Friday, December 28, 2012

Ghosts of Christmas Past

Scrooge and the Ghost
of Christmas Past
Original 1843 illustration
by John Leech
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Since this is my last blog post of the year, tradition calls for some kind of summary: best/worst books of 2012; writers lost or writers who emerged; favorite quotations of the year; resolutions and how well I kept them—something along these lines. Well, who am I to buck tradition? 

Thanks to middle-aged memory loss, I can’t remember all the good books I read this year or the great quotations I heard, and it seems mean-spirited to focus on the bad books, especially when a book I hated may appeal to someone else. I don’t bother with resolutions, since I never go to any special effort to keep them. But 2012 was a watershed year for me, the year my novels went from computer files shared only with my critique partners to actual published books. Because the way I imagined that would work as of December 2011 turned out to be nothing like what actually happened, I decided to turn my last post of 2012 and my first of 2013 into a two-part retrospective/prospective on the state of publishing today. No more than anyone else can I tell where this wildly out-of-control car will careen over the next 12 months, but I can at least talk about what I experienced and what I anticipate for myself and for Five Directions Press.

This week, I tackle the ghosts of Christmas past. A year ago, this blog did not exist. I had heard of blogging; I even knew a couple of bloggers personally. But I had never considered blogging, still less blogging about books and technology, as a goal for myself.

My friend Diana Holquist, a published novelist, blogged. And in December 2011, Diana had just agonized her way through preparing a file for the Smashwords Meat Grinder and for CreateSpace and self-published her Battle Hymn of the Tiger Daughter. The book is a parenting memoir and very personal (although well worth reading!); she didn’t expect to sell many copies, so self-publishing made sense.

I listened and took mental notes, but I still thought in terms of traditional publishing. I had just finished my fourth draft of The Golden Lynx, and I was about to give the whole manuscript to my writers’ group to read. I had also, after six years of struggling, figured out a way to solve the underlying structural problem that had plagued The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel throughout its umpteen revisions. NESP had already gone through a full round of agent submissions without getting a bite, so I had doubts about the wisdom of sending it out again. Still, I thought that if I could find an agent for Lynx, the last set of revisions might be enough to push NESP, too, into the market.

So in January 2012, I began querying agents. Right away, I discovered that things had changed since my last foray into this arena. First, almost all submissions were electronic. Second, most agents no longer sent even a canned reply if they weren’t interested. In fact, as I soon found out, many agents require e-mailed submissions but rarely have time to read their e-mail—or receive so many e-mails that unless your query leaps out at them in the 90 seconds they have for you, forget it. So you can spend ten years writing and polishing a book, then three months researching an agent and preparing a good synopsis and query, only to have the entire package drop to the bottom of someone’s in box and never be seen again. (Believe me, I sympathize. I know what my in box looks like after four days away from my desk—sometimes after one day. The thought of facing 100 or more queries every single day would send me screaming from the room with my hands over my ears.)

In any case, for whatever reason, I did not find a literary agent willing to represent The Golden Lynx. The subject matter (Russia and its eastern neighbors in the time of Ivan the Terrible) may have seemed too obscure for mass-market publishers. The writing might still need work—although people who have read the novel, including those I don’t know personally, seem to find it entertaining, even compelling. Query letters and synopses are not my strength, so they may not have leaped as required. I may not have queried enough agents, or the right agents, or been lucky enough to hit the right agent on the right day at the right moment. And to be completely honest, one agent was still considering the full manuscript when I pulled the plug.

I pulled it because in those four months from January to May 2012, while I was revising NESP yet again, self-publishing/indie publishing surged from nascent trend to mainstream. “What can traditional publishing houses offer?” became a serious question. Compared to, Barnes and Noble, and Apple’s iBookstore, which let the author keep 65–70% of royalties on e-books—and even CreateSpace, where the author’s royalties are closer to 25–30% (4% on Expanded Distribution sales)—traditional publishing royalties combined with agents’ fees don’t look like much of a deal.

Of course, it’s not quite that simple, as I’ve explained in other posts. Self-publishing has costs, either in quality or for outside help. It demands skills that most authors don’t have. Publicity and marketing are the biggest bugbear. If you can’t get the word out, or you get it out by giving the book away for free, or the book isn’t up to snuff, high royalty rates don’t do you much good. Nor does the royalty system always work the way you might expect (see this post). Even so, the freedom to publish is a minor miracle. And as the months went by from January to May, the agent rejections came in (or no message arrived at all), and Diana’s self-published book sold, the prospect of self-publishing became more appealing. I decided to start with The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel and use it as a test case to see how the process worked.

From the beginning, quality mattered to me. I had ported NESP into Storyist, which exported ePub and Kindle files directly. As a result, creating an e-book was not a problem, although I later ran all my e-files through Folium Book Studio, because it gave me greater control and allowed me to purchase a low-cost ISBN for the electronic edition. Print didn’t scare me either: for the last 20 years, I’ve made my living copy editing and typesetting, and novels are the simplest thing in the world to typeset if you have the right software. Cover design was a rather more daunting prospect, but I had always known how I wanted the cover for NESP to look, so once I traversed the learning curve (especially the copyright issues), that worked out fine, too.

But I did want company on the journey. And the one thing that bothered me about self-publishing was the absence of gatekeepers. I have read quite a few self-published books that equal anything issued by traditional publishing houses. For every one of those, however, I’ve encountered half a dozen that, to be frank, could have used another few rounds of revision or editing or just someone to read the book for typos before it went to press. Don’t even get me started on book design, which has little relevance for e-books but is vital for print (on that topic, see “The Beauty of Books”).

Those concerns led to my biggest venture of 2012, the formation of Five Directions Press. I proposed it to my writers’ group in the spring, and they liked the idea. That was when I pulled Lynx from the agent, because it made little sense to start a press, only to hobble it by sending my best manuscript through another publisher. We spent a month or two working out the details and creating a website, and in June 2012 The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel appeared. Diana agreed to shift Battle Hymn to Five Directions Press in return for me typesetting her manuscript, and we reissued that book around Labor Day. Less than two weeks later, The Golden Lynx hit the virtual bookshelves, and the rest of my year has been spent trying to get the word out through various channels: giveaways, social networks, talks, person-to-person e-mails, interviews, and, above all, this blog. So far, sales have been slow but steady. I’ve sold more than 100 books—nowhere near J.K. Rowling territory but 100 more than this time last year. And because I indie-published, my books will remain in print while they build an audience, which I hope will expand in 2013.

But 2013 is for next week’s post. Check back to find out what I anticipate in “Ghosts of Christmas Future.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Both Sides of the Author Interview

Despite my technological challenges, I did succeed in re-recording (and not mucking up) my interview with Karen Engelmann about her novel The Stockholm Octavo, its origins, its themes, the importance of folding fans and cartomancy, the French and (stillborn) Swedish revolutions, and much more. You can find the results at New Books in Historical Fiction. You already know that I think her book is spectacular, but you should also know that she speaks very well. She’s informative and focused, and it was a joy to interview her.

Here is the short description of The Stockholm Octavo that I wrote for NBHF:

The Stockholm Octavo
by C. P. LESLEY on DECEMBER 20, 2012

It’s 1789, and despite the troubles in France, Emil Larsson, a sekretaire in the Customs Office in Stockholm, has life pretty much where he wants it. His job brings him lucrative under-the-table deals with pirates, smugglers, and innkeepers—not to mention a dashing red cape that appeals to the ladies—and he has managed to parlay his skill as a gambler into a partnership with the mysterious Mrs. Sparrow, owner of a prestigious private club dedicated to games of chance.

But when the head of the Customs Office announces that every sekretaire must marry if he wishes to keep his post, Emil sees his carefree existence slipping away. Mrs. Sparrow offers to help by casting an octavo—a set of eight predictive cards representing key figures whom Emil must identify and manipulate to achieve his predicted future of love and connection. As Emil moves about the Town (Stockholm), every encounter assumes new meaning. Is this his Prisoner? His Key? His Courier?

We don’t know, and neither does he. But as Emil’s quest continues, the stakes rise. The situation in France deteriorates; and the future of the Swedish monarchy and its king, Gustav III, increasingly hinges on Emil’s ability to decipher his octavo and influence the contest between Mrs. Sparrow and the fascinating Uzanne—mistress of the fan, foe of the king, and the person most likely to prevent Emil from attaining his goals.

Fans of historical mystery and political intrigue will love Karen Engelmann’s “irresistible cipher between two covers—an atmospheric tale of many rogues and a few innocents gambling on politics and romance in the cold, cruel north”—as Susann Cokal characterizes The Stockholm Octavo (ecco Books, 2012) in the New York Times Book Review (December 9, 2012).

The link to subscribe to this and future podcasts in New Books in Historical Fiction via iTunes now works, as does the RSS feed subscription. And like us on Facebook to get updates there, too. We don’t yet have an independent presence on Twitter, but following the New Books Network will pick up our posts.

Interviewing Karen was a lot of fun, but I also participated in an author interview as the author this week. Diane Vanaskie Mulligan, the talented YA author of Watch Me Disappear, has been interviewing indie authors on her blog. These are written interviews, not podcasts. You can find mine at this address, but also check out the other entries and Diane’s own book. I can vouch for its being very well written!

I wish you all a wonderful holiday season as I get ready to celebrate Christmas with my family (and make as much progress as possible on The Winged Horse during my lovely eleven days off). I’m not going away; I will probably post next Friday, but family comes first.

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, and Season's Greetings to all, whatever celebration you choose!

Friday, December 14, 2012

Less Than Perfect

If you had asked me just yesterday, I would have sworn that I had a healthy respect for my own limitations. I copy edit and typeset for a living, and I've learned the hard way that no matter how diligently I read proofs, somehow, somewhere, an error will slip through. Big errors, small errors, errors I can't believe I missed: there's always something. As my (work) publisher once put it, “Nothing clarifies the mind [making it possible to see mistakes] like the knowledge it's too late to change things.”

As if editing were not enough, my relaxation method of choice is classical ballet. I took class as a small child and went back to it only in my late twenties. As a result, I have no illusions that I will ever dance well. For a long time, I continued to get better, and that kept me going. But classical ballet is an unforgiving discipline: even the best dancers strive in vain to achieve perfection; and in time, the body rebels. The knowledge remains, but the ability to attain the goal slowly declines.

My other hobby, writing fiction, also came to me in midlife and required long years of beating my head against a wall trying to improve without fully understanding what improvement required. I've heard it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master any skill, and I have the experience to prove it: ten years of ballet to go from klutz to not-so-awful; ten years of fiction writing before I hit my stride. The editing is harder to measure, because I'm not sure exactly when I went from newbie to pro, but I've been comfortable with it for at least half of my almost two decades on the job.

So why I thought I could conquer the mysteries of audio capture software in a couple of interviews escapes me. Even so, when I finished an absolutely wonderful conversation with Karen Engelmann, author of The Stockholm Octavo—which I highly recommend (as do the New York Times Book Review and the Indie Book Awards, among others)—only to discover that for reasons that remain cloudy the software had captured my voice but not hers, I was livid. I don't mean quiet, ladylike annoyed. I mean pounding on the floor, take a drive in the car so I could scream without upsetting Sir Percy and the cats infuriated. Such a wonderful conversation! Such a great interview! And no one would ever hear it except me.

I'm sure that whatever the problem was, it came about through user error. Yes, it seems absurd to me, a regular person, that after I told the software program to call up Skype and record what it heard, its default position caused it to save only what came in through the microphone and not the person at the other end of the call. But if I had a better sense of what I was doing, I could have recognized the problem and fixed it before I wasted 45 minutes of Karen's time. Alas, that didn't happen.

The good news is that she's still talking to me. If I practice over the weekend, I should have a new interview up at New Books in Historical Fiction by the end of next week. Julian Berengaut gets a few more days in the sun, which he surely earned by agreeing to be my first interviewee. And I have learned that lesson, so I am one step closer to podcast mastery. But while you're waiting for the new interview, do seek out and buy Karen's book. It deserves a place on the bookshelves of everyone who loves historical intrigue. It’s not only a great story but a beautiful book (on which, see my earlier post, “The Beauty of Books”)

As I finish this post, the horrific news about the school shooting in Connecticut has come over the air, which exposes my petty concerns and irritations for the trivia they are. My heart goes out to those affected, especially the children. Peace and love to all in this season of goodwill!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Potlatch and Publishing

When Does It Make Sense to Give Books Away?

As luck would have it, I am about one-quarter of the way through Kristin Gleeson’s Selkie Dreams as I sit down to type this post. It’s a novel about an Irishwoman, Máire McNair, who escapes her dreary Protestant father and his plans to marry her off to the man of his dreams by signing up as a missionary to the Tlingit in late nineteenth-century Alaska. A historical romance, which I like, and an unusual setting, which I also like. I’m hoping that Máire will settle down with one of the Tlingit, a young man educated by the missionaries who has reverted to his native culture. (Selkies, for those who don’t know, are Celtic seal spirits who can take human form but must always, eventually, return to the ocean and their own kind. Máire believes her mother to have been one.)

I mention the book here not only because it’s worth the read if you like historical romance but because one of the Tlingit customs that particularly upsets the missionaries is the potlatch, in which people vie to give away cherished possessions—a custom that strikes the missionaries, for whatever reason, as sublimely uncivilized. 

Tlingit Dancers at a Potlatch, 1898
Courtesy of the University of Washington Digital Collections


Now customs are customs, and I’m no Victorian capitalist missionary to judge the ways of the Tlingit. But I do find it odd that the world of indie publishing seems to be caught up in its own kind of potlatch, in which authors who have spent years of their lives crafting a work of fiction vie for the right to offer it to the public free of charge in the hope of boosting sales.

Now, if someone tells me s/he has such plans, I keep my mouth shut unless the writer asks for my opinion, and few do. But as a marketing strategy, the logic of this behavior has always escaped me. Yes, I understand about loss leaders and giving the razors away for next-to-nothing to drive sales of razor blades. I know that search algorithms use brute numbers in calculating which results to list first, and since a large part of selling a new book by a first-time author is letting the public know that the book exists (not to mention differentiating it from the zillion other books being produced at the same time), hitting the top of these lists has value. But it still seems to me that the strategy of giving a book away for a period of time pays off best for writers who have other—preferably several other—titles already written and available for purchase. In that case, when the person trawling for free downloads clicks on one book and likes it, the person may be persuaded to pay cash for other books by the same author—right then, right there. Otherwise, the thousand people who download a book for free will seldom pay to buy that book—why should they?—and by the time the next book rolls around, they will have gone on to other authors. The author of one book may gain in popularity and search results, but it's not clear that s/he actually sells more books.

For that reason, even though I now have two novels in print, I had pretty much decided not to make my books available for free until I had at least a couple more titles out the door. Instead, I've sought other ways to publicize my books, counting on word of mouth, the building of relationships through social networks, and my role as the host of New Books in Historical Fiction to produce a slow but, one hopes, steady improvement in sales. I also set the prices at a level I could sustain over time or, if the occasion seemed to warrant it, reduce without forfeiting all profit from my work.

Nevertheless, as you can see from the widget at the top right corner of my blog, I have decided to participate in a GoodReads giveaway. Between now and December 31, GoodReads members in the US, the UK, and Canada can sign up to win one of two signed copies of The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel.

Is this a contradiction? I don’t think so. For one thing, I’m well aware of my own limitations when it comes to marketing. The argument I sketched out above could be completely wrong—ill suited to the new ways of doing business. I won’t know unless I test the waters, and a GoodReads giveaway is a pretty safe test. I myself am curious to see what happens.

What has happened so far is that the number of people listing The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel as “to-read” has quintupled in the last 72 hours. This clearly results from the giveaway, because the numbers for The Golden Lynx haven’t budged. Sales also haven’t budged, but that’s hardly surprising: people who have signed up to win something cannot be expected to buy the product before the giveaway ends.

But the big questions remain. Will the giveaway increase sales, or will the people who don’t win just sign up for the next giveaway by another author? If people do read The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel and like it, will they then buy The Golden Lynx? If neither of those things happen, will the giveaway raise my profile or increase traffic to my blog or assist my attempts at marketing in some other way?

Stay tuned for the answers!