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Anne R. Allen's Blog


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Anne writes funny mysteries and how-to-books for writers. She also writes poetry and short stories on occasion. Oh, yes, and she blogs. She's a contributor to Writer's Digest and the Novel and Short Story Writer's Market for 2016. 

Her bestselling Camilla Randall Mystery Series features perennially down-on-her-luck former socialite Camilla Randall—who is a magnet for murder, mayhem and Mr. Wrong, but always solves the mystery in her quirky, but oh-so-polite way.

Anne lives on the Central Coast of California, near San Luis Obispo, the town Oprah called "The Happiest City in America."

Anne blogs at Anne R. Allen's Blog...with Ruth Harris 
and at Anne R. Allen's Books

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Is Your WIP in Deep Doo-Doo? 7 “Block” Busters from Ruth Harris

First, the winner of last week’s contest is PHYLLIS HUMPHREY and she chose GHOSTWRITERS IN THE SKY. Congratulations, Phyllis! 

For this week’s contest (there will be TWO WINNERS this week!) just put the title of Ruth’s bestselling thriller HOOKED in the comment thread.

Other news: my box set of all THE CAMILLA RANDALL MYSTERIES is now available on Amazon. Hope to have it on Nook soon (as well as FOOD OF LOVE.) Any of you who have reviewed one of the mysteries, if you had time to post your review on the box set page as well, I would be forever grateful.

Ruth has some awfully useful tips for us today. They really hit home for me, because I’m just at that stage where I’m seriously falling out of love with my WIP. So while Ruth takes the helm this week, I’m going to get out my tablet and chisel, change the love interest’s name to Bon Jovi, give the villain a tragic childhood, and maybe think about a sex change for Camilla…? These are fun ideas, and they work.

By Ruth Harris

You’re stuck. You don’t know what you’re doing. You hate your book. You hate your characters. The plot sucks. The whole *&%^ idea sucks. And don’t even mention the title. Oh, you mean, you’ve tried a kajillion titles and they all stink, too?

You have no talent and don’t know what you’re doing or why you’re doing it. On REALLY bad days, you even hate your computer which just sits there like a bilious toad and never, not once in living history, came up with a single idea. You’re mad at your cat, your dog and whichever politician is yapping away on the TV—none of THEM ever came up with an idea, either!

We’ve all been-there-done-that, including me who’s been writing stories, novels, articles, blurbs, flap copy, and blog posts for almost four decades and still, now and then, wonder WTF I’m doing. Lost, I tell you. Beyond clueless. Out of gas, out of inspiration, out of ideas. Hopeless. Blocked.

So what do I do to keep on keeping on? What have I learned about how to bust the block?

1) The Writer’s Tool Box

Really simple but sometimes all it takes: If, as usual, I’ve been composing on a computer, I pick up a pad and pencil. Working by hand slows me down and forces me to think more carefully. Often writing a few paragraphs by hand will get me going again.
I haven’t had to resort to a quill yet. Or even a stone table and chisel. But I don’t rule them out because you never know.

2) Geography

If a tool switch doesn’t work, try changing the venue. Leave your desk and go to the kitchen table, a coffee shop, a park.

Sometimes just moving around can make a difference. A short walk, once around the block: the street and sidewalk remain but the block might be gone. A run, a Pilates session, even getting up from your desk and making the bed or emptying the dishwasher can get you out of your funk. Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, a great idea pops up.

3) The Meh Character

We’re talking about the character who just lies there like a blob, does nothing interesting, says nothing provocative, and drains the energy out of every scene in which s/he appears. Even you, the creator, are bored to death by this loser.

The first thing I think about when confronting the meh character is his/her name. Maybe I’ve given this character a boring name. Sue, John, Jim, and Jen might be examples; names so common, they evoke no images or associations, give me no idea of who they are or were they came from.

Another possibility is that I’ve given the character the same name as someone I’d cross town to avoid because I don’t want to hear one more version of their latest drama with their rotten boyfriend/girlfriend or yet another installment of their decades-long battle with crabgrass.

Obvious solution: change the name. Look at baby-names sites. Plug “random name generator” into a search box and you’ll find a galaxy of suggestions. Pick a name you’ve never heard of so you can start fresh. Try something ethnic that will evoke a whole background and set of experiences.

Or else: Choose a name that has a strong association: Angelina, Brad or Madonna, for example, to get you going again. You can always change the name again later with a search and replace.

4) Escalation Strategy: The Sex Change

When the name change doesn’t help, go for the nuclear option: change the character’s sex. Leave the character exactly as you’ve written him/her but try a sex change. IME, the literary sex change, although it will probably feel traumatic at first, can work magic and the character who once seemed flat & boring suddenly isn’t. Putting a female character into what was once a male POV can really shake things up. Vice versa works, too.

You can also play with gender orientation: boring straight character/clichéd gay character? Do a switch: Different person, different motives, different experiences, different goals may well be the transformation that turns the meh character into someone you and the reader will care about.

As always, if the trick works, you can always change the character back again.

5) Sympathy For The Devil

Seems easy to write the villain, doesn’t it? They’re bad. Bad, bad, bad. Not to mention horrible, awful, and absolutely vile. They evoke terror, horror, revulsion and you have plenty of ideas for scene after scene of unrelenting evil. So what could go wrong?

The answer? Plenty.

Rotten, miserable human—or supernatural—being. Blood dripping from fangs. Evil oozing from every pore. Dictator, serial murderer, assassin, malicious neighbor, vicious ex—problem is, even evil can get boring after a while. Unrelenting vengeance, torture, and/or destruction give the writer nowhere to go after a while and, sooner or later, the writer is stuck and just can’t come up with another can-you-top-this? twist.

What’s needed is nuance—and nuance can come in the form of traumatic experiences ranging from neglectful and/or over-indulgent parents to war, famine, global financial upheaval. Give the reader a glimpse of why the devil is doing whatever s/he’s doing. Let the devil speak for him/herself in terms of motivation, goals, and longings. The point is to create a character, not a check list of horrific flaws.

Hannibal Lecter, one of the most famous of all villains, was intelligent, sensitive and thoughtful. It was juxtaposition of those qualities with his lurid crimes that made him such a fascinating character. Without them, he’d be just another cannibal. Yawn.

6) Plot Problems

I’m a pantser and my best stuff comes out of character but when I face the oh-god-what-happens-next block, I try an outline. Because I’m severely outline-challenged, my outlines usually emerge in the form of a list: scenes that need to happen, plot points, character details and future cliffhangers.

The truth is, even in the form of a list, most of the time the outline just doesn’t work for me. What does help is going back to the beginning and reading slowly. Very slowly. Several times. I will frequently find that I’ve left out something crucial and I’m rewarded with the aha! moment.

You may find the opposite: that you’ve revealed too much and must take something out—a particularly juicy morsel—and save for later.

7) Code Red: The Last Resort

When all my fixes have failed, I talk out the problem—usually with my DH. What we’ve found is that often it isn’t what he says—he doesn’t know the ms. nearly as well as I do—but what I say. Turns out I’ve known the solution all along but needed to give it breath and the receptive ears of an interested listener.

Michael and I have faced and fixed each of these problems (some of them more than once) in the course of writing our thriller, HOOKED.

To celebrate, we’re giving away two copies this week. To enter, just include the title HOOKED in your comment. The winner will be chosen at random and announced next Sunday.

How about you, scriveners? What do you do when you and your WIP are having a spat? Have you ever tried any of these “fixes”? Do you have any suggestions to add?

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Sunday, March 18, 2012

When Should an Author Hire an Editor? How to Avoid Scams

First: This week marks the anniversary of that fateful day three years ago when I started this blog...and then promptly lost it. But luckily I found it about four months later, and this blog now gets an average of 12,000 hits a month on its four monthly posts (Slow Blogging rules!) and I have a blog partner, Ruth Harris, who is one of my favorite best-selling authors--someone I'd never have dreamed of meeting three years ago. Plus this blog got the attention of my two publishers, Popcorn Press and MWiDP. Without blogging, I'm sure my five novels would still be languishing in query hell. 

So in honor of this blogiversary, I'm giving away A FREE EBOOK to one lucky commenter--your choice. You can read descriptions of all the books on my book page. Just put your title of choice in the comment thread. All the books are available for Kindle and should all be available for Nook by the end of the week. The winner will be chosen by random.org and announced in next week's post.

Hiring an Editor: When, Who, and How to Avoid Scams

As I said in my last post: Learning to write books is hard. Earning money from books is even harder.

 So questions keep coming up:

  • How much money should you put into polishing a novel?
  • How much can you reasonably expect to recoup?
  • Should you hire an editor if you hope to get traditionally published?
  • When should you hire an editor if you plan to self-publish?
Self publishing has been a great boon to freelance book editors. But an awful lot of writers aren’t totally clear about their function. 

When I was doing freelance editing, I was amazed by the people who came to me with over-inflated ideas of what an editor can do. They’d arrive with collections of raw taped interviews, notebooks full of verses and random jottings, or old letters they wanted me to make into a salable book.

There are people who do these things. They’re called ghostwriters. They’re going to cost a lot of money. And unless you’re Justin Bieber, you’ll never make back the money you put into them.

(That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t publish them for yourself. Sometimes a personal or family history can be a fantastic gift to your children and grandchildren—for more see my post on writing memoir.) 

The term “editor” has several meanings in the book business. The “in-house” editors at publishing companies—the ones who decide what manuscripts to publish—don’t do a lot of literal “editing” these days. According to agent Jenny Bent, the amount of hands-on work they do, “varies wildly from editor to editor…because many editors simply don't have the time or desire to actually edit.” You’ll probably get more editing from some smaller and midsized presses than you will from the Big Six. But there, too things vary wildly from one editor to the next. I’m lucky to have had great editors at all three small presses who have published me.

But no matter what the size of the publishing house, by the time a manuscript lands on an editor’s desk, it needs to be pretty close to print-ready. Agents can help you polish, but they don’t have much time for nitty-gritty text-honing either, so most won’t look at manuscripts that aren’t carefully proofed and edited.

The truth is, the majority of professional writers learn to edit themselves, with the help of a beta reader or two.

Too many newbies hire editors when what they really need is a few basic writing classes and some knowledge of the industry.

I’ve seen some great posts in the blogosphere this week about how a lot of new writers are getting caught up in premature marketing frenzies and fail to learn basic craft. It’s not their fault. Some very successful self-publishers are telling writers “every day your book isn’t for sale you’re losing money.” This true for established authors with an out of print backlist, but it’s very bad advice for a fledgling writer who’s just finished a first novel.  

YA author Natalie Whipple wrote an amazingly candid blogpost a couple of weeks ago about what she wishes she’d done differently in her career. Here’s #4 “I wish I'd spent more time studying the craft. I used to think my natural talent would get me through the gate. I would write stories without much thought to if the plot worked or not, if the characters were real or not, if the world made sense or not. I feel like I squandered my talent for a long time because I relied solely on talent instead of pushing myself to get better."

And Kristen Lamb has been hammering us this week about the importance of honing writing skills before we publish. “We aren’t born knowing three-act structure or how to layer complex characters or how to infuse theme and symbol into a work spanning 60-100,000 words. All of that is learned through struggle.” (Yes. Struggle. She didn’t say “hiring somebody to do the hard work for us.”)      

Agents have been saying the same thing for years: The number one mistake new writers make is trying to publish too early. With the self-publishing revolution, the problem has become much worse.

No amount of editing can fix a book that is seriously flawed or amateurish. I see many self-published writers who blame bad reviews on a hired editor. But I wonder how many are expecting their editors to work miracles with a flawed manuscript.

Of course, if price is no object, you can hire an editor to be your personal writing teacher. Some editors offer “writing coaching” services.

But most professional writers didn’t start out wealthy, so they learned their craft through workshops, extensive reading, critique groups, and years of trial and error.

The people who benefit most from a freelance editor’s work are:

  • Self-publishers. If you’re not working with a publisher, you do need to hire an independent editor before uploading your book. Most writers are blind to typos and our own pet crutches and quirks. 
  • Experts whose primary field is not the written word. This includes self-help books by psychologists or medical professionals, specialty cookbooks, local history, etc.
  • Memoirists who have a unique, marketable tale to tell, but are not planning a career in writing.
  • Writers who have been requested by an interested agent or publisher to give the book a polish. Many agents will ask a writer to hire an independent editor at this stage. (Just don’t hire one owned by the agency, because that can be a major conflict of interest.)
  • Novelists who have polished their work in workshops and critique groups, but after many rejections, can’t pinpoint what is keeping them in the slush pile.
If you decide to hire an editor, do some research and be clear in your goals. You don’t want just any out-of-work English major. If the editor doesn’t have a good knowledge of the publishing industry, your money will be wasted. I’ve seen “professionally edited” manuscripts that are ridiculously long or too short to be considered by a contemporary publisher, or contain song lyrics (prohibitively expensive) or copyrighted characters. You want an editor who knows the business. Preferably somebody who knows what’s selling now and how to write for today’s marketplace.

The best way to find a good editor is by referral from satisfied clients. A lot of self-published authors will sing the praises of their editors, so visit their blogs. Or ask a favorite indie author for a recommendation. The standard pay scale for editorial services is posted by the Editorial and Freelancers Association. Plan to spend from five hundred to several thousand dollars for a book-length manuscript. 

There are also a lot of scammers out there, who just run your book through spellcheck or give you bogus advice. Check Writer Beware for in-depth advice and a list of some hair-raising editing scamsThe Edit Ink scam of the late ’90s bilked thousands. Here are some warning signs: 
  • Extravagant praise and promises. Anybody who guarantees you a place on the best-seller list is either crooked or delusional.
  • Claims that all publishers require a professionally edited ms. Not true. It’s also not true that an edit will get you a read. In fact, do not say in a query that your work has been “professionally edited.” Agents don’t care who you’ve hired. They care how well YOU can write.
  • An agent or publisher who recommends their own editing services or gives a specific referral. As I said above: beware conflicts of interest. Edit Ink scammed writers by giving agents kickbacks for referrals and even setting up fake agencies to tell all queriers they’d get representation if they used Edit Ink’s expensive, useless services.
  • One-size-fits-all. You need somebody who’s familiar with your genre. I can’t picture sex with elves without laughing, and torture scenes make me retch. You do NOT want my help with your paranormal erotica or horror novel. Conventions that are required in one genre, like romance, can be poison in something literary or action-oriented.
  • Direct solicitation. Scam editors purchase mailing lists from writing magazine subscriber lists. Beware.
  • Sales pressure. “Limited time offers” are rarely good deals.
  • No client list on their website. You should be able to get a list of clients and a sample of the editor’s work. Some editors often will offer a sample edit of a few pages before any money changes hands.
There are many kinds of edits, priced differently, so be aware of what you need.
  • Manuscript evaluation: A broad overall assessment of the book.
  • Content editing: Help with structure and style.
  • Line editing: Reworking text at the sentence level.
  • Copy editing: Attention to grammar, spelling, punctuation and continuity.
  • Proofreading: Checking for typos and other minor problems.
A good editor can make the difference between a successful book and a dud. Just choose your editor carefully and wait until you have a marketable project.

And most of all, don’t hire an editor too soon. Editing is polishing, not re-writing. First you have to put in those 10,000 hours that Malcolm Gladwell says are necessary to learn a craft. That’s a lot of hours. Go write.

What about you, scriveners? Have you used a freelance editor? What kind of experience did you have? Have you ever been scammed by a bogus editor?

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Sunday, March 11, 2012

Are the Big 6 Publishers Really Dying?

Today we have a different kind of post. And yes, it's long. But our guest poster, author and publisher Mark Williams, has a lot to say. 

Mark is the co-author of the thriller Sugar and Spice —the most popular self-published book in the UK for 2011. He has also started a wildly innovative publishing business of his own, which has published three of my books. I pay attention to Mark’s observations because, as a publishing professional outside of the US (he lives part time in London and part time in West Africa) he can see a bigger picture than most of us.

I asked him to write this post because I find his predictions very hopeful. I’ve heard from a lot of you who are still hanging onto the traditional publishing dream, and you’re scared when you hear all the doom and gloom about the death of bookstores and traditional publishing.

The truth is, we have lots of reasons to be hopeful. As writers, we now have more options than ever. Self-publishing isn’t going anywhere, as Nathan Bransford said in an encouraging blogpost this week. And now Mark tells us traditional publishing is learning from the ebook revolution and they’re coming back—better and smarter. 

Best of all, Mark sees a role for bookstores in our future. A happy thing for readers everywhere.

by Mark Williams

First off, a disclaimer, I am not anti-Amazon. 

I’m part of a writing partnership (known as “Saffina Desforges”) that owes much of its success to Amazon. We applaud the role Amazon has played in liberating writers from the shackles of the old system and look forward to their global expansion. 

So why the disclaimer? 

Because it seems that anything other than obsequious praise for “the Zon” and unadulterated glee at the widely-touted imminent demise of the “Big Six” means you must be the illegitimate child of a high-ranking CEO at Simon & Schuster, a moron with your head in the sand, or rearranging deckchairs on the Titanic, depending on which day it is. 

Sadly, the debate about publishing has gradually descended into a slanging match between two opposing camps, led by vociferous and high profile minorities on both sides, who actively encourage literary apartheid among the writing classes.

1) On the one side we have the snooty gatekeepers set, the stereotype trad publishers and agents who think they know best what readers should read and writers write. You’ve read the rants: 

  • “Writers only self-publish because their work isn’t good enough to be published the ‘proper’ way.” 
  • “All indie books are crap and full of typos.” 
  • “Amazon will become a monopoly and destroy culture as we know it.” 

2) On the other side we have the self-appointed spokespeople of the self-publishing revolution, who are busily digging the grave for traditional publishing. You’ve probably read them, too. As the Grave Diggers busily hammer nails into the coffin of the Big Six, they gleefully explain how—

  • “Any successful trad pubbed writer could make more on their own, if only they weren’t so stupid.” 
  • “No trad pubbed writer who has gone indie has ever returned to the trad publishing fold.” 
  • “Any indie can distribute anywhere around the globe thanks to Amazon—and get 70% royalties for doing so.” 

None of the above statements are true.

Which brings us back to my opening disclaimer. As the title of this post suggests, I don’t think the Big Six are facing imminent demise, and Amazon isn’t going to become a monopoly.

Not that I think the old system was working. Anyone who has read my past posts over at MWi and elsewhere will know my feelings on the publishers who pay royalties as low as 7%-15%, reject perfectly good books on a whim, and have probably destroyed far more writing careers than they have created. I’m no apologist for trad publishing’s many downsides. 

And yes, it’s very easy to point to the books the gatekeepers rejected that became big indie successes. 

We know. We wrote one. 

We have a whole wad of rejection slips from the gatekeepers for the novel that went onto become the eleventh best-selling ebook (trad or self-pubbed) in the UK last year. 

Yes, it’s easy to mock after the event, and so very tempting. Examples are plentiful, and they don’t come much bigger than the gatekeepers who turned down Harry Potter. A story about wizards? In a boarding school? And how long?! Get back in that café where you belong, demented wannabe-writer. Trying serving coffee. You’ll never sell this drivel. 

Of course we all love stories like that. It’s what keeps us going in those dark hours when it seems the years spent slaving over a manuscript have been wasted. The countless rejection slips of John Grisham, Stephen King and J.K. Rowling are part of literary legend. 

And how we all applauded last year when J.K. walked away from her publishers to set up Pottermore and self-publish her ebooks like us mere mortals. That surely was the final nail in the coffin of trad publishing?

Not at all. 

In spite of the Grave Diggers’ boast that no successful trad published author ever went indie and then returned to the trad-pub fold, that doesn’t seem to be true.

1) J.K. Rowling just handed her latest book over to the gatekeepers rather than publish as an indie, because she valued their expertise and marketing abilities. I think we can safely say the size of the advance was not a major factor here. And can we hear the sound of coffin nails pinging free? 

2) Stephen Leather, multi-million selling trad published author who stormed Kindle UK in 2010-11 with his self-published titles and then announced he was giving up self-publishing because he could make more money for less effort with the gatekeepers. And yes, that link does take you to Joe Konrath’s blog. 

So much for the brain-drain of top writers rushing to jump on the self-publishing wagon. Yes, many are, and some are doing very well at it. But the traffic is both ways. Advances may be down (Amanda Knox aside) but plenty of writers are signing up with the trads every day. New writers. Established writers. And lots and lots of successful indie writers.

All apparently boarding a sinking ship. As the Grave Diggers tell us at every opportunity, print sales are in decline, revenues are falling and therefore the Big Six will follow Borders into bankruptcy and Amazon will inherit the Earth.

This part is true: print sales are in decline, and they’ll only get worse.

But as for the demise of the Big Six: sorry, but the Grave Diggers are hammering nails into an empty coffin. Despite the undeniable and continuing fall in demand for print books, the profits of the Big Six are up, and can only get bigger and better as digital replaces print.

Take Penguin for example. Despite the falling print sales Penguin somehow managed to make a profit last year. Penguin chairman and c.e.o. John Makinson called 2011 "the most turbulent book market that anyone can remember", but said the company's growth had been driven by "excellent publishing around the globe, demonstrated by market share growth in our three biggest markets.”

Obviously this is a one-off fluke, right? After all, everyone knows the trad publishers aren’t investing in digital, and they don’t know what an ebook is.

But let’s just catch the full statement by Makinson: …the company's growth had been driven by "excellent publishing around the globe, demonstrated by market share growth in our three biggest markets, and innovation in every aspect of our digital publishing."

A Big Six publisher? Innovation in digital publishing?
Be serious! Heads in sand, remember? Deckchairs on the Titanic, right?

Consider the recent news:

  • Penguin e-book revenues were up 106% year on year, equalling 12% of total Penguin revenues worldwide, with 20% in the USA. Penguin have recorded 50 million apps and ebook downloads since 2008.In 2011 Penguin launched more than 100 apps and enhanced e-books and the digital-only publishing programme, Penguin Shorts. Penguin also continued investment in direct-to-consumer initiatives including aNobii in the UK and Bookish in the US, both new digital platforms for readers. In Australia Penguin acquired the retailer REDgroup's online business, and Penguin's websites and social media channels now have a global following of more than 11 million.
  • Simon & Schuster reported a similar feat in February: they’re making more money from declining print sales, and other publishers will be doing the same.
  • Scholastic this past week announced beta trials of its new digital store. According to Publishers Weekly: “After more than 18 months of development, Scholastic has begun beta tests for Storia, its proprietary e-book platform for selling and distributing its trade titles as well as digital editions of titles from other children’s houses.”
Note the key words “after more than 18 months of development.” The idea touted by the Grave Diggers that the trads are sitting about fiddling while Rome burns may bring a smile to the face of anyone who ever received a rejection slip and now hopes whoever overlooked their masterpiece will rot in hell.

But the reality is rather different. Every major publisher is investing heavily in digital, and has been for several years.

The simple fact is, change takes time. Big ships take time to turn around. And before you rush in and say “Amazon can turn on a dime,” look at the reality.

Amazon didn’t suddenly produce its e-book platform overnight. Amazon has been selling books on-line for nearly two decades. It moved to ebook sales as a logical extension of an existing business, and we’re all delighted it did.

But it didn’t lead the way. Amazon didn’t invent ebooks, e-readers, e-ink, self-publishing or even the 70% “royalty”. Sony and Apple, to name but a few, were way ahead (Apple started the 70% “royalty” and Amazon price-matched).

Amazon had everything in place at the right time. The selling platform, the customer base for books, and all importantly the books themselves. The genius of the Kindle was not in the creation of the device itself, but in being able to produce an affordable e-reader and tie it to the products it was already selling – ebooks.

Suggesting that publishers didn’t see digital coming rather ignores the small point of who, exactly, was producing these ebooks in the first place. It certainly wasn’t you and me.

Amazon didn’t invest in the Kindle and then hope that just maybe tons of unknowns would self-publish and make money for them. The fact that that’s what happened is a huge bonus for Amazon but there wasn’t any master-plan.

Just as there isn’t any master-plan now to destroy big publishing by buying off all the trad published authors.

When a successful trad-pubbed writer signs up with an Amazon imprint it makes news precisely because it’s a rare event.

Amazon may have begun as a bookseller, but books are now just one small part of its empire. Does anyone but the Grave Diggers serious believe Jeff Bezos loses sleep over indie-publishers signing with the Big Six? Or conversely that the Big Six are losing sleep over Amazon signing up the odd trad-pubbed author?

Amazon isn’t a major publisher. Yes, it has a few imprints, but in publishing terms it’s a small press, albeit with its own very powerful marketing and distribution network. Yes, the Amazon imprint authors are best-sellers and make serious money – on Amazon. But where are the Amazon imprints in the NYT best-sellers list, or on the international best-sellers lists?

Comparing Amazon and the Big Six is comparing apples and oranges. Amazon is a hugely successful book-seller that is now dabbling in publishing. Amazon takes proven sellers on its own platform and repackages them and gives them heavy promo, skewing the market, to make them even better sellers.

Nothing wrong with that. And wonderful for the authors lucky enough to be chosen. But it means that Amazon is no longer a level playing field for the rest.

And what Amazon is doing hardly compares with taking an unknown name from submitted manuscript through to final product with nation-wide distribution both in ebook and bricks and mortar stores, and (where rights are available) internationally across digital and bricks and mortar platforms.

Of course the Grave Diggers will shout that any indie can get world-wide digital distribution and get 70% royalties—conveniently overlooking the fact that B&N only deliver to the USA, Apple serves about twenty or so countries and the Amazon world-rights box you tick in KDP that makes you think your ebook will be available everywhere is actually meaningless.


  • Because Amazon blocks downloads to countless countries (I live in West Africa and am blocked from buying your or my ebooks from Amazon)
  • Amazon also imposes a $2 surcharge per sale on countless other countries.
  • Add to which the fabled 70% royalty suddenly becomes 35% if the sale is not from an Amazon-approved country (the Kindle countries and a selected few others).
Now admittedly 35% is still better than the ebook royalties currently paid by the Big Six, although these are rising and will rise further.

But let’s just examine that legendary 70% Amazon royalty more closely, it being the indie’s weapon of choice in any duel.

The Amazon 70% royalty is a myth. It’s not a royalty at all. It’s the remainder from the sale of your ebook after Amazon have taken their cut.

If you stick a book on eBay and it sells, and eBay and Paypal take their fees and hand you the remainder, is that a royalty? Of course not.

Yet when Amazon, Apple, B&N or whoever do exactly the same thing and call it a royalty we immediately start comparing with the miserly royalties paid out by the trad publishers.

But Amazon and co. aren’t our publishers. They’re our distributors and vendors. It’s called self-publishing for a reason!

And just a reminder here: This isn’t anti-Amazon. It’s just spelling out a few facts that the Grave Diggers seem intent on overlooking.

I happen to like Amazon very much. Quite apart from our own self-publishing success, I own a Kindle, carry it with me everywhere, and have only read two print books in the fifteen months I’ve had an e-reader. As a non-American, B&N digital is anyway off-limits to me, even in the UK.

Which is a point worth dwelling on.

Amazon is the world’s biggest ebook seller. At one stage it was estimated to have 85% of the ebook market, yet most objective observers would now put that at between 60%-70%, and declining. So much for Amazon becoming the monopoly that will take over the world

Amazon’s biggest rival is B&N. But B&N only sell in the US. Amazon has worldwide distribution (subject to caveats outline above). As digital reading grows worldwide so the competition will increase.

The second biggest English-language market is a case in point. Kobo have just appointed a new director of British operations and is rapidly expanding its presence in the UK, operating the ebook store for the country’s second largest book retailer, W.H. Smiths.

The UK’s biggest book store, Waterstone’s (whose flagship Piccadilly store is the largest bookshop in Europe) have a small but significant ebook store, and it’s currently being revamped as part of the new look Waterstones (sans apostrophe) with a pending partnership of some sort with B&N. Just this month B&N is holding its first ever workshop in London, as it prepares to challenge Amazon’s dominance in the UK.

Important here to understand why the UK lags behind the US in terms of digital embrace. Amazon only introduced KDP to the UK in 2010, before which only US authors could self-publish with Amazon. The Kindle was unavailable in the UK until that time. When it came it was new and innovative, and a lot cheaper than the Sony option, or Apple’s iPad, so it got off to a great start among those readers at ease with technology and gave Amazon predominance in the marketplace.

But Amazon is going to have to do much more than just sell cheap ebooks to maintain that position. The UK doesn’t even have the KindleFire yet. Yep, UK readers are stuck with the old b&w Kindle, while Kobo, Apple and the rest are all selling multi-task colour devices, to which B&N will shortly be adding with its Waterstone’s partnership.

What does this mean for the future of Amazon? Rather more then you may think.

You see, the early-adopters of the Kindle and other e-reading devices were of course those comfortable with technology. If it’s shiny, new and trendy then they must have it. And once they experienced the joys of e-reading there was no turning back.

But we’re past that phase now. As print declines further so more and more people will turn to e-readers. Partly because prices will continue to plummet, and also because as print declines further, readers will have little choice but to adopt, in a downward spiral that will see the demise of print books and book-stores.

So the Grave Diggers were right after all, it seems. No print books and no book-stores means the Big Six are facing oblivion and Amazon will inherit the Earth.

But hold on, how did Amazon start out? Selling print books. How does Amazon make the bulk of its book-related income now? Selling print books.

Print is still 80% of the overall book market. If the Big Six are obliterated as the Grave Diggers gleefully hope, exactly what will Amazon be selling anyway? The vast bulk of its print sales and a substantial proportion of its digital sales come from the Big Six.

Luckily for all concerned the Big Six are doing just fine. Profits are up, costs are down, and the future is rosy as they continue to invest in digital, create their own platforms, and adjust their business management to the new realties. The Grave Diggers might want to pretend that isn’t happening, but the facts speak for themselves.

Regardless of this, book-stores are beyond help, right? We’re already seeing it happen. Borders has gone (bizarrely this huge loss of outlets for Big Six stock doesn’t seem to have hurt said Big Six profits too much…) and B&N are – Shock! Horror! – selling products other than books. As we all know, this signifies imminent doom. Although curiously when Amazon diversify into other products it’s sound business sense. Hmmm.

But are book-stores really doomed? Not necessarily.

I’ve not been to the US recently, but I understand B&N are doing pretty well at promoting digital in-store. The Nook is on the up and up, and B&N are being pretty innovative in their approach to balancing print and digital.

Amazon soared ahead with the early adopters precisely because it had everything in place and those readers were comfortable shopping online. But that era is over. The early-adopter phase is past, and the next stage is the reticent buyers who probably never have bought from Amazon and never will.

I’m talking about the loyal book-store regulars – the ones who currently account for a vast percentage of bricks and mortar book sales, who will, when the time comes, buy the in-store e-reader and sign-up to the in-store e-reading account, not rush off and buy a Kindle.

So can book-stores survive the epublishing revolution?

Yes, they can!

You see, I have a vision of a new book-selling era where we can be digital AND have bricks and mortar book stores.

Book stores don’t just sell books. Like libraries, book-stores are cultural centers, where the reading classes gravitate. There’s been a lot of snark recently in the blogs about ill-informed staff in B&N offering poor customer service. No doubt it’s true. But it doesn’t need to be that way.

Forward looking indie book-stores and chain-stores like B&N and Waterstone’s could have a vital role in book-buying in the future. 

Imagine a book-store where you can still go and browse books, settle down with a coffee or chat with intelligent staff about the latest book from your favourite author.

You’ll find the cover and blurb on a book-sized case (think DVD cases) on the display shelves. Want to look inside? Just waive the barcode or implanted chip in front of your personal e-reader or smartphone, or the equipment available in-store, and you can see exactly what you’ll be getting.

Not silly sample pages from the first 15% but the full book, temporarily transferred to your device for examination. If you buy, it stays there. If you choose not to it is automatically deleted as you leave the store.

Maybe even in-store printable covers so you can buy the full wrap cover around and case for your shelf back home. After all, isn’t the lack of covers the big downer for digital films and music?

Book-stores can still have shelf after shelf of “books” to browse, and even plinths and window displays showing the latest releases. And yeah, those prime spots will still be bought by the Big Six for their top authors. Ah well, you can’t win ‘em all…

Now factor in the back-of shop storage space and overheads that will no longer be necessary - or perhaps will be used to store paper and supplies for POD, where any title you want can be printed and bound while you have the aforementioned coffee.

And the beauty of this is that the technology already exists and is improving and getting cheaper by the day. With print still riding at 80% of book sales there’s plenty of time for forward thinking book-stores to embrace the digital future.

The Grave Diggers will tell you Amazon’s one-click ebook buying is so simple no-one will need to shop anywhere else. No question it’s a fantastic service. I love it! But Amazon also sells boots, watches, fridges, computers... Easier to list what it doesn’t sell. Everyone can sit at home, go online and have these goods delivered to their door, courtesy of the Zon. Yet no-one is suggesting shops that sell these products are all going to close.

Book stores don't NEED to close. They just need to innovate. 

Rather like the Big Six are already doing.


Blog news: Catherine Ryan Hyde’s wonderful novel, When I Found You is FREE for Kindle this weekend, and on Friday had reached # 1 on the Free Kindle books list. Anne’s piece on the “Undercover Soundtrack” that inspired her mystery The Gatsby Game is on Roz Morris’s blog, Memories of a Future Life. And The Gatsby Game is now available for NOOK! (It’s still review-less over there. If any of you marvellous reviewers wanted to copy and paste your Amazon or Goodreads reviews to Barnes and Noble, I’d be eternally grateful.)

INDIE CHICKS: This week's installment is from thriller writer Mel Comley, who lives an idyllic life in the French countryside.

Next Week: We’ll be having another give-away. I’ll be giving away one of my ebooks—your choice. 

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Sunday, March 4, 2012

How Do You Learn To Be a Writer?

I’m often approached by parents or grandparents of children who’ve shown a talent for writing. They ask how a child can learn to be a writer. Or sometimes a person going through a mid-life job change will ask my advice about going back to college to pursue a long-deferred writing dream.

I have to tell them the truth: learning to write is hard--and earning money from writing is way harder.

I’m not saying certain types of writing can’t be lucrative—“content providers” can find careers in advertising and various tech fields—but that’s usually not what the doting grand/parents or career-changers are thinking. They might be imagining plays or screenplays, or even journalism—fast-fading professions too—but mostly they’re thinking memoir and novels.  

But writing book-length narrative is one of the toughest ways to earn a living—and it’s getting tougher all the time. The average book advance is less than half of what it was ten years ago. Almost all writers need day jobs.

So the question arises: how much money should people put into educating themselves to be writers? 

Anybody who visits a lot of writing sites has probably been followed around the ’Webz by ads for college creative writing degrees. Do those give students a jumpstart or prepare them for a writing career? 

Unfortunately, they usually don’t. They’re often based on very old ideas of what the publishing industry is like. 

If you have the privilege of attending college, by all means take courses in creative writing. Also take courses in business management, advanced string theory or Athenian red-figure vase painting—whatever interests you. None of your time learning will be wasted, and a college education is massively helpful to any career.

But don’t go to college expecting to be taught how to be a professional writer who can enter the workforce and earn back the cost of college like somebody studying accounting or medicine. It won’t happen.

I’m not saying degrees in creative writing will hurt, but they’re not necessary for a writing career. And they’re usually expensive.

Thing is: the number one thing that’s NOT necessary to any creative career is…DEBT. Debt is a prison that can keep you locked into a job you hate, living in noisy, crowded circumstances, and plagued with anxieties that are the enemy of creativity

“But, wait!” says Aspiring Young Writer, “What about an MFA? That gives you a leg up into the publishing business doesn’t it?”

Um, not really.

Not with most agents and publishers (although a prestigious school can provide valuable contacts.) What an MFA will do is steer you in the direction of literary writing, which tends to be less lucrative for a publisher (and you.)

An MFA DOES qualify you to teach creative writing at the college level, and as a day job, college teaching is a pretty good one. But be aware of the implied trade-off.

Think of getting an MFA like studying ballet or learning to play classical music—you’re entering a fiercely competitive field with a niche audience and not much remuneration…but a lot of prestige. For those who love it, there’s also a fulfillment that can come no other way. If writing and teaching literary fiction is your bliss—follow it! The world needs you to carry on that tradition.

But if your goal is writing popular fiction, treat your education more like preparing for musical theater, playing roots music, or ballroom dancing—and take a more eclectic route in your training. (And prepare to work a day job.)

Of course you first need to learn the basics just like a literary writer: grammar, sentence structure, spelling, and word usage. If you didn’t get that in high school or college, you need to take some brush-up classes. Language is your instrument, and you need to learn to play before you can get in a band.

NOTE: Don’t count on some hired editor to clean up your stuff after you write it. Editors cost a bundle and they can’t do it all. Good language skills are essential. You wouldn’t try to be a carpenter if you couldn’t pound a nail.

But once you have that down, what do you do?

There’s still a whole lot to learn. Straight-A grammar skills don’t help you with learning how to tell a story. You need to educate yourself on story structure, how to create compelling characters, pacing and all the rest.

For that, the best approach is to study widely. Get as much education as you can from many sources as you can find. There is no one right way. You can enroll in inexpensive classes at your local adult ed. or community college extension programs. Short online courses can be really helpful, too, especially ones that concentrate on structure and story-telling techniques. Read the classic books on writing. Go to writers’ conferences, especially local ones where you don’t have to pay for room and board.

Sometimes professional writers will offer workshops in person or online. A short course from a well-known author is usually worth the price, because their name will hold weight in a query and you may be lucky enough to have them mentor you.

If you live in a place where there’s a local writer’s club or chapter of organizations like RWA, SCBWI, or Sisters in Crime, join. Clubs like those can be amazingly valuable resources. And a good critique group can sometimes teach you as much as a college class about how to write. (But beware group-think. Critique groups are only as good as their members, and ignorant people can spread bad habits. See my post on Bad Advice to Ignore from your Critique Group

And these days, a whole lot of what you need to learn is available on the Internet for free. I know people who have learned a huge amount by working with other writers in various writers’ forums.

To become a professional, you need to learn the business side of publishing as well as grammar and story structure. They are equally important these days. Agent blogs are a valuable resource here. Agents like Rachelle Gardner , Kristen Nelson and Janet Reid offer mini-courses in publishing in their archives.

And you’ll need to learn to use social media. It’s as important to a writer today as it is to know how to use an apostrophe. I recommend Kristen Lamb’s valuable blog and her book We Are Not Alone: The Author’s Guide to Social Media

If you ask most professional writers what’s the best way to learn to write, they’re going to tell you two things:

1) Read
2) Write

And some will add:
3) Live

Malcolm Gladwell’s dictum that you need to do something 10,000 hours in order to learn to do it well is a valuable one to keep in mind. The corny old joke about how to get to Carnegie Hall applies: practice, practice, practice.

Writing may not be a lucrative profession, but creating worlds out of words is still one of the most exciting ways to spend your time, so I tell those parents and grandparents and mid-life career-changers that nobody should be discouraged from following their dreams.

But I also warn them not get talked into expensive college courses they can’t afford. (And people should especially beware writing degrees from for-profit colleges. Recruiters can tell a lot of half- and un-truths and provide a slick, easy path to a lifetime of debt.)

The electronic age may bring more responsibilities to writers—social media and online marketing can seem like a huge time-suck—but it also opens up hundreds of new paths to our goals, many of them inexpensive or free. So I say embrace the journey and accept the abundance of information at your fingertips.

Now I could use your help, scriveners. Tell me how you learned/are learning your craft--and how you’re educating yourself in the business of writing for a living. I’d love for you to give some tips and suggestions for things that worked (or didn’t work) for you.

NEWS: On Wednesday, March 7th, I'll be talking to Roz Morris at her blog Memories of a Future Life for her Undercover Soundtrack series. I'm talking about the "soundtrack" for my Fitzgerald-themed mystery, THE GATSBY GAME. This one is from another Fitzgerald: Ella. 

DECADES CONTEST: Our two winners, selected by Random.org, are Steven J. Wangsness and Martha Reynolds. Congrats! Steven and Martha, contact Ruth at rca.harris at gmail dot com for your free books. 

INDIE CHICKS: This week’s amazing installment is from Barbara Silkstone, whose comic mysteries were inspired by some pretty grim real-life villains.

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