Thursday, October 30, 2008

Writing, Publishing, and odd ways to spend your life

A couple of readers' questions today ... meaning, the piece I'd wanted to write will have to wait till tomorrow -- because I can't locate its images. They're here somewhere, on SOME computer (there are five, and just as many floating hard drives), but after an hour of searching, damned if I can find them. And the person who would know where they are won't get here till after three in the PM.

So my reminiscences of a Northern Hemisphere kid-hood in the week that contained Halloween, my birthday and Bonfire Night, will have to wait, which gives me time and space to answer some questions which have been waiting for a few days.

First question: I write so much about the sea, I must really love it; what's my experience of working in it, on it, and under it?

Do I love the sea? Well, yes and no. In my entire life, I've never lived more than five miles away from it, so there's a fundamental "marine awareness" in the back of my mind. When you grow up with ships, you're not necessarily going to be a mariner, though the thought has occurred to me a few times. My parents were both associated with the Navy in one way or another; I have one uncle who captained a passenger ship and another who served aboard a battleship. My partner grew up on and around sailboats, and his brother is a 20-year USN veteran, and my brother is one of those bods who strap tanks to their backs and sink into the deeps. I can tell you hair-raising stories of scuba tanks in the trunk on days when its 160 degrees in the Sun, bouncing over speed bumps and holding my breath, waiting for the kaboom!! to happen.

Fortunately, it never did ... or I wouldn't be writing this. I grew up in a place where there was so much iron ore in the hills, compasses didn't work properly and incoming freighters used to routinely plow up on the beach. One of my most vivid kid-era memories is of being about four and building sand castles in the shade of a huge, beached, rust-rotten hulk of a freighter ... alas, if you put your spade in the sand, under 2" of pale yellow sand, it turned black with oil. So many ships had wrecked there, the coastline was as oily as Prince William Sound ... and the tragic thing is, in those days (looooong ago), nobody cared, although I will say, at least they did notice.

Since landing in Australia (37 years ago), I suppose I could say I've lived in, on and sometimes under salt water, on a more or less permanent basis. The sea isn't something you think about; it's just there. Which is to say, I'd miss it, big time, if we moved to a landlocked area; but having said that ... I'm more of a woodland person. I like boats. A lot. I also like cabins in the woods. A whole lot.

Second question, from a gent in the Pacific Northwest (which, to Alaskans is of course the Pacific Southeast ... though the denizens of the Olympic Peninsula don't like hearing it): "How do I find a publisher? Do they prefer folks who've gone to school for this, or at least taken a course? Can I make enough money out of writing in the short term to save my house?"

That's actually a bunch of questions, not one ... and they're tough to answer concisely enough to make them a fair topic for a single blog post. In fact, I've blogged on this topic several times, and rather than saying it all again, can I give you a couple of links -- one on-site here, and one off.

Take a look at this:

This is the index to a series of articles I posted back in September. It's six inter-linked pieces which, slapped together, make a decent-sized book ... a lot of reading, at any rate, which addresses most of the questions raised by the gent in the Seattle area. I began with a look at the New York publishing industry, which is ailing, and went on from there to look at many aspects of writing and publishing -- including (but by no means limited to) the field of POD and do-it-yourself publishing. I also went into the whys and wherefores of how Keegan wound up in POD after signing more professional contracts than you can shake a stick at!

To this I'd just like to add ... sorry, it would take magic, or an act of the gods, for a beginner to make enough from writing to save his/her house. It takes YEARS to get a start in writing, and your first paychecks will probably be so small, you'll be stunned. First pay check I saw, for writing, was A$2000 in 1989 -- not an advance, a one-off sum, for the total sell-thru of a full-length novel. Given inflation, you'd probably get $3000 - $4000 today, but this won't pay your mortgage for longer than a few months, especially since (rats!) it's taxable, too. And when I got that first check, how many years had I been trying to find a publisher?! A lot. A BIG lot.

(Don't let this stop you trying ... but don't make your universe revolve around the necessity of being published and selling big, inside the next year ... it's a one in a million shot.)

There's also a very, very good free download ebook you should read:

Mugging the Muse is a collection of articles and features by fantasy novelist Holly Lisle. Doesn't matter if you're not a fantasy writer: Ms. Lisle talks about the business of writing and selling books in the completely generic sense. This isn't advice specifically for fantasy writers, or any particular kind of writer; it's sound advice for any writer who wants to take a serious crack at finding an editor, an agent, a publisher, and paying their way through life by writing. Highly recommended.

In the opening piece of Mugging the Muse, Ms. Lisle tells the horror story of how many (most?) writers are almost certainly going to land in the wonderful world of POD (like Keegan). I'm going to give you a quick outtake about the chain store practise of "ordering to the net", in the hopes you'll be inspired to go get Ms. Lisle's book:

    Every author you read, every author you like, is struggling to sell his work against an increasingly hostile computer ordering system that routinely decreases the size of book orders until it has decreased the author right off of the shelves. This system, called ordering to the net, is wiping out the midlist faster than you can blink, and with it, thousands of writers whose work you have read and loved for years. If you make it into print with a professional publisher, you too will be fighting against this pervasive evil.

    It works like this. The chains put in an order for 10 books per store. (That’s pretty high, incidentally, but I’m ever the optimist.) Of those, seven sell, one is read to death in-store and has to be scrapped, and two are still sitting on the shelves. This is a 70% sell-through, which will have your agent and you and your editor and your publisher dancing in the aisles. Nobody ever sells through at a hundred percent. 50% is considered acceptable, a 70% sell-through is considered terrific, 80% or better and you might as well be walking on water where you publisher and editor are concerned.

    I’ve had a number of books sell through at 70% or better . . . a couple way better. The sounds of jubilation are spectacular. While they last.

    Because then the chains reorder. Logically, if you have a book that sells through at 70%, you will order twice or even three times as many of that author’s next book, because sell-through remains constant. If you sell 70% of ten books, you will sell 70% of twenty books. Independent booksellers know this, and follow it. Chain stores do not. Chain stores order to the net – that is, they let the computer automatically reorder only the number of books that sold before. Therefore, they will not order twenty copies of your next book. They will not even order ten. They will order . . . seven. Why? Because they sold seven. And because sell-through remains constant, they will sell roughly five copies of your next book. (70% of seven is four-point-nine, or about five.) And because they only sell five copies of your second title, they ill order . . . you guessed it . . . five of your third title.

    And because sell-through remains constant, the chains will sell three-and-a half copies of your third book, and will also show a three-book pattern of dwindling sales. The fact that they and their computerized ordering system caused this pattern will not be brought out in your favor. The fact that your books are still selling through in great percentages will not be brought out in your favor. Only the fact that the computer has been ordering less and less of your books will ever be considered within the chains. So after three books, all things being equal, you are probably doomed. The chains won’t order your titles. Your publisher won’t be selling enough of your books to make it worth his while to publish you. And you can go forth to write under a new name, or you can go back to work as whatever you were before. (Reproduced without permission, in the "fair trading" spirit of review, quotation, and advertisement. Now, go visit!!)

It's a sad end to an industry that was the pinnacle of achievement for the arts and magicks of the writer. However, POD, the Internet, computers, globalization, are also coming to the rescue. Writers like myself who have a large backlist can pick up our own reprints and market the hell out of them. Books can stay in print on a more or less permanent basis.

For example, FORTUNES OF WAR will be on Amazon, in its new edition, in a few weeks -- the first edition is 15 years old, and rather than a reader having to pay silly prices for an original "collector's edition," s/he can have the new edition for about $20. You gotta like that.

And speaking of silly prices at Amazon, there's some copies of the first book of my HELLGATE series changing hands for OVER US$200!!!! People, please! The new edition of The Rabelais Alliance is readily available, there's no shortage of copies:

Just go here: ... and click on HELLGATE from the menu on your left! This one click takes you to this screen:

...doesn't this look better than US$235 for one book?! Damnit, you could get the whole NARC series and the whole HELLGATE series for US$235.

Calm down, Keegan. Take a deep breath. Breathe. Frequently.

There. I feel much better now.

With luck, this will answer the questions readers have been asking, and tomorrow (also with luck) I'll find those images and be writing nostalgically of a time and a place which literally, are no more.

Join me for a Halloween amble down a memory lane smelling of woodsmoke, fireworks and sizzling sausages!


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