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Indie & Trad Publishing & Flying Monkeys On The Yellow Brick Road!

Flying-monkey-with-wicked-witch-wizard-of-oz-416597As you negotiate your journey through the wonderful world of publishing, be careful of those flying monkeys as you gaze in the crystal ball of your career path.

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.

backgroundA 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.

The Content Flood & Authors Whining Part Deux

IMG_0819Some 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.

Nope.

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.

BOL(new_3a)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.

Beretee KnifeThe 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.

Getting Lost in NJ on the way to Thrillerfest in NYC

I had some interesting travels this past week.

womanwalkingIt started off with some issues flying out of Rochester to LGA. I had the right dates but somehow I had booked myself from LGA to ROC instead of ROC to LGA. It happens. Not often, but it does. Now this is why I heart Delta. Because I booked it through their site on my business AMEX CARD from Delta, Howard at the Delta counter worked his magic and got to NY and back without any extra charges. How awesome is that? But this was the start of a Planes, Trains and Walking movie. The emphasis on walking. Oh, and I broke my favorite black sandals that are insanely comfortable because off all the walking I ended up doing…

Bob and I decided that since I was heading to NJ to visit with one of our contract editors that it would be a good idea for me to head across the Hudson and spend a day at Thrillerfest, so instead of driving (I don’t drive in NYC) I flew. I managed to get from LGA to Penn Station via a bus, then walked two blocks to the Path and get on the train. Of course when I got to the Path I had to pick between two trains. Well, I had to make sure I got on the right train, which I did. I even got off at the right stop. All by myself. See, I don’t generally travel alone, anywhere. If its work, I’m with Bob. If its fun, I’m with Hubby. So, this is all their fault. Just saying.

Fast forward to Friday and I had to make my way back into NYC via the train. And walking. Well, not as much walking. I managed to take the Path to 33rd and transfer to the D train and then off at 42nd and then walked in the RIGHT direction to the Grand Hyatt where I was able to get into my hotel room at 10am! When does that happen? So perhaps the travel Gods are no longer frowning on me.

I didn’t actually attend Thrillerfest, so I can’t report back on any of the panels or workshops, because I didn’t attend any, but I did sit in the lobby and meet with authors as well as one of our contacts from Amazon and also got to meet face to face (even if for a moment) our contact at iBooks.

My first meeting was with Amy Shojai, one of our authors. It was nice to see her again and we discussed our plan with her future books. I then had lunch with Laura Benedict and Rebecca Cantrell and a couple other authors as well as agent Janet Reid. It was a great lunch, chatting about publishing and other topics.

But what struck me right off the bat this year at Thrillerfest was the feeling I got the moment I started to see people was an overwhelming positive sense. And, while I know the topic of Amazon and Hachette was discussed, it wasn’t THE topic of conversation. I talked with a lot of authors who are trying different things from Kickstarter to collaborations to shorts to switching genres to writing more, writing less. Many roads to OZ.

While it had a very positive vibe, Thrillerfest is still very grounded in Traditional Publishing. Even though many authors are dipping their fingers into other possibilities, the focus is on Traditional.

There is a danger in having roots too deep in any one camp. There are both positive and negatives to both indie publishing and trad publishing. I think the hardest part for an author today is sorting through all the information and making the right decision for themselves. This is especially hard when the top 1% on both sides who are well respected in the business are giving advice that is often times the complete opposite of one another. Many of the authors I talked to at Thrillerfest are intrigued by what Bob and I are doing and the Cool Gus Business Model, but, and this is a big but, they are either doing well enough with current publisher, or stuck in contractual obligations, or simply scared to make the leap in part because they do know its not “simple”. It doesn’t matter what side of the fence you sit on, or not sit on, publishing is still undergoing some major changes and there is more to come. We can fight it all we want, but that won’t change reality. Change is required to grow.

There is a lot of misinformation being passed around the internet. And a lot of slanted information for one side or the other. It’s very hard to wade through all the blogs, news articles, blogs and posts about any and all aspects of publishing. I had a long talk at Thrillerfest with Dan from Amazon, mostly about Cool Gus and our authors, since that is my business, and that is the point. It’s a business and we all have to make business decisions. Many roads to OZ and OZ means different things to different people. But we do all have to exist and often work together in this business. Sometimes ego just has to be checked at the door.

Now, how did I break my shoes?

Thrillerfest Dinner 2014Keith Raffel was gracious and invited me out to dinner with him, Laura Benedict, Shane Gericke, Janice Gable Bashman, Karen Dionne, Rebecca Cantrell, Kieran Crowley and Julie Kramer. The dinner was filled a lot of wonderful conversations about various aspects of publishing and different ways to go about it. Also, Rebecca was up for Best eBook Original and WON! Congrats Rebecca! Dinner was on 2nd Avenue near 77th and Keith, Laura and I got this bright idea we’d walk back. Very glad we did as Keith provided a great Fire Work show (thanks Keith!) for Laura and I and also let Laura and I window shop for shoes in some very nice little shops. But, it is a long walk from 77th and 2nd to 42nd and whatever intersection that is for the Grand Hyatt hotel. Not to mention we took a slight detour to see the fireworks. Unfortunately, these long leisurely walks weren’t meant for my very favorite black sandals and the straps broke on the way up to my room and oddly, these were the only shoes I brought with me. Thankfully, I didn’t have anymore walking and got a cab to the airport in duct tape sandals.

Nothing but Good Times.

10 Observations on Book Expo America from the Author Hub

This was Cool Gus’ third BEA. With the launch of the Author Hub, for the first time we actually had a footprint on the convention floor.

Here are ten observations from the Cool Gus team (aka Jen and Bob)

  1. Bob was doing an interview with someone from NPR and she mentioned there was a different vibe this year.  She said she sensed that people were realizing authors were more important.
  2. We very much felt a different vibe. We realized it came from 2 things: we were approaching things differently and that the whole traditional publishing, Patterson comments, etc. were of little consequence to us. Dinosaurs braying in the tar pits, and we’re not in the pits. It is a natural tendency for people to defend an antiquated system that has, and continues to, treat them very well. But to wrap it up in the guise of speaking for all authors, means Patterson and many authors never ventured near the Amazon KDP/Createsapce/ACX booth where . . .
  3. A group of very successful indie authors made their their own footprint on the floor right next to Amazon’s booth where a video monitor continuously played with many authors giving their testimonials about self-publishing and their success. What’s most interesting is these are authors in whom Amazon has no vested interest, in the way that Hachette and its authors are tied together. If that had been the case, Amazon would have featured AP authors instead of self-pubbers who also do very well on other platforms such as Apple and Nook. I think the message being broadcast was that Amazon truly does view authors as customers and they were celebrating some of their best customers. Such as Bella Andre (being a trooper and attending even though under the weather), Barbara Freethy, Hugh Howey (who wrote an interesting an accurate blog about the Amazon-Hachette thing here), Tina Folsom (who sells as much in Germany as in the US), Lilliana Hart, HM Ward, Jacinda Wilder, Debra Holland (and if we missed anyone we apologize.)   Listening to their words, while they all were more than happy with the money they make, one word kept coming up again and again and it’s a word traditional authors are pretty clueless about, because they don’t have any:
  4. Control. Control over content. Lilliana Hart said no trad publisher would touch the type of books she writes, yet her readers devour it. Cover, promo, pricing, distribution, etc. are all in the author’s hands. This is one of the keys to Cool Gus, because we work for the author, which is a unique perspective as a publisher. Because . . .
  5. A lot of people kind of like Cool Gus, but many of them aren’t sure what we do. Jon Fine of Amazon said that flat out as we crossed light sabers on Bourbon Street in New Orleans. He said, “I get what you do, but I don’t get what you do.” We like to believe we’re the template for a new type of agile, small, author-centric publishing model. The problem for others trying to do it is that it’s taken us five years to learn how to do it and we experimented on my backlist, not other authors’ books. For example . . .
  6. We had Jennifer Probst do a booksigning of Executive Seduction at BEA. She loved meeting her fans, but being Jennifer, because she has to have an intimate discussion with everyone she meets, she ran out of time before she ran out of fans. Janice Maynard met us there where she was doing a signing for her trad publisher, Harlequin, and we discussed ways we could help her sales of those books. Why would we care about her HQ sales? Because our approach is author centric. We want our authors to succeed regardless.
  7. Bob and Jen were also interviewed by a stringer from Associated Press. He pushed Bob for comments on the Hachette-Amazon debacle. Here’s the deal: readers don’t really care if a goat publishes a book they want. There have been plenty of great blogs and articles posted on it. What we do believe is that sooner or later, some big name trad author is going to realize they want the control of going indie; along with the much higher royalty rates. No one’s talking about it, but I bet several authors are seriously considering. Drop us a line.
  8. And Amazon isn’t the only game in town. We had lunch with Nook, meetings with Apple and Google and walked away feeling very positive. Each platform brings unique opportunities for us and we’re going to start using those better.
  9. Looping back, we felt the Author’s Hub was a great idea. It gave us a place to have meetings with companies like Bookbub, Library Thing and other platforms that help us reach our readers. Thanks for Porter Anderson and everyone else involved in making it reality. We’ll be back next year for it because . . .
  10. We left BEA feeling very upbeat and positive about the direction of Cool Gus and publishing.
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