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 Amazon.com, 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.


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