Business

Remedial Publishing Math

Yesterday, Victoria Strauss tweeted a link to The Ugly Truth About Getting Your Book Published, in which Phil Cooke is just the latest voice to proclaim the Awful Truth about Publishing.

The article flaunts various numbers to show that book sales are PLUMMETTING, and everything is AWFUL!  (He also includes strategies for dealing with these awful truths.  Coincidentally, Cooke runs Cooke Pictures, a media/publicity consulting company who will happily help you survive this terrible storm … for a fee.)

(ETA: Phil Cooke commented to say that he does not, in fact, charge a fee for his services.  And then follows up with a sockpuppet.  Sigh…)

For example, “Bowker reports that 560,626 new books were published in the U.S. in 2008, which is more than double the number of new books published five years earlier (2003) in the U.S. These figures include print-on-demand and short-run books, which is where most of the growth has occurred.”  (Emphasis added.)

And then, from point number three, “Average book sales are shockingly small, and falling fast.”

Ladies and gentlemen, we have MathFail.  Let me break it down with simple and totally made-up numbers.

Let’s say a decade ago, 1000 different books were published, and each book sold an average of 10,000 copies.  1000 x 10,000 means 10,000,000 books sold overall.

Then print-on-demand technology leads to an explosion of self-publishing and vanity presses.  Ten years later, we have twice as many books being published.  But the average PoD title sells what, 100 copies?  Let’s be generous and call it 200.  Assuming no change at all in traditionally published[1. I hate that phrase, but can’t think of a better one right now] books, we see:

1000 x 10,000 = 10,000,000 traditionally published books.
1000 x 200 = 200,000 PoD books.
10,000,000 + 200,000 = 10,200,000 total books published.
10,200,000 / 2000 = 5100 average copies per book.

Oh noes!  Average book sales have been cut almost in half!  It’s the end of publishing … even though, in our made-up example, traditionally published books are selling just as well as they did a decade ago.

If you want to educate me, show me useful data.  Be specific.  Don’t just flash around misleading and utterly useless generalizations.

Want another example?  “A book has less than a 1% chance of being stocked in an average bookstore.”

MathFail Redux.  If you sell a book to Tor or Baen or DAW, you have an extremely good chance of having your book stocked in an average bookstore.  “Sell” to Publish America, and your chances are closer to 0%.  But lump everything together, and you can get your average to be nice, scary, and utterly meaningless.

“Here’s the reality of the book industry: in 2004, 950,000 titles out of the 1.2 million tracked by Nielsen Bookscan sold fewer than 99 copies.”  And how many of those titles are out of print?  Specialty books?  Vanity Press?

It’s true that publishing is in a rough place right now.  Print runs really are down, overall … but not necessarily to the extent implied in Cooke’s article.  Things are changing, and we’re working to keep up and adapt.  It’s not the end of print, the end of publishing, or the end of the world.

2009 Writing Income

This is the third year I’ve posted about the income I make as a fantasy author.  (See the Money Posts from Year 1 and Year 2.)  Money tends to be a taboo topic, but given all of the myths and illusions about writing, I think it’s important to get some actual data out there.  Because knowing is half the battle!

The background: I’ve been writing and submitting my work since 1995.  Goblin Quest was my first book with a major publisher, and came out in the end of 2006.  2009 saw the publication of my 4th and 5th novels with DAW.  So while I have five books in print, I’m still an early-career author.

I am not a full-time writer, for reasons which will soon become apparent.  I also write only fiction, unlike a number of authors I know who write both fiction and non-fiction (in part because the latter usually pays better).

Thanks to a last-minute D&A (delivery and acceptance) check from DAW, my writing income for 2009 came to $28,940.

Breaking that total down, I earned:

Novels (U.S. Sales): $7700
Novels (Foreign Sales): $20,200
Short Fiction: $520
Speaking Fees: $500

I’m rounding, so the totals don’t match exactly.  The most important thing I take from these numbers is how much I love my agent, who is responsible for those foreign sales.  Most of that money comes from Germany, where the goblin books continue to earn nice royalties.  Any time I hear a writer saying s/he doesn’t need an agent, I think back to those foreign sales.  My agent almost quadrupled my writing income this year.  He’s more than earned his commission.

Expenses from 2009 were between $1500 and $2000.  The biggest costs were from convention attendance and postage.

I also decided to put together a graph showing my income over the past eight years (as far back as I have spreadsheets for):

Things didn’t really start to build until 2006 when the first book came out.  But what’s most fascinating to me is that bump in 2008.  2008 was the first year my writing income exceeded the income from my day job. This was mostly the result of some very nice deals in Germany, including the release of the goblin books, my short fiction collection, audio books … basically, Germany + Goblins = Love.

This wasn’t something I expected to repeat in 2009 (not that I would have complained, mind you). Fiction income isn’t the most steady or stable in the world.  2008 was great.  2009 wasn’t bad, don’t get me wrong.  However, there’s no getting around the fact that I saw a $25K drop in income.

These things happen.  My French publisher dropped me, and Germany hasn’t been as excited about the princess books.  This is why I keep the day job.  (If it was just me, with no family and no medical conditions that require insurance, I might think about going full-time.  But that’s another post.)

I hope this is helpful. Questions, observations, and random comments are all welcome.  And if previous years are any example, we should see a handful of other writers posting similar info and giving a few more data points.

Sales Info (with Graphs!)

I’ve written and read a fair amount about authorial promotion, what is and isn’t effective.  Anyone who’s tired of book sales talk can feel free to skip this one, but I figured some of you might appreciate a little raw data to go with the conversation.

This is a graph of the sales for The Stepsister Scheme (purple line) and The Mermaid’s Madness (black line).  Stepsister has been selling for just over a year now, and Mermaid has been out for about three months.

The sales data comes from Bookscan, which isn’t exact, but it’s the best measure I’ve got for week-to-week sales.  All five of my books have followed the same pattern, starting with that nice big spike in the beginning.  After the first three months or so, many of the books are stripped and returned to make room for new releases, and we head into the long plateau.

With all of the signings, conventions, and other events I’ve done, only two factors have ever caused a visible spike in sales.  The first is Christmas.  Having a book on the shelves in December is a good thing!  (Thank you to everyone who bought books for presents!)

The second is the release of the next book in the series.  You can see where sales of Stepsister more than doubled when Mermaid came out.  I saw that same bump with the goblin series as each new book was published.

I didn’t include the goblin data here, because that would have gotten too messy.  But I’ll note that the release of the two princess books did not cause a similar spike in sales of the goblin books.

Does this mean all of those other efforts are ineffective in terms of sales?  Not necessarily.  For one thing, Bookscan isn’t as good at capturing data from independent book dealers and such, which means there’s a good chance all of those dealer sales from conventions aren’t showing up.  And while any individual event or effort doesn’t show up on the graph, they could still be having a cumulative effect over time.  There’s really no way of doing a controlled study to prove it one way or the other.

And that’s it for 2009.  Happy 2010, all!  No resolutions here, but I am setting a goal to finish rewriting the outline (version 3.0) for Snow Queen by the end of the day, and to finish this @!#$^ first draft by the end of January.  Wish me luck!

The Conspiracy Against New Writers

• I’ve got a book signing 12/17 at 7:00 at Nicola’s Books in Ann Arbor.  Just in case any of you A2 folks need Christmas gift ideas 🙂  The last time I did an Ann Arbor signing, we got one of the nastiest blizzards I can remember.  I’m hoping this doesn’t become a pattern.

Dragovianknight made this wonderful Christmas LJ icon from the cover of Mermaid.  I love it!

• For those of you who read electronically, Fictionwise is running a pretty nice sale.  Looks like 40% off of short fiction, and 50% rebates on e-books.  (Including my own stuff.)

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Came across a post responding to the pay rate discussion and protesting how the snobby pros are pulling up the ladder, trying to keep new writers out.  I know a fair number of successful authors these days, and the idea that pro writers are scared of the newbies and spending all this time and energy working to exclude them … is kind of dumb.

Of all the things I worry about, of all the things that can hurt my career, new  writers don’t even make the footnotes.  Many pro authors go out of their way to try to help new writers, and to repay the help we received.  Most either celebrate the success of the new folks, or else simply don’t have the time or the interest to notice them.  But nobody’s trying to keep the newbies down (no matter how much Publish America and their ilk try to convince you otherwise while they take your money).

How can I put this delicately?  The biggest reason it’s so hard for new writers to break in is because most of us suck when we’re new.  Myself included.  I wrote hundreds of thousands of words of utter crap while learning how to do this.  Sure, I was discouraged by all the rejection.  I felt shut out.  I had my days where I felt like a martyr and a victim.

But believe me, it had nothing to do with pros being scared of me as a newbie, or conspiring to keep the good markets all to themselves.  It had nothing to do with editors only buying work from Big Names.  It had to do with the fact that my work wasn’t good enough yet.[1. Ann Leckie wrote a very good post deconstructing the “write better” advice, including some of the assumptions and flaws with that advice.  Worth reading.  http://ann-leckie.livejournal.com/141905.html]

If you disagree with what folks are saying, that’s one thing.  Sometimes the pros are wrong.  Do your research and make your own decisions.  But if you’re going to argue, please try to come up with something better than The Grand Conspiracy Against New Writers?

Short Fiction Pay Rates

A week or so back, John Scalzi tore into Black Matrix Publishing for their short fiction pay rate of 1/5 of a cent per word.  Black Matrix responded, explaining that this is a “labor of love.” They never implied that they were a pro market, and isn’t a token payment better than none at all? (I believe Publish America uses the same rationalization with their $1 advance.) Scalzi promptly shredded their arguments.

Cat Valente weighed in as a “mid-career author” who writes a lot of short fiction.  Sarah Monette offered a third perspective, including examples of her own fiction which sold for fairly low rates, and a discussion of when and why she chooses to submit her work to semi-pro markets.

Looking at my own bibliography, there are two stories I received no payment for, and at least a half-dozen more that fall into the semi-pro category, whether that’s a $5 flat rate or a penny a word.  A careful reading will also show that this stopped around the end of 2003, after I “sold” a flash piece to a royalties-only e-book that, as far as I can tell, never sold a single copy.

Around 2004, I began submitting only to markets that paid SFWA pro rates (Then three cents a word. ETA: Current SFWA pro rate is 5 cents/word). Not because I was insulted by lesser pay rates.  Not because I felt exploited by the smaller markets.  But because my goal as a writer was to be read.

Publishing in those smaller venues was good for my ego.  Of course it feels better to be accepted than rejected.  But aside from that ego boost, those sales did little else for my stories or my career.  Sure, I could go out and buy a slice of pizza with my earnings.  But almost nobody read my work.

The contributors got their copy, so it’s possible some of my fellow authors glanced at my story.  Maybe.  (Authors, how many of you read every story in every contributor copy of an anthology or magazine?)  Aside from that?  Well, one friend in college did pick up a copy of World Wide Writer, so that’s something, right?  What’s World Wide Writer, you ask?  Oh, right.  They were a tiny startup ‘zine that died after two issues.

I don’t use pay rate as an absolute rule.  Sure I’d rather make $250 than $25.  But I sold a story to Andromeda Spaceways recently, and they pay significantly less than 5 cents/word.  On the other hand, they’ve been around a long time, put out a nice magazine, and have a good reputation and readership for a semi-pro.  There are a handful of others, publications that pay less than pro rates, but have earned a lot of critical acclaim or developed a broader readership.

In general though, minuscule pay rate correlates to minuscule readership.  I suspect there are more markets listed on the for-the-luv page at Ralan than there are readers for those markets.

When I started aiming for pro markets in 2004, several things happened.  I got rejected more.  I was forced to improve as a writer.  And eventually, as I broke into those markets, more people began reading my work.

Is Black Matrix exploiting writers? Token payment is better than nothing. (Chtulhu spare us from markets promising “exposure” as compensation.)  But there’s “token” and there’s “spare change I found in my sofa.”[1. Deleted for unnecessary snark.] I don’t believe Black Matrix is trying to scam anyone.  But I won’t submit to them, and I wouldn’t recommend them as a market for new writers who want to build a career and be read.

Blurb Ethics

• Thank you to everyone who’s offered new and autographed books for the DV Book Drive.  I’ll be continuing to collect books through about mid-December, at which point they will be delivered to the shelter.

• I’m still taking entries into the Mock Cover Contest, too.  I’ll pick the top entries and put those up for a vote early next week.

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Way back when, after I sold Goldfish Dreams to a small publisher, I started hunting for blurbs. I was fortunate to get some great ones, but I remember the individual who e-mailed to say he hadn’t read the entire book, but offered a blurb anyway.  Better still, when I pointed out that his blurb contained spoilers, he invited me to just rewrite it however I saw fit.

I’d like to say I took the ethical path and declined.  Alas, I was young and desperate. I rewrote the blurb, e-mailed it to him for approval, and slapped his name on it.  I rationalize it by saying at least he approved the blurb, but it’s not my proudest moment as an author.

Years later, I was reading Julie Czerneda‘s comments about blurbs. I can’t remember exactly how she said it, but I came away thinking of blurbs as a contract, a matter of trust between reader and author.  If a blurb from me has any impact at all, it will be because you’ve read my work, and you trust me as an author.  You trust that I wouldn’t recommend something I didn’t like.

Over the past few years, I’ve begun getting more blurb requests, which means I’ve had to decide how I’m going to approach this.  I find myself thinking about that blurb I got for Goldfish Dreams, and the one I got from Julie for Goblin Quest [Amazon | Mysterious Galaxy].  Guess which one means more to me?  Guess which of these two individuals I want to be like.

That’s led to some uncomfortable moments.  I’ve had to tell several friends that I couldn’t blurb their books for one reason or another.  Sometimes the book just didn’t work for me.  That makes for an awkward conversation, but I also try to be honest.

I had a different experience a few months back.  Jennifer Estep sent me an ARC of Spider’s Bite [Amazon | Mysterious Galaxy], which comes out in January.

It’s not a bad book.  I like the idea of using elemental magic in urban fantasy.  Gin has the strong female thing going, which I generally enjoy.  And the story is definitely a page-turner.

I still declined to blurb it, and a part of me continues to wonder if I’m overthinking it.  Spider’s Bite, like a fair amount of urban fantasy, is a pretty “adult” book.  There’s violence and bloodshed, as well as fairly graphic sexual content.  It’s a very different style than my own work, and that’s where I hesitated.

If my name were to show up on the cover, what would that signal to my readers?  What expectations does that create?  Will someone pick up this book expecting light, fun fantasy like Jim Hines writes?

I’m sure there’s overlap between Estep’s readers and my own.  People read a wide range.  And It’s not like my blurb is going to scar some innocent, wide-eyed young reader for life by tricking them into reading sex and violence.

But I wasn’t comfortable with it, and I’m continuing to try to understand where that’s coming from.  On that note, I would love to hear your thoughts on blurbs.  What is and isn’t appropriate, what works and what doesn’t, and so on.  As an author, where would you draw the line?  As a reader, what makes you lose trust with a blurbing author?

Anthology Invites

Like I did last week, I’m rerunning this piece from 2006 (with minor edits) to get it into WordPress.

For a long time, invitation-only anthologies were my Holy Grail, a goal only one step below actually selling a novel to a major publisher.  I drove myself a little loopy trying to crack the invite market, and thought I’d share those experiences for anyone trying to do the same. More

Self-Publishing Myths

I wrote this piece two years ago, but wanted to get it reposted to the new WordPress site, especially after reading a few of the comments over at Genreville’s post on self-publishing.

I have absolutely nothing against self-publishing.

Let me say that again. I don’t hate self-publishing. I don’t hate self-published authors. I’m not interested in keeping anyone down, bashing authors, or mocking people who have accomplished the difficult and impressive job of completing a novel.

I do have serious problems with scammers trying to talk would-be writers into shelling over hundreds or thousands of dollars, while completely deluding them as to what they’re getting into.

The sad thing is that most of these places recycle the same old lines about how “traditional” publishers refuse to accept new writers*, and then they start listing famous and bestselling authors like Grisham and Paolini who chose to self-publish instead of going with one of those New York monstrosities . . . the implication being that you too will be a NYT bestseller if you self-publish your novel!

I finally got annoyed enough to gather some of these claims together, starting with good old Grisham.

1. John Grisham self-published A TIME TO KILL. Actually, Grisham sold A TIME TO KILL to a small publisher, Wynwood Press, who did a 5000-copy print run. Grisham bought the remaindered copies, which he sold himself. While this is the sort of hard work self-publishing often involves, A TIME TO KILL was certainly not a self-published book.

2. Christopher Paolini self-published ERAGON. Paolini’s family ran a small commercial press. ERAGON was not the first book published by Paolini International. Paolini International was founded in 1997, and you could make a strong argument that they are a commercial publisher, albeit a small one. On the other hand, since they were publishing the work of their son, you could also call this self-publishing. In either case, Paolini’s success** relied heavily on the fact that his family had five years of experience running a publisher, and were willing to devote themselves full-time to promoting his book. Unless your family has the same experience and devotion to your book, I wouldn’t count on achieving this level of success.

3. Mark Twain self-published HUCKLEBERRY FINN. I love this one. Companies will loudly proclaim that publishing is changing, that “traditional publishers” are the dinosaurs of the book world, and that self-publishing and print-on-demand are the wave of the future. These same companies then cite examples well over a century old. HUCKLEBERRY FINN was published in the late 1800s. Given how much the publishing industry has changed, how about we confine our arguments to examples less than a hundred years old. M’kay?

4. James Redfield self-published THE CELESTINE PROPHECY. Actually, this one appears to be true. From everything I’ve researched, Redfield did indeed self-publish. He gave away about 1500 copies, and word-of-mouth helped from there. What, you thought I was only going to post the false myths? Self-publishing canlead to success. Not as often as scammers would have you believe, but anything’s possible.  (For an example of a SF/F author who made it work, check out Simon Haynes.)

5. William Strunk, Jr. self-published THE ELEMENTS OF STYLE for his classes at Cornell University. Also true. However, it’s misleading. First of all, this book had a captive audience from day one. Unless you can force several hundred students to buy your book every semester, don’t count on seeing the same success. Also, there’s a huge difference between self-publishing non-fiction and fiction. With non-fiction, if you have a niche audience and you’re an expert on your topic, then you have a built-in platform through which to market your work. The success of Strunk and other non-fiction works is pretty much irrelevant to those of us who write fiction.

6. Even famous authors like Louis L’Amour self-published their work! L’Amour’s collection SMOKE FROM THIS ALTAR was published in 1939 by Lusk Publishing Company, which was owned by Enoch Lusk. I’ve been unable to find any other books from this publisher, so it may be self-publishing and not a small press publication. Regardless, what this claim usually omits is whatL’Amour self-published. The implication is that he’s another success story who went from humble self-publishing to bestselling author. In fact, SMOKE FROM THIS ALTAR is a collection of L’Amour’s poetry. Poetry, like non-fiction, is a very different beast than fiction. L’Amour’s first novel appeared in 1950, and he never self-published his fiction.

7. What about L. Frank Baum? He self-published, right? L. Frank Baum wrote 14 Oz books, which were published between 1900 and 1920. (So I suppose you could say this example is less than 100 years old. But you’re cutting it close!) THE WONDERFUL WIZARD OF OZ was the first book, and was published by the George M. Hill Company in 1900. Hill also published at least one of Baum’s earlier books. George M. Hill went out of business in 1902, after which Reilly & Britton published Baum’s Oz books. The final two Oz books (by Baum) were published by Reilly & Lee. But this myth isn’t completely false. My research suggests that Baum did indeed self-publish one work . . . a manual on chicken farming.

I could go on at length, but this could easily become a novel-length work if I had the time and energy. I have books of my own to write. And my goal isn’t to analyze every last myth, but rather to take a critical look at some of the most popular claims, in the hope of helping others do the same.

Publishing is hard work. It doesn’t matter which route you choose. Commercial publishing can be slow. Most authors who go this route face years of rejection and struggle. Self-publishing gives you more control. You can publish the very first book you ever write, if you’re so inclined. (I’d advise against it, but that’s just me.) On the other hand, the average self-published book sells very few copies, and requires much more marketing and self-promotion by the author. A commercially published book doesn’t make you an instant celebrity either, of course. Believe me, I wish it did. But the average book from Baen, DAW, or Tor will sell more copies in its first week than most self-published books sell in their lifetime.

There are no easy paths to success. Whatever you might think of THE CELESTINE PROPHECY, Redfield did an awful lot of work to sell his book and build word-of-mouth. Paolini went to hundreds of schools, in costume, promoting ERAGON. My books are published by DAW, but I still I spend way too much time designing and distributing promotional materials, not to mention traveling to conventions and libraries and anywhere else I can go. Being a writer is hard! (Anyone who says differently is selling something.)

Bottom line: know what your goals are. Do the research. There are plenty of scammers and snake oil salesmen*** in this field. Don’t fall for the sales pitch, and make an educated choice.

Good luck!

*Off the top of my head, here are a few new SF/F authors who sold books to major publishers in the past few years: Sarah Prineas, Tobias Buckell, Joshua Palmatier, Marie Brennan, Jay Lake, Matthew Cook, Anton Strout, Seanan McGuire, Stephanie Burgis, C. C. Finlay, and myself.

**Don’t get me wrong. I would love it if my books did half as well as ERAGON!

***The snake oil salesman analogy is borrowed from John Savage, who writes an excellent entry on self-publishing myths at http://scrivenerserror.blogspot.com:80/2004/08/autobibliophilia.html.

Jim C. Hines