Monday, March 2, 2015

No, the Internet Is Not Killing Culture

It’s always been hard to make a living in the arts. It still is.


Scott Timberg’s Culture Crash begins with a harrowing and by now familiar personal narrative of the Great Recession. In 2008, Timberg, an arts reporter for the Los Angeles Times, was laid off, a casualty of the infamous Sam Zell regime; soon after, the bank foreclosed on his family’s house. These back-to-back misfortunes made Timberg worry about more than making ends meet: They shook his faith in the entire enterprise of American creativity. “I saw myself in the third generation of people who had worked in culture without either striking it rich or going broke,” he writes, but such a career path no longer seemed available in the 21st century, and he wanted to understand why. Though there was a temptation to blame the awesome leveling power of the Internet, he concluded that “this was about more than just technology. … Some of the causes were as new as file sharing; others were older than the nation. Some were cyclical, and would pass in a few years; others were structural and would get worse with time.”

The causes of what Timberg terms “the killing of the creative class”—the murder suspects, if you will—include a long tradition of American “anti-aestheticism” going back to the Puritans; cuts to public funding for the arts beginning in Reagan’s 1980s; rising rents and vanishing public space in urban centers; the weakening of the church-state wall between editorial and advertising in journalism; theory-besotted academic “intellectuals … speaking in tongues”; the decline of mainstream respect for “middlebrow” culture; the pernicious critical influence of Pauline Kael; capitalism (specifically, the contemporary variant diagnosed by Thomas Frank as “market fundamentalism” and by the economists Robert H. Frank and Philip J. Cook as “the winner-take-all society”); and, yes, “the Internet” (particularly file sharing and the attendant collapse of the music industry). As this list suggests, Culture Crash is an ambitious but unfocused book. The villains proliferate, the time scale expands and contracts—in a couple of places, Timberg goes as far back as the cave paintings at Lascaux—but the message remains consistent: People who want to make a living from art and culture now are screwed.
What Timberg values, and wants to preserve, is in fact a pretty unusual state of affairs that arguably held for a few decades in the 20th century, one in which active participation in artistic, creative, or bohemian culture could semi-reliably provide the material basis for a stable middle-class life. “What I’ve found is that despite romantic myth, most artists and others who work in the world of culture come from the middle class and hope, after a few years of scrambling and bare-bones living, to return to it,” he writes. The best and most substantial sections of Culture Crash are the ones adapted from Timberg’s previously published profiles of such scramblers in Salon and elsewhere, pieces in which grand explanatory theories recede into the background and Timberg becomes a sort of Studs Terkel for Freelance Nation. The second chapter, “Disappearing Clerks and the Lost Sense of Place,” is one of the best-reported of these—though it is also the one I found myself least convinced by. It’s devoted to unsung heroes of the independent retail trade, like Jeff Miller of the now-shuttered Rocket Video and Hammurabi Kabbabe of the also-shuttered Dutton’s Brentwood Books. “The loss of the people who labor to put books and music and movies into our hands is bad enough, but their departure doesn’t just cut into the number of people who can make a living from working in culture,” Timberg writes. “Every time a shop selling books or records, or renting movies, closes, we lose the kind of gathering places that allow people oriented to culture to meet and connect; we lose our context, and the urban fabric frays.”

This Jane Jacobs-ish defense of the Comic Book Guys of the world is passionate but unconvincing: Are we really losing something essential with these “gathering places” that isn’t made up for by Wi-Fi-enabled coffee shops (frequently havens of creative production, not just consumption) on the one hand, and online forums for critical discussion on the other? Does the labor of culture have to happen in a store? Not to mention that such places are often, as a friend who worked in record and video stores in her youth put it, “fortresses of male aesthetic precision.” “I don’t let anyone leave without giving them a barrage of my words, of the history,” Timberg quotes Kabbabe as saying. Call me a traitor to the cause of art, but I would personally rather access my Hammurabi Kabbabes via the Internet, where I can escape from their word barrages by discreetly closing a tab.

Here and elsewhere, Timberg falls prey to the professional Jeremiah’s tendency to focus only on what has disappeared—without attending to what has risen up in its place. Timberg is right to blanch at the astonishing number of jobs in publishing and journalism that have been lost since 2008 (about 260,000, according to a figure he cites from U.S. News & World Report). This has, indeed, been a disaster for the creative class. But he fails to note that there are signs of life as well. In the past year, new media companies like BuzzFeed and Vox Media have raised millions of dollars’ worth of venture capital ($50 and $46.5 million, respectively), a portion of which is going to hire critics and culture writers. And while the pay and benefits of many new media jobs may not keep up with the standards of a couple of decades ago, that’s a problem typical of American employment across the spectrum, not an issue specific to the creative class.

Whether or not you join Timberg in ruing the demise of the record store clerk or local arts beat reporter—or the alternative weekly or the record label or postmodernist middle-class architecture, other cherished institutions whose loss Timberg mourns—it is a strength of Culture Crash that it addresses not just “creators of culture” but “their often-mocked supporting casts.” I just kept hoping Timberg would bring up previous studies of these figures, some of which might have added depth and nuance to his arguments and put our contemporary American moment in wider perspective. Howard S. Becker’s Art Worlds, for instance, first published in 1982, is still the deepest and best discussion of how “support personnel” such as sound mixers, art handlers, printers, gallery employees, roadies, and the like function in a larger ecology of creativity. Timberg might have lined up today’s “winner-take-all” dynamics next to those at work in Paris in the 19th century, as charted by Pierre Bourdieu in The Rules of Art, or compared the employment situation of today’s culture creators with what the economist Hans Abbing studied in his rigorous, data-rich analysis Why Are Artists Poor? But he never cites any of those thinkers.
Timberg is right, of course, that this is a scary and confusing time to be a creative professional. But ’twas ever thus, pretty much, as even a quick glance at intellectual history suggests. George Gissing’s New Grub Street, published in 1891, laid out the plight of writers whose lives were upended by a previous wave of creative destruction and technological innovation—in his case, the decline of the lending library and the rise of the mass-market press, which utterly transformed the market for popular fiction. “You can make a killing in the theatre, but not a living,” the playwright Robert Anderson is reported to have said in the mid-1950s—at the height, in other words, of government intervention and middlebrow respect for art. Look a little harder at the problem and you’ll find that things are tough all over, chronologically as well as geographically. 
In some ways, creative people, broadly defined, are better off in the U.S. today than they have been throughout much of human history. The fact that commentators can now refer to a “creative class,” as Timberg does in his subtitle (borrowing a now popular phrase coined by Richard Florida), reflects a world in which politicians and city planners recognize the economic value of bohemian life. There are, of course, downsides to this mindset, in which creativity is mostly a harbinger of gentrification—Thomas Frank has dubbed it “a sort of prosperity gospel for Ivy League art students.” Still, this contemporary outlook would have astonished the struggling writers of Gissing’s day, and reflects, in part, the spread of creative work in the current economy.

There is, ultimately, an unnerving sense of entitlement to Culture Crash, well-intentioned as it is, and that entitlement is largely generational. The real sting in the tail of Timberg’s polemic is not, as he would have us believe, that things are worse for creative people than they’ve ever been before. It’s that things are considerably worse than they were 20 years ago. Throughout Culture Crash, the 1990s function as a go-to belle époque: “the peak years of journalistic employment, especially for newspapers,” the height of architectural innovation, the heyday of indie rock. His choice of interview subjects (David Lowery, Dean Wareham, David Byrne) betrays an obvious bias toward aging Gen X icons. Timberg makes clear that he’s “not particularly interested in James Cameron … or Kanye West: Celebrity and corporate entertainment—good and bad—hardly needs defenders.” Yet he’s not very interested in the genuinely marginal, obscure, or underprivileged, either—or in anyone under 40: Timberg’s interviews are all with white men who did extraordinarily well in the 1990s (or occasionally the 1980s or early 2000s), and are doing worse (but still reasonably OK) now. One can hardly blame folks like Lowery or Byrne for complaining about the relative decline of their industries: They have firsthand experience of an age d’or to share and probably (even correctly) view themselves as spokesmen for the many suffering artists who don’t have a comparable platform. But Timberg certainly could have tried harder to talk to a wider swath of the creative class beyond his personal social circle and those he comes into contact with on his promotional rounds.

As a precariously perched culture worker myself—and one just five years shy of 40—I don’t want to pretend that there’s nothing at stake here, or that Timberg’s concerns are completely overblown. He argues sensibly for more “middle-class protections” for the creative class (though the policy details of this are left sketchy—one suspects he just means protections for the middle class generally), and worries that the “only people who will be able to work in culture will be those who don’t need to be compensated—celebrities, the very rich, and tenured academics.” This is a reasonable thing to worry about. But it’s not a new thing to worry about, and despite the dewy nostalgia on almost every page of Culture Crash I’m not convinced that we have ever had a society that did very much better on this score. If you want a world where creativity is a viable life pursuit, the way is forward, not back. The dream of the ’90s is not enough.


 You can find the original article at:

Monday, February 23, 2015

Why Authors Walk Away From Good, Big 5 Publishers

 by Harry Bingham (@harryonthebrink), a UK-based author. 

I’ve been an author for more than fifteen years. My first book came out with HarperCollins in February 2000 and I’ve been going ever since. (I’m British and the book came out in the UK and elsewhere, though I’m a relative newbie in the US.) 
Fifteen years might not sound such a long time, but I’ve already had two literary agents, four publishers, seven editors, and thirteen books—even more if you include things I’ve worked on as editor or ghost. More to the point, I’ve witnessed the publishing industry evolve through at least four different eras.

The first era—I just caught its tail end—was back when price discounting was still modest. Back then, publishers still had marketing cash to spend on actual marketing. HarperCollins spent about £50,000 ($75,000) on launching my very first book, with posters up at rail stations and airports, on the London Underground and elsewhere. I was lucky: those times were already ending.

Before long, retailers started to become more assertive. They slashed prices to lure consumers and sold space in their retail promotions to replace that lost income. The cash that had once been used to attract consumers was now going straight to bookshops to compensate them for the pain of all that discounting. No more posters, no more direct appeals to the consumer.

That was the second era, but it was still pre-Amazon, pre-ebook. And as that third era dawned—the Dawn of Bezos—it turned out that the actual digitization issue was easy. (E-reader technology? Get Amazon and Apple to invent something. Distribution? Leave it to Amazon and iTunes.) The thing that truly gave publishers sleepless nights was the risk that their traditional retail buyers would go extinct.

In both the US and the UK, Borders collapsed. Barnes & Noble and Waterstones, the book retail leaders in either country, were either loss-making or only marginally in profit, a situation which still persists.

Publishers were finding it increasingly hard to sell in print and to sell right across their front lists—but it soon turned out that they didn’t have to, either, or not the way they used to. The huge margins they made on ebooks more than made up for the loss of print revenues. The equally huge margins they made on their backlist ebook titles made up for the struggles of the frontliners.

In a weird, paradoxical way, Amazon provided both the threat (the rise of the ebook) and the solution (those giant margins).

The net result? It turns out that now, at the end of that third era, publishers are making more money than they ever have done before. All those tedious stories about Amazon wanting to swat publishers from existence somehow ignore the fact that Amazon is only marginally profitable, while the publishers are making a fortune. (And, yes, literary agents know how much money publishers are making, but they still haven’t managed to reverse the long decline in author incomes. No sign of that changing.)

But what about the author in all this? What does it mean for you? What has it meant for me?

Well, I don’t know. Anyone who claims to have answers is a fraud: the wheel is still in spin, the ball has yet to settle. But I do have a story that contains the seeds of an answer.

I said I’ve been through a number of different books, different editors. Well, I should really have added that I’ve been through a number of careers too. I started out writing financial thrillers. Those things morphed into historical fiction. Then I jumped over to nonfiction, both specialist and non-specialist. But I could never stay with nonfiction forever. I just liked telling stories too much. So 
I started writing a series of mystery novels, featuring a young Welsh detective, Fiona Griffiths.

Those books did really nicely, and still are. They sold in the UK, in the US, and to other publishers in Germany, France, Spain, Italy, and elsewhere. A production company optioned the rights to the first book and that book has already successfully been televised.

Which is nice. My career has had some ups and downs (more about that here if you’re interested), and it’s wonderful to be writing series fiction that’s performing strongly. It’s like having all the nice bits of being a writer (the writing) without all the worst bits (the massive financial insecurity).

Only there’s a twist in this tale, a twist that caught me totally by surprise.

In the US, my books were bought by Delacorte/Bantam Dell, part of Random House. I enjoyed a superb editor and the firm’s quite excellent production standards. I got some incredible reviews—that first book, Talking to the Dead, had starred reviews in Publishers Weekly and Kirkus and was a crime book of the year for the Boston Globe and the Seattle Times. What’s more, my ebook sales were strong enough that I’d earned out my author advance before the book had even come out in paperback. That’s good going.

As you can imagine, I was pretty pleased. An author’s turbulent life looked, for once, to be pretty calm. With hindsight, I was like the pretty teenager in the weird, creaky house who decided, “Nope, there’s nothing to worry about here.” The quiet bit before the horror starts.

Because the two books I did with Random sold well as ebooks, they pretty much failed in print. The $27 hardback isn’t an obviously desirable product for today’s crime/mystery reader—certainly not when debuts are concerned—and the book basically flunked. Because retailers couldn’t shift the hardback, they didn’t want to be burned twice, so they ordered the paperback only in very limited numbers. That too sold horribly.

What we had was a paradox—emblematic of that third era in publishing—where a book could have (a) great reviews, (b) a good author-publisher relationship, (c) excellent production quality, (d) strong ebook sales, yet (e) be a print failure. What were we to do?

To me, it was obvious that we needed to establish the series in stages. We’d start with ebooks, priced so as to attract the risk-averse buyer. Then, once we’d built a base, we’d start to issue affordably priced paperbacks. Then, once all that was strong enough, we’d offer the premium priced hardback too. Simple.

Only not. For one thing, Random House wasn’t set up to work like that. There were e-only imprints (Alibi) and there were hardback imprints (Delacorte). There wasn’t, and isn’t, an imprint able simply to publish a title in whatever was most natural to that author and that book.

And then too, if I was going to be published e-only by Random House, I would receive just 25% of net ebook receipts. That’s about 17% of the ebook’s cover price as opposed to more like 70% by simply publishing direct with Amazon. I couldn’t understand why I’d want to do that. I mean, yes, I’d have listened if they’d come to me saying, “Harry, I know giving up 75% of those net receipts sounds like a lot, but we’re going to add a whole ton of value to the publication process. We’re going to do a whole heap of things that you can’t do on your own. And here’s a stack of in-house data which shows that we can boost your sales way past the point you could achieve.”

They didn’t say that. They didn’t actually make any argument at all. When I said no to 25% royalties, that was it. No further conversation.

And I was OK with that. I very happily chose to self-publish the third book in the series—The Strange Death of Fiona Griffithsand will accept whatever outcome the market cares to deliver. 

That book has just come out. It cost me about $2,000 to publish the book. That sum includes cover design, editorial work, manuscript conversion and some marketing activity—primarily an author blog tour and a paid Kirkus review. I know there’s debate in the indie community as to whether it makes sense to pay $425 for a Kirkus review, but the investment has come good for me. Kirkus described the book as “exceptional” and gave me some very quotable quotes. I don’t think you can easily quantify the impact of that review but, for me, I’m much happier marketing a book that has some potent third-party endorsements.

It’s way too soon in the publication process to evaluate whether my experiment has been successful, but my pre-orders were sufficiently good that I’d repaid my upfront investment on the day of publication itself. The advance I’d got from Random House was $30,000 per book, so I’ve a way to go before equalling that, but I don’t rule out succeeding. It’s just too soon to say.

And this, I think, will be the theme of this fourth era that’s now just possibly emerging. It’s a world where authors with plenty of Big 5 sales experience choose to say, “You know what, I’m not playing this game any more.” Where authors make a positive choice to walk away from the terms offered by good, regular publishers.

The much-published Claire Cook has already described on this blog her own journey away from the Big 5. Her story is different from mine, but it’s also the same. There are others too. On my own website, William Kowalski—a critically acclaimed bestselling author—talks about why he made a similar journey. A spatter of refuseniks.

The traffic isn’t only one way. Hugh Howey is the epitome of self-publishing success, but he was (rightly) happy to accept a huge print-only deal from Simon & Schuster. He’s also 100% conventionally published in the UK. There are plenty of other examples of self-pub authors who have decided to take all or part of their business over to the traditional model.

And that’s great. The fourth era isn’t one where Indie Publishers Destroy The Evil Big 5 Oligopoly, or vice versa. This new era of publishing is one where authors have a meaningful choice. What that choice is will depend on the author, the territory, the genre, and multiple other issues which will vary across every different situation.

For what it’s worth, I suspect that publishers will adapt fine: they’ve adapted to everything else. Agents too: they’re going to have to understand that their authors have more options than they did before, and that their agencies can’t necessarily take a cut of everything that moves. (Again, most agents will navigate this shift just fine: my own literary agent has shown immaculate integrity and professionalism.)

But the fact that some major players will be able to adapt doesn’t mean that nothing’s changed. On the contrary, from my own point of view, the ability to say, “Thank you, but no” to a massive publisher is an utterly revolutionary and liberating shift. And the more that authors move from trad-pub to self-pub and back again, the more publishers will be aware that things have changed. If they treat authors poorly—and they do far, far too often—they’ll need to bear in mind that the author in question now has a choice about where to take the next book, far more than was ever previously the case.

Of all the ages of publishing that I’ve lived through, this is the one I’m happiest to be part of. The one that feels most exciting, most aglow with promise.

Long live the revolution! And may you always find readers!


You can find the original article at:

Monday, February 16, 2015

The Self-Curating Slush Pile

By JH Mae

These days, self-publishing doesn’t necessarily mean your novel will wither and die, unread, on the digital and real life bookshelves.

"Traditional publishers let the indie market experiment, then they swoop in and try to grab what has worked." 

These days, self-publishing doesn’t necessarily mean your novel will wither and die, unread, on the digital and real life bookshelves. Books with polished writing, a compelling voice, eye-catching covers, promising sales numbers and an author with a decent reader following may be destined for great things. Meaning a traditional book deal.

With so many indie titles released every day, the pool of authors has become something of a resource for literary agents eager to unearth new talent and sign the next breakaway bestseller – and a testing ground. “Traditional publishers let the indie market experiment, then they swoop in and try to grab what has worked,” said literary agent Evan Marshall with the Evan Marshall Agency.  “When a (book) is of high quality, the attention and popularity naturally come with it.”

The main indicator is sales rankings, which creates a “slush pile that is self-curating,” added Laurie McLean, a partner at Fuse Literary Inc. Basically, if the numbers just aren’t there and the book isn’t making waves in the indie market, it likely won’t stand a chance in the traditional one, either, added Andrea Hurst, literary agent with Andrea Hurst & Associates.

The indie world is also allowing the traditional folks to see how new genres resonate with readers. It’s a “freedom and flexibility most traditional publishers don’t have,” Marshall said.

But there are barriers between a literary agent and the next great indie find. Mostly, it’s the sheer volume of titles, which bury the best ones. “It’s the same with the normal slush pile we deal with as agents,” said McLean. “We read. A lot … It’s the same as finding those needles in the huge haystack that we deal with every day.”

So where do agents look? Amazon Bestseller lists, The New York Times eBook Bestseller Lists, Bookbub and other major indie advertising sites. WattPad is another big one, along with Scribd – where McLean’s hybrid client Ransom Stephens got his start – Textnovel, FictionPress, FanFiction, textnovel, Worthy of Publishing, Mibba, figment, Quotev and other writing sites, as well as author web sites, popular review blogs and any place indie authors are being talked about – “the proverbial online water cooler vibe,” McLean added.

Writer’s conferences are also key. That’s where Toby Neal, a self-published author of police procedurals, met and clicked with McLean. Now she has an eight-book audiobook deal and two new series. “She’s given me six months. If I fail, she can always self-publish them. But this gives me a huge incentive to get this book pitched quickly and sold.”

And though word of mouth may be low-tech and old-fashioned, it’ll still get writers’ work under an agent’s nose. One of McLean’s hybrid clients, Michael J. Sullivan, referred her to two fantasy authors whose work he enjoyed and now one of them – Brian D. Anderson – is getting a chance to sell his new series with publishers in New York. “So, do a good job and your name will spread, I guess,” she said.

But the pressure is on indie authors to impress if they want to snag a book deal. Great writing, fresh ideas, a popular genre and novel-length stories – not short stories, novelettes or novellas –are required, added Marshall.  It’s also a popularity game, evidenced by a strong reader following and social media presence, plus a marketable author brand. But McLean pointed out another critical element– desire.

“We’re particularly looking for indie authors who also want to have at least some presence in traditional publishing. “We’re in it for the long haul of an author’s career and we are looking to grow hybrid authors who can have one foot in the indie world and one in traditional publishing at all times.”

This element can be a challenging one to attain, because indie authors unfamiliar with traditional publishing get frustrated with the process. “They expect everything to move quickly and to have a say at every point along the way. That’s just not the way it works for the most part. You don’t get to pick your covers. You need to make some tough editing choices and trust your editor to make you a better writer. And you need to be patient.”

JH Mae is a freelance and short fiction writer. Her work has appeared in Hello Horror and Spark! A Creative Anthology. She blogs at 


You can find the original article at:

Monday, February 9, 2015

In the Search for Success: Into the Self-Publishing Nightmare

Award-winning writer and illustrator, President of Pers

I used to be a design manager at one of the largest software companies in the world. Unfortunately, I had been born with dreaded "dreamer" gene and, as told in my previous blog post, I decided to leave it all to follow my dreams.

Since I was a child, I've been creating characters and stories which I wanted to bring to life in books, games, and movies. I had now decided that the easiest way to achieve "success" with my creations, was to publish an illustrated book.

After several years of working as a designer at companies like Apple and Adobe, I felt extremely confident in my illustration skills. What I felt very unsure of were my writing skills...  

English is not my first language (I was born and raised in Lima, Perú) but that didn't really worry me; my grammar was excellent and my accent couldn't be heard on paper. What terrified me was thinking that my stories could be silly, or even worse, boring.

I decided to "ease in" into writing professionally by writing children's books (I figured, fewer words = less chances to make mistakes). I selected "Pookie" (a little penguin character I had created years ago) and his friend "Tushka" (a little polar bear), as the stars of my first book. Supposedly, it is tougher for most people to write for children, but thanks to my immaturity, it was a piece of cake for me! 

I submitted my manuscript and illustrations to dozens of book publishers and I had the honor of being rejected by HaperCollins, Random House, Scholastic, and the top publishing houses in the world!

I went to book fairs and personally approached publishers. I kept getting rejected. The publishers that would be willing to talk to me would tell me: "A publisher won't publish your book, unless you have an agent." So then I approached agents, who in turn told me: "An agent won't represent you, unless you have been published before." Something seemed off with the publishing industry... 

After the endless rejections, I was wondering if buying all those Writing for Dummies books had been a waste of money... but then the Universe gave me hope: a small publisher accepted my manuscript! I was on my way to success!

The contract arrived and I eagerly opened the envelope. I figured, as a formality, I should read the contract before signing it. Well... it was not a pleasant read. Not only would I make a measly percentage, but also my characters would become property of the publisher and so would my next book. I politely declined their offer.

I was fed up! If I was ever going to publish my books, I needed to take matters into my own hands. That's when I decided I was going to be: a self-publisher!

By this time, I had already written and illustrated a second book about a group of colorful alien characters named "The Blobbies." I decided to self-publish both my books at the same time.

I spent many days in the Barnes & Noble's self-publishing aisle. I registered my manuscripts with the Library of Congress and Quality Books Inc. I bought the brand new Adobe InDesign and worked hard on the "ready to print" digital files for my books. But doing all of this work while still keeping a full-time job was very difficult. Days were too short, I needed more time... and soon the Universe would give it to me!

I had recently turned 30 and to celebrate the occasion, my body developed a brand new kind of "stomach ache." I decided to power through it, as I had no time to get sick, and kept on working until my VERY painful "stomach ache" faded away two days later. But when I started developing a fever, I began to wonder if maybe this was no ordinary "stomach ache"... a few hours later, as I was being rolled into the ER, I was told that I had just powered through appendicitis and my appendix had burst.

Yes, I could have died but, on the plus side, I was forced to take three weeks off work, and instead of accepting my sentence of bed rest with Ricky Lake re-runs, I decided to grab my laptop and use all this free time to work full-time on my children's books!

Soon, my digital files would be ready. All I needed now, was the right printing company, and... lots and lots of money.

You see... in all my excitement of becoming a writer, I didn't realize that printing full-color children's books is waaaaay more expensive than printing paperback B&W novels. I had to use up all my savings, my Adobe stock, and the money from the nice folks at Discover Cards.

A year later, my two masterpieces were ready: Pookie and Tushka Find a Little Piano and Here Come The Blobbies! Now, all I needed was a distributor.

I paid for a booth at Book Expo America (BEA) in L.A. and searched for a distributor. As usual, I kept getting rejected. Distributors didn't want to take a chance on an unproven author. Then someone told me: "If your book gets an award, a distributor may consider you." It seemed like a long shot, but there was hope!

I submitted my books to several awards contests and, lo and behold, both my children's books won several awards, including a Best New Children's Book of the Year award!!! I was ecstatic! Specially because, apparently, I didn't suck as a writer.

The following year I went to BEA again and, very sure of myself, I approached distributors with my awards. Unfortunately, two years had now passed since I published my books and they were now considered "old." The top distributors didn't want to carry them. "SIGH" would be an understatement.

I decided to distribute my books via Thankfully, the books sold pretty well! I mean, I didn't become the famous writer I was hoping for, but I have a handful of fans all over the world (and if I count my nieces and nephews, I can probably double the amount!).

My books were great accomplishments, because they showcased my skills. My books came with a CD-ROM with songs I'd composed and games I'd programmed... including a Flash game called "Ice Toss Frenzy" (a plot point for a future blog post).

Yes, yes, I am quite talented: I draw, I write, I program, I compose, I even kinda sing... but boy, do I suck at finances!

Let me give you an example of this: I was eventually able to get signed by a small book distributor at the following BEA. By signing with this distributor, I was able to reach bookstores across the U.S. But, the "funny thing" is that, in order to sign with the distributor, I had to stop selling via Amazon.

Well... this distributor didn't promote my books, they would just ship them IF a bookstore requested them (fat chance!). So, now I was selling fewer books than with Amazon. On top of that, shipping my heavy books to the distributor costed me several thousands of dollars, plus I now had to pay monthly storage fees to the distributor for books they would hardly sell. As you can see, a great business decision! One of many that would follow... 

My adventures in the publishing industry brought me some recognition and small successes, but not the kind of big success I was craving for.

My never-ending search for success would go on... 

MORAL OF THE STORY: If you are a writer planning to self-publish, I strongly advice that you to try eBooks. The risk is much lower. Having to deal with shipping and storing palettes of physical books can be very expensive. If you do decide to self-publish physical books, try to have a deal in place BEFORE you print the books, so ideally your books arrive directly to the distributor's warehouse and there are stores waiting for your books.

Monday, February 2, 2015

A Look Ahead to Self-Publishing in 2015

 By Jennifer McCartney

Industry insiders predict an increase in diversity, serialization, and hybrid publishing in the coming year.
Self-publishing saw another successful year in 2014, with authors like Deborah Bladon and Jen McLaughlin hitting the New York Times bestseller lists, fanfic authors like Sophie Jackson receiving six-figure advances, and many millions of titles being published across the industry’s numerous platforms. The view of self-publishing as an outlet of last resort for desperate authors is also changing—the negative stigma that’s long been associated with the industry is being discarded for a more progressive outlook, along with the acknowledgement that self-publishing and traditional publishing can coexist and even benefit one another. And self-publishing platforms are increasingly serving as a kind of testing ground for traditional publishers, which are snapping up successful indie authors and offering them, in some cases, million-dollar advances. Further, some traditionally published authors are becoming more open to exploring self-publishing as a supplement to or as a replacement for their traditional publishing careers.

A year ago, we predicted that the self-publishing industry would mature in 2014, with writers taking ownership of their role as both authors and business owners. As 2015 begins, we once again anticipate a year of growth, despite some concerns about market saturation. For this year’s preview, we talked to a number of industry insiders about the current state of self-publishing, the trends they’ve noticed over the past year, and the current challenges facing indie authors in an increasingly crowded market, along with some of their predictions for 2015.

As an example of continued industry growth, Ashleigh Gardner, head of content at Wattpad, noted that in 2014 the social publishing site gained millions of users who shared 15 million works of fan fiction alone—resulting in breakout publishing stars like Anna Todd, whose One Direction fanfic, After, got her a four-book deal with Gallery Books at Simon & Schuster.

Established self-publishing sites like Lulu also saw growth over the past year, according to the company’s v-p of marketing, Dan Dillon, as a result of new initiatives like Lulu Jr.—a brand enabling children to become published authors. In addition to Lulu Jr., the company announced a partnership with Crayola to develop a line of co-branded book-making kits for kids.

Across all segments of self-publishing, there were signs of continued growth and innovation—from Crayola to fanfic to hybrid publishing to the rise of serialization, we break it all down for you here.

The Rise of the “Authorpreneur”

"Authors who embrace best practices in publishing, have a solid focused plan to engage readers, and are testing new opportunities to reach new audiences can put themselves in the driver’s seat."
As more and more authors go it alone, they are increasingly treating their self-publishing ventures as businesses. This means realizing that their publishing efforts must be part of a broader business model that takes into account everything from branding to media outreach to editorial collaboration—which is an important development, according to Beat Barblan, director of identifier services at Bowker.

“There has been a realization over the last year, I would say, that, in order to be successful, self-publishers must see themselves as business owners and recognize that writing the content is only the first of many steps,” says Barblan. While he notes that “content is still king,” he points out that even good content will have trouble finding an audience if authors aren’t publishing professionally—paying attention to the services a traditional publisher offers like editing, marketing, e-book conversion, and cover design. “Authors have realized that when choosing to self-publish they are not eliminating the role of the publisher: rather, they choose to assume the publisher’s responsibilities.” This means that indie authors are doing more work than their traditionally published counterparts, but are perhaps more empowered as a result—taking ownership of their titles and working to expand their business.

Dillon at Lulu agrees. “It’s been very fulfilling to see the concept of the ‘authorpreneur’ take hold in 2014,” he says. As an example, Dillon points to the portion of Lulu authors who are utilizing the free tools offered by the site to communicate directly with their readers, which in turn builds loyalty and drives sales. “The one thing our authors did supremely well in 2014 is they got to know their readers, to understand who they are, and to deliver an ever increasing amount of high quality content to them,” something Dillon says is the hallmark of a maturing and thriving marketplace. “As 2015 gets under way, we expect to serve even greater numbers of authors who consider themselves the CEO of their book business.” He also notes that, as business owners, authors are working to develop customer loyalty in order to “keep their customers for life.”

The need for a long-term outlook by indie authors is echoed by Smashwords founder Mark Coker: “Now more than ever, indies must focus on their long-term game plan. Avoid the temptation of making short-term decisions that harm your long-term opportunities. Understand that as an indie author you are an essential participant in the publishing community.”

Many others in the industry also say that indie authors will need to pay increasing attention to professionalism. Barblan predicts that readers will increasingly expect self-published books to be indistinguishable from those that are traditionally published. “From the value of the content to the type of paper used to print physical books or the care taken in their conversion to e-books, books should be of equal quality regardless of how they get published,” says Barblan. “The reader wants good, well-presented content that is readily available at a reasonable cost.”

The Hybrid

As self-publishing has become more established, it appears to also have become a viable option for traditionally published authors, who have tended to shy away from it in the past. For instance, self-publishing allowed New York Times bestselling author Eileen Goudge to release Bones and Roses in 2014 after she failed to find a publisher for the novel. Smashword’s Coker predicts that we’ll see more traditionally published authors going this route—especially midlist authors, who tend to get less attention from their publishers than frontlist authors and may be looking for a change. In addition, the flexibility offered by hybrid publishing means that authors with out-of-print backlists can regain the rights and publish the titles themselves, perhaps opening up their work to a new generation.

“Clearly, [self-]publishing has not only matured, it has lost the stigma that stuck to it for years,” explains Sally Dedecker, an industry consultant and education director at BEA. “I hear from traditional authors who are exploring the [self-]publishing option, and looking for a game plan to shift to hybrid or leap right into [self-]publishing.” As an example, she notes that at uPublishU at BEA in 2014, a number of attendees were traditional authors who wanted to explore their options and investigate the benefits of various publishing platforms and learn more about rights and marketing.

Barblan agrees that 2015 will be a year of growth for hybrids. “I think we will see an increase in hybrid publishers, choosing to publish both ways: via traditional publishers as well as on their own depending on type of content and market,” he says. As authors learn more about their publishing options, whether via a panel at BEA or from networking with other writers and readers, and are able to choose exactly how to publish individual titles depending on their needs, it seems clear that hybrid publishing will continue to attract new fans in the coming year.

Serialization and Fan Fiction

Authors have also taken note of the opportunities offered by serialization. By releasing their work a chapter at a time, authors can keep readers hooked while incorporating feedback from their fans as they go—a format that’s been successful for a number of indie authors this year. This publishing model also allows for increased author revenue—publishing 30 chapters priced at 99¢ lets authors potentially enjoy 30 times the revenue compared to a single title at the same price point.

“Serialization is here to stay,” predicts Wattpad’s Gardner, pointing to the more than 14 million stories shared serially on the site in 2014. “With so many writers sharing stories chapter by chapter, reading is becoming episodic. The reality is people still love to read, but prefer to do it in short bursts, often on the go.” (In fact, authors are writing on the go as well—more than 20 billion words were published on Wattpad’s iOS and Android mobile platforms in 2014.) Gardner also notes that fan fiction continues to be the fastest growing category on Wattpad, covering everything from “celebrities to YouTubers to apps and classic novels.” Gardner says she expects to see “more real person fan fiction and stories about breaking news in the coming year.” Also, while genre fiction remains strong, she’s seeing a change in subject matter—“sexy cowboys” are giving way to sexy MMA fighters in the romance genre, and jinns are taking over from vampires as common protagonists in the fantasy realm.

Thoughts on Market Saturation

With an increasing number of indie titles being self-published every year, authors face the constant challenge of discoverability—getting their titles noticed in a sea of seemingly endless options. 
“There’s a glut of high-quality, low-cost books out there,” Coker says, adding that one reason for this is the “immortal” e-books from both indie and traditional authors that will never go out of print. More importantly, he notes, traditional publishers are beginning to heavily discount their e-books and offer some content for free in an attempt to capitalize on the success that many indie authors have seen with this strategy. This means even more good content is available at a very low (or nonexistent) price point.

Coker offers the statistics to back this point up, noting that a 2014 Smashwords survey found that free e-books at Apple’s iBooks store were downloaded 39 times more frequently than books that cost money—a figure that sounds encouraging until it’s compared with the survey from the year before, which saw free books downloaded 91 times more often. “So many authors are using free promotions and perma-free that free books face increased competition,” he says.

Nevertheless, Dillon is confident that there is still an appetite for new books, and that those books all have the potential to find an audience. “The magic of the book business is that for every book, there are n number of customers,” he notes. “Readers are perpetually buying new content, and no one book addresses their every need or desire.” Dillon also says that, unlike practical items like washing machines, snowblowers, or tablets, readers can always use another book. Diane Mancher, founder of One Potata Productions and cofounder of the Self-Publishing Book Expo agrees, pointing out that she doesn’t believe there can ever be too much content available. “That to me would be like suggesting there is too much music to listen to or too much art to appreciate.”

“I think that the publishing industry has always been faced with too many books, so little time to read,” adds Dedecker. “That said, authors who embrace best practices in publishing, have a solid focused plan to engage readers, and are testing new opportunities to reach new audiences can put themselves in the driver’s seat.”

Challenges for 2015

While noting the increasing challenge of discoverability, our industry experts are mostly in agreement that 2015 will continue to be an exciting year for self-publishing.

“Best practices for book publishing, working to better understand issues around discovery—including metadata—and experimenting with new ways to monetize their content should be high on the ‘to do’ list,” advises Dedecker. Dillon predicts the continued resiliency of the print format across various segments of the market, while also noting that reader data will become an important focus for brands, authors, and marketers in the coming year. Mancher believes that 2015 will continue to see traditional publishers “mine indie authors to find the next big thing.” Coker predicts a drop in author revenue from e-books sold in Europe as the result of an increased value-added tax (VAT) that took effect January 1, something he says will make e-books “less competitive to print books and other nonbook options for leisure, entertainment, and knowledge.”

Finally, there’s the view that self-publishing can continue to act as a corrective to the traditional publishing industry, which is often seen as lacking in diversity and minority voices. “There’s been a lot of talk about the need for diversity in books lately,” notes Gardner. “On Wattpad, we see a true range of storytelling. You can find stories you wouldn’t be able to find anywhere else that cover emerging or underrepresented genres like urban fiction, fan fiction, and LGBT stories.” Gardner says she’s hoping that 2015 offers more recognition for authors and books that represent “different cultures, experiences, and viewpoints.”


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Monday, January 26, 2015

What is a Minor Character: Understanding the Minor Characters’ Role


Not all characters are created equal.

You must know—and let your readers know—which characters are most important to the story (i.e. the major characters), so they’ll know which are worth following and caring about, and which will quickly disappear
(i.e. the inconsequential placeholders).

So where is the dividing line between major and minor characters? There isn’t one. The different levels shade into each other, and as you master the writing techniques appropriate to each level, you’ll be able to create and define each minor character at exactly the level of importance the story requires.

Walk-ons and Placeholders

Unless your story takes place in a hermitage or a desert island, your main characters are surrounded by many people who are utterly unimportant in the story. They are background; they are part of the milieu. Here are a few samples:

  • Nora accidentally gave the cabby a $20 bill for a $5 ride and then was too shy to ask for change. Within a minute a skycap had the rest of her money.
  • Pete checked at the desk for his messages. There weren’t any, but the bellman did have a package for him.
  • People started honking their horns before Nora even knew there was a traffic jam.
  • Apparently some suspicious neighbor had called the cops. The uniform who arrested him wasn’t interested in Pete’s explanations, and Pete soon found himself at the precinct headquarters.

Notice how many people we’ve “met” in these few sentences: a cabby, a skycap, a hotel desk clerk, a bellman, horn-honkers in a traffic jam, a suspicious neighbor, a uniformed police officer. Every single one of these people is designed to fulfill a brief role in the story and then vanish completely out of sight.

Setting the Scenery

How do you make people vanish? Any stage director knows the trick. You have a crowd of people on stage, most of them walk-ons. They have to be there because otherwise the setting wouldn’t be realistic—but you don’t want them to distract the audience’s attention. In effect, you want them to be like scenery. They really aren’t characters at all—they’re movable pieces of milieu.

The surest way for a walk-on to get himself fired from a play is to become “creative”—to start fidgeting or doing some clever bit of stage business that distracts attention from the main action of the scene. Unless, of course, this is one of those rare occasions when the walk-on’s new business is brilliantly funny—in which case, you might even pay him more and elevate the part.

You have the same options in fiction. If a character who isn’t supposed to matter starts distracting from the main thread of the story, you either cut her out entirely or you figure out why you, as a writer, were so interested in her that you’ve spent more time on her than you meant to. Then, in the latter case, revise the story to make her matter more.

Most of the time, though, you want your walk-ons to disappear. You want them to fade back and be part of the scenery, part of the milieu.

Utilizing Stereotypes

To keep walk-on characters in their place, sometimes stereotyping is exactly the tool of characterization you need.

A stereotype is a character who is a typical member of a group. He does exactly what the readers expect him to do. Therefore, they take no notice of him: He disappears into the background.

If we think that a particular stereotype is unfair to the person it supposedly explains, then we’re free to deliberately violate the stereotype. But the moment we do that, we have made the character unique, which will make him attract the readers’ attention. He will no longer simply disappear—he isn’t a walk-on anymore. He has stepped forward out of the milieu and joined the story.

Minor Characters

There’s nothing wrong with a background character violating stereotype and attracting attention—as long as you realize that he isn’t part of the background anymore. The readers will notice him, and they’ll expect his uniqueness to amount to something.

The audience still isn’t supposed to care much about him; he isn’t expected to play a continuing role in the story. He might be momentarily involved in the action, but then he’ll disappear. Still, his individuality will set a mood, add humor, make the milieu more interesting or complete. The way to make such characters instantly memorable without leading the audience to expect them to do more is to make them eccentric, exaggerated or obsessive.


Remember the movie Beverly Hills Cop? There were hundreds of placeholders in that film—thugs who shot at cops, cops who got shot at, people milling around in the hotel lobby, people at the hotel desk. They all acted exactly as you would expect them to act. They vanished. Unless you personally knew an actor who played one of the walk-ons, you don’t remember any of them.

But I’ll bet that as you walked out of the theater, you remembered Bronson Pinchot. Not by name, of course, not then. He was the desk attendant in the art gallery. You know, the one with the effeminate manner and the weird foreign accent. He had absolutely nothing to do with the story—if he had been a mere placeholder, you would never have noticed anything was missing. So why do you remember him?

It wasn’t that he had a foreign accent. In southern California, a Spanish accent would not be out of the ordinary; he would have disappeared.

It wasn’t his effeminacy. Again, he would disappear.

But the effeminacy and the accent were combined—and so the audience remembered him. What’s more important, though, is that the accent was an eccentric one, completely unexpected. Pinchot based his accent on the speech of an Israeli he once knew; the accent was so rare that almost no one in the audience recognized it. It was a genuinely novel way to speak. He was not just a foreigner; he was a strange and effeminate foreigner. Furthermore, Pinchot’s reactions to Eddie Murphy—the hint of annoyance, superiority, snottiness in his tone—made him even more eccentric. Eccentric enough to stick in our minds.

And yet, though we remembered him, we never expected his character to be important to the story. He existed only for a few laughs and to make Murphy’s Detroit-cop character feel even more alien in L.A. Pinchot managed to steal the scene—to get his promotion from walk-on—without distorting the story. He was funny, but he made no great difference in the way the story went. He simply amused us for a moment.

Because he was a minor character, that was exactly what he needed to be. Likewise, in your stories you need to realize that your minor characters should not be deeply and carefully characterized. Like flashbulbs, they need to shine once, brightly, and then get tossed away.


Another way to make a minor character flash: You take a normal human trait and make it just a little—or sometimes a lot—more extreme, like the character Sweetface in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Butch and the Kid are in a brothel; the Pinkerton detectives ride up on the street below. There we see a pudgy-faced character who looks like the soul of innocence and believability. Butch tells Sundance a brief story about him—that with Sweetface covering for them, they’re safe because everybody believes him. His innocent look is an exaggeration, but sure enough, when Sweetface points out of town, as if to say “they went thataway,” the Pinkertons take off in that direction.

A few moments later, the Pinkertons ride back and confront Sweetface again; Sweetface panics and points straight toward the room where Butch and the Kid are watching. His panic and betrayal are as exaggerated as his innocence was before. He sticks in the memory, and yet we never expected him to be important again in the plot.


Let’s go back to the example I gave of Nora’s cabby, the one she paid $20 for a $5 ride. The stereotypical reaction—“Hey, thanks, lady”—is so ordinary we can omit it entirely. But what if the cabdriver is obsessive?

“What is it, you trying to impress me? Trying to show me you’re big time? Well, don’t suck ego out of me, lady!
I only take what I earn!”

Nora had no time for this. She hurried away from the cab. To her surprise, he jumped out and followed her, shouting at her with as much outrage as she’d expect if she hadn’t paid him at all.

“You can’t do this to me in America!” he shouted. “I’m a Protestant. You never heard of the Protestant work ethic?”

Finally she stopped. He caught up with her, still scolding. “You can’t do your rich-lady act with me, you hear me?”

“Shut up,” she said. “Give me back the twenty.” He did, and she gave him a five. “There,” she said. “Satisfied?”

His mouth hung open; he looked at the five in utter disbelief. “What is this!” he said. “No tip?”

Now, that’s a guy who won’t let go. If you saw that scene in a movie or even read it in a novel, chances
are you’d remember the cabdriver. Yet you wouldn’t expect him to be important in the plot. If he showed
up again it would be for more comic relief, not for anything important.

For instance, when the story is all but over and Nora is coming home with Pete for a well-earned rest, it could be funny if they get in a cab and it turns out to be the same driver. The audience would remember him well enough for that. But they would be outraged if the cabdriver turned out to be an assassin or a long-lost cousin.

This would not be true, however, if this were the first scene in the story. At the beginning of the story, all the characters are equal—we don’t know any of them at all. So if in fact you wanted to tell the story of how Nora got involved with this obsessive-compulsive cabdriver—or how the cabdriver managed to get Nora’s attention so he could start dating her—this would be a pretty good beginning.

The other side of that coin is that if the cabdriver is supposed to be minor, you could not begin the story with this scene. If these were the first five paragraphs of the story, we would naturally expect that the story was going to be about Nora and the cabby, and when Nora goes on through the story without ever seeing or even thinking of the cabdriver again, at some point many readers are going to ask, “What was that business with the cabdriver all about?”

As you use these techniques to varying degrees with the many characters in your story, an unconscious
ranking of the characters will emerge in the readers’ minds, starting with the least-important background characters, moving up through the minor characters, to the major characters, and finally to two or three main characters or a single protagonist—the people or person the story is mostly about.


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