Sunday, 13 April 2014

The Lyn Shepherd / JK Rowling Argument

Hi Guys,

Recently a writer by the name of Lyn Shepherd wrote a piece for the Huffington Post entitled that if JK Rowling cared about writing she should stop doing it.

Now I don't know why she wrote this. Her thesis was that JK Rowling is so successful as an author that her books crowd the shelves and make it hard for other less well known authors to compete. Personally I find this argument incredibly weak, (I could use other words). And to me as an outsider it really does look like a case of sour grapes, or worse perhaps, a cynical marketing ploy to sell her own books through some negative PR of a successful author. However I don't know the woman and I could be completely mistaken.

Regardless of that my thought on the thrust of the article is that it's completely wrong. We as writers and authors should applaud those who are successful in the industry, and perhaps JK Rowling most of all. Maybe it's fine to feel a little envious, it's only human after all, but in the end I believe these authors do more to help the less successful authors than they could ever do to harm them. JK Rowling is a case in point.

Her Harry Potter books are widely credited as having revived a flagging genre - fantasy, as having brought people back to reading, and even as having helped with encouraging children to read. And this phenomenon has been studied by some accredited researchers:

So my view is that if JK Rowling puts out a new book say once a year and knocks a few other big named authors from their top perches, it doesn't really bother me. It's just part and parcel of working in a competitive industry. If on the other hand her books inspire children to read and bring people away from their tv screens to read fantasy, that is an awesome thing. It can only be good for the children, and for the rest of us authors as well.

So I say good on JK, and write, write, write!

Cheers, Greg.

Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Anne Rice's Petition To Amazon Against Anonymous Reviews - Why I Won't Sign.

Hi Guys,

Recently as many of you will be aware, Anne Rice, acting as a spokesperson for a number of authors on Amazon, posted about a petition they were putting out. A petition asking Amazon to stop the practice of reviews being posted as anonymous.

The reasons for this were mainly that anonymity allowed for posters to post reviews that were in some cases unfair, occasionally sock puppets designed to drive up (or down) book sales, often misdirected against the author instead of the work, and in too many cases actually threatening violence.

Look, I have respect as an author and a reader for Anne Rice's work. I have most of her Vampire novels on my shelves. And as an author also on Amazon who has taken a few hits from readers - some of which I regard as unfair - I have a fair degree of sympathy for the situation she describes. That being said, I will not sign the petition.

My reasoning is that anonymous reviews are simply part and parcel of the publishing world, and that to restrict the practice would be to restrict readers from having their say. Many readers would not post reviews if they had to use their own names, and I believe that most of them would not be those posting these unfair and sometimes threatening reviews. In the end we are talking about only a few reviewers who post inflammatory reviews under the guise of anonymity, but to take the action of stopping anonymous reviews is to punish everyone for their actions. That's unfair.

In my view the correct action is to directly target those who do post these reviews, and the way to do this is to ask Amazon to more strictly enforce their TOS. As part of that I would suggest the following:

First threats of violence. We live in a civilised world and there is absolutely no place for violence and threats. If someone were to come up to me in the street and threaten me, my response would be to go to the police. And if the medium has changed so that instead of a street it's on the Internet, the response should be the same.

Next reviews that can't seem to separate the work from the writer and end up in personal attacks. Look this again is a violation of Amazon's TOS. They should be reported and taken down as quickly as they go up. And if a particular reviewer seems incapable of avoiding the same mistakes repeatedly, they should be prevented from posting more reviews until they can.

Then the sock puppets. This is a complex problem and it actually occurs on both sides. Some sock puppets are actual attempts to drive up the rating and hence appeal of books. Others are by disgruntled readers who are so upset with a work that they believe just saying it once is not enough so they'll use multiple Amazon accounts and identities. In both cases this is a violation of the TOS and should be stopped. I understand that people on both sides feel passionately about various books, but in the end it's not about that. It's about having your fair say. And that generally means one review per person. Why should I or anyone else have more say than others simply because I have the skills to create multiple Amazon accounts etc? Why is my opinion more valuable than that of anyone else?

Anyway, those are my thoughts on this particular petition. In a nut shell it's using a sledgehammer to crack a walnut and it denies many readers the right to give legitimate reviews of what they read in the comforting embrace of anonymity. It discourages reviews, good and bad. And as a published author one of the things we should all want is feedback.

Cheers, Greg.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Pen Names - Some Thoughts.

Hi Guys,

Thought it's about time to post something new, and this is a topic that's been around on the blogosphere and various fora for a while now. So I thought I'd share my views on pen names.

First up, do you need a pen name? My thought would be that for most of us the answer is no.

As a general principle I think we should all be brave enough to stand up and take credit for what we write, whether good or bad. Pen names are a way of avoiding this and in my view they should be limited to only a few situations. The main one would be when what you write would be likely to cause you undue hardship in your daily life should it be linked back to you. And by this I don't mean embarrassment. Okay, so you're a top flight neuro-surgeon and you like writing romances on the side. So what? Why can't you do both and be proud of them? A little embarrassment isn't going to really affect your life, professional or personal, in any way.

On the other hand if your work entails supporting a particular political or ethical position and your writing goes against it, then yes a pen name might be valuable or even necessary to you. For example a priest might find it awkward writing romance novels. A Republican Party strategist could find it difficult to explain his writing novels about an idealised communist world.

So yes there are reasons why a pen name might be the way to go as a writer. The acid test for when exactly this might be would be to ask yourself the question - if it becomes known that I write this work, will it cause me a red face or genuine hardship in my life?

Another question that often arises with the use of pen names is should writers use more than one? My answer would be no. If you use a pen name you should only use that one pen name and no others. (Not even your own name.)

This is a position based purely on the logic of selling your books. Now a number of people have said that they write in different genre and they think a different pen name for each genre would be a smart idea. My thought would be the exact opposite. If you're trying to make a living as a writer you want to sell as many books as you can. And one way to maximise sales is by writing multiple books and hoping that your readers will like one of your books and so try another. This is a synergistic effect so that the sale of one book hopefully adds to the selling of another. But how will your readers ever know to try another book of yours if you wrote it under a different name? The synergistic effect may be smaller when the books are in different genres, but it would still be foolish in my view to simply discard it.

The other thing to consider when marketing your work is that as an author you aren't just marketing what you write - you're marketing yourself. To give an example, I think everyone would know who Dame Barabara Cartland is. And they would know that she writes romance novels. Now for me as a reader of sci fi and fantasy, I know her name but I've never read any of her books. They simply aren't my cup of tea. However If she suddenly produced an epic fantasy novel or a hard sci fi novel and I came across it, her name alone would catch my attention. It would make me look at the book. If on the other hand she wrote the book as Joe Blogs, it probably wouldn't.

And as a final thought on using multiple pen names I would point out that it's hard enough trying to make a name for yourself as a writer. Trying to make two or three different names for yourself as a writer has to be two or three times as much work.

Cheers, Greg.

Wednesday, 22 January 2014

Indie Books and The Mark of Quality - The Golden Quill.

Hi Guys,

Ok, this is something that comes up again and again in writing fora. The demarcation line between indie books and trade published books. The question of quality.

Over and over again we hear the same tired cries from those invested in the world of trade publishing - Indie books are substandard. Poorly edited, bad plots, bad formatting, rough covers etc etc. And to be fair there are a great many indie books put out by indie authors that simply aren't up to standard. Books that would not be published by a trade publishing concern.

And naturally the cry goes up from indies - including myself - this doesn't apply to all indie books. It probably doesn't apply to the great majority at all.

So the problem becomes, how to separate the properly edited etc indie books from the rest. And as usual there is a cry for some sort of quality mark. But as I've said previously, while I think the industry does need and want this, there are simply too many hurdles in the way for it to happen. If a private book assessment process was put in place, who would run it? Who would be neutral? Who would have the sufficient prestige for their sign to mean anything? How would it be paid for? And if authors paid would it be trustworthy or accepted? Would authors pay for it if it was too dear? And perhaps the number one problem, there are I think close to two million books on Amazon's Kindle. How the heck could anyone even do more than a few?

However, it occurs to me that there is another way. Another system, which while nowhere near as advanced or comprehensive as the aforementioned system, is achievable now with very minor effort, and at almost no cost. What's more it's a system that's already in use in the music industry. The gold record.

With gold records, artists receive them when they sell a certain number of albums. And maybe it's just a silly decoration to stick on the wall, but it's also a mark of quality. Not necessarily a good one. But as any free marketeer will tell you part of the reason things sell is because of quality. Poor quality products generally don't sell well. There are exceptions. Price points are an issue, and sometimes cheap overrides quality. (One huge argument against the practise of free books.) But at least it's something.

So my thought is that books could have the equivalent of a golden record system - a Golden Quill. Maybe in fact a quill system with bronze, silver, gold and platinum. So a book - trade or indie - might get a bronze quill for a thousand sales. A silver quill for five thousand sales. A gold quill for twenty five thousand sales. And platinum quills for a hundred thousand sales.

Naturally this would only be a system that Amazon could implement since they're the big boys on the block as far as indies and ebooks go. But it wouldn't cost them much to do since they already are counting sales for purposes of royalty payments, and I assume keep those records digitally for years for tax purposes. So one IT guy could spend a few hours adding a new column to the sales spreadsheet. A graphic designer could come up with a logo. And hey presto it's done!

Now each book when it sells one thousand copies after returns are subtracted, gets a bronze quill on its book pages. And each author page would presumably include the appropriate quills beside the appropriate books.

Now this system is good for indie authors. Or those indie authors who do work hard at writing good books and editing them professionally etc. Even if sales are lacklustre perhaps because they're in an unpopular genre, they should be able to hit bronze. And a bronze will hopefully help distinguish them from those who haven't reached this level of sales, perhaps because their work is not up to standard.

It's good for readers because they see the quill and can immediately know that another thousand readers have purchased the same book (note that this could never apply to freebies) and not returned it. That means that the book may not be the read of their dreams but it's probably not going to be a poorly edited mess for the slush pile.

It's good for Amazon too. They get to separate their books and authors into different piles. And when they find the ones they like because they sell, they can push them a bit harder, while those that never sell can be forgotten. And as any salesman will tell you you get better results from pushing things that already sell then you do from trying to push the unsaleable. They already do this from their sales ranks. Books that have higher sales ranks get more pushing than others.

Now Amazon already has sales ranks. But the problem of course with sales ranks is that they go up and down. So for the reader when they see a book with a poor sales rank, they don't know whether that was because this is a newly released book that hasn't yet had any exposure, it's an older book that's had its day, or because it really wasn't very good. The quill remains as a cumulative sales rank reassuring readers.

Amazon also has a review system, and I do support this. However reviews in my case come once every hundred and fifty or so paid sales, and can be remarkably fickle. A quill is just a number in the end.

Anyway that's my idea. The closest I think the industry can come to a quality mark at this stage. And if you like it, I suggest you suggest it to Amazon. I already have.

Cheers, Greg.

Monday, 30 December 2013

2014 - My Predictions as an Indie

Hi Guys,

Well 2014 is five hours away New Zealand time, and I think it's time to start guessing what the new year holds for us indies. So here are my predictions and if they prove to be slightly amiss I claim its due to the after effects of bad egg nog!

1. Free. For the past year we have seen Amazon moving away from free. To be fair the trend was always predictable, they were counting on free to boost sales of  kindles and perhaps bring other people into their book stores. But in 2012 they changed their algorhythms in a clear sign that free was costing them too much for too little revenue. In 2013 they introduced Countdown as an inducement to authors to discount rather than go free. And my prediction would be in 2014 the trend will continue. The days of free are not numbered but they are going to be restricted.

2. The big five / Barnes and Noble. Konrath has predicted that 2014 will be the year for bankruptcies / retrenchment for these players in the book world. I'm not so sure of that. Notwithstanding the fact that I haven't seen their books, I don't think these guys are going to simply roll over and play dead. They will fight. And my guess is that their fight will involve a number of strategies.

a) They'll start realising that book selling is turning into an electronic business more and more. So my thought is that their big sellers will be full priced, and that everything else will be more competitively priced on the various e media.

b) They're going to start using their stable of authors more and more heavily. This means not just looking for the next blockbuster, but also boosting their mid sellers. So their authors will be producing more books and getting them published quicker (after all editing and cover design doesn't have to take a year). This will be good news for trade published authors.

c) They're going to boost their stable of authors. More authors equates to more books to sell. So expect them to start hunting through the indies and their submissions looking for more prospective authors they can quickly publish at least in ebook format. This is good and bad news for indies as it means more chance of being picked up by a publisher, but also more competition.

3. The hybrid author. My thought is that 2014 will be the year the hybrid author (authors both trade and indie published) will really take off. Partly that will be driven by publishers. After all if they already have an author on their books and his back list, it's a very short process to republish the out of print issues, and it's a quick source of revenue. Partly this will be driven by the authors themselves, as more and more of them realise that they have the rights to their own back lists, and it's not that hard to publish them themselves as ebooks. And as the survey discussed previous showed, not all trade published authors are making a living from their writing.

4. The quality seal of approval. This is a topic that comes up in the indie world year after year. There is no doubt that authors and readers alike would benefit greatly from having some sort of standards body to help sort the wheat from the chaff. But my prediction however, is that despite all the calls for it, this will not come to pass any time soon. There are simply too many hurdles in the way.

5. Indie service providers. There is no doubt that the indie publishing world is a boom market. More and more books are being published by more and more authors. And all of those books need marketing, cover design, editing, not all of which can be done by the author. So as the industry booms, so too will the numbers of people providing services to indies. My prediction is that this trend will continue. This will include both the legitimate service providers, and the rip off merchants, vanity publishers and the like.

6. Sales. Sorry guys, this predictions a bit of a downer. More and more books are being published every year, and it's becoming harder and harder to get your new book noticed. So my thought is that while overall book sales will continue to increase, the average number of sales per author will decrease. And on top of that it will become more and more difficult for new authors to get a start. Those who do well will more likely be the better established authors with reputations and back catalogues, and those who know how to market.

7. Bricks and Mortar Bookstores. Yeah times are hard, stores are closing and more and more people are going on line for their reads. This trend will continue. Those stores that survive will have to innovate, and it likely will not be the smaller stores.

8. Me. Yes for me it will be a big year as I predict that I will finally sprout wings and go flying with the pigs down the road!

Happy new year to all, and as always, be good or don't get caught.

Cheers, Greg.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Writing For Money

Hi Guys,

Well I guess most of you have heard the news since it seems to be doing the rounds of the blogosphere. Digital Book World and Writers Digest just did a survey of how much writers earn and came up with some figures suggesting it isn't much. Jeremy Greenfield then did a review on the survey and came up with a summary.

In essence he says Indies have a median annual income of between 0 and $5,000, trade published authors have a median income of between $5,000 and $10,000, and hybrid authors between $10,000 and $15,000. (Median is used as a better indicator of the middle of a distribution when there are a few extreme outliers which could distort an average).

So what does this mean?

First, and this needs to be stressed time and again, in the days before self publishing the median income for indies would have been zero. So any way you look at it, this represents an improvement for the writing lives of millions of authors.

Second, and this is the thing that surprised me most, trade published authors typically aren't doing that well either. Less than $10,000 per anum - that's not enough to live on in most places.

As for hybrids doing the best, that doesn't surprise me. Hybrids with books in the trade publishing world and indie published world usually arrive in this situation in one of two ways. Most often they're established authors with extensive back catalogues who have gained the publishing rights to their old books and are putting them out themselves. Thus they have plenty of books for sale and perhaps more important - a name. Alternatively they become a hybrid from first being an Indie and then because of their success get picked up by an agent and publisher. So they already have success.

Now as to the numbers. Why are the numbers so low?

Well for indies, the reason is simple - there are an awful lot of books put out there that never sell at all. This may be for a variety of reasons, they're poorly edited, have poor covers and blurbs, aren't well marketed, are on topics that aren't popular, they may actually be thinly disguised ego trips or rants, and often enough the writer never intended to make any money from their book and so just gives them away. There's no shortage of reasons why a book won't sell. And unfortunately there's no shortage of indie authors who simply aren't willing to invest in their craft. It's simply a sad fact of life. Not every author cares.

However, if we take this chunk out of the equation and look only at indies who do take their writing seriously I believe we'd see a whole new picture. The median income for indies would rise and it might well rise to the point where it matched or surpassed the median income for trade published authors. Naturally I have no figures for this - it's all guesswork, but it's based on one very sound principle. Trade publishing, like it or lump it does do one thing. It provides an entry barrier to the industry, one that prevents this same group of people entering their part of the market. That has to boost the median incomes of the trade published authors. And when you take that together with the fact their median incomes aren't that much higher to begin with, it suggests it wouldn't take much for the two incomes to meet.

Now having said that, the median income for the trade published is still surprisingly low. There are two reasons for this in my view. First the return per book sale. As an indie I receive between 35% and 70% of the price of every ebook sale as income. (Paperbacks aren't nearly so good). Trade published authors receive far less as the publisher takes a massive cut. They have to rely on selling more books through having professionally edited and marketed books to make the same income.

The second reason though is more to do with the inefficiencies in the trade publishing system - specifically it's slow. Actually it's glacial. This year I published seven books. I can't think of one trade published author who could match this output. The reason is that every step along the trade publishing way is filled with people dragging chains. Cover design takes weeks and months. Editing goes through multiple phases and cycles and sometimes multiple editors. Publishing is set to hit certain marketing schedules, not the author's timetable. Yes sure, maybe this does result in a product of the highest possible quality (though there have been some shocking exceptions) but at some point you have to ask whether you're guilding a lily - or polishing a turd! Either way the ratio of the additional reward for the work being done is starting to slide - and not in the author's favour.

To put this in perspective, if you are a trade published author, and you are hampered by the system so that you can only put out one book per year compared to my seven, and your cut per book is say 10% compared to my 70%, you start off behind the eightball. To match my income - which isn't really that great - you have to sell forty nine times as many books.

So where does this leave us? More correctly where does it leave the industry?

For the indies the answer is obvious. If the median income for an indie is somewhere between 0 and $5000 per anum and we know that a vast chunk of other indies out there are producing unsaleable books, then you know you can make better money than this simply by putting effort into your work. I'm not saying you will get rich, but I am saying you can do far better than this figure would suggest.

For the trade published the answer is equally obvious. If you want to make more money go hybrid if you can. Get the publishing rights for your out of print books and learn a few new skills. What have you got to lose? Also, have a bit of a beat down on your publishers about their slowness. That does not work in your favour.

And for the publishers? Well much as I hate to give advice to the enemy (sort of) - guys lift your game. If you want to earn your authors more money and at the same time protect your market share against the tide of indies, you need to sell more books. That means if an author can write five books in a year you need to be able to publish them within the same sort of time span.

Anyway that's my take on the survey. I'm sure you can find many others.

Cheers, Greg.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Best Moments as a Writer

Hi Guys,

New topic this month. I thought I'd talk about some of the best moments I've had as an author in the last few years, and there have been a few really good ones.

My view is that in life, and especially in life as a writer, there are ups and downs, and the downs can be really crushing. That first one star drive by review for example can really knock the stuffing out of you - it did me. Being an author and publishing your books can be a very psychologically traumatic and bruising occupation. Despite what people dream there is no easy ride in this game, and there will be no shortage of pitfalls and pain. Because of that it's important to try and celebrate the good times. If you can't then this game may not be for you.

For me my first best moment was when I finished a book - not published just finished. When I got to the end of a book, wrote the last few sentences, and sudenly thought - this book is done! That was many years ago, the book has never been published since the very next day I decided it was lousy and needed a major rewrite, and so probably doesn't count as a shining success in my litarary career. And yet it is still an awesome triumph to me. It should be for other aspiring writers.

Many people say and even believe they can write a book, and probably most of them can. Making that book of publishable quality and then selling it is another matter. But even of those who can write a book, most if they sat down at a keyboard never would. They might get started, they might write five or ten thousand words, they might even be good words. But to actually write a book, an entire novel, takes more than just some talent and a few thousand words on a screen. It takes bloody minded perserverance. You have to be willing to sacrifice not just a few evenings but probably months and years. To think constantly about it to the exclusion of everything else. To live with your characters and the perils they face. And even dare I suggest it, to turn the telly off from time to time.

To get to the end of a novel and be able to say "it's done" is an achievement. Even if you don't publish and it never goes anywhere else, you have proven to yourself that you can write a novel. That is something you should remember and celebrate.

The next big thing for me was publishing. My first book out was Thief, and by the time it had made it out into the eworld it was already ten years old. Ten years where after doing the rounds of sending off letters and samples to agents and getting nothing back - if I was lucky - it had sat on a computer and basically died. Then along came Amazon, and sudenly the dead was returned to life. Being able to push that button - "publish" - and then a few days later seeing my book out there in the digital world, was a huge thing for me. I suspect it is for everyone. And even though the book has been taken down, re-editted, given a new cover and republished since, it's still a fond memory.

Naturally reviews and sales have had their impact on me as a writer. The first reviews (which were thankfully good) gave me a huge lift. And when my second book Maverick, started selling in significant numbers and reaching top one hundred categories etc, I was on cloud nine. Of course since then I've realised that things don't last. Maverick had a few good months, as in turn have some of my other books, but this is a fast moving journey. With a few exceptions you get only short term glory, and the only way to survive is to write more books. But still the fact that my books have done as well as they have even for a few short months is something to be savoured.

Earlier this year I discover a whole new high - and one I wasn't expecting. Late last year I finally decided to go paperback. To put out my books in a physical medium. Until then I'd been happy with digital alone, and there were significant hurdles involved in turning books into paper for me. It's a whole new learning curve. Still I finally did it and in March I think, I had the first copy of Maverick sitting in my hands. And that moment, standing there, holding my book in my hands and thinking - "This is mine, I did this" - will stay with me for a long time.

So I think that as my writing journey continues I need to hang on to those moments and enjoy them. I think that's the same for all of us who have chosen to take this path in life.

Cheers, Greg.