Archive for January, 2011|Monthly archive page

Viva La Revolution Digital!

I wrote this for a local writing group’s newsletter and I thought it might be nice to post it to my blog, too. Enjoy!

As I write this, 19 of the top 50 USA Today bestseller list titles are selling better in digital format than in hardcopy for the third week in a row.

Figures cited in January 2011 peg digital books as 9 percent of the trade book market. At the end of July 2010 they were five percent of the market. That’s now fast this “new” book format is growing.

So what is a digital book? Well, it’s pretty much the electronic file a publisher would send to its printing plant to produce a physical book. This means it has been written, revised, edited, copy edited, formatted proofread and galley-proofed. A cover has been designed. Jacket or back-cover copy has been written and an author photo has been taken.

Quotes have been obtained from other authors and an author bio has been written or edited. Catalog copy has been written, a website listing has been created. All of the things that have to happen for a hardcopy book to get to the ink-and-paper stage have been done.

It’s ready for printing—or for conversion to E-pub, PDF, Mobi or some other electronic format suitable for reading on a computer screen, a cell phone, an I-Pad or a dedicated e-reader.

What’s in it for you as a reader? Less expensive books. Yes, you have to invest in a reading device (unless you already have a smart phone or can read on a computer), but you can buy books pretty much anywhere, anytime.

Many publishers set digital book prices slightly lower than physical book prices, and if you’re an online bookstore patron, you don’t have shipping charges added to the total.

And that’s the digital publishing revolution from the reading point of view.

From the writing point of view, there’s a lot more involved. For example, digital-first publishers like Carina (the digital-first division of Harlequin) don’t pay advances. They pay higher royalty rates than regular publishers and get the books to stores considerably faster.

My book came out from a digital-first publisher, Samhain Publishing; I signed the contract on Saint Patrick’s day 2009 and received my first royalty payment in mid-October of that year.

New York publishers generally get books into print 12-18 months after the contract is signed. And they break advance payments into several portions: part on signing the contract, part on manuscript acceptance after editorial revisions, and the final portion when the book hits bookstores.

The royalty rate for my publisher is 40% of cover price on digital books purchased from their website and 30% on digital books purchased from a third party website, such as amazon.com.

Standard royalty rates for digital books from New York publishing houses are, well, lower than that. Most houses are trying to make 25 percent on net the standard, with net being the amount the publishing house gets for the book. However, the payments are comparable to hardcopy versions.

Of course, to them it’s still only a small percentage of the market. Or it was until a few weeks ago, when the bestsellers started selling more digital copies than paper copies.

The market is in flux, the method of payment is in flux and the role of big publishers is in flux. Writers still create stories and readers still consume them. At least some things don’t change, even in the midst of revolution.

Pseudo-MFA in Genre Fiction writing?

I have been tasked to come up with a curriculum for aspiring novelists, sort of an ersatz MFA program in genre fiction, that can be delivered via online classes.

To me, such a curriculum would break into three parts: the writing, the business and the marketing.

Yes, business and marketing are different aspects, because business is query letters, synopses and deadlines while marketing is websites, blogs, Amazon/B&N/Facebook author pages, Twitter & connecting all of the above.

But what order does stuff come in? Characterization before plotting? Or basic grammar, because writing it properly in the first place is easier than editing later?

If anyone reading this has any thoughts on the subject, I would be delighted to hear them.


In Praise of Stupid Questions

Recently at the Evil Day Job That Isn’t Really All That Evil, I walked up to someone and said, “I need to ask you a stupid question.”

That got me the knee-jerk response, “There are no stupid questions.”

Actually, there are stupid questions. For example, a question that you could answer by reading the paper in front of your face before opening your mouth would be a stupid question.

Or perhaps a question that had just been answered and you weren’t paying attention.

Or a question you should have known the answer to (say, because it was part of your job…) but couldn’t quite remember because your notes from that meeting six weeks ago vaguely resemble cursive Saturnian, which is slightly less readable than High Martian.

But I digress. My response was, “Yes there are stupid questions. I’m just not afraid to ask them.” And then I asked the question that elicited the information I needed.

It’s true. There are stupid questions. And I’m not afraid to ask them.

One of our tasks in life, as fully adult humans, is to be courageous enough to ask stupid questions, because one will look even more stupid if one does not ask them. Trust me, I have learned this the hard way.

Generally speaking, people hate to look stupid. Consider the phrase, “Oops, I lied.” To impart information that is not true — without intending to mislead — is not called lying. It’s called being wrong.

But stupid people are wrong, aren’t they? So, in essence, it’s better to admit lying (which is actually illegal in certain circumstances and can land you in jail) than to admit imperfection and possibly stupidity.

I blame junior high school, or the currently fashionable-but-ridiculous moniker “middle school” that really should be known as “the years we do not speak of to outsiders.”

Homo sapiens between the ages of 11 and…well, some of them never get over it, but let’s say 15, are vicious little beasts who enjoy nothing more than tearing each others’ souls into tiny meeping pieces.

Any sign of weakness is cause for attack. Like being wrong (being stupid). Lying, oddly enough, not so much, because it’s not considered a weakness. And how many of us carry that fear around years, nay, decades after the persecution has abated?

Which brings me to the wisdom of Scott Adams (creator of Dilbert). Some years ago he wrote a book called The Dilbert Principle. In that book was the story of his pager (the book came out in 1997 when pagers were still current tech). He had just gotten a new one and taken it home and it wouldn’t turn on. Furious, he went back to the retailer, dead brand-new pager in hand.

The sales clerk was helping someone else, but must have had good peripheral vision, because he held out his hand for the dead pager without breaking eye contact with his customer. Likewise, he opened the battery compartment, took out the batteries and reoriented them so that they were correctly installed, closed the battery compartment and held out the now-functioning pager to Mr. Adams.

To quote the portion I still remember word-for-word. “I was an idiot. And yet I had successfully driven a motor vehicle from my house to the store.” We’re all idiots. For about five minutes a day–and that five minutes doesn’t all have to be used at the same time. Use your time, you’ve earned it. Dole it out to yourself in 30-second increments if you have to.

Like a certain ’70s-era detective in a rumpled raincoat, ask stupid questions without guilt or shame. You might be surprised at what you learn, especially if you warn your victim about the stupidity of the question ahead of time, thus giving him or her a false sense of security.

A Seriously Eventful Week

This week the mystery readers/writers group had a minor emergency–they didn’t have enough people attend the last two meetings to have an election.

Out of approximately 50 paying members, maybe five or six turn up on any given month. They’re considering some significant changes to meeting venue and date to reverse the problem. I hope it works, because I miss seeing the interesting (in a good way!) people who love mystery literature.

Then the writing conference board had a meeting and Mayhem In The Grove won’t be in the Centre on the Grove this year. We just can’t afford it without charging attendees too much (you would not believe, for example, how much they want for a gallon of coffee).

We also had to withdraw from the agreement Michael Hauge, the screenwriting guru who was going to teach the master class. It hurts (he’s a marvelous teacher), but the money just didn’t work.

And then a critique partner called to say she’d not be attending this weekend’s meeting because her husband just received a fabulous job offer in Tampa, Florida. She’s not moving immediately, but probably will be joining him within a year.

To put that in perspective, we live in Boise, Idaho. It’s not commuting distance for anything but electrons. I’m trying not to sulk. Or pout.

Oh, and a U.S. representative was shot outside a supermarket yesterday. A federal judge and a nine-year-old girl were killed in the incident.

When you start shooting children at supermarkets over politics, rhetoric has taken a turn for the psychotic. I don’t care if you’re a liberal democrat, a fascist, or anything in between.

Mom warned me there would be weeks like this. She was right.

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