Don’t take anyone else’s monkey as your own! We all are on our unique yellow brick roads to Oz, whatever Oz might be for each of us.
Lately I’ve run into some new writers at conferences who eventually whisper to me they’ve signed a traditional deal, but they’re afraid to mention it to anyone because they get castigated. The attitude seems to be that if the book is good enough to get a book deal, then self-publishing makes more sense.
What a change in just a few years when people would break open a bottle of champagne upon getting a book deal. Now one almost dares not mention it for fear of being ridiculed for not taking the indie route. There are some indie authors saying they will never go back to traditional publishing; the key phrase is “go back”. It’s curious that a lot of us who have been successful as indies actually started in traditional publishing, giving us a distinct leg up; along with a thing called backlist.
I’m a big believer in being flexible and keeping options open. I’ve changed my view on things over the years and will continue to do so. Part of that is my Special Forces background, part of it is having experienced the spectrum of publishing. And part of it is having learned to never say never.
For a new writer, with no backlist, it’s an entirely different event with the first book. It’s easy for me to say “Well, it would be hard for me to go trad now,” when I’ve been traditionally published 42 times. I definitely understand the ups and downs of it. Actually, with the right deal, I would do it. But the odds of that ‘right’ deal happening are iffy at this point in my career—the key being MY career with my particular monkeys, which aren’t anyone else’s (mine are cute). And the other key is I know what would make it right. Or wrong. And I would be realistic about it, not starry-eyed. Actually, I am a hybrid author in that I publish books with 47North, Amazon’s science fiction imprint. I do that for various reasons, giving up a percentage of possible royalties as an indie in exchange for other benefits. I feel it’s the right monkey for me.
I used the term ‘hybrid’ author back in 2011 in a blog post here. It’s probably the most successful way to go, unless you are a top 1% author. But you can’t be hybrid unless you are published traditionally eventually. An interesting thing few talk about is the successful indies who end up going trad.
For a brand new writer, I believe the odds of initial success going the traditional route, if one can successfully negotiate it, are better than going the indie route. Unless, of course, that new writer has mastered all the aspects of indie publishing, which is a Catch-22 right there. How can they master something when they don’t even understand, or have experience in, the basics?
The reality is that there is a reason all these people are employed by publishers: editors, cover designers, publicists, sales force, etc. And agents play a vital role for a new author, helping them negotiate this confusing path. As a small publisher, I understand that because we have to do all this at Cool Gus for an author; on their own they quickly get overwhelmed, which is the reason they want us to handle most of it, while keeping them informed. Would an unpublished author know how to do it, and not just to do it, but do it correctly? And how would they gain an audience in an eBook market that is drowning in content? Most importantly, there is definitely a place for print, and that market is not anywhere near as crowded simply because there is limited shelf space. Right there, the trad author is ahead of the power curve. A trad publisher getting a new author’s book into the bookstore is a very, very important thing.
A caveat is that a book deal is just the start, but for a previously unpublished author, it can be a solid start if they recognize the positive and the pitfalls and use the internet to study the wealth of information about how they should be planning for the future. I’ve gotten several emails from authors who have their first book coming out in the next year from a trad publisher, asking what they should be doing. That’s worrisome because although I have definitely seen a large improvement in marketing by trad publishers, I go back to my question from years ago of how many agents and publishers have an SOP they give to brand new authors, informing them on the process and what they can be doing? I’m sure there are those who do in this technical age, but probably not as many as should. An author needs to develop a career plan, not fall into the ‘sell the next book’ syndrome. It’s one of the reasons I wrote Write It Forward. I took what we did in Special Forces and applied it to making a living as an author. Regardless of path, successful authors must have a career plan!
On the flip side, I do think successful traditional authors should really consider indie publishing some titles. Keep options open for the future. Because the one constant in publishing is there is no constant. The creative freedom of being part-indie can be incredibly freeing for an author who has only experienced traditional publishing. At Cool Gus, authors have the final say on everything to do with the book, from content, to cover, to pub date, to marketing. We advise; they decide.
Bottom line: long-term success on any path of publishing (including the infamous hybrid) is extraordinarily rare and difficult.
It’s like anything else: educate oneself. Be flexible. Take what you need and leave the rest. But there are many, many roads to Oz. And Oz is different for each of us. Each of us must find our own Yellow Brick Road; and we must deal with our particular group of flying monkeys.
I’ve done very few blogs about the publishing business in 2014. But I think an annual blog is appropriate. I’m posting 16 random thoughts; take them for what they are worth.
- Does it build readership? I’ve posted less about publishing because it doesn’t sell books or build readership. I know we like having fifty thousand people read our blog and think we’re pithy, but so what? The translation from that to buying a book is nebulous. Too many people waste time and energy arguing about things (Amazon, Trad publishing, indie publishing, hybrid publishing, Martian publishing, what other authors should do) they have no control over. I focus on what I control and always ask myself: is this going to sell books, either short term, or long? Does this give my readers something of value since I am asking them for the most valuable investment a human can make: TIME.
- The gold rush is over. Contradicting the previous post, I was interviewed by the NY Times this past week (out today) and I essentially said times are hard. Lots of authors are seeing sales drop. Two main reasons: Primarily a glut of content and lesser, the effect of Kindle Unlimited. Trad authors haven’t felt it much yet, but they will, starting from the bottom up. The midlisters are going to feel the squeeze first.
- Traditional publishing is living in a bubble. Profits were up because of eBooks. Great. But the content glut will level part of that out. Also, sooner or later, they’re going to have to pay their authors a higher percentage on eBooks. Their midlist is getting creamed. Where will their next big names come from? Indies? Maybe, but check out Barbara Freethy’s deal with Ingram. The next wave of mega-authors will gradually walk away from traditional publishing unless the business model changes.
- The eBook market has not ‘leveled off’. I see so many statistics claiming that the eBook market has flattened, yada, yada. Tell it to VHS manufacturers. eBooks are the future. We’re not going to go back to print. It will always be around; much like LPs. The reality is the fast growth has slowed down simply because of statistics. As the market share grows, there’s only so much more you can increase. And take out your handful of current mega-authors and their books in Walmart, Costco, Sams and airports and overall, print is tanking fast. Lots of wishful thinking out there.
- This is not a get rich scheme. Go play the lottery; it’s cheaper and a lot easier with better odds. I’ve been making a living as a writer for over a quarter century. I’ve seen 99% of authors come and go in that time.
- Beware gurus. I have to smile when I see some social media guru proclaiming something and check their social media platform and they follow like 3 people on twitter and have 6 followers and they have no blog and some don’t even have a web site. Lots of people preach what they don’t do. I’ve seen tons of startups proclaimed as the next big thing come and go in the past 5 years. I see the same names presenting at lots of industry events and it’s numbing since the stuff they’re saying is so basic, Cool Gus could say it. It’s really a simple formula: write good books, build your readership, and work your ass off.
- Gimmicks don’t work. Bundles, free, .99 cent eBooks, signing your soul over to Satan, spam, fake reviews, etc. etc. I see lots of the above-mentioned gurus pretend they have the ‘answer’. But when you delve into it for hard data on actual sales, the answers tend to get very vague. Anyone (guru or not) who believes they have the way to sell more eBooks via whatever (social media, metadata, contract with the devil) drop me a line. I will give you a midlist title with at least three years of sales data and let’s see what you can do with it. Seriously. I’m throwing this challenge out there. I’d love to see it work. Hell, I’ll give you a half dozen titles with data to work your magic. Prove your theory with numbers. You’ll become a millionaire if what you preach works!
- The content glut isn’t going away. It was initially called a tsunami, but those recede. Online, shelf space is pretty much infinite both in space and time. Lots of writers will quit out of despair, but there will be a never-ending supply of those who take their place.
- Slow down and have a long vision. The internet is fast which makes us think we have to be fast. While it’s difficult to set specific goals since we don’t control all the business factors, you should set overall, long term, personal goals. The #1 key to success is to set a long term goal and doing whatever it takes to achieve it.
- Networking is a long-term investment. Most of my networking ‘breakthroughs’ came two years or more after the initial investment of time, goodwill, and effort. Which is why-
- Treat everyone with respect. I tend to be a contrarian so I’ve had to work hard on not ranting or disagreeing with people publicly. Because you know what: they may end up being right and I might be wrong a year from now. (I’m never wrong. Okay, there was that time in 1996. And whenever my wife says I’m wrong. Which is every day).
- Too much tilting at windmills. Focus on what you control and your business. Stop trying to tell everyone else how to run theirs. I’m not ever going to be the CEO of a Big 5 publisher so why should I waste time figuring that out and telling everyone how I’d run it? I’m not going to be Jeff Bezos and he’s doesn’t give a rat’s ass what I think so why waste time on it? I do like what Bezos said: Complaining is not a business strategy which leads to . . .
- Be positive and a good person to work with. I’m on a lot of loops, some private, with a lot of authors. I very rarely say anything, but I read a lot. And I’m astonished at how much authors bitch and complain and go bonkers in a heartbeat over some perceived, or even real, slight. Authors are too paranoid even though everyone is out to get us.
- But don’t be a mouse. When I was traditionally published, I rarely contacted my agent, my editor, my ‘publicist’ etc. I thought I was being the ‘good’ author who didn’t bug them and they would do their job regarding my book. No, I was being the stupid author who got ignored. I’m not saying be a dick or obnoxious, but every once in a while let those people who you work with know you exist. It’s my Chelsea theory. We had a great Golden Retriever named Chelsea. Our house was never robbed. Did we go: “Hey, Chelsea great job!” Nope. We took it for granted. Don’t be taken for granted. Because
- Content rules. Seriously. Writers produce content. Anyone in this business who thinks they are more important (other than consumer, the reader) is flat out wrong. That mindset comes from pre-Internet bookselling, when there were lots of gatekeepers between the author and reader and they began to believe they were the most important aspect in the process. Not true any more. Respect yourself and what you do. An agent, editor, publisher, bookseller, Martian, guru, etc. is never more important than the content creator. Any who think they are: Wrong.
- Produce great content. Bottom line. Throw everything else out and this is your mantra every single day: Write damn good books that readers love.
“There’s a big gap between a wanna-be and a be.”
I went through a number of military schools where they would announce on the first day: “Look to your left. Look to your right. One of you won’t be here by the end.” I never, ever, thought that person would be me. While Beast Barracks, the Special Forces Q-Course, SERE, Danish Combat Swim, Ranger, International Mountain Climbing, Winter Warfare, Alien Probing, etc. are all hard, the most difficult in terms of graduation rate (16%) was actually Jumpmaster school because the criteria was a 100% on every test, since a 1% error in jumpmastering could kill someone.
Making my living writing for the past 25 years, I have to say the success rate makes even jumpmaster school look easy. Far less than 1% of those who finish a manuscript move on to a long term career as a writer. I would submit it’s probably closer to 1 out of 10,000. And many of those who start a manuscript never finish it anyway.
I’ve watched many published writers come and go over the years; taught tens of thousands of writers; presented thousands of workshops and been with the business through traditional publishing, indie publishing, hybrid publishing, and encounters with aliens. Here are 10 things I’ve seen in common for success:
- Successful authors are stupid. In reality, wanting to be an author is kind of dumb. Not a good career choice. I ascribe to the Terry Gilliam view of success in creativity: “Talent is less important in film-making than patience. If you really want your films to say something that you hope is unique, then patience and stamina, thick skin, and a kind of stupidity, a mule-like stupidity, is what you really need.”
- Successful authors face their fears and work through them with courage. Yes, that writer giving that keynote looks so self-assured and confident, but we are are all the same. We all feel the fear of failure, the fear of criticism, the fear of not being good enough. You can’t get rid of it. You brave your way through it.
- Successful authors live with risk daily. And nightly. There are no guarantees in this business. No writer’s health plan. Retirement plan. We live on our wits and skills and talent and hard work.
- The minute a successful author thinks they have it made, they are no longer successful. I’ve seen it happen time and time again. We never have it made. Always stay ahead of the curve.
- Successful authors are always willing to learn and adapt and change. Especially in today’s rapidly changing market place. There’s a large section of authors trying to hold on to the old way of doing things. They can try, but it’s wasted energy and will harm them in the long run. Adapt or die.
- Successful authors got lucky. The nice ones know they got lucky and are always appreciative. There are some who think they are geniuses, etc. They may well be, but to succeed in this business, a little bit of luck is needed. Sometimes a lot. But you have to seize luck, not just watch it go by.
- Luck comes to those who work really, really, hard.
- Successful authors give back to the community. Most, anyway. Every profession has its share of dicks.
- Successful authors study the craft and the business. My work is story. My hobby is story. I spend most of my free time studying story, whether it’s in book, TV, movie or life.
- Successful authors WRITE.
- Yes, because Spinal Tap says turn it to ELEVEN and to loop back to Monty Python in point 1: The reality, with the changes in the publishing world, the only person who can stop a writer these days is themselves. And far too many do that. SUCCESSFUL AUTHORS NEVER QUIT!
PS: It Doesn’t Just Happen Bonus iBooks Giveaway!
I want to thank everyone who participated in the last giveaway of It Doesn’t Just Happen: The Gift of Failure. I appreciate the support and honest feedback/reviews. I’ve been really excited about this series and glad to see it finding its readership.
As a special bonus for iBooks readers, we’d like to give away 10 ebooks of both It Doesn’t Just Happen books I and II to those of you who use iBooks over other platforms. We will give you a special discount code to use at iBooks to download the book to your preferred device. All you need to do is email us at bobandjen @ coolgus dot com or reply to this email. Please remember this is for iBooks only. The contest will include anyone who signs up to my newsletter. You can do so below.
Remember, It Doesn’t Just Happen!
Nothing but good times!
Some thought my last post at Digital Book World was aimed at Authors United, but it wasn’t. I mentioned them as simply the clearest example of a misguided business focus by authors. We all can be a bit, shall we say, unfocused. Some find me a bit bleary-eyed at times. But that’s Cool Gus waking me up too early in the morning. Or is it Becca– she always seems to be on top.
It’s easy to blame Amazon for declining sales. While for Hachette authors, they have a legitimate hatchet to grind (couldn’t resist), it’s not the complete story. Also, they are focusing on an outlet, when they signed a contract with the distributor, which refuses to sign a contract with the outlet. Their real gripe is with the organization they are contractually obligated to.
Be that as it may be, and it is; we also have some indie authors who act like we all should link arms around the campfire and sing Kumbaya. That we all should help each other and that competition, ‘well, no, that’s not really an issue’. In fact, when I bring it up, I’m chastised like some mercenary from the now defunct Blackwater, resurrected as Academi (seriously, folks). But I was never a mercenary and served in Spec Ops out of deep sense of comradery with my fellow soldiers. I do these blog posts (and I’ve done a lot of them) sharing my thoughts and projections for fellow authors. Take ‘em or leave ‘em, but I submit if you look in the archives of this blog, I’ve got a lot more good stuff here in terms of craft and business for authors than 99% of others around ye old campfire. Let’s go back to my mention of ‘hybrid author’ in 2011? You know, when everyone was talking about it. Not. Now you can’t swing a dead duck without reading or hearing ‘hybrid’ mentioned.
I’ve got a new term: Diffusion. It’s how our content is being diffused in the flood of total content.
But we can blame Amazon for declining sales since it opened the floodgates; just not in the way Authors United believes. Because I submit many of those non-Hachette authors who signed the letter are also losing sales. Yes, they believe Jeff Bezos and Russ Grandinetti sit in the dark playing with their algorithm blocks, occasionally throwing one at Jon Fine, and are screwing authors.
It’s the content flood and diffusion. And sorry, Jon Fine, tsunami sounds cool, but I’m telling ya’ it’s Biblical, dude.
Let’s look at some indicators that have been very telling.
Harlequin’s revenue has gone down every single quarter for over three years now. Every quarter. I’ve watched that. I used to think HQ was the perfect business model for the new digital world with readers willing to buy specific lines of books regardless of author. However, HQ is a direct casualty, let’s call it a center of mass shot with a sucking chest wound, of the indie author movement. So many of their successful authors jumped ship quickly for higher royalties, it’s taken its toll.
The reason? Romance authors are by far the most business savvy of any genre (don’t even get me started on SFWA which apparently just learned women can write good books). Because RWA chapters do stand around the campfire and chat. Every month. Not like men chat. But like women chat. You know. That. They even ask directions. In the business. And they share. That’s not to say they wouldn’t pound a stiletto high heel into your brain if you crossed them, but they’ll smile when they do it. Their customer base, 56% of fiction, is so broad, the content surge is only beginning to lap at their high heels. But com’n, some of ya are feeling it. Eh?
And Harlequin was sold. I blogged about this when I talked about The #1 Thing Authors Need to Consider Ref Amazon-Hachette (28 May 2014). This caught me some flack from some trad authors who felt I’d overstepped my bounds. But if you don’t own your rights, you can be traded, down-sized, out-sourced, and disappeared. Diffused into nothingness.
Elloras Cave is on the ropes. The pioneer in digital. How can that be? They claim some vague Amazon campaign against them. Yeah, Bezos and Grandnetti decided to screw them because . . .? These guys are working on getting drones flying over China. Of course, looking deeper, after reading The Everything Store, there is the issue about some types of erotica being submerged due to content and cover because of concerns about the wide range of customers on Amazon. After all, we can’t have a gun on the cover of one of our books and pay for advertising on Amazon (gun removed from cover on right). Soooo . . .
I mentioned Cool Gus’ revenue is up 22% this year over last. There are several reasons why, but one is we did something counter-intuitive. By the end of this year we will be working with half the number of authors we started the year with (and that wasn’t many to start with). Our partings have been amiable, but we’re really honing our business model, which is to provide top service to a handful of authors.
There’s going against a prevalent business model, which I’ve seen agents and publishers pursue over the years: throw a lot of authors and books out there and make a little off each.
That model, as evidenced by the crash and burn of a number of companies, is not a forward looking one.
And another reason we’re ‘down-sizing’ while ‘up-earning’ (oh yeah, trademarking that along with diffusion) is we believe going forward that a couple of top authors, looking at the reality of their royalty statements, crunching the numbers on digital percentage, will realize they need to change their business model (it’s even a radical concept for many trad authors to understand they need their own business model and not be handcuffed to a publisher or, gasp, their agent!). But the concept of going from a model they’re comfortable with and has served them well for a long time, into the unknown frenzy of the indie world, has them understandably hesitant. The learning curve is incredibly steep. That’s where Cool Gus is focused. It takes Jen and I about an hour to walk an author through what exactly we provide and why it’s needed in a world where cover design, editing, formatting and upload can be outsourced on a one time fee basis. As if that were enough to be successful.
We’ve always believed an eBook is organic. Very much unlike print (which actually is getting more organic with POD, which is the future, and I have no doubt Jeff Bezos and Russ Grandnetti have sat in the dark and come up with a very specific plan for that– one reason Jen visited Createspace HQ last year, but I digress). Thus it requires an organic publisher able to adapt and change and operate swiftly. Swiftness is revenue in the digital world. And slow is one of the chief adjectives for large organizations. We also believe an author’s career is organic and needs to be adaptive to rapidly changing opportunities, not locked into long term contracts and archaic business models. At the same time, we think an author has to focus on long term revenue, not the quick money up front.
The reality is the Flood is going to get deeper and deeper and deeper and our content will suffer more and more diffusion. Many who are doing well now, won’t be doing so well in the future, both indie and trad and hybrid and Martian. That’s not being mean, it’s being realistic. The first step of change is to rip away denial. That’s the only way to not only survive but thrive.
My last two books released this month (on the 9th and next week on the 30th; another lesson learned, back to back releases) are titled Shit Doesn’t Just Happen (I and II): The Gift of Failure. I’ve mentioned it before on this blog, and again in those books, that Special Forces are Masters of Chaos. Combat is chaos. Disasters are chaos. And publishing is getting increasingly chaotic.
Let’s master it.