Thursday, April 21, 2011

A Response to: "How to Try in Publishing Without Really Succeeding"

This post was written as a comment to a very funny and interesting post called "How to Try in Publishing Without Really Succeeding," made by my good buddy, mystery-crime-horror-humor-western-author Steve Hockensmith on his blog.

Unfortunately, when I tried to post the comment, I got the every helpful and informative error message: "We're sorry. We cannot accept this data."

Everybody's a critic

So, instead, I'll just post it here, and try to post a link over there. If you haven't read the original post, just trot (Har! It's a pun! He writes western mysteries!) on over and read it here, then come back for my response:


Very funny post (I still break out in giggles every time I see, or even THINK about your mock cover for "Dear Mr. Holmes." (Now available where-ever fine ebooks are sold!)

And it's not really fair to comment on a humorous (if thoughtful) post with, like, seriousness, but I am anyway, throwing in some of my own thoughts (for what they're worth) on the self-publishing business:

1. Write a good book
Really, that's the ticket. Write a story that people want to read, and you've got a shot no matter how much you stumble on everything else. Without that, the most wonderful packaging and promotion in the world won't earn their keep.

2. Get objective eyes on your manuscript. This is where most self-publishers screw up. I admit, I'm past believing in the magic powers of editors. A good editor can do wonderful things for a book, but the reality is, even in New York publishing, not a lot of books get seriously edited these days. There just isn't the time or budget.

And when it comes down to it, most editors you'll be working with there are simply people (frighteningly, most of them young enough to be my kids) who happen to love books and maybe have a college degree related to -- ya know -- words somehow. Some of them have the benefit of experience, but most of them aren't OLD enough to have experience (unless Mad Libs in 5th Grade count as editing experience).

Anyway, I can find book-loving, college-educated, liberal-arts degreed, enthusiastic, young-people working in the fast-food industry right here in my town! And they'll work for cheap (if you don't make them wear the polyester orange pants and the paper hat, which is sad, because they're kind of fun).

That said, Amanda Hocking made a killing at ebooks despite the fact that (and she freely admitted this when signing her New York publishing deal) they really could have used serious editing. Story rules.

Oh, and copy-editors. You need them. Lord knows, I need them. Just look at this post!

 3. I've got to admit, I do my own covers. I do so because I already know the tools fairly well, and I've got a long visual-arts background that I think makes me tolerably good at it. That doesn't apply to everyone, obviously. If you're style blind (if for example you can't see anything wrong with the "Dear Mr. Holmes" cover above), the for sure hire somebody.

 Now, am I the BEST cover designer out there?  Hells no. But here's the reality as I see it: covers aren't that important to sales. Really. Surveys in real-world publishing, where those covers are right out there, printed on big, glossy paper at a zillion dots per inch, show that covers (and more amazing to me, cover copy) are relatively small factors in buying decisions. People mostly buy books mostly because they already know the author, or their friends told them the books were good. That's it. They know you. Friends. (Also, it helps if the friend's name is "Oprah.")

 I suspect the same applies in the ebook world, only more-so, given that mostly your wonderful cover is seen at about the size of a grainy postage stamp. (And often in glorious black-and-white!) Given that, here is what is important: Your name and the title should be large and readable. It should provide good contrast when viewed in black and white. Everything else is WAY down the list, no matter how wonderful it looks blown up, printed out, and hanging on your wall. (Go look at a book rack, if you can still find one, and you'll see New York has already adopted this model. Huge title. Huge author name (if the author has a name worth making huge). Nice typography (far more important than the art these days). Tiny-but-possibly-striking picture stuck in the middle somewhere, which you can see if you squint enough. Fancy, art-heavy, elaborate covers are out.)

4. Formatting your ebook. I don't know what to say about this one. On one hand, formatting an ebook does require some study, effort, and attention to detail. There is a learning curve. But it's really no more difficult than using a word-processing program to create a manuscript, format it, print it, and send it off to a publisher. In fact, it can be a lot simpler than that.

 Recently some guy named Hockensmith posted his first "Holmes on the Range" story on his blog (now available in the new collection "Dear Mr. Holmes," where-ever fine ebooks are sold), and I'd been dying to read it. But I like reading things on my Amazon Kindle better than on the computer screen, so I tried an experiment.

 I selected the story on my screen, pasted it into a Microsoft Word document, saved the document, emailed it to my Kindle. (Amazon allows you to send your own documents to your own Kindle, and it appears to go through the same conversion process as a "published" ebook.) To my surprise, it looked wonderful, far better than a lot of the books I'd purchased out of New York.

 So, how much is it worth to pay somebody to do that? (To be honest, there's potentially much more to full-ebook formatting than that, indexing, chapter navigation, and the like. And an experienced hand can be very useful when things, as they sometimes do, go wrong.) But it isn't that hard. And yeah, if he's even reasonably smart and not a TOTAL stoner, the kid across the street could likely learn to do it in short-order.

 Anyway, I think this is a very short-term problem. The tools to make ebook formatting easy are coming along, and I'm pretty certain the next-generation of word-processing software will create ebooks as naturally as it prints to a laster-printer.

 The decision to hire folks to do things for you is an individual one, but the one thing I'd warn against is paying somebody a percentage of your sales to do it. It's just absurd to imagine your heirs decades down the road paying a percentage of sales on your work to some guy who spent a couple hours running your book through their web editor. Pay them a flat fee, an hourly rate, or learn to do it yourself.

 (And mind you, I'm talking about ebooks here. Formatting for POD publishing is FAR more technically demanding, and really calls for expensive tools that I don't think it's cost-effective for most authors to own. I'm personally dubious that it's effective for most self-publishers do do POD at all at this point, unless they have an established audience who will buy them, or a platform through which to market them. While in theory you can get into bookstores, in practice, that ship is already sinking, and you're competing directly with major publishers who have all the advantages in the sinking-ship market. You'll likely sell a few books, but enough to make it cost effective? Again, this will be different for every author, and I could be proved wrong. But on the average, I doubt it.)

 5. Promotion - One of the biggest mistakes epubbers is to expect ebooks to behave like traditional New York books, and to market them accordingly. Traditional book sales are ALL about velocity. The book is marketed and sold into a narrow window of time. It must sell a lot of books during the brief time it is alloted, or it will vanish and fail. Only by maintaining a brisk velocity of sales can it stay on store shelves. And traditional book marketing is about establishing and maintaining velocity. Sure, books can remain "in print" for years, but for the great majority of books, its success or failure is determined in just a few weeks on the shelves.

 Ebooks don't need velocity. There are no shelves to get onto, or to be crowded off of. No returns to worry about. Once your book is out there, it's generally out there to stay. There's time for the book to build a following based on its own merits, or to float on the rising tide of your own reputation with readers. And while it may not sell many books today, it may still be selling that same number of books (or more) a decade from now.

 Failure to understand that gives epubishers false expectations of what constitutes success, and what they should be doing to sell their books. Yes, with promotion, you can lead a few people to your books, and that's not a bad thing, assuming those readers actually like your book. But it's so easy to take it too far, and to suck up time and energy that is better spent on writing. And then to be disappointed when those efforts don't instantly lead to thousands or millions of sales.

And don't over-analyze.  Nobody really knows what drives some ebooks to mega-success while others putter along selling one or two a month, if they're lucky.  If one doesn't immediately seem to work for you, focus on the next one, and keep trying.  If any of your ebooks break-out, it will drive the long-term success of the rest.

 Patience. The little money will add up over time, and as you add titles, it will build.

The pattern is, people stumble onto an author they like. They look for other work by the same author (you have a bunch out for them to find, right?), and then they tell their friends. And there, you've tapped into the two biggest selling points for books: author familiarity, and friend recommendation. Sure, a little marketing to prime the pump, especially in the beginning, probably won't hurt.

 But you're absolutely right that there's nothing more pathetic than people promoting in blog posts.

 Except maybe for people who promote in comments to blog posts.  Or blog posts that are only comments to other blog posts... ("Dead Ringers, a Short Anthology," by J. Steven York Tsunami Ridge Publishing, only TWO-NINETY-NINE!!! where-ever fine ebooks are sold.)

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  1. Regarding your point about ebook formatting, and how programs are coming that will make it easy, I have one word: Scrivener.

    Scrivener's been around for a little while now. Its compiler function will put out your manuscript in .epub, .mobi, or just about any other format you want, complete with hyperlinked table of contents, in about 5 minutes max, with just a couple mouse-clicks. There's no need to screw around with learning how to format .doc files to hopefully get through the conversion process without getting jacked up. Alas for PC users, Scrivener's only out for Mac. But they've got a PC version in beta testing, and it's set to come out in a full version pretty soon, or so I'm told.

  2. I'd be interested to know if Scrivener creates the NCX file, the secret key to adding those little chapter navigation ticks on the Kindle (and I'm pretty sure, other ereaders as well).

  3. This was a very informative post, although I beg to differ with you somewhat on the subject of book covers. Perhaps this is not the case with e-books, where all one really sees is a tiny thumbnail at first, but I can assure you that a physical YA book MUST have an attractive cover or it will be doomed. Kids simply will not even pick up a book unless they like the cover, and poor readers will choose a book based on the cover and the title alone. Seriously. I cannot tell you how many times I've had to TELL a student to read the back of the book or a few pages to decide if they might like the story. To a low-level reader, good cover = good book.

  4. I don't doubt that you're correct. We're really talking about two different things here: what influences the AVERAGE buyer of books vs. what might get a young reader to pick a book up, possibly in a non-commercial environment like a library or classroom.

    And I'm not arguing that books shouldn't have the best cover possible on them. I'm just reporting statistics that they can still sell with a less-than-perfect cover. But if that's true, then they'd most certainly sell some greater quantity with a good cover.

    Nor as I saying that there aren't specific areas where covers may be of much greater importance. Thanks for shedding light on at least one of them.

    -- Steve