Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Fairbanks on my mind (alas, not Douglas)

Fairbanks is a place as well as a person ... actually, two people if you count Doug Jr. as well as Snr. -- but you'd have to be a movie historian to know either one of them. We've reached a point where kids don't know who Harrison Ford is, and it takes an archaeologist to delve back far enough through time to unearth 2001: A Space Odyssey. Somebody had better invent a time machine sometime soon, or we're going to lose the 1960s utterly.

That said ... it's Fairbanks the place which is on my mind today, though I couldn't tell you why. Brain wiring or some such abstract human expression. I just stumbled over the data highway to link back through to the mnemonic circuits where Fairbanks is stored in the chaos and clutter of my memory. For some reason, the sounds and smells of the place -- the fell of loess between my teeth! -- are all bright and sharp.

So,with Fairbanks on my mind, let's go there, if only in pictures. Here's a photo essay, complete with a yack-track. Better than getting roped in for a slideshow with beer and popcorn, because this way you can turn me off when I get boring. The images were scanned at 200dpi, so click on a picture for a larger view. The only thing I haven't done (no time today: gotta work) is enhance them to take UFOs out of the prints. Sorry ... but if you ever want to be reading THE LORDS OF HARBENDANE, I have to stop blogging sometime, and start working! Here goes:


The Chena River runs through the heart of downtown ... if you can call it "downtown." You're looking at it. Downtown, that is. Alaskans call Fairbanks a "city," but even Aussies would call it a town. At 35,000 people, or thereabouts, it's something like Murray Bridge or Mount Barker, which are towns in Adelaide's neck of the woods...
It's actually prettier in winter, when a light snowfall will turn the whole landscape into a sort of "winter wonderland," right out of an animated movie. As a bod from downunder who hadn't seen snow in 25 years (since the family moved out from the UK) I was enchanted. Also frozen to the bone marrow. I was wearing two pairs of socks under the boots, leggings under the ski pants, thermal shirt, plus long-sleeved tee-shirt, plus sweater, plus jacket, insulate gloves, and hat. And I was still cold. I'd fly out of Australia in February or March, where it would be 95 degrees (summer), and arrive in Fairbanks ... on a night flight, of course, which would land long after nightfall, with temps of 20 below zero and a skating rink for a parking lot. Woah, such fun. (And the weird this is ... it was. It was different, challenging, and there's something of the "exotic" about Alaska -- unless you're an Alaskan, of course, in which case it's just same old, same old. They think Australia is exotic. Yaaawwnnn.)
Alaskaland is a kind of theme park, where Alaskan history is sorta-kinda encapsulated within a ... park-type area. It's bordered on one side by Airport Way (which is the main drag running through what they call "Retail Row," linear miles of stores, and on the other side by the Chena River, which follows the line of the railroad for a few miles. My favorite area was the riverbank behind Alaskaland, where several little footbridges went over the water. You could stand in the middle and watch beavers on a sunny day, or hike over and take weird tech-noir photos of the railroad marshaling yards ... or see the ice carvings, in winter: the World Ice Art Championships are held about a mile from what you see above.
The heart of downtown is Golden Heart Plaza ... Pioneer Square ... with a clock that plays musical arrangements on its chimes (Frank Sinatra, Sound of Music, Camelot ...!) and a fountain around which are inscribed, on bronze tablets, the names of the pioneer families who opened up the region in the days of the riverboats and gold miners. Also, see the great bronze statue, the monument to the pioneers. The bronze stands in the middle of a pool and fountain ... which freezes solid in winter. There's another shot of this, below, in summer.
Fall arrives at UAF, on a hill outside and slightly above the town. This view of UAF is from the back side of the campus, around by the paddocks used for experimental agriculture. The campus is vast, the size of a town within itself, with students from every continent. It has a great museum, complete with Blue Babe," a mummified ice age bison. Very impressive.
On a summer day, looking down from the campus, you can see all of Fairbanks, and the snake-like meander of the Chena River, which almost ties itself in knots in places. Looking back at this photo, I do believe it was cottonwood time. Folks in the US will know what this is about, but for benefit of Aussies and others ... "cottonwood" is a tree that grows like a weed throughout many parts of the US. Alaska is full of it, and in springtime the trees fill the air with strands of ... well, cotton ... pollen. You lie flat in a patch of sun and look up, and you think it's snowing again. Very pretty -- not quite so great for those who have allergies. Fortunately, I was immune at the time.
And what would a photo-tour of Fairbanks be, without at least one good refinery shot? A large part of Alaska is about oil. There's no drilling in the Fairbanks region, but there are several refineries. This one belonged to MAPCO Alaska Petroleum, which in 2000 or so became Williams (at least as far as gas stations were concerned). Don't know if they changed the name of the refinery, but the service stations all changed. This photo was taken on a hot, dusty afternoon in 1997.
There you are, Virginia, Santa Claus does exist, and this is where he lives when he's not jetting all over the world delivering parcels. Seriously ... this is a store which sells Christmas goods all year around, located at North Pole, which is (!) south of Fairbanks by about fifteen miles or so. Fairbanks and North Pole are part of the "Fairbanks North Star Borough," which is what the Lower 48 would call a county. Cute store. Weird, but cute.
This was fun. There are very few roads that run OUT of Fairbanks, and this is one of them. It goes about 70 miles to Chena Hot Sprints (a resort hotel in the wilderness, founded on the, uh, hot springs), and there, the road stops. In spring, the hundreds of creeks over which the road crosses become swollen with meltwater. The water can overwhelm the road and close it, or ... it can be a foot deep over the road and be big fun. Like this. I was taking the photos here. The trick is to hit the water fast, and throw up a spray about ten feet high.

Winter ... they plow the streets out, or you wouldn't be able to make your escape to get to work. This area of Fairbanks is known as Arctic Park -- a suburb, where Lathrop and Kennicott intersect and the Captain Bartlett Inn stands on the corner of Airport Way, just around the corner from the Big Dipper Ice Arena. Around the back of this hockey rink, the City of Fairbanks dumps the snow which has been plowed out of your streets. I learned how to drive on snow and ice in the parking lot there, which doubles as a snow dump. Wheeee.
And here's the little car that shared so many adventures. A 1996 Pontiac Sunfire, as imaged by Keegan on one knee in the snow, in March 1998, off one side of a road ... I have no idea where, short of, uh, Fairbanks, Alaska! You would not believe the places this car went, and the things it did. If you click to enlarge the photo, you'll see an electrical appliance plug sticking out of the radiator grill. USns will know what this is (well, Floridans might not), but for the benefit of those of us who hail from more tropical climes, I'd better explain. When you park a car outside in Fairbanks winter nights (which can be fifty or sixy below zero), if you don't want the engine block and oil pan to be frozen solid, the battery flat and the radiator turned to solid glue, you (!) plug the car in for an hour or two before you want to start it in the morning; or you leave it plugged in all night. You run a loooooong extension cable to a powerpoint in or on the house and feed the car some juice ... keep the core temperature of the engine up just high enough so it'll actually turn over for you. Cooooool.
And this is the one you've been waiting to see, right? The pipeline. The Trans-Alaska Pipeline itself ... the pride of the Alyeska Pipeline Company. Crude from the North Slope travels at high velocity to the oil terminal at Valdez, on Prince William Sound. Alaska has been about oil for a long, long time (before which, it was about gold), and very soon it'll be about gas. There's not much oil left in them thar hills, but there's enough gas to be interesting. The problem is, getting it OUT of those hills without killing the environment. Think about this: the GROUND in the tundra is flammable. Seriously. You can strike a match and set fire to permafrost, due to the percentage of methane, or marsh gas, frozen in this ground. You really want to be dilling for gas in the middle of the equivalent of a lake of gasoline...? Hmmmm.
As promised above, the image of the tribute to the pioneers memorial statue, in summer, when the fountains are running and you can actually see the engravings on the bronze tablets. Golden Heart Plaza on a glorious day. In the background, in the early afternoon (when this pic was taken), the clock would be chiming out selections from Camelot or Oklahoma! for your listening enjoyment, while coach loads of tourists from Japan and Korea, Russia and parts of America itself, go through. I would take a half hour, sit by the river and watch the world go by: people watching.
And here's a pungent memory. Only in Alaska! Oh, okay, and Canada, all right, point taken. Caribou Crossing. One of my best memories is of fiddling with a long lens off one side of the Richardson Highway, while a herd of caribou -- wild as anything in Jack London -- galloped into the blue distance. I gave up on the lens and just enjoyed the sight. One of those "never forgotten" moments which come along too rarely.

And now --

Back to work. More tomorrow -- when DreamCraft and Keegan might just have something new to show, and I hope to be asking for test pilots. In other words, there's a couple of new Keegan book pages you might like to help us test, and tell us what you think.

Ciao for now,


Monday, September 29, 2008

The Mel Keegan Show ... and heeeeeer's Mel!

Someone said to me the other day, "Geez, your blog's gotten serious lately." And he was dead right. The last time we had a little fun on these pages was when I stated (categorically and somewhat emphatically, I Am Not Kevin Keegan, nor Am I Mel Gibson; and before that it was "Happy 100th Post," the infamous press release for Martian Boys are Easy starring Clooney and Pitt (Biff and Billy Bob)...

(Golly, I'd love to see "The Cucumber Vanishes"...)

(Strange, nobody's ever asked if Kevin Costner moonlights as Mel...)

So it's high time this blog lightened up and had a little fun, since I talked about politics an doomsday for several consecutive posts, and then delved into the serious business of publishing for almost a week.

Welcome to the Mel Keegan Show, all-singing, all-dancing.

[catchy theme music; chorus line of high-kicking dancing boys in skimpy costumes; spotlights wander about the stage, looking for tonight's Theme Host ... and there he is! Zoom to full shot.]

HOST: good evening, gents, ladies, and anyone else tuning in. My name is Johnny Depp and I'll be your host tonight, for an evening of mayhem and madness ... Keegan style!

Last week, Mel climbed aboard the political bandwagon for a short trip that went through fun territory like human rights, the end of the world as anyone knows it, World War III, Armageddon, the second coming and loads of good stuff like that. Well, Mel might have nailed a lot of the problems facing us in months and years to come, but here's Julie Brown, who set the whole thing to music ... and it goes like this...

JOHNNY: Thank you, thank you, to the lovely Julie Brown for saying it all for us. And here's a good one that's going around the Internet today: "How do you make Sarah Palin's eyes light up? You shine a flashlight in her ear."

[drums: drrrrrrr baboom!]

But moving right along, now, we want to bring you some good advice on this show. It's not all about doing what you want to do and having success handed to you. You gotta work ... you gotta strive, as MK's been saying for the last week (till most of us were tired of hearing it, right?) ... but in a lot of ways The Keeg makes a point. A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. And here's the cat to prove it...

Now, was that cute, or what? Raise your hands, folks in our live studio audience here tonight, who's got a cat? Who's got a cat that sleeps on the bed? Who's got a cat that sleeps on the bed and throws up on the bedside carpet right where you step out in the morning? That's disgusting. You people are disgusting --

So maybe we'd better move right along to our celebrity feature. On tonight's show, we're pleased and proud to bring you the very lovely and talented Mister John Barrowman!

And as the late, great Eric Morcambe used to say ... there's no answer to that.

Now, not all of our rabid JB fans know that John just happens to be a native speaking Scotsman. In fact, some of you might refuse to believe it, so here's proof, and if you still don't believe, write a nice letter, take it up with JB:

There you are, you see? He's the Tartan Terror at home. And unfortunately that's all we have time for on tonight's show, so we'll go cut to the Highballs, who'll dance us out of the end titles ... and don't miss next week's show, when your Theme Host will be Sean Bean, and our celebrity guest is Ja Ja Binks.

From all of us here at The Mel Keegan Show ... have a good one!

Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Publishing Series -- read it in order

Back again today, with a very short entry: I've been asked if it's possible to shuffle this epic series of posts into coherent order. In blog format, it's really not possible, but we can try this:

PART ONE: New York Publishing: Worms in the Big Apple
PART TWO: Learning to think outside the corporate box
PART THREE: Independent publishing- local goes global
PART FOUR: Digital publishing comes of age
PART FIVE: Publishing as sheer entrepreneurialism
PART SIX: POD Publishing -- getting megatrendy

This should make the whole essay much more accessible. Many thanks to the readers who have given me feedback -- your comments are appreciated! This will be the last I have to say about publishing for a while. I might do photos and my Dave Barry routine for a few days, to take a break! This blog is becoming way too serious lately. Let's remedy that tomorrow.

POD Publishing: getting megatrendy

The only reason one eventually arrives at the point of looking at POD publishing as a viable proposition is because one has drawn a blank in the quest for a "real" publishing house willing to offer a decent contract one can actually live with.

That's a flat, bald statement which probably needs some amplification, but if you're a writer, you'll have felt the "resonance" as you read it. When something is true, you don't so much think it, as feel it.

During the last thirty years, I've signed a lot of contracts, and I've been agency represented three times. Not one of the contracts I signed was secured, or negotiated, by an agent. My three agents never achieved anything on my behalf; after six months of negative reporting, one of them tried to start charging me for editorial services (which is an industry no-no), and I beat a hasty retreat. I found my own publishers ... I was lucky in that I was writing in a niche, and it's very true that niche sales are easier. The downside was that printruns were comparatively small because I was writing in a niche, and a modest-sized publishing house can't take more than two novels per year from any one writer.

The bottom line to all this is complex. Many aspiring professionals will be saying, "Hey, stop complaining, you succeeded." This is perfectly true, if your sole ambition is to see your novel typeset, inside a three-color cover, wearing the emblem of a recognized (if modest) publishing house. But what about if you wanted to write full time? Quit the day job and be a writer.

Many (most?) writers, if they tell you the truth, will confess that they were only ever able to earn, from their writings, about half as much as one needs to survive. Mortage, car payment, power bills, groceries, gasoline, kids, colleges, clothes ... we've reached a point where if you earn much less than $2,000 a week, you're struggling. Translation: you need to earn $1,000/week from book sales just to get halfway there, and hold down a job too.

With paperback royalties set at 7.5% of an item priced at around $8, you're looking at 60c per copy ... and around 1,667 units must be sold every week to keep your creditors off your back -- 2,000, in fact, if you remember taxes. That's 100,000 copies per year.

These figures are perfectly doable, if you can connect with a major publisher, and you're writing for a vibrant market. Yet this is where the odds on any individual enjoying success get long: it's the word "major" in the previous sentence that stuffs everything up. You're much, much more likely to connect with a small or modest publisher, while the big guys remain out of reach, as intangible as the planet Mars.

Small publishers are great. They're the backbone and foundation of the industry. They'll give a new writer a go, while the big boys literally can't. The minus, here, is that their printruns are typically between 4,000 and 9,000. Their books do go into stores, though; they do get reviewed in the media. There just isn't much money in this end of the writer's trade.

Now, you can still go this road, and pray a lot that your book will sell like hot cakes, come to the notice of a big publisher, and you'll make the transition. This is the J. K. Rowling story. Even Harry Potter was rejected by the big boys, and got a start with a small publishing house. (And if that doesn't depress you, what will?)

Your problem here could be a little clause in the contract you'll be signing. Your publisher will almost certainly demand, contractually, the "right of first refusal on your next appropriate work." So, anything you write within their niche, they get. It's very, very difficult to break out of this situation. One way is to not write anything else for ten years -- because the terms of the contract were set for a decade. After ten years, you have the rights back in you hands.

The conundrum is a beauty, isn't it? And then you run up against big companies trying to engineer an "in print forever" clause, which means you will never get your rights back -- and nor will this publisher ever print, sell or promote your book --


So you can see right here, right now, it's perfectly possible to spend a decade and a fortune to get published, only to earn, at best, a few hundred dollars per week, and lose the rights to your material into the bargain.

Bargain? It's a bad bargain. And it's the reason so many writers are going down the POD highway -- myself included.

POD stands for Print On Demand. These days it usually means, a reader orders a copy, one is printed and shipped. It's also known as empty warehouse.

Is POD a euphemism for self-publishing? Yes and no. Anyone can use the service. If you haven't already looked at one, take a look right now:


Lulu can be used with impunity by illiterates, well-educated but bad writers, six year olds with their "My Trip To Granny's House" essay, colleges publishing course materials, schools publishing yearbooks, small publishers reissuing their backlist, modest publishers producing just 1,000 copies of a "risky" title (too few copies for mainstream printing to produce affordably), new writers hoping to "beat the system," established writers handling their own reprints, well-known writers issuing new titles surplus to the requirements of their publishers, and also by firebrands who are sick and tired of the publishing industry as it stands right now, and are out there on the front lines, making a bold statement.

The whole spectrum of human endeavor is represented by POD publishing. Much of what is churned out by Lulu and others just like them is complete rubbish. The again, some of their product is solid gold. A few titles sell many hundreds of copies.

POD is like life: make of it what you will. If you upload rubbish and hit "print," the result will be printed rubbish. It's all a Faustian deal you strike with computers and robotized printing machines: no human eyes will see the book before you open the parcel you just received from the printshop. No one edited or proofread it, or checked your work. The book stands or falls on the effort YOU put into it.

To make POD work on the most basic level -- as a writer in search of an income -- you have to become a pocket-sized publisher, not just a "self published writer." What this means is, you'll switch hats a dozen times a day. You're the writer, then the copy editor, then the proofreader, (and the tea lady!), then the cover designer, the webmaster, the maketing analyst, the salesman, the accountant, the press liaison...

If, like most writers, you want to write the book, hand it off to a company for editing, proofing and all the rest, and just sit back and receive royalties, POD is not for you. There's too much work involved -- more work that you can imagine.

But if you're determined to beat the system, and you're good enough, motivated enough, with the courage, the tenacity, a few years and a small investment in cash to spend on this -- you could do a lot worse.

There are two basic formats for your work: paper and ebook. You can get into hardcovers too, and within the domain of ebooks there are currently a good half dozen formats, from Microsoft Reader to old fashioned PDF. The good news is, 80% of the work is already done for an ebook version of your book, by the time you've finished the PDF required by your digital printshop. A few tucks and tweaks, and you're good to go.

You can get free converters, to make almost any file into a PDF:
http://www.pdf995.com/ (This is the best. Free.)

Or, you can get ambitious and put down some money:
http://www.ebookedit.com/features.php (Pretty good, not to expensive, at $99)

(DreamCraft uses Serif Page Plus, which does the conversion right there inside the DTP software -- hit the button, nothing else to do. $40 for the download.)

You'll need to research the requirements for screenreaders and learn how to format your work to fit. You'll also want to look at securing the document, to prevent readers from printing it out (possibly en masse). Nothing will stop people giving a copy of your PDF to their friends ... but look at it as free advertising. The friend who gets the free copy might love your book, visit your website and buy your next book, while your original customer drifs away.

Selling ebooks is another world of marketing, and how far you go into this depends on many factors. Do you gave just one book, or a few? Are you marketing for your whole writer's workshop group? Are you going to sell commercial ebooks too?

If you plan a massive store, by all means look at the $5,000 investment in a kiosk:

...but if you're marketing anything around 100 ebooks (your own, your friends', a small selection of classics, perhaps), my advice is Payloads:


It's free to set-up, with a simple, quick interface, and offers everything you could need. Incorporate their code into your own pages -- design your own kiosk. Here's ours:


Phase One is about learning. You're about to morph into Jack (and/or Jill) of All Trades, and you'll need to be master of most. You can outsource some services, but it gets too expensive to outsource everything. You'll need to conquer every aspect of writing and editing; you must get the DTP software and learn it, to design your product; learn the digital publisher's interface ... and then the fun begins.

To crack open a window into the world you're entering, have a look at these:


(Get on Google and do some research. Know what you're getting into!)

Phase Two is about turning inspiration and perspiration into income. Getting sales. The work of writing, editing, proofing, laying out and designing, ISBN'ing, jacketing, uploading the digital copy and ordering your pilot proof ... all this is fun, and ought to be relatively easy, especially if you enjoy a challenge. You'll have spent under $100 at this point. Let's say you decided on Page Plus 10 for $40, and bought just one ISBN, which should be about $15, and your proof copy is a normal size book which is delivered, ppd., for something like $25. You're out $80. Not too bad at all, to get the first copy in your hands.

But who's going to buy them? Where are your readers? How do you find them -- and convince them to pay good money for your book?

In my previous post, I looked at bookstore distribution, and why it probably won't work for POD:


If you think you have a chance, give it a shot. Talk to local distributors, see if they'll work with you, and find out their terms. You might strike it lucky, though the odds are long. Good hunting!

For the rest of us, marketing is mostly about the Internet. The WWW is a massive place. It all starts with a website ... a good one ... and this is where you can start to outlay a lot of money, if you're not careful. Paying a thousand dollars for a ten-page site is quite common.

You can give it a shot yourself, working with something like Front Page. Even here, there's a learning curve -- be prepared to work and learn. Also, ask around on Facebook or something like it, see if a gifted amateur will do the job for a lot less. There's top-line talent hiding everywhere.

A good-looking website is essential. It doesn't have to be Java-scripted to death, but it does have to be attractive functional, easy to navigate, bug-free, and also hype-free. People can smell a blatant commercial at fifty paces. If you're offering the solution to their problems (a book on defeating asthma; on living with cancer; on raising ADD kids), they'll probably stick with your page to the end -- the "buy now" button. If you're offering a novel ... beware hype, and also be prepared to be generous.

What do you say to convince people to buy your novel? To begin with, don't tell them where you were educated, or what your degree might be. No one cares. Seriously. There are writers out there with a polished MFA who can't string words together to save their lives; others who went to Oxford or Cambridge, and can't write a coherent laundry list; and others who dropped out without a high school diploma, forty years ago, and who will rivet readers to the page.

Let your writing speak for itself. Give readers a couple of whole chapters, not just the first few pages. You're not Wilbur Smith or Dan Brown (yet). Readers don't know you from the proverbial hole in the ground. They can only get to know you by reading your work -- so zip up to 10% of your book into a PDF file and give it away.

Catch readers' eye with the cover. Color, vibrancy, design balance, the right fonts and point sizes -- it's an art form. Study covers. Pull 200 books from your own shelves and lay them out on the floor. Pick the 20 that work best for you, toss the rest behind the couch. Analyze. Reverse-engineer what the cover designers did, and emulate their process. Figure out what colors work best, and how, and why -- and why not.

Don't know an artist? Get on the Internet and find one! They're out there, hoping to get work, just as the writer is hoping to get published. Expect to pay $100 - $250 for a digital cover from a really good "wannabe" artist. S/he hasn't made the breakthrough yet either, but s/he can score jobs like yours, and one day a major publisher might stumble over the work and offer "the real deal."

Let's assume you have your website done. Your next problem is driving traffic to it ... without paying so much for advertising that you sell copies and lose money. Beware of Google ads. They can cost $2.50 per click (when you're buying clicks, rather than selling them), and if you have to get 10 readers to your page to sell one copy, that's $25 for the visitors ... and $10 profit on the book. You're spending faster than earning.

Instead, consider blog ads. Seriously. For around $20 you can place a prominent display ad for a week on a blog where maybe 3,000 like-minded people will see it. Choose the theme of your target blog carefully. A book about writing should be advertised on a writing blog; a romance novel wants to appear on a romance blog, and so on.

Consider a press release for your book. Shop around, find a PR service which charges in the $30 bracket (Lulu's PR partner charges $80 -- too much). The services are out there, hunt them down.

Consider buying targeted clicks from advertising companies other than Google. You can buy 5,000 visitors for $30.00...


Giving away review copies can be a double-edged sword. A good review will certainly help; bad reviews do hurt sales. Magazine and newspaper reviewers sometimes refuse to review
POD books -- and many are buried in books sent in hoping for a mention. Which book gets this week's review can be an "eenie, meenie, miney moe choice, which makes the submission a crapshoot -- and a quite expensive crapshoot for the POD enterprise.

Many people will tell you that having a blog is great advertising, but be cautious: posting every day, serious posts, is very time consuming, and blogs grow slowly. There's not going to be much traffic on your blog for months, and even then, only a small percentage of visitors will click through to the "landing page" for your book. Do you have the material, the time, and the willpower to blog successfully?

Google searches are a great way to get traffic -- if you can get your page into the top 20 or 30 listings on the SERPs (search engine results page). This isn't luck, it's a pseudo-science. Google is delighted to tell you you to do it, but it's not easy work:


Pages are built from the ground up to be Google-friendly. It all starts with keywords -- not advertising keywords, but the search terms people are using to pull up SERPs. This is a whole 'nother subject -- and a massive one. Tomes are written about it. The best I can do here is offer a tip:


You can at least find out what the right keywords are, before you start to structure your pages to meet Google's requirements. This loads the dice, as it were, in your favor. Gives you a fighting chance. It's a lot of work, but it's doable, so long as you have the time to study the system, climb the learning curve.

Driving traffic to your page is your new holy grail, and there are hundreds, if not thousands of ways to do it. Learn. If you have the time to invest in this, and a few hundred dollars, rest assured, you'll get your traffic. Potential readers WILL land on your page. A small percentage will buy your book...

And then you're down to your moment of truth. The hall is hired, the band is playing. Time to find out if you can dance! Sales and feedback will pretty soon tell you if you can indeed dance. This can, and does happen:


...and you're on your way.

Keegan's tips? Here's my Baker's Dozen:

1) Learn every aspect of the writer's trade, including bookselling.
2) Become your own most uncompromising editor. Learn to be ruthless.
3) Write for a social group for some time before trying to go pro.
4) Do try to find an agent or publisher. Give it a good, solid shot.
5) No joy in 3-10 years? Decide if you can handle the workload of POD.
6) Serif Page Plus 10 is the software solution I recommend.
7) Lulu.com is our digital printshop of choice.
8) Payloadz.com is your ebook solution.
9) Get the very best website you can afford, plus a "landing page."
10) Explore all your low-cost advertising options; choose the best.
11) Set a budget and stick to it, no matter what.
12) Keep all your receipts. If -- when! -- you succeed, you'll be taxable!
13) Take nothing for granted. Learn. Pick everyone's brains. And ENJOY.

My advice? Go ahead, take the whole thing for a spin. In the end ... it's fun, too.



Saturday, September 27, 2008

Publishing as sheer entrepreneurialism

With traditional publishers showing losses across the board, the whole industry is sure to get "tight." Bookstores are not recording the sales they once did, and when the numbers are translated into publisher terms it gets painful. Consider this:

    Harry Potter fans are undoubtedly feeling a void since for the first time in years, there’s no new Harry installment to look forward to.

    Meanwhile, American publisher Scholastic Corp. is apparently feeling the void in a perhaps less emotional but no less painful way.

    According to a Forbes report yesterday, the children’s book publisher reported a loss of $49.1 million, or $1.30 per share, compared with a loss of $2.8 million, or 7 cents per share, in the same quarter a year ago.

    “Scholastic Corp. said Thursday its fiscal first-quarter loss widened compared with a year-ago period that benefited from a new Harry Potter book,” writes Associated Press writer Michelle Chapman.

The same thing happened for Doubleday (in the States) and Bantam (in the UK) with The Da Vinci Code. The massive bestseller buoyed them up for some time, then the ride was over, and the gravy train derailed to the sounds of groaning.

Since the 1970s, the big publishing houses have called the shots in bookselling, and you can hardly argue their right to do so, since many of those huge publishers are also distribution chains. Their strings are pulled from head offices in New York and London, where marketing analysts deliberate over strategies, content, campaigns -- designing the megatrends to earn the next boatload of money.

Or at least, this was the way it worked until recently. In the last half dozen years, something changed; and the general consensus is, the culprit is the Internet. Which could turn out to be a very lucky break, at least for some writers ... the savvy ones.

In my four previous posts I've looked at how and why the Internet has undermined the traditional publishing world, and why I believe this particular megatrend is only just getting underway. Traditional publishers are concentrating more and more hype and advertising on fewer and fewer writers in the hopes of triggering the Harry Potter or Da Vinci Code effect. These days (go to Google, hunt down the figures -- check this out for yourself), when a book sells big, its figures are leviathan. Beyond monstrous. Cosmic. Ten or twenty years ago, a bestseller might have been a half million or a million. Today? Think millions, plural, and plenty of them.

Why? Advertising. Hype. Commercial space. The downside is, it comes at a high price. Sure, a big publishing house can kill the competition by throwing millions of dollars at an ad campaign for a new book; but the flipside to this coin is, they must sell millions of copies, and they must keep the competition off the shelves to maximize their chances of selling millions of copies.

These are the rules of business. This commercial machine has routines which you might not imagine -- and which, if you imagined them, you (being a decent person) would probably disallow on Page One as being despicable. Have a look at the tussle going on right now at the Random House Group, which is trying to restructure its "boilerplate" (default) contract to assert that a book shall not be deemed out of print, if the publisher has supplied ONE copy in any one year, in any format (which would include electronic or POD).

Here's the link, read it and weep:

The practical upshot of this is that any book ever published with the Random House Group will be deemed perpetually in print, even though it never sells any copies (because it's never placed on bookstore shelves, and never promoted). The writer earns nothing from this book, ever again, though there's probably a lot of income potential left in the work. However, the next bestseller is due to come off the presses, and this lesser work is competition. It has to vanish, fast, and stay vanished.

As far as I'm aware, that wrangle is still underway. If the author's group which is being targeted can raise the funds for a legal battle, they might still win, but they're up against an industry Titan whose punching power far outweighs anything a group of angry writers can throw. I wish them only the very best of luck ... and I remain skeptical about their chances of succeeding.

This case is another fine reason for looking into going the "DIY" road -- but it's still only half the problem.

If you're a writer looking for a publisher, of course you're going to set out on the grail quest! You want to be published, earn an amount you can actually live on, so you can quit the day job; so you're hunting for a major publisher -- New York or London. You're not writing in a "niche," where sales might be easier to make but the printruns are small. You're writing literary fiction with your eyes on a major contract -- you don't mind if it takes a decade to get there, and costs a couple of thousand bucks per year (which it probably will). However, in the back of your mind is a nagging little voice that wants to know the odds of coming through this with a positive result.

It's absolutely try to say, "Nothing ventured, nothing won." You'll never know if you don't try. Unknown writers do sign major contracts. It's just so rare, you probably have a greater chance of being struck by lightning. You can beat these odds. Someone is always going to beat them. But they're long odds, and in the next five or ten years, they're going to get even longer.

As the major publishers concentrate on writers whose track record is proven (King, Smith, Lustbader, Clancy, Brown, Binchy, Steel, Rowling, Rice...) and invest massive amounts of money in hype to try to trigger another Harry Potter or Da Vinci Code, lesser writers, and the unknown wannabe writers, must go to the wall. Breaking through into the professional world will be harder than it's ever been -- and it's been a backbreaker for thirty years that I personally know of.

Now, against all of this, you've got the skills you've built up over years, maybe decades, of learning your craft; you have your desire to write, which is burning you up; you have a flood of creativity which never stops; and the ambition to bloody succeed, no matter what the bast-nice people throw in your way.

In other words, you're going to take a crack at going it alone. Having been rejected out of hand for years (you've even had your query letters rejected! You never realized your chosen agent receives 200 query letters per day, and s/he automatically rejects 90% just to stay sane). Having invested thousands of dollars and many years in the quest, you're officially fed up, sick and tired of the whole deal, and you're going to go it alone.

All right. Deep breath. And another. Be calm. Make a cup of tea...

You're absolutely confident of your writing skills. You've been writing for a group, or club, or workshop, and fellow aspiring professionals who used to guide, correct and encourage you are now offering only praise. You can afford professional editing and proofreading, or are friendly with folks who are either qualified or experienced, and ready to help you get through this without charging four or five grand.

In other words, the book is ready to go. It "just" needs layout and design, a cover, and then (!) a plan for selling copies.

And in the back of your mind is the thought, "It'll be lovely to have even one person buy this, read it and like it ... but I wonder if I could sell 100? 1000?" You wonder how good this venture could be.

Have a look at this:

When indie publishing is good, it's very very good. And of course, what it's bad, it stinks. Just don't be involved in the aromatic end of the trade! Independent publishing is about (as the title of this post suggests) entrepreneurialism unbound. Stop thinking about your venture as "publishing a book." Think of it as "manufacturing a product." Your book is your product, just as surely as if you were selling your home-baked blueberry pies, your hand-crafted bird houses, your hand-knitted sweaters, or whatever.

Publishing is the START of your endeavor, not the end. SALES are your new holy grail. You might not get knocked down in the rush (if your book has that much potential, it stands to reason a major publisher would have seen it, right?) but if you're as good as you think you are, you should be able to earn some nice money. How much? Who can tell. But ... you'll never know unless you try, and what have you got to lose? You've already exhausted the possibilities of (or your ten years' worth of available patience with) the traditional publisher system. So: go for it.

With the book finished, edited, polished and gleaming, you'll be looking at layout, design and cover. You have a learning curve to climb here, but as a matter of fact, I can give you a pointer or two, because I've looked over shoulders at DreamCraft for long enough to know exactly what they use, and how they use it.

The best layout and design tip I can give you is Serif.

DreamCraft, their cover artist Jade, and by extension Keegan, have sworn by Serif for over a decade. This software is used to set type for the books and ebooks, as well as designing covers, webpages, and a lot more:

(If that looks like an affiliate link, it is. DreamCraft is so dead-certain of Serif, they don't even mind selling it. So call this a product endorsement. Here's the good part: you can download Page Plus 10 in an hour, for about $40. It's hard to think of a reason not to.)

Now, you have your software online ... learn it. Serif is not a toy. It will take you several weeks at least to learn how to drive it properly, but with this program, you'll be able to composit covers which are fully professional, lay out the interior of the book, and make the graphics for the website you're going to need after you've "gone to press."

This is also the time to choose your digital printer, and the major pointer I can give you here is Lulu.com ... if you're going to be marketing on the Internet and not trying to get your books into local bookstores. If you're looking at bookstores, you want a printshop in your own location, to cut shipping costs. If you're in a major city, you can certainly find some independent booksellers (they're rare, but they're not extinct yet) who will take consignment copies from you.

You might even be wondering if you can score distribution. Well ... maybe. Before you go this road, understand how the system works. There's the retail price, the wholesale price, and the price-to-manufacture. The retail price is the maximum you can expect to get for a book, when it's sold; the price-to-manufacture is the cost to you, to actually make each copy. Wholesale price is negotiable; this is what the product leaves the hands of your distributor for, which is usually (!) 50% of the retail price.

The only figure left to work out is, how much the distributor will be paying you for each copy sold. This is negotiable too, and they can try to talk you down to 10% of the retail price ... which is where the whole thing falls apart.

At Lulu.com (or any other digital printer: Lulu is highly competitive), an average book will cost about $5 - $8 per copy to manufacture. It will sell in a bookstore for a maximum of about $20. The bookstore takes $10; the distributor will want 50% of what's left. You end up holding $5. It's called the "hundred percent markup system," and this is just how it works -- plus or minus a few percent here and there for give and take within the industry itself. In other words ... you sold copies, but you lost money.

Attack this from the other perspective. The book costs $8 to produce. Add $2 for yourself. Add an average of $1 per copy for shipping to the distributor. That's $11. The distributor doubles it to $22; the bookstore doubles it to $44, and then offers a discount back to $39.95 ...

Will your book sell at that price? Will it sell enough copies to be significant? You have to sell 50 to make $100. (You also have to pay for shipping costs on the returns -- unsold stock; and you won't get paid for copies sold for 6 - 9 months. Ouch.)

This is the major problem facing POD publishers. POD is expensive -- the costs involved with printing one copy, or a small number, are so high that putting copies on store shelves is usually out of the question. And fortunately for us all, there's the perfect alternative. The Internet.

If the book costs $8 to produce and you retail it for $20, you'll come out with something like $10 left after you've paid the printshop's commission. This pays (pro rata) for the costs of professional editing, professional cover artist services, website construction, landing page design, website hosting, advertising, and should leave you a profit margin too. By the time you've sold 150+, you should be smiling.

When you choose a digital publishing service such as Lulu.com (there are others; I'm talking about Lulu specifically because this is where I have the personal experience), they do a lot more for you than manufacture the books. They take orders; process orders; ship stock for you; field customer support; and report on sales. (Empty Warehouse. Embrace the concept.) You'll find all this invaluable, because you're going to be incredibly busy...

Doing what? Marketing! Lulu.com will also market for you to a point, but it can get expensive. You'll be investing hundreds of dollars in advertising "packages" ... which you can certainly do, if you want to, and can afford to. But there are other, cheaper, ways to go.

Here's a tip: Using Lulu.com -- supply your own ISBN, if you want the privilege of being able to organize your own taxation. If you buy an ISBN via Lulu, withholding will start, which is fine if you're in the USA, but it will make your life incredibly complex, come tax time, if you're not!

To research ISBNs, and get one for yourself, go here:

About this point, you'll be thinking about the cover. Do you have a design in mind? You could do a hell of a lot worse than have a look at this, the Book Design Review:


...books are out there with awful covers. Horrible covers. Your covers need to be GOOD ... but who sets the standard? Remember, every one of those hideous covers you see on books was given the royal nod by a publishing house's art director! Some of them must be legally blind.

Here's a link to a slideshow of our new edition covers -- which only shows you what WE like. Another art designer, at another publishing house, might say, "They're krudd, what made you put such garbage on your cover?" Well, to quote the old cliche, "we might not know much about art, [in fact, we do!] but we know what we like." here's the link:


If you're blank on the question of cover design, get help. Seriously. Look at the Lulu services forums; you'll be astonished what's out there. Look at sites like these:



...get into the business: you'll be very welcome. Set a budget, and try to stick within it. When your cover has been designed and delivered, it's time to kick the whole thing into three dimensions (off the computer screen and into reality), and see what it looks like.

Printing time. Time to order your pilot copy, hold it in your hands, and assess it.

...and yet again, I'm out of time. In today's post I'd wanted to talk about actually marketing the damned things, but that's going to have wait till tomorrow! I'll pick up the threads again, right here, and finish in the morning. Time to go back to work, guys, so ...

Ciao for now,

Friday, September 26, 2008

Digital publishing comes of age

The future is what we make of it. Life gives you lemons, you make lemonade. Life gives you a gift for writing stories, and you're going to write stories, nothing will stop you. You might take your first steps into fiction as a child; by age 10, you might know exactly what you want to be when you grow up. By age 19, perhaps you've written more than half a million words of fiction, including several novels. You're at (or on your way to) college, hunting for an MFA ...

And right on cue, you read things like this ... http://mel-keegan.blogspot.com/2008/09/new-york-publishing-worms-in-big-apple.html ... which calmly inform you that your chosen industry is collapsing. Meaning, your chances of breaking into it, as an unknown, without contacts (especially if you're from a CNA ... a County Not America) are minimal.

Don't let this stop you: give it a shot. The worst you can do is make friends in far-off places. Along the way, you can try to bounce your work off professionals and see what they think. It's all a crapshoot ... but since life itself is a crapshoot, you'd be the extraordinary writer, if you didn't try to show your best stuff to publishers and agents. Go for it.

Why should you give it a whirl? Well, statistically, it's about one writer in a hundred who has the skill, and the tenacity, and the funding, to get through the whole three-ringed circus. The prize is a professional contract and a shot at making the big-time ... but even after you've perfected your skills, it takes years to get through the professional minefield, and the process can be expensive. Along the way, many people become discouraged, depressed -- or parents, which gobbles up their time and money. It could be decades before you're once more in a position to launch yourself on the Quest for the Holy Grail of Writing: agency representation, a contract, royalties. But people do it. Absolutely unknown writers find publishers. "Local Boys (and Girls) Make Good," as the headline would put it ... it just doesn't happen every day. Going into this quest, you know the odds are against you, but if you have the skill, the courage, the time and the money, you owe it to yourself to, uh, just do it.

"Why would you give it a whirl?" is a different question, though the difference is subtle enough to often be missed. If you're hunting for money to bail yourself out of a jobless situation, or a mortgage that's suffocating you, well ... (sorry) ... you're probably doing the wrong thing. Before you get any further into the grail quest for a major publisher paying enough money to be significant, read these:


Outtake: ...You'll make more money per hour flipping burgers than writing a book. The odds that your book will be a best seller are absolutely terrible. Writing fiction is an impossible life unless you hit the jackpot. There's a great article in the New Yorker about a relatively famous, established novelist who cannot support himself on book advances. I can't find that article, but just trust me: It's a very very hard industry to survive in. (Links to: Odds of writing a New York Times best seller: 1 in 220 ; Odds of dating a millionaire: 1 in 215)


Outtake: Let's look at "working" writers in the niche end of the market. Run the numbers yourself. Say, a paperback costs US$8 (what *do* they cost in the States these days?), earns you .60c (7.5%), and sells 75% of a 10,000 copy printrun. (They pulped 25%). So, you make $4500. If you're paying a mortgage and buying a car, you need to sell ten or fifteen such books per year ... but your publisher can take a maximum of two. You have a major problem. You're out there looking for a job, and your writing, which used to be your trade, has become your hobby.

In my own experience over about 30 years (damnit, is it that long?) writers drop into three major categories. First, the ones who write for the pleasure of it, don't need to earn money, and mostly give away their material on the Internet or as hardcopies, and thrive on feedback, and especially praise. Second, the ones who desperately need the money to save their home, get out of debt, or fill in for a lost job. Third -- the hybrid, people who write for pleasure, give their stuff away, yet would dearly love to make the crossover and write for money.

The first group is the healthiest! Readers to whom you've given stuff are rarely critical -- they're not specialists, they might not be able to tell good editing from bad, they're pleased to receive a special gift, and they're you're friends. Even if they didn't like it, they'd be gentle.

The third group is fairly healthy, and if anyone's going to make the development from happy amateur to pro, it's someone found here: they could easily have developed the skills over years of writing for a group of friends, an online archive, a workshop or club. They also don't actually need the money (though it would be nice!) which means they're gainfully employed and can afford the high price of questing for an agent or publisher. In other words, it just might work, if they're good enough, skilled enough, with sufficient patience and courage.

The second group is the one almost doomed to fail from the outset, because success (the contract, the income) is critical, and the need is urgent. Getting published is not a rapid process. It takes years; it can take a decade or more. Your skills must be beyond reproach, and even so, you'll need to make a financial investment in the quest, which might be painful or impossible, if the need for income is so critical. The above post on penelopetrunk.com is not kidding: you really will make more money flipping burgers! And the numbers I quote, above, from my own post, let you see that you could easily spend years to land a contract, only to earn so little, you'll need a magnifying glass to see the pay check.

Okay ... so, what's the alternative? There has to be one. Alternatives are always out there.

In fact, there are several, but until just the last few years you would soon find yourself swimming in dangerous waters. Vanity publishing has its place; just don't confuse it with professional publishing. A "vanity publisher" is very little more than a PRINT SHOP. You pay them to produce 25 or 250 copies of your book, or whatever number. They hand them to you. Then you go out and sell them. Now, if you had a couple of grand to invest in 250 copies and had written (for instance) a history of your local area, which would retail at $25 per copy, you could very reasonably expect to get rid off 250. You just grossed $6250, and if you paid as much as $10 per copy for the 250, you paid $2500 for printing, leaving $3750, out of which all you had to cover (theoretically) was shipping to get the printrun to your spare bedroom or garage, and the commercial in the local paper, which got folks interested, plus posters, leaflets ...

Congrats: you just made $3000+ ... out of something which is usually dismissed as vanity publishing. However, look at the work involved. Putting up posters, sending leaflets, shipping orders, answering emails, doing launches at local libraries and bookstores. You worked hard for the money -- even if it's fun, it's still work. "Vanity Publishing" is so-called, because you do have to work damned hard even after you've received the shipment of books. "Real Publishing" is so-called, because after you've proofed and returned the galleys, you're usually finished. At least in theory, you sit back and earn royalties.

Most writers can be fairly lazy creatures. They don't actually want to work, after the book is finished. They really do want to sit back and be handed royalties ... lots of them. Hence, the bad rep given to vanity publishers, who don't warn writers ahead of time, that copies won't be sold if you don't get off your duff and sell them. (There's also a disreputable element among vanity publishers, who either fail to supply the product, or it's so badly manufactured, they could be, and should be, talking to the attorney representing writers in a class action.)

If you're thinking of going this road -- vanity press -- then, go into it with your eyes wide open, be prepared to pay up front, and then get down to some good, hard work. Also, do your "due diligence" before you invest. Know who's reputable, and who's not.

With the development of the Internet, however, much better options are at your disposal. Vanity publishers ought to be dying a death right now. The day really has arrived when you make a modest investment and expect to do reasonably well with a company like Lulu.com (mentioned here, because I can give you a firsthand account of how it works ... also, how it doesn't work! ... since we use Lulu.com for the Mel Keegan books). If you have a few hundred dollars to invest, and some spare time -- the world of digital publishing just opened its doors and invited you in.

First: if you have any residual image left in your mind of "desktop publishing," jettison it at your earliest convenience! The two areas are distant fourth cousins. DTP is what happens on your desk, when you're in "prepress" stages, working to get the book ready for publication. What happens after you've uploaded the file is probably beyond your imagination, and it takes place in the realms of machines that look like these.
You're not likely to ever buy one; the pricetags are about the same as the house you live in. And these machines are the future of publishing. "Vanity" and "self" publishing are more risk-free than they've ever been, because you're looking at something close to robots here. They're not quite self-aware, and they're certainly nailed to the spot, less than likely to wander away on their own adventures (George Lucas notwithstanding). But they're robots in the same sense as the massive automata which manufacture cars.
You feed a couple of PDF files in at one end, and a finished book falls out the other end of a machine very like these. And this is MORE than you ever needed to know about the technical aspect of digital publishing. The "how" of the process -- your own involvement -- is all about "prepress" and "marketing."

In other words, you'll be responsible getting the product right before you print copies, and then selling them afterwards, however and wherever you can get the sales, converting your inspiration and perspiration to income.

There's a long list of DO and DON'T factors involved with both processes, and alas, the only way to learn the ropes is by climbing them. At this point, there's no course you can take, and there's no book you can buy, something like "The Total Nitwit's Guide to Marketing Your Book on the Internet. (Those how-to books won't be too far in the future, though.)

For the purpose of this discussion, I'll assume you have not signed with a publisher who is using POD services. If you've signed with such a publisher, prepress is a breeze. They have the experience, from editing to proofing, from design and typesetting through to cover mockups and color proofs. You don't have to waste brain cells on all this stuff.

However, if you haven't signed with a publisher -- put on the coffee and break out the carbohydrates. You have a lot of work to do.

Top of the "DO" list is this: learn the ropes. Be completely sure of your writing skills. Know that your editing us beyond reproach. Have as many beta readers as you can find read the book and report ... and actually listen to them. Respect what they tell you. Rewrite, if necessary. Make sure the book is really finished, and then bribe everyone you can find to proofread for you.

Next on the list of "DO" subjects: teach yourself about book design. About fonts, points, leading and tracking, widows and orphans, titles and half-titles. Get into the theory and pseudo-science of cover design; know RGB from CMYK, know the difference between a "bleed," a "trench," a "gutter" and a "wrap." Know something about file formats and sizes. Get the right software to do the job -- ask for some advice, and don't just pay thousands of dollars for the market leaders because someone in a store recommended it. For all you know, they might earn a commission on $2500 software they somehow manage to get out of the store. Find out about ISBNs, barcodes, deposit copies, copyright, and the legalities.

Ready to publish? Choose a digital printshop. One that will produce ONE copy at a time, and tell you, up-front, what it costs. Beware of shops that offer to email you with a "quote" for your specific job. Beware of shops that quote up-front for lots of 50, 100, 150, 200, and so on. You don't want to print a whole lot till you find out if interest in your product is high enough to warrant the investment.

Having chosen your digital partner ... learn their interface. Allow several days to get through the process, and be ready to chat to Support. There are "issues" which you won't have imagined in your wildest dreams. Take it all as it comes, ride with the punches, and get through the process. Order your pilot copy, and sit down with it ... proofread it again. You'll be shocked at how typos jump of a printed page, while the same errors were invisible on the screen and in the manuscript. Check everything. Now: all okay? Time to go to market.

The list of "DON'T DO" items is just as long, and you'll find these out as you go, often the hard way. But here are some absolutely beauties, which are bound to help. Don't take anything for granted: check it again. Don't assume you know how to drive the software -- take the time to learn it properly. Don't just buy the most expensive software for DTP or imaging: look at them all and choose the package(s) which do maybe 15% more than you need, at the price you can afford. Don't just assume the printed book will be fine: order a pilot copy and check it all again.

Now, you're ready to go to market, and ... this is where the real fun starts.

Unfortunately, it's also the moment when I've run out of time again. Marketing books (or anything at all) on the Internet is a huge subject, and it deserves to be given much more than the paragraph I could devote to it today. So I'll be back tomorrow with (!) Part Five of this series: how to sell the damned things, once you've gotten them finished, online, and/or printed!


Thursday, September 25, 2008

Independent publishing: local goes global

Yesterday I talked about the Mount Everest of problems the traditional publishing industry is up against. A major source of their competition in coming years will be free fiction online (some of it actually being good stuff, though most isn't -- the trick is to hunt down the gems), and their inability, within their current business model to supply what the customer really wants.

Readers want ten times the choice they're getting at the bookstore right now; and they want books they can afford, which is why they're haunting the book exchange, the used book store, Amazon.com (and other online stores), and also looking at ebooks as a viable alternative.

Used book stores are as wide and varied as ebook stores. They can be piles of waste paper, like the local one (where the books are $8 and so battered, they're falling to pieces), or they can be like Title Wave in Anchorage, AK, which was the best one I ever used. I bought crates of books there. Title Wave was three floors of books, fiction and non-, every subject under the sun; comfy chairs, and about 200,000 different titles under the same roof! It was book buyer paradise ... with the average price of an "near as-new" book being about 50% of the retail price of a brand new one.

Used book stores are like goldmines; and doubly so when they're on line. Amazon.com itself deals in mountains of used books, and then there's alibris.com, and so on. There are so many of these used book bazaars, so long as you don't mind paying $12.50 for shipping to get a title from the US/Canada to Aus, you're in luck. Now, a $5 used book plus international shipping is still under $20, and it's probably (!) a hardcover ... a brand new paperback, here, is $25, plus or minus a few; a new hardcover is $40 - $60, so the online deal looks sweet. Plus, the inventory you're looking at at the online stores is listed in the millions of titles. Ahhhhhh.

But here's the publishing industry's problem: every time someone buys a used book, they didn't buy a new one. Duh. Yes, but it was Ernest K. Gann's "Soldier of Fortune" I wanted, not some bloody thing by King or Lustbader or Clancy. The book I wanted hasn't been in print since the 1960s! But I found it at alibris.com for $3 ... in as-new hardcover.

The more this happens, the worse the situation will get for traditional publishers.

They'll be asking, who the hell wants to read a book written 50 years ago? Well ... how about someone who read it yonks ago and loved it, like me.

Or ... someone who's 75 years old now, retired, plenty of time to read, and (!) computer literate, with a handy little piece of plastic with the word "Visa" printed in one corner. The marketplace is getting older along with the rest of the population, and high percentages of retirees are living on the Internet, loving the freedom of it, like the rest of us. They're probably on a tight budget, looking for a bargain ... looking for a book they loved years ago, but lost their copy (traded, sold, whatever). They want specifically Taylor Caldwell's "Captains and the Kings," not something by Mary Higgins Clarke or Terry Goodkind or Matthew Reilley, goddamn it.

Book buyers are heading to the Internet in a natural process; trying to stop them would be like trying to hold back the tide with a broom ... but if reports are true, traditional publishers did look at this as a viable option! A little while ago we heard they were examining ways to ban online and electronic publishing. Good luck.

Part of the process is the shift from buying old books, used, from places like alibris.com, to buying reissues -- reprints -- which are produced POD; and then ... yep ... looking at new books which are being done POD.

POD has come of age at last. Print On Demand really does mean that a copy is printed when someone orders one. A writer can go into publication for minimal investment; and millions of them, globally, are doing just this.

The physical quality of POD books is now equal to the quality of store-bought product. In most cases, you can't tell the difference. Where you can tell, the POD product is actually superior, because it's not printed on crappy paper. It'll be laser printed onto cream-tinted bond paper, which has a lifetime a helluva lot longer than the "bog" stock used by traditional paperback printshops. The covers and dustjackets on POD books should be indistinguishable from the mass-produced variety.

The potential downsides, however, are several. Price: the book will be a little more expensive, and when we're trying to get product into readers' hands at LOWER prices, this is not good news. Only real, genuine booklovers are going to hunt down POD titles and pay bookstore-equivalent titles; although there is also the ebook option these days -- and I can report from personal experience, two out of three online-shoppers are going that road.

The other potential downside to POD books is the omnipresent question, "How good is it?" Can this writer actually string words together in a lucid manner? Does he or she actually have a story to tell? Did an editorially savvy person go over this piece with a fine tooth comb before it was printed? Did six people proofread it with real, human eyes?

Here, let me reiterate what I said yesterday: buying online, especially e- and POD books, the key is "due diligence." Find out before you put your money down...

And don't be surprised when the writing, editing and proofing are tip-top .. because, when professional writers, editors, artists and publishers get into this game, watch out!

This is happening more and more often as time goes by, and the reason is in the investment capital. Financial diseases that make the big companies sick will kill small ones. Publishers on a shoestring (those who do 6 - 10 titles per year, with a printrun of 4,000 of each title) can't afford the ad campaigns to compete with the New York and London monsters; also, national distributors won't often carry their product, because they don't publish enough, and can't offer discounts of up to 90% off the retail price. (Demanding those discounts is a watertight way to make the smaller publisher just go away and stop asking. It's been done. Often.)

By contrast, Internet marketing is cheap, and the WWW goes everywhere. Customers who're looking for a good read tend to come to you. They'll still look at 200 books before deciding which to buy, but they're shopping the web by their millions, and a tiny percentage of something huge is still considerable ... which is what market share is all about.

As a reader looking for new writers with new voices, you could do a lot worse that explore the online publishers. Jut do your "due diligence," don't get caught with crap. Even if you do get "caught" occasionally, you'll only lose funds to the tune of $3 or $5 -- ebooks are dirt cheap. Go for it: enjoy the hunt, and unashamedly wallow in the pleasure when you find something fantastic.

As a writer ... any writer, anywhere ... you'll already be wondering if POD is for you. A better question is, "Is self-publishing for me?" If you're with a publisher who is using POD services, you don't have this worry. Your publisher is supplying editorial and technical services -- they just send the printjob to someplace like Lulu.com, and you can battle on as usual.

But if you don't have a publisher and are thinking of going it alone, then "POD" has actually become a euphemism for "self-publishing." And this opens a whole new can of worms. Before you go this road, there's four points to look at:

#1. On a technical level, are you up to the task? In other words, do you write well enough? No one is going to make the hard decisions for you when you self-publish. If you have the confidence in yourself, go ahead. If not ... learn.

#2. Editing is critical. Do you edit well enough, can you edit your own work, do you know an editor who will help, can you afford to pay a ton of money for professional editing? This one is a minefield, and no one can answer these questions for you.

#3. Software. Do you own good enough software? Can you drive it properly? Do you know how to design and lay out a book? Do you understand about ISBNs and font issues, and all the thousand-odd little things which go into this job? No one knows but you. If you do ... go for it. If not ... (again) learn.

4. Distribution. Know how you're going to sell the book before you even think about putting the time and money into publishing it. Nothing is more sad than a fine book which sells few copies, or none at all. It happens with distressing frequency ... don't let it happen to you. Before you even type the first sentence of Chapter One, get your distribution figured out.

And that's what I'll be talking about tomorrow. I just ran out of time, and must suspend this yet again. Tomorrow, I'll pick up the threads and tackle a critical subject: how the hell do you market a book, when you don't have a publicist or an advertising budget to speak of, and distributors are out of the question??!


Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Publishing: learning to think outside the corporate box

Yesterday I talked about mainstream publishing, where the traditional industry is in disarray, and sales are dwindling for reasons of which no one seems sure, though everyone and his uncle has a theory.

Today, I'd like to take a look at a few of those theories, advance a couple of my own, and then shut one eye, squint with the other, look deep into the murk of my scrying mirror and ... well, make some educated guesses about where the future of publishing might lie, at least in the next five or ten years.

It's an indisputable fact that book sales are way down. What's astonishing is that anyone is surprised at the phenomenon. Readers like myself could have told the big publishers years ago that their sales figures were more than likely headed right down the toilet. It seemed so obvious then; it still does. Book buyers make their purchase decisions based on the same criteria as shoppers at the butcher's and bakery.

When's the last time you visited a real, physical bookstore? Did you buy anything?

For myself, I killed a half hour in a bookstore one evening when I realized I'd turned up way too early to see a movie (I'd misread the book-online ticket). The bookstore was open late, the lights and heaters were on, and...! It was either the bookstore or drink several buckets of coffee at about five dollars per thimble, and have the caffeine judders all the way through the movie. The bookstore won.

Aside from myself and three other people who all seemed to be killing time there (one spent the whole half hour standing in the middle of the store, talking on her mobile, arranging a dinner party for two days hence), the store was empty. So I could browse to my heart's content, and since I hadn't gone there with the intention of buying a book, I could be entirely analytical about the store's inventory.

I noticed that nothing had changed in the six months since my last foray into a similar store. In fact, nothing has changed in any bookstore in the last decade or more. It's what I've been calling "The Attack of the Bestsellers" since about 1990. You can walk into any bookstore, or the book section of a department store, and you will see, with few exceptions, the same books, by the same authors. Everywhere. The faces of bestselling authors are peering out of posters. Names like Daniele Steele and Maeve Binchy, Dan Brown and Tom Clancy, J.R.R. Tolkien and Arthur C. Clarke, J.K. Rowling and C.S. Lewis, come blazing off the shelves.

If you're tall enough to reach the very top shelves, seven feet up (any pole vaulters in the store tonight?) you might find a work by a novelist who hasn't, yet, sold a zillion copies. If you didn't mind grovelling on the floor, breathing carpet cleaner fumes, in an attitude of worship (or the Quest for the Missing Contact Lens) you might find a few other obscure books by writers whose names have not, yet, been immortalized on the NYT bestsellers list.

You might find them. But the selection will be small. There will almost certainly be a range of 100 - 200 bestselling titles, and a small range of "iffy" books, those where the authors have not yet "proved" themselves by selling zillions, tucked away in corners, like offbrand cookies, where they won't challenge the big guys.

Now, contrast this with your browsing around an online store. Publishers and distributors have lately instituted a new spectator sport: Amazon-bashing. It's a bloodsport, along the lines of kick-boxing, where the basher who can kick the most teeth out of the jaw of the giant wins. But, say what you like about Amazon, they've got a range measured in cosmic numbers. AND they're cheaper, into the bargain.

So here's the quiz, from the reader's point of view.

    How many books did you barely glance at and go by, the last time you went shopping for a novel to read on your vacation, and in the end selected just one?

    Did you have the time to slog through ten physical stores, because you wanted something "different" not just another bloody best seller you've been TOLD to like, while the inventory in any one store is based around the "Attack of the Bestsellers" ...?

    Did you have a heart attack at a price in excess of $25 for a pulp fiction novel?

If the answers to the above questions are 200+; yes; and yes ... then here is an excellent chance you ran home to an on-line store to find a big enough range to give you freedom of choice, to save a half-hour bus ride and god knows how much walking, and (this is critical) to pay $10 or so for the book, which is what you can afford.

The online bookstores (of which Amazon is but one) offer the bestsellers if anyone is actually interested in them. But you can also get the "long tail" backlists of publishers who can't get bookstore distribution to save their lives; you can get reprints of fantastic books from 1973 and 2002, which the bookstore distributors wouldn't dream of touching, because they won't sell zillions now. You can get rare books; books from wonderful, fully-professional authors, whose subject matter isn't what the public wants en masse, so 10,000 copies will never be printed, and "proper" distributors will never carry them.

If you don't mind reading on a screen, you can get all the above for a fraction the cost you'll pay in a physical store. If an $8 ebook is agreeable to you, you can have it this instant, without any shipping costs or time. No trip to the mall. No hiking from store to store in the blind hope of escaping the bestsellers, the hyped novels that don't read as well as their covers look (!), and ... so forth.

Advocates of the traditional publishing system have been heard to pooh-pooh the Amazon-bashing. Their case is that Amazon is no danger to the publishing districts of New York and London, because even now it only commands a measly 15% of all book sales.

This is perfectly true, but as an argument for the healthy future of traditional publishing it's void, because Amazon.com is only ONE store. There are hundreds, and more appearing all the time. There's Barnes and Noble, and Borders, and Dymocks, and too many just like them to count...

Then, there's the ebook stores -- and I'm not talking about rubbishy "business in a box" stores filled with "get rich quick" and "sex positions" ebooks that were knocked out by illiterates in an afternoon ten years ago, and are currently retailing for the princely sum of a dime.

I'm talking about stores like these:


...and there are hundreds more just like them too, with more appearing every day. Never in a year of hunting through physical bookstores will you see inventory like this, nor prices that can compete.

Bookstores are not about art; they're about business. The store that sells the most books wins. Not unnaturally, that store will be the one offering the widest choice and the lowest prices.

Now, chainstores have been offering massive discounts on books for as long as they've existed, but they do this by chewing into the retail price percentages returned to publishers (who, in turn, end up shorting writers' royalties just to survive). Chainstores are driven by marketing, and major publishers pump money by the ton into hyping novels for which they've paid up to eight million dollars before a copy was printed, never mind sold. This is business: when you've paid a writer this kind of money, the book must succeed. The marketing campaign will be a monster, and the bookstores will be overrun by copies of this book.

Hence, the same hundred-odd books which are seen predominating in every bookstore you walk into; and the corresponding paucity of choice, and the high prices.

The whole situation is adding up to an inescapable bottom line: the industry started to go south, turn sour, when Big Business, multinational corporations, got hold of publishing. Small publishers were absorbed osmotically, and sometimes put to sleep ... like GMP, come to that, who gave Mel Keegan a go twenty years ago, and was bought out by Prowler, which was then absorbed by Millivres, who had no use for a paperback line, so ... GMP was history.

In the place of numerous small, medium, and pretty-large publishing houses, we wound up with a comparative handful of supergiants helmed by marketing directors. The "Attack of the Bestsellers" was on; chainstores proliferated, forcing out indie booksellers, and ... well, this is where we are today.

If you want wide choice, at a price you can afford, you buy books on the Internet.

People do. I do. Frequently. Okay, Amazon only accounts for 15% of all book sales ... but add in the thousands of smaller online stores, whose catalog pages are filled with reissues of great titles from other decades (all stone-dead, as far as national distributors are concerned), the backlists of dormant or even deceased publishers (like GMP, some of whose titles have been showing up in the bookstore on my own website), and also --

[drum roll ... cymbal clash ... spotlights converge on centerstage]

-- the work of a whole new generation of writers, presented by a whole new generation of publishers. If I were a publishing combine in New York, it wouldn't be Amazon.com that terrified the life out of me with its massive warehouse of physical books. It would be the unthinkably vast digital publishing Hydra which is waking up right now, just starting to flex its seven necks, and blink open its seven pairs of eyes.

Like it or not (and a lot of traditional publishers don't, because they surely don't understand it), the digital age is upon us. The time has come when literally any Tom, Dick and Mary can get an idea for a book, hammer it out, zip it into an ebook, park it up on Payloadz.com, put up a webpage to sell it, and buy 5,000 hits on that page for $30.00.

But it's not only poor old Tom, Dick and Mary who can do this. When the best writers, editors and artists get into this game -- watch out.

If you reckon this megatrend is sounding the death knell for the publishing industry, and you need a scapegoat, it's probably Bill Gates. Microsoft ushered in the computer age; the software has become commonplace and easy to use. Anyone and his uncle can, and will, be writing and publishing. They're doing it now ... and (alas) there's a downside which is as unavoidable as it was predictable.

It has been said that 90% of everything is trash, and when it comes to DIY desktop authoring and publishing, it's more like 98%. There is trash out there which you wouldn't believe. You'd wonder how it was possible for someone to write a whole novel without punctuation ... but he did. There are books which are so poorly written, you can barely understand what the author means. Others which are fairly well written, but not even spellchecked, let alone edited. And those which are well proofed and edited, but the subject matter or denouement are simply krudd with a capital K.

The trick is, when you're shopping for books online (especially ebooks, which are very often the backyard variety of literature, and can be of any quality at all, from the sublime to the utterly ridiculous), to know what you're getting before you put your money down.

Just because a book is from a small press, new press, online press, ebook publisher, POD publisher or whatever, does not mean it's a bad book. Far from it. Exactly the same process of meticulous care and undying love for the nuance of language can be invested in the work, before it's uploaded to a server and printed on demand by a company like Lulu.com. You, the reader, are responsible for making sure you know what you're getting before you buy.

In a physical bookstore, you'd read the slogan on the cover, like the look of the hero, turn it over and read the back cover 'blurb.' If you still like the look of it, and if the price is okay, the next thing you do is open the book and read a few pages ... to see if the writing style rubs you the wrong way, or if this author can actually string words together. (Also possibly, if the editor was speaking the same language, and wide awake when an edit was done on this item.)

So, do the same thing online. Weed out the 98% of trash, and zero in on what's great. Get into the habit of digging a little deeper, embrace the "due diligence," and don't worry about the pedigree of the book. See it this way: there was a day when an unknown called William Shakespeare put on his first play.

The digital publishing megatrend is going to explode. This much is without question. The Internet is already swimming in fiction of every description, from juvenile stories to the most far-out porn you can't even imagine. (There's even the "fanfiction," if you fancy into stories about the characters of virtually any TV show or movie that was ever made. Most of it's dross, but it's free dross.) Or, you can hunt down fiction of any length, in any genre, on paper or pixels. A Google search, and you're on your way to discovering something absolutely fresh.

The ocean of free fiction in which we're afloat is definitely going to impact on book sales at the checkout. I don't know if the New York publishers have even looked this far into the adversary they're up against. It's easy to bash Amazon, but at least they charge a price. The amount of free fiction which is available now is staggering ... and it's not all dross. There's also some darned good reading out there, if you can only find it ... and it's fun searching. You can download it to your Palm or Sony. Or print it out and bind it on a coil. Free.

The effects are going to blow back, through bookstores, to distributors, to the big, traditional publishers, who will eventually have to compete, somehow. Now, the only way you can compete with free fiction is with quality, and variety, offered at much more affordable prices than you've been charging. Convince people they're reading dross, while you offer something better at a good price ... and you have a massive inventory of this quality stuff.

Oh, boy. The sound you hear is the Marketing Department having a spontaneous meltdown. The bestseller mechanism won't carry this change. National distributors can't carry 1000 titles instead of 100. (Distributors have a long, unsavory history of refusing to even deal with small publishers who could certainly supply the inventory). The whole current system of publisher - distributor - bookseller is not designed to offer 10,000 professional titles for $6 each --

But the Internet is. People want choice; quality; and LOW prices. This is why folks go berserk at clearance sales. They fly into a feeding frenzy when they see prices they can actually afford.

In short: give 'em product they can afford, and they'll buy it. Give them something they actually want (rather than what you've decided they're going to get), and you'll have customers.

For decades, the major publishing communities in New York and London have been in the very unfortunate business of trying to "educate readers." They use any means they can think of, from posters to talkback radio, to newspaper ads, to book launches, to try to shape the tastes of the reading public ... in other words, to divert readers from what they themselves wanted, and push them in the direction of what's already been printed.

Before the Internet revolution, it probably worked. But it won't work now, because too much on the Internet is free; too much good reading is available for $5 a pop. If the customer wants "a,b,c" and has a few dollars left in the PayPal account, and a major publisher has printed 40,000 copies of a $45 hardback featuring "x,y,z," hands up who'll be surprised if the customer walks out the door, logs on, and buys what s/he actually wants?

The writing has been on the wall for a long, long time, but the publishing industry is a juggernaut that can't slow down, stop and turn around without taking decades over the maneuver. From their perspective, the challenge is to figure out what READERS want, and how to deliver, within a business model that lets them survive on a corporate level.

For writers, however, the future is vast, misty, filled with massive possibilities and opportunities. Potential is everywhere. So are pitfalls. The digital age is multi-faceted and deep as an ocean trench. Writers everywhere are starting to feel that certain shiver: it starts at the feet, goes up the spine and throttles your creativity, into overdrive -- "Hey, I can do this myself."

You can. You probably will. And if you're smart, you'll also know pitfalls galore lie ahead.

I'd intended to talk about the actual process of digital publishing today, but I've rattled on so long, once again, I'm out of time! So I'll pick up the threads tomorrow, and finish this discussion then. Right now --