Writing

First (Professional) Novel Survey

We talk a lot about how to sell that first novel to a major publisher, but it’s hard sometimes to draw any real conclusions on the best way to break in when all we’ve got is a lot of anecdotal data.  Everyone’s path is different.  The experience of someone who broke in twenty years ago might not match the realities of publishing today.  For that matter, the experience of someone who broke in today might not match the realities of someone else who broke in today.

So, taking a page from Tobias Buckell and his first novel advance survey, I’ve put together a survey about selling that first novel.  I would love it if anyone who has sold at least one novel (any genre, including tie-ins — there’s a question where you can enter genre) to a professional publisher (for at least a $2000 advance[1. The minimum $2000 advance is an arbitrary cutoff point, which I took from SFWA’s guidelines for professional publishers.]) could take a few minutes to click the survey link and answer about a dozen questions.  If you don’t have exact numbers, please give your best estimate.

http://jch.checkboxonline.com/FirstNovel.aspx

The survey will remain open through March 15.  Pass it on.  The more data I can pull together, the more useful the results will be.  Please send people to this post instead of directly to the survey, so they get the introductory info.

I’ll post the results next month after the survey closes.  This is rough, Mythbusters-style science — it’s not going to be a truly random sample, and it’s not a controlled experimental design, but it should give us some results.  And it’s far better than “Well, this one guy who wrote a book once told me this is the way to sell your novel…”

If any of the survey questions are unclear, or if the survey itself gives people any trouble, please let me know ASAP so I can get that fixed.

ETA 1: For purposes of this survey, I’m not counting coauthored novels.  I’m looking for the first professional novel sale where you were the sole author.

ETA 2: I do ask for book titles for verification and deduplication, if necessary.  This and any other identifying information will be stripped out before anything is made public.

ETA 3: I’m looking for brand new authors and grizzled veterans alike.  The broader the range of data, the more likely we’ll be able to see if certain trends have changed over time.

Thanks in advance!

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.

In Defense of Criticism

Got a note from my editor earlier this month, saying The Stepsister Scheme [Amazon | Mysterious Galaxy] was going back for a second printing!  Always nice to hear.

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It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about racism in Transformers, research failure in Criminal Minds, plot shortcomings in Avatar … pretty much all of these discussions eventually produce comments along the lines of:

Why are you wasting your time and energy on this? Relax and enjoy it for the mindless entertainment it is.

I was able to turn off my brain and enjoy the first Transformers movie.  I even sat through most of Attack of the Clones yesterday.  (Though I did fast forward through the “romance” scenes.) I’m perfectly capable of choosing to enjoy brain-dead entertainment.  But it’s one thing to make that choice.  It’s another thing entirely to wander into someone else’s critical discussion and tell them to stop all that unnecessary thinking.

I’m speaking as someone who writes light fiction.  My first book was called bubblegum fantasy, and I’m good with that.  But the moment you try to tell me that light entertainment isn’t worthy of discussion, that it’s somehow exempt from criticism, I’m going to take it personally.

Good writing — even fluffy bubblegum writing — takes work.  It takes research.  Goblin Quest [Amazon | Mysterious Galaxy] required a consultation with a geologist, weapon and armor research, lots of time looking up real-world recipes for Golaka the chef, and several re-reads of The Tough Guide to Fantasyland.

When someone e-mails to say I messed up a sailing term in Mermaid’s Madness [Amazon | Mysterious Galaxy], am I supposed to tell them it’s just entertainment and they should stop being so critical?  I made a mistake, and that mistake threw someone out of the story.  They have every right to call me on it.  Just as people were right to challenge problematic aspects of Talia’s character and sexuality in Stepsister.

To say it doesn’t count, that there’s no point in critical discussion of such “fluffy” works, is a bit insulting.  It’s also flat-out wrong.

Often, this attitude goes hand-in-hand with the idea that criticism and analysis are academic practices, suited only to dusty old classics.  Keep on analyzing Ulysses. Stop wasting your brain cells on Twilight or the latest Hollywood blockbuster.

I think it’s the other way around.  Those blockbusters are exactly what we need to talk about.  How many people actually read Ulysses?  Compare that to the numbers reading the Twilight series.  The latter might be pop culture fluff, but it’s worthy of discussion because, for better or worse, it is our culture.  Because it reflects and affects our society today far more than Ulysses does.

There’s also the fact that, for many of us, this sort of discussion is fun.  (Just look at Elizabeth Bear’s reviews of Criminal Minds.)  I like stories.  I like disecting them, trying to understand where they worked and where they failed.  Like taking apart a watch to see what’s inside.  Some people might say that the dissection takes the enjoyment out of the experience.  For me, the discussion is part of the enjoyment.

Criminal Minds on Diabetes

From this week’s episode of Criminal Minds, “The Uncanny Valley”:

“Diabetics metabolize everything they consume differently.  Food, drink, drugs … it all gets broken down into blood sugar.”

Ignoring the fact that not all food and drink gets broken into blood sugar (Coke Zero, anyone?), you’re telling me my drugs all turn into blood sugar too?  Guess I’d better start taking insulin with my cholesterol pills from now on.

The show also asserts that diabetics can metabolize drugs faster, and thus our victim could shake off the paralytic.  (Which was being received via an I.V. drip.)  This struck me at first as either poorly researched or poorly explained.

So I spent this morning digging up research so as not to come off as an idiot when I wrote my rant, and what do you know.  I came across a 2007 study from The National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases which states:

In fact, type 1 diabetes not only leads to activation of drug metabolic genes, but also has a profound effect on the metabolism of certain drugs. Mice with induced type 1 diabetes rapidly clear their systems of a compound that induces temporary paralysis, while normal mice cannot.

From that same article, “Controlling the diabetes reversed the effect: when insulin was given to the mice, the CAR-induced genes turned off. ”  So in theory, since this woman was off her insulin, there might have been a window where she would have thrown off the effects of the drugs before falling into a diabetic coma.

I’m not finding anything to support the idea that drugs all break down into blood sugar, though.  That one still strikes me as goblin dung.  According to the article above, a diabetic with out-of-control glucose doesn’t clear the drug by breaking it down into sugar, but because (in mice, at least) this activates certain genes that clear the drug from the system.

So, I’m cranky about the “Everything turns into sugar” bit, but it looks like they did the research on the rest.  Thanks for that, Criminal Minds — the widespread laziness and misinformation spread in most books and shows when it comes to diabetes is a huge peeve of mine.

On that note, if any of my writer friends are ever doing a story that includes diabetes and have questions, please don’t hesitate to ask.  I’m not a doctor, but I can give you the basics and tell you what it’s like to live with the damn disease.

Also, I think I have a man-crush on Dr. Reid.

File-sharing Follow-up and Friday LEGO

So on Tuesday we had an all-nighter at the E.R.  Last night my four-year-old got sick.  This week officially bites the wax tadpole.

I did have two follow-ups to yesterday’s post on e-book file sharing.

1.  It’s almost a rule on the Internet: Don’t read the comments.  Particularly with something like book piracy, it’s easy to get into rabid nastiness.  Instead, once again people were thoughtful, respectful, and flat-out smart in your comments and conversation yesterday.  Thank you for that.  Y’all are awesome.

2.  One of the questions that keeps coming up is “How can someone be against file sharing but not against libraries and used bookstores and people loaning books out to all of their friends?”  Inspired in part by the discussion over on Facebook, I came up with this:

When you buy a paper book, you purchase a physical object that you now own.  It’s a thing, and you can do whatever you like with it — keep it, burn it, give it away, sell it, etc.  With an electronic book, there’s no physical object.  With file sharing, you’re not sharing a single object that you’ve purchased and now own; instead, you’re distributing that book.  You basically set up a competing “publisher,” one which takes the work done by the actual publisher, then distributes the end product for free.

Again, a lot of good points from yesterday’s comments, but the used bookstore/library question has always nagged at me, and hopefully this clarifies why.  (I know it helped me to sort some things out in my own head.)

And that’s about all my brain is good for today, so here, have some LEGO.  Most of you should recall the Nebulon-B Medical Frigate from the end of Empire Strikes Back?  Steef de Prouw has done it in LEGO.  This thing is amazing, over four feet long, with little docked X-wings and even the Millennium Falcon.  Click the pic for the full photo set.

Attributor’s Flawed Piracy Study

Publishers Weekly posted an article talking about a book piracy study released today by the Attributor.  PW article is here; their link to the original article wasn’t working.  My thanks to Rich at Attributor, who contacted me with a link to their study results, including methodology, here.

From PW:

Publishers could be losing out on as much as $3 billion to online book piracy, a new report released today by Attributor estimates. Attributor, whose FairShare Guardian service monitors the Web for illegally posted content, tracked 913 books in 14 subjects in the final quarter of 2009 and estimated that more than 9 million copies of books were illegally downloaded from the 25 sites it tracked.

Anyone seeing any possible problems here?  Here are two that jumped out at me right off the bat.

  1. The $3 billion figure assumes that everyone who downloaded an illegal copy of the book would have otherwise gone out and purchased a legal copy.
  2. Attributor is a company specializing in anti-piracy solutions.  Hardly an objective or trustworthy source, in this case.

Please don’t take this as approval of illegal file-sharing.  I’ve made some stories available for free over on my web site (left sidebar), so I’m all for sharing some free fiction.  But when you upload a copy of one of my books to a file sharing site, you’re being a dick.  (Downloading a copy?  Lesser dick.)  If you don’t want to pay $7.99, no problem.  Go to a used bookstore.  Go to your local library.

That said, I don’t think piracy is the end of the world.  I just wish we could get more trustworthy data & discussion, and less dogma.

::Takes a deep breath::  So please feel free to talk piracy and file-sharing, but be aware that over-the-top extremism may be heavily mocked, regardless of what side it’s coming from.

Killing Characters

Normally, I don’t repeat announcements here if I’ve mentioned them on Twitter or Facebook.  This one deserves an exception.  Seanan McGuire was kind enough to e-mail me last night, and — after the prerequisite taunting — informs me that The Mermaid’s Madness [Amazon | Mysterious Galaxy] is #1 on the Locus Bestseller list!  It’s Snoopy-dance time!

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So lately, I’ve been thinking about killing characters. Not the redshirts who die to remind us how dangerous the story is.  Not the villains who meet their just deserts in the final chapter.  I’m talking the central heroes.

I’ve read and watched many a story that killed off the good guys.  I’ve seen it done well, and I’ve seen it done badly.  Boromir’s death in Lord of the Rings is marvelous.  He dies protecting the hobbits and earning redemption.  Well done, Tolkien.

Contrast this to Harry Potter.  I felt some of the deaths in the series worked, but after a while it felt like a publicity stunt.  “Book six comes out soon. Let’s start the betting pool on who she’s going to kill off this time!”  “Whoops, we’ve ‘accidentally’ leaked rumors that Snufflepuff the Privy Elf is going to off Snape!”

Joss Whedon is another one who’s known for killing off characters.  Sometimes, he does it to great effect.  Other times, it feels like he offs a character not because the story necessarily required it, but to show the audience that he’s willing to do it.  (The second death in Serenity struck me that way.)

So … when do you kill off a beloved character?  How do you do it well? The easy answer is that you do what’s right for the story, but what does that mean?

Among other things, it meant I couldn’t kill Jig off in the goblin series.  (I’m assuming that’s not much of a spoiler.)  The goblin books were light fantasy, on the fun, feel-good side.  I cheated a few times, and I killed off secondary characters, but to kill Jig would have been wrong for the kind of story I was trying to tell.

But what about more serious stories?  I’ve been struggling with this for a few weeks now, and here are some of the considerations I’ve come up with.

  • Is it realistic for all of the heroes to survive this adventure?  (I.e., would not killing someone destroy the suspension of disbelief?)
  • Choices and actions in a story have consequences.  Is death the appropriate consequence for the character’s actions in this story?
  • Am I wimping out if I don’t kill someone?  (Am I letting them all live because I like them too much to do what’s necessary?)
  • Will this death make the story better?

That last one is hard.  Does better mean more emotionally powerful?  More memorable?  More engaging?  More marketable (losing readers who want the fluffier stories, but gaining readers who appreciate the gritty)?

And when is it effective to cheat?  Theoretically speaking, imagine an author who killed off a character at the end of a trilogy, but deliberately planted hints that the character might not truly be dead after all.  A better ending, or a cowardly cheat?

I don’t have answers for this stuff, which is why I wanted to open it up for discussion.  What deaths in books and films have worked for you, and why?  What didn’t work?  When, as an author or a reader, does it feel right?

Obviously, there may be some spoilers in the comments.

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 Publishing Lottery and Other Insults

Dear Anonymous Commenter,

Thank you for taking the time to comment on my post about Self-Publishing Myths.  While the poor grammar and spelling were annoying, (something you might want to work on as you self-publish that second book), I was struck by this part of your comment:

“Lets be realistic- how many people get published through traditional publishers? When people used to ask me if i was published i would ask them if they had won american idol.
Its not about talent, its about pitching, luck, who you know and the stars aligned!”

I spent way too much time thinking about your words, trying to find a response that would capture the true depth of my feelings.  I came up with the following:

Bite me.

To elaborate, you wander over to the blog of an author who’s published five books with a commercial publisher and proceed to explain that talent and skill and work have nothing to do with it; I just got lucky and knew the right people.  Because the right people will happily risk their careers to publish their friends’ books, even if those books suck.  Is that the line of pseudologic you’re following here?

From what I’ve seen, this sort of nonsense usually comes from one of two scenarios:

  1. You drank the Kool-Aid from one of the scammier vanity presses and bought into their crap about “traditional publishers” being run by evil overlords who live only to crush the souls from peppy young writers like yourself.
  2. You submitted a few times, got rejected, and decided to take your toys and go home.

You go on to say, “My books are good, as im sure a million unpublished books out there are.”  Right.  Much like everyone who tries out for American Idol is sure their singing is good, and that they deserve a major record deal. 

Because it’s so easy.  Because anyone can sit down and crank out a great story.  Heck, my cat hocked his breakfast onto the keyboard last week and produced a dandy little flash piece about zombie squids.  Everyone’s wonderful and brilliant, and it’s just a lottery as the Publishing Gods roll their d1,000,000 to see which of those worthy candidates shall be chosen.

Most of the people who get rejected from American Idol are sent home because they suck.  The ones who make it to those final rounds are the ones who’ve worked their asses off to learn how to sing.  Writing is the same way.  It takes time and a lot of work.  No magic fairy is going to blow sparkly story dust up your butt and transform you into the next J. K. Rowling.

I understand if you’re frustrated.  I know it can be discouraging trying to break in as a writer.  I’ve been there, and so has every other commercial author you so casually dismiss as “lucky.”

You chose to go the self-publishing route.  Maybe because your unique creative vision was too special for the New York publishers.  Maybe you really are as good as you think you are, and the entire publishing industry was just too blind to see it.  Maybe not.  I don’t know, and I don’t particularly care.  I wish you all the best, and I hope you’re happy with your choice.  But if not–if you’re going the passive-aggressive “publishing is mean and out to get me” route to console yourself–could you please at least keep it to the privacy of your own blog?

Thanks.

Jim C. Hines