Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Writer's Horoscope #4

It's been a while (we're as regular as a fiber-deprived broken clock), but it's time again for another "Writer's Horoscope." When reading this feature, it's important to remember that as writers, we're all professionals at making sh*t up. But this is REAL. It must be true! You read it on the interwebs!

If, however, you don't find that your entry in this horoscope seems to apply to you, it's entirely possible that your parents lied to you about your birth-date. (They may also be aliens. Or robots. Or robot aliens. Just remember next time you visit home, it wasn't our idea to cut them open and see what's inside!) Try another sign and see if it makes more sense to you. If it still doesn't seem to apply, keep in mind that they may not only have fudged the date, but the year, and possibly our earlier installments will fit you better. Find them here and here and here.

Aries (March 21 - April 19) - It's party season!  Sure, you could stay home tonight and write, but why do that when you can go out and talk about writing to strangers who might just be impressed and feed your ego. This will work great until you ask the electric company to cash an ego check.

Taurus (April 20 - May 20) - If you're feeling in a writing rut, perhaps this would be a good time to try a collaboration.  They say two heads are better than one, and you might benefit from having a sounding board for your ideas.  Or maybe it will just remind you of how much better it was writing your own, and get you the hell back to work.

Gemini (May 21 - June 20) - Today could be the day you succeed.  Today could be the day when your dreams are realized.  Who knows who is reading your work, right this second?  Who is thinking about it?  Who may be reaching for a phone, or typing that all important email?  This could be the day that everything changes.  Or not.  But every day could be that day, and today should be rich with possibilities.  If it isn't, maybe you should have more work circulating.

Cancer (June 21 - July 22) - Networking isn't about chasing the most important person you can track down and shoving your manuscript at them under the bathroom stall door.  It's about finding those unanticipated connections that turn out to be important to you, and it's just impossible to anticipate those.  Spread kindness around, and treat everyone you meet like they're important.  One of these days, some of them will be.

Leo (July 23 - August 22) - Avoid cliches like the plague.  Stop chasing after things that others have already been successful at.  A wise person once said, if you can see the bandwagon, it's too late to get on.  Be a leader, not a follower.  It's harder and riskier, but the potential riches, and the certain satisfaction are much greater.

Virgo (Aug 23 - September 22) - It's the nature of writers to lie.  We make stuff up for a living, after all.  But keep the lies in your fiction.  Untruths told in business have a way of coming undone and biting you in the ass.

Libra (September 23 - Oct 22) - While it's important for a writer to shield their ego from criticism, praise, especially false praise, can be just as dangerous.  Beware such praise.  It can disguise ill-intent, or come at a hidden cost.  Or it can simply over-inflate your ego and see you up for a fall.

Scorpio (Oct 23 - November 21) - Your patience may be getting thin, but you don't find a pearl without opening a lot of oysters first.  Persistence pays.

Sagittarius (Nov 22 - Dec 21) - Sure, you're a dreamer!  It's your gift!  But it's also your curse.  Don't look so far ahead.  Think of the future and the big goals, yes, but keep your eye on the next step to getting there.

Capricorn (December 22 - January 19) - Don't call me Ishmael, but you may be chasing a white whale.  Is there a project on your desk that has gone on far too long and taken far too much of your resources?  Maybe it's time to either put a harpoon it in or let it go.

Aquarius (January 20 - February 18) - Never sell yourself short.  Never eliminate the biggest, best, or most profitable option because you think it's out of your league.  Go for the best until that option firmly eliminates itself.  Then move on to the next best, and so on until you things find their level.  You may not get the top, but never assume!

Pisces (February 19 - March 20) - One advantage of being a writer is that you set your own schedule.  Yes, that means you can choose when to start, but if things are going well, expect they'll have their own ideas about when to stop.

If this is your birth month: You're a fortunate person!  You understand that December isn't the end of the year so much as it is the quiet before the dawn.  This is the time to prepare for a new year of opportunities and possibilities.  Editors and agents have cleared off their desks, the holiday interruptions will soon be over, and thoughts will everywhere turn to the coming spring, rebirth, and new projects.  Finish off that slice of birthday cake and get ready.  A new journey is about to begin!

Did you find this article useful? Your donation, big or small, will encourage us to do more like it. Every little bit helps and is appreciated. Thanks in advance: Chris and Steve.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Four Reasons Why Apple's Tablet is Irrelevent to the eBook Market

As if there wasn't enough confusion and uncertainty over the development of the growing eBook market, it's still common to hear people making grand predictions about how Apple's long rumored "tablet" is going to sweep in, take over the market, and make everything that's happened before (especially Amazon's Kindle) obsolete and irrelevant.

Well, I'm here to put that to rest.  It isn't going to happen.  Whatever happens in the eBook market, Apple's tablet is going to be almost completely irrelevant.  Here's why:

1.  It may not exist

Okay, I wouldn't put big money on this one, but remember, this is just a rumor we're talking about here.  Now don't get me wrong, I have no doubt that Apple has some tablet prototypes floating around somewhere.  It's a concept they've toyed with for years.

But having a prototype is a long way from shipping a product, and Apple is far too smart to just shove a product out the door unless they think they have a winner.  (Not that Apple hasn't had it's share of failures.  Anyone remember the Newton?  Or the Pippin?  No?  Google them.)  Companies often invest large sums in prototypes and designs, tease them around, and never bring them to production.  Anybody remember Volkswagen's "New Minibus" of the mid-90s.  It was shown at car shows, announced for production, and even hatched a number of toys (including die-cast cars and a Barbie vehicle) before it vanished with no explanation.

There could be any number of reasons for Apple to not bring it out, or at least delay marketing it.  Maybe they're waiting for just the right display or battery technology or price point to come along.  Maybe they're waiting for more wireless data capacity to come along (since the iPhone has already logjammed large parts of AT&Ts network).  Maybe they're worried it will compete with existing product lines that are already highly profitable.  Maybe they don't want to launch a major new product line into a dead economy.  Maybe they just don't think it will sell.

So, while I think it's likely that Apple will sooner or later ship something like the rumored tablet product, it's not a certainty.  (And for that matter what is this "tablet?"  Is it a souped up iPhone with a really big screen?  Is it a new flavor of Macintosh?  Is it the sort of unheard-of new-category product that Apple is famous for?  People seem to be assuming it has something to do with eBooks based simply on the shape.  Certainly it will have a screen, memory, and processing capability, which means it can display an ebook.  So can your existing laptop or cellphone or the Jumbotron at the stadium.  Doesn't necessarily make it an ebook game-changer.)

2.  It costs too much

Okay, assuming that the rumors are true (and I'm going by the very latest rumors I could find), the Apple tablet will sell for about a $1000.  That's way too much to be a significant factor in the eBook market.  The entry-level Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Nobel Nook sell for about $250, and a slew of other eBook readers (mostly without wireless capability, and some with LED screens) are on or entering the market at even lower prices.

Given the rumor-factor, that price could be wrong, but we can make a couple of safe assumptions about this myth-product, whatever it is, if it is.  It almost certainly won't close less than an iPhone, and probable will cost more.  AT&T is selling no-contract iPhones for $600-700, and new MacBooks start at $1000, which seems to put $1000 somewhere in the sweet-spot for this product.  Unless the rumors are completely wrong, it definitely isn't going to sell for under $500, and that just makes it a non-player.

The future of eBooks is with products cheaper than the current front-runners, and with non-eBook-specific products that huge numbers of people are already carrying with them anyway (primarily phones and computers at this point).  To make significant market penetration, a eBook reader either needs to be in peoples pockets and purses already, or to be cheap enough that they won't hesitate to carry it everywhere with them, or to be cheap enough that they'll own several and keep them handy where-ever they might want to read.

Of course, while it's pretty certain this product may be used as an ebook, it's also pretty certain Apple won't be marketed as one anyway (Steve Jobs is on record as saying nobody actually reads any more, and relative to the kind of financial numbers he's going for, he might be right).  If people buy this product in large numbers, and they might, it will be primarily for reasons totally unrelated to eBooks.  All of which means that, if the tablet does hit the marketplace, it will likely sell in far larger numbers than a $1000 eBook would.

It doesn't matter.  At this price, this isn't going to be an "everyone has to have one, now" product like the iPhone, and it's going to be priced way above most people's impulse threshold.  There's no way it will sell (in the near term, anyway) in the kind of numbers needed to remake the eBook market.  Of the numbers that do sell, many will be to people with little or no interest in eBooks, and it's going to be to valuable an item to carry around in a the casual way an eBook needs to be used.

 3.  It's Too Late

Going back to the rumor-well, latest word on the street is that the tablet might ship in the spring.  By that time the Nook will have shipped in significant numbers, half-a-dozen new eBook readers will be on the market, and the Kindle 2 will have been on the market for well over a year.  Amazon has a commanding, but perhaps not unshakable, lead in the market.

There's a short list of candidates to unseat them, all of them already in motion: Barnes and Nobel with their Nook, Sony with their Reader line, newspaper and magazine companies that might offer reduced price reader hardware as part of subscriptions, phone companies, who might offer reduced price devices as part of a contract deal, and who already have eBook-capable smart-phones flooding the market in Kindle-smashing numbers.  Apple's Tablet isn't even close to making this list.

Which brings us to the final reason...

4. Apple's eBook game-changer shipped a long time ago

The most significant development in eBook readers isn't an eBook reader.  It's the iPhone.  Not just for the phone and its market penetration, though these are significant factors, but for popularizing the full-featured smart-phone market and the app-store concept.  Over 30 million iPhones have already have already been sold, all with instant access to multiple eBook apps (including Amazon's).

According to an article at MediaBistro.com, Android-based phones (which include the hot new Verizon Droid) are projected to sell 6.5 million units this year, increasing to 31.8 million units in 2013.  According to the same article, Android users have already downloaded just one eBook app 120,000 times.  These are huge numbers, relative to the most optimistic projections of dedicated eBook readers.

Current generation smart phones like the iPhone and Droid are far from ideal eBook readers.  The screens are too small, too hard to read, and the battery life just isn't there.  They're definitely too small for the older audience who are currently the early adopters of eBooks.  But they don't have to be perfect.  They're already in people's pockets, they're there when people need them, and if they aren't ideal as a primary eBook reader, they're perfect as secondary ones.  They're also a great way for people to sample eBooks without making the major outlay of a dedicated eBook reader.

As for the future, it's only a matter of time before smart-phones add larger fold-out or roll-up screens.  Battery life will probably improve,   Streaming video and web-browsing will be the driving forces here, but eBook apps will come along for the ride, and that could be a the biggest game-changer yet.

When will we see these big-screen phones?  Maybe the next iPhone?  You know Apple.  Always the game-changer.

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Saturday, November 28, 2009

Hello, Orycon Folks!

Steve here: Though scheduling required us to keep our stay short, we enjoyed our visit to Orycon this weekend. Thanks to those of you who attended our panels.

For those of you still there (or Portland locals), if you'd like a signed copy of Chris' new mystery "Sink Trap" (written as "Christy Evans") it wasn't available at the convention, but before leaving town, Chris visited the Barnes and Nobel store across the street from the convention hotel and signed the 11 copies they had in stock. Look for it in the "New Releases" paperback rack or in "New Releases" in the mystery section.

You'll also find copies of "The Trouble with Heroes" anthology I signed in New Releases in the SF/Fantasy section.

For those of you looking for the text version of our "Novel in an Hour" free-writing exercise, you'll find it by clicking HERE.

Nice to meet you all, and well hopefully see you again at future conventions (or at your local bookstore).
- Steve

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Uncovered: A Hidden Down-side for eBooks

Steve here:
If you've been following me here and on Twitter, you know I'm an ebook advocate.  I was before I got my Kindle 2 a few months ago, and I'm more so here.  I think we're on the verge of the biggest revolution since Gutenberg, and I think it's generally a good thing.

But with any change, things are lost, and they aren't always the obvious ones.  Let me share a little story with you.

My friend Kristine Kathryn Rusch has a new science fiction novel out called "Diving into the Wreck."  The other day she had one of those nice little promotional accidents happen.  One of the producers of the Stargate Universe (and several of the earlier Stargate Series) Joseph Mallozzi has a blog, and on that blog he has a "Book of the Month Club" where he showcases one book a month for reading and discussion. 

He also seems to have a lot of followers (producing a cult-favorite TV show will do that for you) so while this won't likely put her on the Times list or anything, it will probably sell quite a few books for her and put her name in front of a potentially new audience.  I remains to be seen how big a win this is, but it's a win none the less, and at a key time for demonstrating the strength of the book (in hopes of turning it into an ongoing series).  It may sell five copies, it may sell five-hundred, but it will move some books and create some awareness, and that's a Good Thing.

The life of a book is full of these little incidents that build sales.  This is a rarity in that the author was actually aware of it.  Most of them go unseen and undiscovered until the sales figures come one.  But I have a suspicion that a lot of these happy accidents have something in common with this one.  That thing is the way that Kris's book came to be a Book Club selection on this blog.  It has to do with the Cover.

Here's the dope straight from Mallozzi's blog: "The last time I flew to Montreal, I was seated beside a guy reading a science fiction novel.  The cover caught my eye and I made a mental note to check out the author the next time I found myself in a bookstore.  A little over a week later, I was on a flight back to Vancouver when I happened to glance across the aisle and notice a woman reading an SF title – different book, but same author.  What were the chances?  THIS, I decided, was fate –"

Fate? Perhaps. Or maybe just a good cover at work. Admit it. How many times have you been on a plane, or a bus, sitting in a waiting room, and looked over to see what another person was reading. It's human nature. It's a way of peering into the mind of a stranger, to seek some insight, or to find some commonality, or maybe just to find a good read to look for next time you're in a bookstore. But your eyes are drawn to that cover.

It's more than just a wrapper for a book, and it's more than a sales tool for the book while it's sitting on a store shelf. There's another aspect to it that we forget about. It's free advertising, the gift that keeps on giving.

Now, it's easy to dismiss the importance of this advertising effect. Sure, you may see a stranger reading a book or author that you'll later look for. Maybe you'll strike up a conversation in the DMV line that will lead to an enthusiastic recommendation for a book. But that's only a book here, a book there.

Well, don't dismiss that. A book here, a book there, it ads up. And sometimes, it isn't just a book. Sometimes a book can be seen in good company and the results can be spectacular. Oprah has only to hold up a book to a camera to turn it into a best seller. Both Ian Fleming (James Bond) and Tom Clancy became best-sellers on the basis of casual Presidential endorsements. Movie deals have been made because someone in power spotted a book cover that got their attention. Let's face it, few people in Hollywood ever even get past the cover!

Well, ebooks don't have covers, at least in the sense of a little full-color billboard that tells everyone what you're reading. (Sometimes, as I complained in an earlier post, they don't have covers in any sense at all.) If ebooks, as I suspect, start to push out paper books in the coming years, that fundamentally changes a social dynamic of reading.

In someways, that may be good, especially for certain genres and types of books. People will feel comfortable reading ebooks in public they'd never have been caught with if they had a glossy cover wrapped around them. I suspect that more men will read romance, for example, and erotica will get a boot. Science fiction, men's action aventure, most any kind of fiction that might carry some sort of stigma, real or perceived.

But in the larger sense, everybody loses, just a little. Book covers are a way of connecting readers with readers, and readers with books, and with ebooks, that's gone, and there's nothing obvious to replace it. And that's a shame.

It's not going to make in difference in when or if ebooks will push out paper books though. Things will happen as they happen. We lost something wonderful when vinyl records and those big, gorgeous covers were replaced by postage-stamp sized tape and CD jewel-boxes. There's nobody who grew up with them who didn't love them. But they vanished anyway.

Maybe something will come along to replace some of the secondary functions of book covers. I'm thinking some kind of social media site or store function that will let people display and share their reading lists and recommendations.

Of course, it won't be the same. Nothing ever is. But if we can't stop the future, we can at least take steps to mitigate the damage when we understand what it is we're losing.

And hey, buy Kris's book!
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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

How Lazy New York Publishers Act Like eBook Amateurs

Steve here:

Having Having owned an Amazon Kindle since mid-summer, and used it for much of my reading (including newspapers and magazines), I've been meaning to sit down and write a detailed report about the experience.owned an Amazon Kindle since mid-summer, and used it for much of my reading (including newspapers and magazines), I've been meaning to sit down and write a detailed report about the experience.

This isn't it.

Oh, it's coming, but I want to spend some time on it and do it right, and an annoying issue has come up that simply couldn't wait.

Oh, it's not about the Kindle itself.  It's about the indifferent way New York publishers put their books on Kindle.

Even the most casual observer must have noticed that there are a lot of vocal complainers among early Kindle adopters.  They complain about digital rights management.  They complain about their inability to resell or trade their Kindle books.  They most especially complain about prices.

My inclination coming in was to dismiss them as whiners, especially on the price issue.  The attitude of some people is that since you aren't buying a physical book, you shouldn't pay anything, or at least darned little, and that you should be able to resell your near-free book, or trade it, or give it to all your friends.

Bunk, I say.  Yes, eBooks should be less expensive than printed books, generally, but if you don't think the content is the bulk of the value of the book, why do you even care enough to read?  Information doesn't want to be free.  It wants to be reasonably priced.  That's my thinking anyway.

The question is, what constitutes a reasonable price?  The golden price of the moment, the one that both publishers and readers can just barely tolerate is $9.99, and that's where a lot of Kindle books are priced.

For new releases only otherwise available in hardcover or trade paper, that doesn't strike me as a bad price.  On the other hand, for books out in mass-market paperback, there's just no way the Kindle edition should cost as much as the paperback, much less more, which has occasionally happened.  If you can't discount at least 25% from list, then you're obviously just intent on making people feel ripped off.

But this all assumes that the Kindle edition is roughly the equivalent (ignoring the rights issues) of the print edition.  But in my limited experience so far, this is almost never the case.  Mainly it boils down to two points, one minor but glaring, the other less obvious but ultimately far more important.  But taken together, they lead to one conclusion: the major New York publishers are almost criminally indifferent in their packaging of eBooks.  At the same time they're arguing that new releases should be priced at hardback price levels, they're  producing eBooks with all the care and attention that a Holstein turns out cow-pies.

Let's start with the covers.  Most ebooks out of New York don't have them, and this is just plain stupid.  Yes, it's easily possible to take the metaphor of the paper book too far into the digital world (like those stupid eReader programs that make you "flip" digital pages by swiping the corner), but this isn't one of them.

People like covers.  They are the face of the book.  They establish a tone, and remind us what the book is about and why we chose to buy it in the first place.  They give each book a unique identity, which is especially important in the too-uniform world of the Kindle (okay, I'm getting ahead of myself on the Kindle-experience, but this is important) where every book, magazine and newspaper tends too look exactly like every other.

What many, possibly most (I don't have that large a sample, and you usually can't know until you've downloaded the book) have instead is some kind of generic cover page.  Sometimes this will just have the title and author name in large print.  Sometimes it will have a bit of completely generic design, like a large version of the publisher or imprint logo (often blown up far too large for it's own good) or a background behind the text made of grayed-out logos.

These things are actually uglier than the plain title pages.  They evoke general composition books from high-school, or those horrible "generic food" packages that were a craze in the early 80s.

What I don't understand about this is why?  It isn't like there isn't a cover right there on the front of the print book.  Even on re-releases, it almost certainly exists in your office in digital form (for catalog shots if nothing else), meaning you don't even need to scan it.  Now, admittedly, this is a cover that is intended to be viewed in far higher resolution than the Kindle offers, and it may look muddy if converted from color to black and white, but at least it gives a taste of what the printed cover is like, and that's all I (or most readers) really need.  If there's a pretty picture or some nice typography on the cover of the print edition, at least give me a muddy little version of it on my Kindle.  It would take maybe, oh, 30 seconds of some low-level employee's time, moving the file around.  Sorry to be such a bother.

Second and ultimately more important, is the text itself.  What's more important than the text?  And yet this is where publishers have really, really, fallen down.  For example, I've been using the Kindle to read a few books by classic sf authors.  Most of these are old enough that they had to have been scanned in from printed text, probably bound books, and it shows.

Now, if you've ever used a scanner and OCR (optical character recognition) you know it's an inexact process.  There are always errors, and depending on the font, layout, quality of printing, and other factors, there can be a lot of errors.  Somebody has to go in and manually find these errors and correct them.

Or at least, they should.  That hasn't been the case with many of the books I've read so for.  For example, I bought an older novel by a major science-fiction writer that I hadn't read.  I wasn't far into the text when I found the first major scanning error.  This wasn't just a case of a misplaced letter or a word mangled by the spelling checker.  This was full-on gibberish.  A "Beetle Bailey" curse-balloon.

Fortunately, it was only one word, and there were one or two correct letters in the mess, so that I could guess what was missing given the context.  But it wasn't long before I found another one.  And another.  They were random though, and far apart.  They were an annoyance, but they didn't render the book, so I plowed on.  But well into the book they became more common, until by the end, I could expect about one of these things per page.

It was painfully obvious that they'd simply scanned this thing, did some quick formatting, and dumped it on the Kindle store.  Maybe somebody had glanced at a few pages to make sure it was still in English, but clearly nobody, nobody at all, had ever read through it, or even read an entire chapter of it.

This was a worst-case (so far, and based on a rather limited sample) but not atypical.  Another example.  Another science fiction novel by a well-known writer.  In fairness, this book was a free download, but it was issued by a major publisher, and clearly intended to entice the reader to pay real money to buy other books in this series and/or from the author's considerable back-list.

But once again, there were uncorrected scanning errors.  Not gibberish, but mis-scanned letters and occasionally words.  One curious example was when a character stepped into a "Corn Booth."  From the context it was obvious that a "Corn Booth" was a video-phone booth/public computer terminal.  But "Corn Booth?"  It kept turning up again and again, very consistantly.  A character used a Corn Booth.  A child curls up on the floor of a Corn Booth to sleep.

My best guess was that the error was a corruption of "coin booth," old-fashioned as that sounded.  It was only after the fifth or sixth occurrence I realized that to an OCR scan, an "m" might look a lot like "rn."  It was a "Com Booth."

Now, it's a dirty little secret that even big books from big publishers are rarely perfect.  The occasional typo, glitch, or formatting error will inevitably will find its way in.  But the expectation is that such a book will be proofed and edited so that such errors are rare.

Okay, professional New York publishers, a little straight-talk here.  If you expect to charge premium prices for eBooks, or even discounted premium prices, you have to serve up quality product.  That means (shocker!) that when you scan and format things for eBook publication, you actually have to at least pay some minimum-wage employee to read the book and look for serious scanning and formatting errors.

An in the long term, as ebooks become a bigger part of the market, and writers have more options to directly take ebooks to their readers, you're going to have to compete.  The best way you have to compete is through marketing, editorial services, and delivery of a professional product.  When it comes to ebooks, item one varies from book to book and author to author, two is being undermined by shoddy ebook production, and on three you're completely falling down.  If you're giving authors a smaller share of ebook royalties that Amazon is and I can make a better product, you'd better be doing a hell of a promotional job or writers are going to start walking.

Hopefully this is only a short-term aberration in the market, and publishers will clean up their ebook act.  Until recently, the financial incentive wasn't there.  Ebook sales were too low, but that's rapidly changing.  And I do understand the publishers are struggling to convert vast catalogs of books into electronic format, many of them too old to have any kind of electronic files available for conversion.

But they need to act, and act quickly, especially on current releases.  The window for authors (and readers) to move to a new publishing system is now, and New York isn't giving either much incentive to stick with them.  If I, as the author, can with a little effort make a book that looks better and more professional.  If I can make more money per copy sold.  And if I can promote it as well or better than New York, then what should I reasonably do?

At the very least, every new ebook release should be read from cover to cover by a human being for basic quality control.  A form should be provided on the web for readers to report errors, and readers should be given the opportunity to download later, corrected, editions free of charge.  Without these steps, mainstream publishing could lose the reputation of legitimacy that is their greatest asset.

One more example before I quit.  

I'm currently reading a non-fiction historical biography.  It's from a second-tier, but still mainstream publisher.   This isn't a new release either.  The copyright is only a few years old.  But I suspect it was scanned rather than converted electronically.  It's full of mangled full-justification that sometimes results in huge gaps between words and random hyphens in the middle of words.  But the most pervasive problem, though easy to read past, appears all through the book, on almost every page.  I'd estimate that about 80% of the upper case letters "I" in the book are replaced by the number "1."  

If you've read more than a page or two, there's no way to miss it.  It's clear that no human being at the publisher ever looked at this ebook before putting it out for a $9.99 download.  

Not even 1-ce.

(Postscript.  Having read this, you must run right over and read THIS post on writer Lee Goldberg's blog.  The world is getting very interesting...)

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Free "Sink Trap" preview

Steve here: Chris has just posted an exclusive, free, pre-release preview of her new (writing as Christy Evans) new Berkley Prime Crime mystery novel, "Sink Trap."

Check it out here, and enter to win books and other prizes while you're there!

UPDATE: Part 2 of the preview is posted. Find it HERE.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Bad Agent Sydney T. Cat Answers Writer Questions (Badly)

Steve here: A while back I happened to mention that my Cat, Sydney, was as well-suited to be a literary agent as many of the self-selected people out there claiming the title. I expected this would make people laugh at the absurdity of the idea.

Shows you how stupid I am. What I got was a bunch of emails from people asking if Sydney was taking clients, where people should send their queries and manuscripts. It seems that people are so eager to sign with an agent, any agent, that even a highly obese and self-centered calico short-hair with an IQ that's pretty low, even for a cat, can be successful in the agent business.

So successful, in fact, that she's hired me.

You see, readers are your audience. The real reason you should be writing books. But the reality of the business is that publishers have long been the gatekeepers between writers and readers.
Problem is, that whole gatekeeper thing was really cutting into their time, so years ago they outsourced most of that to agents.

Meaning that the gatekeepers then had gatekeepers.

That worked for a while, but anyone whose been on a writer's web-board or writer's conference lately knows the feeding frenzy associated with signing anybody who calls themselves an agent. It's really hard to be so popular, and its really wearing on agents. Sometimes just processing all the highly-paid speaking engagements, conference appearances, tours hawking their own books, consulting and editing gigs, gifts, flowers, and offers of sexual favors is just exhausting!

It's a wonder any of them find any time at all to try market books, make deals, or take care of their clients.

In fact, some of them don't. For a lot of them, it's not really the profitable part of their business anyway (which doesn't seem to deter people from wanting to sign with them). Those agents who take their jobs seriously and focus on their clients and the selling of books have clearly missed the boat.

Anyway, that's why Sydney has hired me. Clearly she doesn't have time to deal with the lot of you, and needed an assistant to handle the mail and deposit the checks in her account. So here I am, the gatekeeper to the gatekeeper to the gatekeepers.

Kind of a sweet position, when you think of it. I'm wondering if I should milk it? Why restrict myself just to Sydney, when there are so many even-less-qualified "agents" out there I could be fronting for? Of course, I'll need a new job title for it. Can't be an "agent agent," can I? Hmmm. How about "Bgent," which is naturally what comes after "Agent."

If it works out, I could start a whole franchise, "Cgents," "Dgents," "Egents," until we roll around and have to start over again at "Aaents." (Though some people I've talked to want to skip directly to "Ygents," and they seem to imply a question-mark on the end. I don't get it.)

Anyway, as promised, I've been opening Sydney's mail so she can answer some of your (to you, anyway) very important questions about agents and/or publishing. I turn it over to the very busy ("it would be an honor for you just to touch her cat-sand") Sydney T. Cat, Bad Agent.

Sydney here: Just a minute while I get comfortable, darlings. Pillow. Check. Blankie. Check. Warm, sunny spot. Check. Greenies...


Pion! Where the hell are my Greenies!

So sorry, darlings. It's so hard to get good help these days.

Anyway, let me put my paw in the mailbag, and...

Brandie T. writes:

What is the usual wait time for hearing back on submissions? How often and when should I check back to see if my story is accepted?

Well, dear, that depends. Are were talking about submissions to agents, or to publishers?

If you're one of those sad, pathetic, deluded people trying to send your work directly to editors and publishers, then you simply have to be prepared to wait forever. You see, nobody does that any more, which is why publishers are just stacked to the rafters with unagented-yet-publishable manuscripts. So much so that on the rare occasion they do publish one, it's just done on a lottery system.

Of course, if you go this route (idiot!) then you need to make each submission exclusive, and then you must never submit it again until you hear back from the editor. This is important, because putting a manuscript in the mail is exactly the same as a binding exclucivity contract. You must mail, and then wait.

Forever if need be. Because you can never, under any circumstances, after any period of time, ever ask the editor about it. Even if you meet them at a writers conference, and really hit it off, and becomes great friends, and swear a blood-oath, and then go back to his/her hotel room and have, wild, monkey-sex!

It is forbidden!

And until they release you, either by word or rejection, you are trapped. Like Sleeping Beauty behind all those brambles and that cartoon dragon. You must not submit it elsewhere. You must not stop thinking or obsessing about it. In fact, I wouldn't recommend working on anything else while you're waiting either. For that matter, even sleeping is bad. Just prop your eyes open with toothpicks and pretend like you're in one of those "Nightmare on Elm Street" movies.

Now, you may be saying, "Sydney T. Cat, you beautiful and intelligent creature, what if they've lost it? Or for that matter, what if they just decided it wasn't for them and used the manuscript as part of the landfill for the artificial island in the Hudson River where the 'Publisher's Castle' will be built surrounded by a magic forest full of unicorns, talking typewriters, and dinosaurs? And having done that, they didn't bother to send a rejection?"

You're quite right, dear. Often they will reject things without responding, and your manuscript (and the SASE you sent, after they steam the stamps off) will end up in the landfill for "Publisher's Island." (But you forgot to mention the dragons, the fairies, and the Sharpie-pen rain from the Post-it Note clouds.)

But what you don't know if that that keep a random sampling of manuscripts they will never buy, as a test and a warning to upity writers!

So that some day, at some writer's conference, an editor may casually say, "aren't you Jane W. Writer, who submitted "Bon-bons of the Manatees" to me back in 1993? Did you ever do anything with that?" And if you answer, "why yes, I sold it to your competitor and it spent 32 weeks on the New York Times Best-seller list."

Then you will be banned! Banned and scorned! Banned and scorned and ridiculed! You will be thrown into a burlap sack and burned at the stake during the annual All-editor's Barbecue and Writer-roast!" And all because you couldn't wait! Wait till the end of time!

But this is only because, darling, you are an idiot. You need an agent.

A submission from an agent, any agent, is a completely different thing. I can get a response like that! (I would be snapping my fingers right now, if I had fingers. Imagine I have fingers, and I am snapping them. But really, I will just claw the couch instead. Scritch. Scritch. Scritch. Aaaaaah!)

Of course, the problem is that first, you must get a response from me, and that's going to take a while. A long while. I can't be a gatekeeper if I'm not keeping the gate, and that is a time-consuming business.

But unlike an editor, you actually will hear back from me. Usually. Eventually.

I do like to take my time, even with writers are already clients. Especially with those, actually. Because when I take forever to respond to people how want to become clients, I may never know exactly how they've suffered. But my clients, well, news of their squirming, pain, and deprivation usually get back to me eventually. Purrrrrrrrrr!

Of course, when I do respond, it will usually be a rejection (I even reject my clients! It's so fun!) or if you're really lucky, a rewrite request. Because, never having written or sold a novel of my own, I know far more about writing than you ever will. (Also, I've discovered it's a real time-saver when I'm backed up on my reading. A stack of form rejections and boiler-plate rewrite requests full of vague suggestions will take care of a mountain of backlog in no time at all!)

Actually, I never send out anything unless I'm certain I can sell it. I've got many techniques for predicting the future in order to make this possible. Crystal balls, tea-leaves, watching the birds fly at sunset, aura-reading, fortune-cookies, and of course, the Vulcan Mind-Meld. (Hey, my ears are pointy!)

But I'll be honest. None of it works. Certainty is pretty hard to come by in this business. That's why I never actually send anything out to publishers. Hmmm. Maybe that's why I've never actually sold a book? Interesting theory. I guess I'd better reject this mountain of manscripts so I have more time to think about it....


I'd intended to answer a bunch of questions today, darlings, but this took a lot longer than I expected, so I'll answer one more quick question and call it a day.

Cindie G. in Reno writes:

Am I being rude if I ask to see my contract?


Oh, hell, yes, you unmannered bitch!

Your contract is right in this pile under me (I'm keeping it warm), along with all your royalty statements and foreign-rights agreements, and you'll never lay your rude, grubby, little writer's-fingers on them!

If you ever need to see anything in that pile (and I'll be the judge of that), I'll certainly show you.
Like that would ever happen! I mean, don't you trust me? If you can't blindly trust your agent with your money, contractual obligations, career and future, who can you blindly trust?

(Raise paw. Lick. Lick. Lick.)

Are you still here?

Bgent Pion Steve:

That's all the time Sydney has for questions today. She'll be back soon to badly answer more of your questions about agents, writing and publishing. So even though, she still has more in her mailbag, she'd be glad (well, not really, but I know saying so makes you feel better about your pathetic self) to see questions from you. Send them to me, her Bgent, at j-steven-york@sff.net.

Also, be aware that Sydney is not taking on new clients at this time. She's got her paws-full abusing -- uh -- servicing the ones she already has. She will however accept bribes, via the donate button below, or you can butter her up by buying one of her tee-shirts or other items from her Cafe Press store. (Sydney has heard a rumor that some of you are worried she will be offended if you wear one of her shirts, what with the "Bad Agent, No Catnip!" slogan. Sydney only laughs her little cat laugh at this. She doesn't even really like catnip! Just don't mess with her Greenies!

Anyway, she knows you don't mean it.

she will smother you in your sleep!)

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Support Your Favorite Magazine (But HOW?)

Most of my life, one of my greatest joys has been walking up to a newsstand and browsing the magazines.

When I was a kid, it was a world of wonders far from my small-town existence: the futuristic super-technology of Popular Mechanics and Popular Science (and long-defunct magazines like Mechanics Illustrated and Science and Mechanics, which bought my first professional writing sale back in the 70s), the world-spanning photography of Life and National Geographic, the distant-but-glamorous California car-culture represented in Hot Rod and CARtoons (the first magazine I ever sent a submission to), the sneaky and brilliant subversion of Mad Magazine, the glimpses at all those strange an scary movies I never got to see in Famous Monsters of Filmland, the fiction, writing and art of The Saturday Evening Post.

I'd always read science-fiction, but it was my discovery of Analog Magazine in the 70s that really brought me into the genre and showed me that it was an actual community, and not just a bunch of books with paintings of rockets and aliens on the cover. Later, a newcomer, Issac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine (now Asimov's Science Fiction), showed me a different side of science-fiction, more playful, sometimes less serious, but often more socially relevant.

Then came the combined lowbrow titillation and highbrow writing (yes, I actually did read the stories and articles) of Playboy, the in-depth coverage of news and culture in Time and Newsweek, and the more in-depth (more like "in-over-my-head" most of the time, but I loved it) science coverage of Scientific American.

Let's say it up front. I love magazines. Always have. Always (well, as long as they survive) will. Helping them survive, that's today's topic.

This morning at the grocery store I spotted the "Mythbusters" special issue of Popular Mechanics magazine that I'd been hearing about on Twitter, and had to pick it up. I quickly read the Mythbusters cover story and a good bit of the other content, and enjoyed it all quite a bit. (If you like Mythbusters, then you've got to have this issue, but it's good reading anyway. After a boring slump of many years, PM has turned into an excellent magazine again.)

Then (we get to the real subject of this post) I did something that I've meaning to do for a while, and which I should have done a long time ago: I got on their website and subscribed. Really, this was a no brainer. I pick up the monthly magazine on the newsstand more months than not, at $3.99 and issue, and the blow-in card in the magazine was offering a rate of $12 a year.

Yes, you got that right. A buck an issue. 75% off with postage thrown in for free.

I report this, not as a sales pitch for PM (though if you subscribe, good), but to illustrate the crazy nature of the magazine business, why it's so difficult to keep a magazine going these days, and why it's so hard to know how to best support the ones you love.

How can they offer the magazine so cheaply? Surely a dollar barely covers printing and shipping costs, if that. The answer (disclaimer, my info on the magazine business is second-hand and somewhat dated, but I think my information is essentially correct here) is that it's still CHEAPER than selling you an issue on the newsstand at $3.99 a cut.

I know you're scratching your heads here, but it's apparently true. They have to discount the magazine for wholesale in the first place, then the distributor gets a huge cut, and then they actually have to PAY to get the magazines positioned in major retailers. Even then, many of the magazines shipped aren't sold and are stripped for credit. And finally, any money that DOES arrive through the distributors is painfully slow in making its way back to the publisher. I've been told that most mass-market magazines lose money on every copy sold at retail.

So why do we have magazines at all? The answer, in most cases, is advertising. Popular Mechanics is an example of a classic advertiser supported magazine. Much, if not all, of their profit margin comes from selling ads, not magazines. This is true of most of the magazines you see in the grocery store or mass-retailers like Target or Wal-mart.

And advertisers like numbers. A magazine sent to a newsstand may or may not sell, but to advertisers, a subscriber is like gold. This is an audience they can measure and analyze, and figure out if they're getting their advertising money's worth. That's another reason magazines like PM are so happy to offer steep discounts to advertisers.

This plan works best though, for magazines with mass appeal and large circulations. There's a second-tier of magazines aimed at more specialized audiences, that still have lots of ads (for which they depend on heavily for income), but still depend on sales income to keep the lights on and the presses running. They can't discount subscriptions as much. They also can't afford big premiums to get their magazines out there, so they're harder to find.

A couple of examples of this that I often read are the infotrivia magazine Mental Floss (my mother-and-law has been giving us gift subscriptions for years, so I haven't had to worry about this one) and the technology/hobby magazine Robot.

Still rarer at those magazines that depend almost entirely on income from purchases and subscriptions. The previously mentioned Analog Science Fiction is such a magazine, as is Asimov's. For that matter, this is true of pretty much any fiction magazine you could name. (And there aren't many any more. Scott Edelman's late, lamented Science Fiction Age and sister Realms of Fantasy were the last fiction magazines I can think of with substantial ad income.) They can't discount their subscriptions at all, but they desperately count on those subscribers for their survival. Naturally, these are usually the very hardest magazines to find on newsstands, usually completely missing the mass-market outlets.

Obviously what I'm saying here is: if you enjoy a magazine, you should really subscribe. You support the magazine in a big way when you do so.

But what I'm also saying is, there's a flip-side to this, a Catch-22. One reason magazines still like to be on newsstands, even though it costs them money, is that its a way of reaching new potential subscribers. If people don't see their magazine, know why it would interest them, or even know that it exists, then they won't become subscribers.

This is where some of the fiction magazines in that last category have run into trouble. They aren't visible enough to get new subscribers, and their existing subscriber-base is (slowly) shrinking. Some subscribers slip away, or forget to renew. And even with the most loyal subscribers, they get older and yes, pass away. There's also the issue (no pun intended) that while catering to their graying, established subscriber-base, they may also be losing their ability to appeal to the younger subscribers that they desperately need to survive.

So the problem is, when you subscribe, you stop buying the magazine on the newsstand. If not enough people buy the magazine on the newsstand, it won't get stocked. If it doesn't get stocked, then it has a much harder time getting subscribers. You see the problem.

Okay, it's still better to subscribe. But there are other things you could do to support a beloved magazine. Tell a friend about it, or share some of your back-issues with someone who might be interested, rather than throwing them in the recycle bin. Sponsor a subscription for your local library (check first to see if they have such a program, and how it works). Give gift subscriptions to friends and family members.

Or maybe you could write a blog post peppered with subscription links, like this one. (grin)

So, what magazines am I subscribing to these days?

Well, Popular Mechanics and Popular Science, both of which have gotten back to their entertaining and informative roots in recent years. Mental Floss I've mentioned. I should subscribe to Scientific American, even though I liked it much better when it was written more like a scientific journal, and less like a soft-boiled version of Discover.

I really also should subscribe to Make, though I don't buy every issue at newsstand, and the subscription discount isn't huge. On the other hand, Make on the newsstand is an astounding $14.99 an issue, putting it in a category all its own, so any discount is welcome if you're interested, and I guess I am.

I'm a little ashamed to admit that I don't currently subscribe to any of the fiction magazines like Analog. I've subscribed to them off-and-on over the years, but somehow I seem to find far more time for reading (and writing) novels than short-fiction these days. Still, I should at least subscribe to Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. I know I'm missing some good writing there, and I suspect I'm a little more likely to read mystery/crime short fiction for some reason.

Really, if money were no object, I should subscribe to all of them, just as a gesture of support to the genre. Maybe when the next best-seller check rolls in...

I might also be more likely to read these on my new Kindle, however the Kindle versions of these magazines are reportedly still a bit SNAFUed, with formatting problems, late arrivals, and subscription rates that are actually higher than the print editions.

Such is the brave new world of magazines, the direction where these hearty survivors may have to head in the years to come. It will take longer for photo, illustration (and ad) heavy magazines to find their way onto ebook readers in a big way. The technology isn't there yet.

But ebook readers are a hot item this year, and seem to be A wave of the future, if not yet conclusively THE wave. Like I said, I recently got a Kindle, and I just subscribed to my first magazine on it, The New Yorker. It isn't quite the same I'll admit. Those artful covers don't look the same in puny black-and-white form, and the subtleties of the cartoons are sometimes lost in the translation. But to me, The New Yorker is mostly about great writing, the words, and that makes it a good fit to the Model-T ebook readers we've got now.

It's also a magazine I've never subscribed to before, so I'm just not as aware of what I'm missing.

But if magazines do go all electronic, and if those ever-shrinking news-racks do completely disappear from our grocery stores and bookshops (if the bookshops themselves even survive), I know the things that I will miss: The excitement and anticipation of approaching the racks, stacked high, thick, wide and deep with colorful covers, all begging for attention, peeking out row-after-row like schoolchildren in a yearbook picture. The heady smell of fresh paper and ink. The Easter-egg-hunt excitement of looking for a new issue of a favorite magazine, or the thrill of finding something new and outside my experience. The slightly-guilty pleasure of flipping through the issues, one-eye peeled for a clerk come to tell you to "buy it or beat it!"

Those glory-days are mostly behind us now, unlikely to return. But if you love print magazines, and I do, there's still hope to keep them going a little longer. At least we can help keep our favorites alive to make the transition to electrons and epaper. Don't let them slip away without a fight.
FOLLOW-UP, September 2, 2009

In the last few days, the New York Times has run a trio of articles in their business section detailing the latest numbers out of the magazine industry. It confirms much of what I said about, but some of the numbers surprised me.

Some factoids:

Industry wide, sales are down, though a few individual magazines have showed gains. Many magazines have show increased subscription sales, but these generally weren't enough to compensate for slides at the retail. Women's magazine were especially hard hit. One (probably unfortunate) exception is All You, a magazine by Time Inc. sold in Wal-Mart stores.

Not surprisingly, given the economy, finance and luxury lifestyle magazines were down.

What shocked me was how much some well-known magazines depend on subscriptions. Ladies' Home Journal sells only 4.8 percent of its copies on stands. Better Homes & Gardens sells only 2.5 percent there!

Overall, sales have fallen 1.9 percent in the last year, which isn't that alarming. However, single copy sales have fallen 12.3 percent, which is of more concern. And while the articles mainly talk about the top magazines in the business, I'm more interested (and concerned) about smaller specialty magazines (including those that print short fiction). Anecdotal evidence is that the little guys have been very hard-hit in the last couple years, either pushing them out of business, or for all intents and purposes, completely off newsstands.


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