Friday, February 24, 2012

Writing and Marketing Woes

I should have said "pleasure" instead of woes.  But it sure can be tedious at times, multi-tasking, writing new material, banging out edits on mulitple books, trying to stay updated with your agent and marketing your Bermuda shorts off.  I wonder when I'll take a break at times, but that inner life-clock of mine keeps on ticking and taking little snippets of juice out of me.

I think I've spammed the world, but the world is snoozing.

I don't take breaks, and I guess therein lies the problem.  For the past six years it's been eight to twelve hour stints at the screen, with no let up and no vacations.  I never leave the house, except to do chores, and even resist going out in public, knowing that my time is better spent splashing ink.

This is the toughest mental vocation I ever got myself locked into.  And locked is the correct term.  It can be like a self-imposed prison.  Honest to God, I can't see how anyone has the time or energy to write when they have a full-time job, kids, and a loving spouse who requires their attention.  I'm glad I'm single.  I'm lonely, oh yes, but I wouldn't  put a household and loved ones through the mess that is my life.

Dear writer: take a well deserved break now and again. You need to recharge your system, gather your thoughts and organize your portfolio. Approaching the brink of exhaustion, does not a happy writer make. I'm starting to take walks now. Even a visit to the grocery store is a welcomed change of scenery. You have to let your mind experience alternatives. 

Loving rant over...

Planet Janitor: The Moon is not Enough (Engage Science Fiction) (Digital Short) by Chris Stevenson (Kindle Edition - Feb 7, 2012)Kindle eBook

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Thursday, February 23, 2012

Thinking About Giving Up?

If you're thinking about giving up on your book or writing, consider this letter I wrote to a friend:

"Dear One, I've been close to packing it in myself. And I'm repped! Nothing has come easy for me it seems--a struggle all the way up that hill. I know you've been trying to snag that dream agent, and the odds are just so crazy. I know that POD small press is distasteful to you, as it is with a lot of us. But there are some gems out there that I think you should at least try--give it a shot. (Honest, I think I'm becoming the king of small press lately).

Gawd knows publication with the smaller outfits won't give you that mass-market paperback deal you've been looking for. Dawg knows that you won't get a thread in your favorite writing group, praising you for your accomplishments to the high heavens, nor hundreds of members buying your book. But what it will give you is vindication that somebody, anybody, read your book and loved it--believed in you--believed in that story. It's all about positive reinforcement--that drive to keep you going, pushing for that next step.

Just taking one example: I landed my agent with Planet Janitor, a SF survival tale--kind of a cross between Robison Crusoe on Mars and Starship troopers. Oh, did I have high hopes for that one! We spent months hammering the plot, polishing the prose. After it went through two rounds of agent subs over a year's period without selling, I was totally crushed. I thought this was the end.

Until I sent it out. 

Three editors at one small publisher loved it and requested minor changes. Contract came. I got an advance and a wonderful contract. I thought it was fluke. I kept thinking author mill. It was later that the publisher came under some terrible discrimination. So I voided the contract but kept the advance. I sold it again to a larger e-pub/print publisher. Two editors there said they loved it. When I tried to work the contract in my favor they wouldn't budge. So I pulled the book from them.

My final sale was to a newish pub house that specialized in SF. They praised it up one side down the other. The CEO shared the manuscript with a "name" SF author. Yep, done deal. This was a hot one. They wanted some minor changes--which I made happily.

That was not a fluke.

My point is, eight readers people couldn't be wrong. Nine, including me. The big houses probably cut me off at the knees at the synopsis stage or the first chapter. I was dismissed out-of-hand. But I'll tell you something very important I learned; I knew that my instincts were right all along. I had something very special there, but for whatever reason, those big name houses didn't catch it, couldn't see the potential. Bad timing, bad luck, bad breath, the stars out of alignment, some damn evil force conspired to get me and hold me down.

I think you need to so something similar for YOU. And I have to admit that handing out rejection slips to publishers sure did something for my ego.

I'm reminded of another writer, and the hassle she went through trying to find a publisher. She had a memoir that just had to be told. It seemed like it took her forever, but she finally landed with a respectable publisher and turned the small press on its ear by selling more books than anyone expected. Wonderful reviews, TV and radio spots followed--it all came into place for her. I'm positive that she never regretted that decision. A great story will find its way to the readers, in spite of all the obstacles.

But that means you can't give up on it. Listen to your heart. Screw the establishment."



Planet Janitor: The Moon is not Enough (Engage Science Fiction) (Digital Short)

Planet Janitor: The Moon is not Enough (Engage Science Fiction) (Digital Short) [Kindle Edition]

Chris Stevenson

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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Uphill Climb For The Male Writer

The following questions and answers were derived from the portion of an article about Nat Sobel, the literary agent. Credit goes to Jofie Ferrary-Ader as the writer.

Interviewer: "People in the business talk about how eight out of ten readers, or whatever the number actually is, are women. I think it's very difficult for young male writers to get published, especially today. I wonder what you think about that and how you've dealt with that in your career."

Sobal: "I certainly think it's very difficult for male writers who are not writing thrillers. They have a much tougher road. We've read a number of pretty good novels by male writers that we know just won't go. Male coming-of-age novels are impossible to sell. We've already talked about how it's getting more and more difficult to sell fiction. Let me give you a better picture of it by looking back on last year. Five of us in the agency read submissions, everyone downstairs and Judith and myself. Five of us. We have an editorial meeting on Thursdays. I never talk to Judith about what I've read except at this meeting so it's all fresh for all of us. We generally read partial manuscripts, or complete manuscripts. Everyone averages about two of those per week. So, in an average year, that's more than five hundred manuscripts. Last year, from those five hundred books, we took on three new writers. And we were only able to sell one of them. Remember that much of what we get is from writers I've written to after reading their stories in the literary journals?we get very little over the transom. So look at those odds.

They're very tough."

Interviewer: "Damn right. We've spent a lot of time editing through second and third drafts and finally abandoning books because we don't think we can get the writer up to the level we want. We have to give up on them. Occasionally those books will get published too. But the odds are really difficult, and for the male writers it's even harder.

Is there anything they can do to make their odds better?"

Sobal: "I'm always looking for the unusual. I think it may require writing something of a historical nature, with a historical setting. They have to be able to get an idea of what's on the best-seller list today and see that, outside the thriller genre, there aren't too many male fiction writers who are succeeding. And I don't think that's going to change for a while."

"But isn't that troubling?"

"Sure it's troubling. I think it's troubling for all literary fiction writers today. But particularly for the male writers, who are only gradually becoming aware of how limiting that audience is. But I think you can find good male writers who can write from the woman's point of view, too. I remember a first novel I sold years ago. The writer himself was in his early thirties, but the novel was a first-person novel from the point of view of a sixty-two-year-old woman. It was entirely in first person, and it was a terrific story. It began his career. So if a male writer can write from the female point of view, or has a story that will interest a woman's audience, I think he has a better chance than somebody who's writing the kind of Hemingway-esque stuff we read in school."

                                                     #                      #                    #

Given the fact that the largest reading and purchasing group are women, this is not surprising at all. Sixty-five percent of all books purchased are by women. I think women might account for as much as 70% (my high figure) of the entire fiction reading public. Most of these new releases are penned by young women--sometimes, very young gals, as is the case with YA titles.

This is not sour grapes and I'm not intending to start a gender flame war. But the fact of the matter is, is that the male debut novelist is becoming somewhat of a literary dodo. Due to best-selling current trends, urban fantasy, paranormal romance, and YA in all of the sub-genres, we're finding that female writers have really staked their claim out in these areas and their readership is almost entirely other females. This is not to suggest that there are no male writers who've published in these genres—just fewer of them.

Truly, I had to give up SF for the simple fact that nobody, and I mean nobody, was buying it, other than the well-known trade publishers, who signed with established name authors in the business. SF, as we all know, is predominantly penned by male writers, except for the new emergence of SF romance. There are some wonderful females SF scribes out there, but how many debut female authors are writing hard SF or space opera?

Nat claims that males might have their only chance in the niche of thrillers. I think he used a rather wide brush with that comment.  But consider this: the NYC houses are run by nearly all female editors and, young ones. This is not to say that their thinking is collaborative. But from a psychological standpoint, it is not very hard to understand that a female editor is less likely to be endeared to a male MC written in a male voice--and it has nothing to do with preferring one gender scribe over another. Gawd knows there are exceptions, and some male-centric books get through and go on to print. But the majority of us guys are not writing the real popular genres, the ones that are really taking off. We have some dynamite male romance writers, but I can count them on one hand. That's if you get past their pseudonym.

Let me make this clear: I'm not talking about midlist or bestselling male authors who are appearing on the NYT list, or who are great backlist sellers. I'm talking about debut authors in the past three years. Just exactly where are the contracts going? That's my question. I've had J.K. Rowling thrown up in my face for evidence that this just wasn't true, since Harry was a male lead, and the series has been the most successful in popularity and sales ever. But I am talking about adult fiction--not YA. YA fiction is seems to be a very strong suit of female authors. And HP did start out essentially as Young Adult.

I also believe that Joe Konrath, writer of the Jack Daniels mystery series, might not have been published if not for the fact that he made his MC a female detective, and scratched his male name from the book's title. Correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't that his agent's suggestion? What does that tell you? He admits to failing to sell nine books prior to his popular JD series. (He's a wonderful writer, by the by)

I know of some publishing houses that state implicitly that there will be only female leads used in the storyline, and that sex and romance must weigh heavily in the plot. Juno is one of them.

Techno Books (The packager) announced that it is discontinuing their entire spec fiction line. They are leaving only mysteries open for submission, plus their Impressions line--which is all romance, covering all sub genres, including paranormal and fantasy. Now, does that make sense? Once again, evidence of a major industry shift. There's no question that readers rule, and the readers are women. BTW, women rule too!

I've always heard and believed that if you write a great, compelling story, it will find worthy publication. And this is true, and women do admit to reading a ton of male-oriented books. So what's really changed? I'm going to toss this one on the bean counters--marketing. The demographics support the math. There are exceptions. But you must provide content to the largest reader purchasing group, and publishing is, first and foremost, a business that must make a profit to carry on, produce and distribute a literary product. 

What have I learned? The only control I have over this is to employ some empowered females in all of my stories from here on out. I sincerely believe Nat when he says that the male writer will have to learn how to effectively write female lead characters into his storyline if he is to better his chances for publication. I've done this, and I really enjoy the transition. My betas are almost exclusively females, who can help me address real emotions and motivations in the YA or adult female lead character. I need that direction and help. Breathe some life into some intelligent, independent, and believable females and give them some spotlight in your story lines. And guys, we really need to brush up on how to write convincing and erotic sex scenes.

Guys, times have changed for the better. More people are reading books than ever before. Adapt and enjoy the process.  

Planet Janitor: Custodian of the Stars
Chris Stevenson, Toni Zhang
Kindle Price: $2.99


Tuesday, February 21, 2012

For The Agented Among Us

To avoid a break in an agent/author relationship as a result of a book not being picked up by a publisher, it's highly advisable that you're busy on your next title the minute your agent starts the shopping process. If you time it right, you'll have that next book written and polished by the time the first book has exhausted all leads. If you're a solid producer, there is no way an agent is likely to drop you. A book usually wears out on the submission trail from nine to twenty months. That's an approximate. In my case, 18 months is about the death toll, but there are agents out there that will champion a book for several years. DO NOT SIT ON ONE REPPED BOOK, WAITING FOR A SALE.

One snag...

To make sure that the agent is going to look favorably on your next book, I usually write the synopsis and first three chapters and send them to him and ask if this is something that he might be enthusiastic about. In other words, it has to ring his bell. I do this as a precautionary measure. My agent will take many things into consideration--if there is a market for it, if it has a good concept/premise--that all important hook, and so on. You don't really have to send the first three, but I would run the idea by him and ask for a yea or nay. Agree to hit on something that gives both of you the happy shivers.

There is nothing more devastating than writing full tilt on something, spending six months, and then having your agent tell you that it isn't going to fly. Your agent has to fall in love with it too. I had this happen to me. Fortunately it was a trunk novel that I brought out of moth balls and reworked. He still did not like it. That's one that didn't get through the gate.

Hint: Ask your agent what's hot out there. What are they looking for? What stands the best chance of being picked up? Where are the open slots? If he/she has an idea or solid opinion, and if it falls within your genre parameter, and you've got the voice/style to carry it off, go with it. You don't have to do this--it just ups your odds. I'm not saying to hack it and write outside of your box. I'm saying to discuss a genre switch with your agent. They have their pulse on the trends of the marketplace. Sorry, I'm not a real fan of writing whatever the hell I damn well feel like. I'm not out to entertain me; I'm out to entertain the reader--all of them I can get. I know what you've been told by your peers, but I think that will work for you in an agent-less situation. I'm sure you've heard, "Write what you love." This can work very well, since these books are often written with the most passion and purpose. But if I've been doing that for three years without success and my agent suggests I switch genre gears, then I'm going to listen. I always thought I was a capable science fiction writer until several agents and editors told me I excelled at action/adventure. So now I just put a lot of action in my paranormal romance and thrillers.  

As far as agents dumping clients. I don't see a lot of that happening. What I see more is writers getting frustrated with their agents and dumping them. Case in point: I've been with my agent for 22 months. From the beginning, he had 29 fiction writers in his stable. Today he has 25. The evidence shows that three of those writers left him. He dropped the other client for personal reasons. He also represents a dead author, who started out with him at the very beginning. He made a vow that he would continue to champion that book out of respect to the estate. And, of course, he's wild about the book. Now, THAT'S diehard service going above and beyond the call of agenting.

You're going to get genre "niched" whether you like it or not. I don't even think that's a word. Your maximum sales potential will come from a fan base that is launched from your first book. If it does even respectively well, you'll be encouraged to stay there, for strictly marketing considerations. It will do you no good to write all over the genre topography and hope that one of those books hit, unless you're switching genre gears. Your agent will know where your strengths lie and tell you so. You have only to ask. When your last name is King or Koontz, you can play all over the sandbox if you like. Until then, try, try to specialize.

At the behest of my agent, I dropped science fiction. The market was just too tight for us to make a debut splash. I had that same problem when I was repped by another agent 18 years ago. So I slid rather comfortably into paranormal thriller/romance and urban fantasy. The result has been that I'm getting about 35% more full reads in that category. My agent was right. I upped the odds. The transition wasn't hard--I love words anyway, and it's still spec fiction. I'm strong there--I feel it and I know it.

Don't irritate your agent with trivial or non-business type communications. Unless you're really best buds. Successful agents are REALY BUSY PEOPLE. I check in about every three weeks--sometimes a month. That's unless you're doing rewrites or hammering out a contract. New repped writers have a tendency to suffocate their agents with needless questions and pestering. Give 'em some breathing room, and everything should fall into place. Contrary to popular belief, your agent hasn't forgotten about you. They are really dying to send you that all important publishing offer-contract. You know the one you've been waiting for all your life? 

Planet Janitor: Custodian of the Stars (Engage Science Fiction) (Illustrated)

Planet Janitor: Custodian of the Stars (Engage Science Fiction) (Illustrated) [Kindle Edition]

Chris Stevenson , Toni Zhang

Digital List Price: $2.99 What's this?
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Sunday, February 19, 2012

POD Publishing Gone Horribly Wrong

What can I say about my publisher, XXX Books, who have just closed their doors?  Not much of any good.  The warning signs were there but I chose to ignore them.  What were they?
(Note: This incident happen six years ago, but still applies today)

*  XXX Books had a non-negotiable contract from the start.  My agent could not get them to budge on one item.
*  They paid no advance.
*  They paid 12% on NET royalties.
*  They barraged the author with self-promotion emails, tactics and rules.
*  They required a friends/family/relatives list for the initial sales push, identicle to Publish America's spam campaign.
*  They lied about having two dozen book stores as partners. 
*  They had zero distribution--they sold from their website exclusively for three years before they made the step to Amazon.  Then the books became unavailable via 'out-of-stock' notices to Amazon.
*  Retail book prices were as high or higher than the worst vanity printer on the internet--Publish America.  They even surpassed hardback prices.
*  Postage costs of the books from Canada made sales prohibitive, and sometimes were higher in cost than the books themselves.  It was only until the end of the company where the postage cost was reduced to a flat five dollars per title.
*  My royalty payments rolled over each quarter.  I was never paid a dime for both books for over a year, and have not been paid to this day.
*  They claimed to use offset technology, with first print runs of 1,500.  They lied.  They were POD all along.
*  Review copies were never sent out.  This was after 60 copies were requested from major review sources (in my case).
*  There was no fundamental or content editing whatsoever.  The editing that was provided was done by amateurs, who left literally hundreds of mistakes in the text.  The editors were paid by credit/byline only.
*  The book formats were atrocious--wraparound text, breaks, sentence omissions, paragraph and chapter misalignment, wrong font size, ragged right hand margins, etc.
*  Author self-purchase emails and notices were sent regularly.  The author's discounts were the lowest ever seen in the industry--20% at first, and then later 30%.  Until the blowout closing sale of 50% off.
*  No ARCs or galleys.  Straight PDF dump to the printer.
*  Sub-standard clip art.  Your front cover was NOT negotiable.  Your suggestions were all but ignored after your first complaint.
*  Late or no delivery of books.  The U.S. postal service was blamed for missing books or late books.
*  No promotion, marketing, conferences, festivals, show attendance--no effort to sell to the outside markets was evident.
*  Authors were continually berated for failing to self-promote.
*  Email threats.
*  Lies about car crashes, family and personal illnesses.
*  Claims that bookstores were the least favorable place to sell books.  The internet was stressed as the premiere sales source.
*  Zero trade reviews--Booklist, Kirkus, Publisher's Marketplace, NYT.


Folks if you think this case is exclusive, I beg you to evaluate every contract you get, and do the required amount of research about any small press publisher that uses the POD model. There are more than a few bad eggs out there. Today anyone can hang up a publishing shingle. It's better to not be published at all than to be published poorly. Remember: Money Always Flows To The Author. 

Planet Janitor: The Moon is not Enough (Engage Science Fiction) (Digital Short) by Chris Stevenson (Kindle Edition - Feb 7, 2012)Kindle eBook

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