there to provide a forum for the author, not get into a debate about the pros and cons of the book. Aren't they?

That's the thing about publicity and marketing, what I think I know is not necessarily what's true or even what works. Take the example of commenting on blogs. One publicity guru says you should add a link to whatever project or blog is most important to you and needs the boost and another one says that is just plain bad manners. What!? Which is it, a good idea or bad manners? I err on the side of caution and do both, use a link to the current book on some blogs and blatantly leave it off on others, and we are back to the one-size does not fit all discussion. The only time one size has ever fit me the way I like, it was polyeste and it didn't look all that great. I refuse to wear muumuus and robes all the time no matter how comfortable they are.

Marketing and publicity are not my strong suits, but I know they are part of the wild and wonderful world of writing books. I like writing books. I even occasionally don't mind editing -- for the fifth time. I find that I do enjoy working with artists on book covers and print covers. Michael Reighn and Aubrey Boneau make it fun -- even when I nit pick and suggest changes or ask questions about why something has to be a certain way. Most of the time I leave them to do their job, make what I hope are helpful suggestions (hey, I do have an artistic background -- I used to paint and draw portraits and I know the basics of color and design since I haven't worn plaids and prints together in ages), and get back stunning art work and covers. That's fun, but I hate marketing and publicity. So much time for a return that isn't always obvious. I do it, but I don't have to like it. but I do it. Let's put it this way, I am a whole lot less averse to liver and onions, buttermilk and Brussels sprouts. I happen to like them all. Marketing and publicity are for arcane departments where they talk about polls, numbers and full color spreads. I prefer my arcane knowledge in tarot cards and scrying mirrors.

Give me something simple to do, like create characters out of whole cloth, research viruses and archaeology, build civilizations and write articles. That I can do. Just let me write while I live in NeverNever Land where good books sell themselves and I'm a millionaire living in a luxurious cabin high in the Colorado Rockies, but don't make me do publicity. I'd rather have a root canal, not that I need a root canal, but you get the point.

Marketing must be done and I must publicize my books, no matter how much it hurts, and I will grin and bear it. I don't have to like it. However, I do enjoy doing interviews, even when the interviewer is someone who doesn't do e-books and the e-book she isn't going to do is my latest book. The interview is set and the print book won't be ready for a few more weeks, so we'll have to talk about writing and Among Women in the abstract. Who knows? Someone might be listening and be so curious they'll want to check out the book. Stranger things have happened.