Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Hybrid Authors and Publishers

Listen to the companion podcast episode.

"Hybrid" is a term that's been bandied about a great deal of late. I can be used to describe a type of author strategy or a type of publisher, but it's also being used by vanity publishers to mislead authors.
Let's take a look.

Hybrid Author

An author who is published by a "Big 5" or otherwise large publishing house, but also self-publishes.

  • In this arrangement, the author sacrifices royalties per-book, hoping to gain a presence in bookstores and capitalizeson the visibility and established audience provided by the large publishing house to drive indie sales.
  • Often, the the reality is that the traditional publisher offers very little and the indie author is living off of indie publishing, and the indie career actually boosts trad-pub sales.
  • Contract terms, especially with Big 5 companies, can be problematic. If you're a successful indie, think long and hard before accepting a publishing contract that includes a restrictive non-compete clause.

Some consider any author who both self-publishes and is published by someone else to be a hybrid author.
  • The strategy is the same as above: sacrifice a share of royalties in hopes of reaching that publisher's audience, perhaps reaching bookstores, and gaining some visibility.

Hybrid Publisher

A "hybrid publisher" charges the author money up-front in exchange for providing the services that a publishing house provides. (Editing, formatting, cover design, distribution.)Typically, the "hybrid publisher" will also take a cut of the author's sales for the life of the contract, but will argue that the author's percentage is much higher than a standard royalty. The company will often refer to this arrangement as "partnership publishing."

  • Curated hybrid publishing. Some companies (if they can be believed) won't make an offer just any book, but will select titles they find worthy. Of course, they still charge the author for publishing services and there's no way of knowing if the company truly believes in the book or if that's simply a tactic to persuade the author to go with their company.

  • Crowd-funded publishing. Some publishers require that the author crowdfund enough money to cover publication costs before the company will publish the author's book.

  • Assisted self-publishing. Some companies will publish any book as long as the author pays them to do so. They might have a flat fee or they might offer a-la-carte services, so that the author can do some of the work a publisher would normally do and pay the publisher to complete other publishing tasks.
  •  Literary agencies with self-publishing arms. Some agencies, including some reputable ones, offer their clients the option of assisted publishing through the agency for manuscripts they've been unable to place. Also, some publishing companies, usually indie presses, offer pay-to-publish services in addition to a typical publishing arrangement.

What is not a hybrid publisher?

  • Services that get your book into distribution channels are not hybrid publishers. (Kindle, Kobo, Draft2Digital, Createspace, Ingram Spark, Nook, Smashwords...)
  • While most of these services do not require any upfront fees, companies like Lightning Source and Ingram Spark do charge setup fees to get your book into your system. 
  • In some instances, a publisher (usually a small press) might allow you to provide your own cover art if what you want exceeds their budget. It's a judgment call as to whether or not this is acceptable to the author, but I would not consider it "hybrid" as the publisher does have some budget for cover art and does not mandate that the author provide/pay for it.

Warning signs of a "bad' hybrid publisher
In general, I discourage hybrid publishing for reasons I will discuss later. The reality is, many "hybrid publishers" are the same old pay-to-publish vanity presses who have been out there for years. Some things to watch out for:

  • The company defends the amount it charges by citing the "high price of self-publishing." Just today I read a post in which the company defends its prices by quoting someone in the industry who claims self-publishing "should" cost between £1500 to £5000 (roughly $2,000 to $6,500). This is garbage. According to the $100,000 author survey, the majority of authors earning $100,000 or more a year are paying $50-$250 for a book cover and $250-$500 for editing, plus, in some cases, a modest amount for formatting.  If a company cites the high cost of self-publishing, proceed with caution.
  • The company doesn't advertise, or considers Facebook posts and blog/website posts to be "advertising." I run Gryphonwood/Adrenaline Press. We're very small and don't have a large budget for advertising, but my authors get paid advertising: AMS ads, Facebook ads, discount ads promoted on sites like Book Barbarian, Freebooksy, etc... 

  • The company uses paid advertising to recruit new authors, but not to sell books. This is evidence that the company is making its money by selling services, not books.

  • Bad publishing practices. Take a look at the company's books on a site like Amazon. What's the quality of the cover art? Use the 'Search Inside' feature. How does the interior formatting look? Is it well edited? How about the book's pricing, especially the ebook? Is it priced to sell in accordance with current indie pricing trends, or did the company set a high price in hopes to make a few bucks off of friends and family before the book sinks into oblivion?
  •  Their books don't sell well. Check the sales rankings on Amazon. Is the company offering the added value that a publisher should? If sales rankings are poor, it's another sign that the company makes its money by selling services, not selling books.
  • The company sells hope. A company might offer pie-in-the-sky projections of your sales figures as a way of demonstrating that it's worthwhile to pay them to publish you. The problem here is obvious. If they truly believed your book would sell that many copies, they wouldn't charge you upfront.

  • The company takes a defensive or condescending tone when discussing its business practices.I've seen this many times, sometimes on the company's own site or blog, other times when the company seeks out critical articles and responds.

  • The company hides its prices or makes them difficult to find. Last year, I became aware of a pay-to-publish company charging prices that made even my jaw drop, and I'm a cynic who's seen lots of ripoff vanity presses. I (and probably others) reported this company to Writer Beware, who proceeded to share information about the company in question. An author with a huge internet presence also discussed it, setting off a firestorm. By the next day, the company had removed their prices from their site, and replaced it with a contact form.

  • Exorbitant Prices. Take a look at the prices the company is charging for publishing. Do they align with what indie authors are paying? Check the services forum at Kboards. Do your research. Find out what it would really cost to do the things you can't or don't want to do.
  • Watch out for "Hybrid publishers" giving advice on hybrid publishing. While researching this post, I discovered that a lot of the top search results come from these very same companies.

My Take

In general, I love the Hybrid Author model but don't care for the Hybrid Publisher model. A few thoughts:

  • If you're going to pay to be published, learn the ropes, find professionals to do the work you can or don't want to do, and keep all your royalties.
  • If a publisher truly believes your book has sales potential, that publisher will cover the costs of publishing. I'm skeptical when a publisher says, "We believe in you, but give us some money just in case."
  • I don't care for crowd-funded publishing. If you can crowd fund your book, publish it yourself.
  • Literary agents operating as publishers can be great or it can be problematic. I've seen some terrible books published by agencies. Also, it's a potential conflict of interest. 
  • Ultimately, if you don't have the requisite indie spirit needed for self-publishing, I recommend seeking out a publishing company. If not the Big 5, a reputable small press.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Is it Censorship?

Listen to the podcast episode

The subject of censorship has been on my mind today, particularly as it relates to publishing and creative endeavors. The items that prompted this are:

1.  Outcry demanding that a publisher pull a book that examines racial and societal inequalities through a fantasy setting.
  • The book in question is a fantasy novel centering on a character who grew up in a stratified society, which includes many fantasy races
  • Outcry against the book began before it had been published, and was picked up by many who admitted they had never read the book.
  • Criticism generally centered around two issues:
    • Out-of-context quotes of horrible characters saying horrible things.
    • The question of whether or not a writer from a certain demographic has the right to write about certain topics.

2. Retailers pulling down a "taboo" book (I won't link to it for various reasons.)
  • This book was a "taboo erotica" title filled with incest, including parent with underage child, and rape.
  • When Amazon pulled the book the author actually used that as part of her marketing.
  • Various retailers eventually pulled the book until, as far as I know, no one sells it.
  • Ultimately, the book violated TOS, which is why it was pulled.
  •  Many supported the author's right to write "taboo" subject matter while others attacked the writer personally.
3. Criticism of a forthcoming alternate history show that hasn't even been written yet.
  • The show is set in an alternate timeline in which the Civil War ended in a stalemate, slavery was preserved and has evolved into a modern institution. The show will cover events leading to another Civil War.
  • Some criticism revolved around the subject matter, opining that modern slavery should not be represented at all, given the race-related problems that pervade our society.
  • Anger over white writers writing about slavery (despite the fact that half the creative team are black.)
  • Critics seem to either be unaware of or don't have a problem with the myriad works of alternate history in fiction, especially those covering the same or similar subject matter.

Questions that Arise

What qualifies as censorship?
Inevitably, the question of censorship arises. Some argue that none of what is described above is censorship because it does not constitute a legal ban on the creation of the various works describe above.

What is censorship? It depends on your definition. One such I found:

Censorship- The suppression or prohibition of any parts of books, films, news, etc. that are considered obscene, politically unacceptable, or a threat to security.

A ban on certain creative works would fall under "prohibition," but what about "suppression"? When vendors refuse to sell a product, is that a form of suppression? When a publisher pulls a book without returning the publishing rights, is that suppression? When people make a concerted effort to have a book or show pulled, are they actively supporting suppression? If so, then that qualifies as a form of censorship.

Do we truly believe in free speech?
Growing up, the oft-heard mantra was, "I disagree with what you say but I'll defend your right to say it." There's no question that's changed, especially with the advent of social media.

We now hear, "Your right to free speech doesn't mean you're free of the consequences that come from expressing your ideas."

In my youth, the big battles were over censorship of books, music, and movies, usually because they were deemed "obscene" or offensive to religious beliefs. In my mind, the "good guys" where those who defended the artists and said, "Let them put the work out there and let the consumer decide what (s)he wants to read, view, or listen to."

Now, with a controversy like the book Black Witch, we're seeing active attempts to prevent the publication of a book because portions are either offensive, or because the author is part of the wrong demographic.

Do all writers have the right to explore challenging subject matter?
Can/should a writer from a very different background explore issues relating to race, culture, economics?

Is it all right as long as the writer doesn't profit from the writing?

Would a writer who hails from that same socioeconomic group necessarily do a better job than the writer who is trying to write "the other"?

Is there a line between saying, "I'm not going to read that book because I don't think there's any way a [insert race] can really understand or do justice to the subject matter" and actively trying to halt publication of that book?

What do we, as writers and readers, do in response to the above?
I don't have the answers, but my instinct says:

As a writer, explore any subject matter you want, but do the very best job you can, do it respectfully, and know that some people might have a problem with what you've written, depending on the subject matter.

As a reader, it will vary from person to person, but I lean toward free expression on both sides. The publisher is free to publish, the writer is free to write, the seller is free to list, and I'm free to not purchase and to let the world know why I've made that choice.

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Working while Traveling

Listen to the podcast episode

I'm back! After a two-week trip, I'm home and sitting in front of my keyboard.

While on vacation, I did post a prerecorded podcast episode, but did not follow through with my plan to record another episode while on vacation.

I did, however, have more success on the writing front. In addition to taking care of publishing business as it arose, I did at least some writing every day. I wrote a 6,500-word story and several chapters on two works in progress. Some days I did very little, just a token 200 or so words to keep my streak alive, but I had plenty of days around 1,000 words.

A few takeaways on working while traveling:

  • I get an emotional lift from knowing that I at least did a little something every day, which allows me to enjoy my vacation more fully.
  • I don't need a vacation from my work. I love my work and seldom feel the need to take a break.
  • It takes less than ten minutes a day to write 200 words, so it's basically zero effort or commitment to do so.
  • It is possible to write when you're away from your regular work station. While on vacation, I wrote on the plane, in a moving vehicle (I wasn't driving), during commercial breaks while watching television, in a bookstore coffee shop, sitting on a bed... It was weird at first, and not my preferred way of writing, but as with most "writing blocks" it was really a matter of getting started.
  • Most of the reasons we "can't" write aren't truly "can'ts" but are "don't feel like its." Essentially procrastination and task avoidance.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Generating Interest in an Older Series

Listen to the companion podcast episode.

One of the questions I've frequently been asked is, "How can I generate interest in an older series?" It's a good question. We all want our back-list books to continue earning for us. What can we do if an older series isn't performing?

I'm going to assume you've already tried the standard advertising techniques discussed in previous posts and episodes. If not, go back and take a look at recommendations.

1. Write a new book in the series.
This one's the most obvious. New books generate interest in the older titles. Even with series that can be read in any order, many readers still prefer to read chronologically. Putting out a new book, especially if it hits some bestseller charts, should generate interest in book one, in particular.

But what if the series is complete and there's no good way to add a new book?

This is the situation that most commonly prompts the question of how to renew interest in a series. A few ideas:

2. Give the series a new look:

Redesigning the covers can be a great way to spark sales, especially if your covers look "old." I recently overhauled the look of my Dane Maddock Adventures series:

You can see the differences right away. The new covers are sharper, more eye-catching, and have a consistent design that ties them all together. (Hat tip to Kent Holloway Book Cover Design for the excellent job!)

Why does a book cover refresh make a difference? When people are clicking through Amazon or the store of their choice, their eyes slide right past the unappealing book covers. They don't stop to digest every little thing they don't like. They don't commit the author's name to memory and vow never to buy one of her/his books again. Even if your covers aren't bad, they won't be right for every reader. There are bound to be plenty of readers who would enjoy your books, but haven't paid them any mind in the past because the covers aren't to their taste.

What else can I do/ what if I can't afford a cover refresh?

3. Put book 1 free or on sale and PROMOTE it.

It's not enough to put book 1 at .99 or free. You need to get the word out. If you're going the freebie route, I've had excellent results advertising with Freebooksy.

Also consider lowering the price of book 2 to entice readers to make an impulse buy. If you have several books, consider staggering the prices: Book 1 $0, Book 2 $0.99, Book 3 $2.99...

Also, Freebooksy has a feature which allows you to promote an entire series.

But won't I lose money if I slash prices?

That depends on how many you're already selling. Do the math. Experiment. Compare results.

4. Promote the old series to your established readership.

Readers can be funny. Just because someone follows you on Facebook or subscribes to your newsletter doesn't mean (s)he has read everything you've written or even taken a look at your full catalog. There's no harm in occasionally reminding your readership that a given book or series exists. I like to do it in the form of a giveaway, either by setting the book for free, or using the coupon code feature at Smashwords.

5. Book bundles

We discussed book bundles in a previous episode. Options include:
Curate your own, working with other authors.
If you have several series of your own, offer a bundle of all the book 1s.
List your book with Bundle Rabbit in hopes of being picked up for someone else's project.
Offer a series bundle. I've found this especially effective with my Absent Gods series, particularly in audio. Bundles have the added benefit of being more likely to get picked up for a Bookbub ad.

Those are just a few ideas. I hope you find them helpful. Feel free to share your own tips.

Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Promo Week Results

Listen to the companion podcast episode

Last week I ran a special promo for Blood Codex, a book I co-authored with Alan Baxter. The promotion coincided with the release of Anubis Key, the second book in the series. I was curious to see how the combination would impact sales and promised to share the results with readers and listeners.

By way of comparison, I did a similar promo earlier in the year for Changeling, book two of my Jade Ihara series, written with Sean Ellis. While this isn't a perfect apples-to-apples comparison, I think there are enough similarities to make it worthwhile to look at the two side-by-side.

  • Both are action-adventure novels written with a co-author, and each currently has only two books in the series.
  • Each was built around a Bookbub, and in both cases I utilized some other advertising strategies.
  • Each was a $4.99 book marked down to .99.

  • The Blood Codex promo coincided with the release of another book in the series, and likely benefited from increased visibility.
  • For Blood Codex, I took advantage of a few additional advertising opportunities that either weren't available at the time or I wasn't aware of.
  • Blood Codex promo ran for a full week. Changeling ran for a shorter period of time. 
Changeling promo: 
  • Ran ads with smaller newsletters leading up to the release.
  • Ran Facebook ads.
  • Social media announcements.
  • Bookbub ad
  • Total unit sales across all platforms: 2,200
  • Oracle, book 1 in the series,  sold 383 copies that month (after selling only 41 the previous month.)
  • Sold 117 copies of the Changeling audiobook (almost all Whispersync), up from 8 the previous month.
Blood Codex promo
  • Ran ads with smaller newsletters leading up to release. (Book Adrenaline, Booksends, Bargain Booksy, Ereader News Today.)
  • No Facebook ads
  • One boosted Facebook post
  • AMS ad
  • Mentioned the sale in the same newsletter that announced the Anubis Key release 
  • Social media announcements
  • Bookbub promo
  • Bookbub  sponsored ads targeting iBooks and Nook
  • Total unit sales across all platforms: 3,591
  • I've had better Bookbub results in the past, but typically with book bundles, which tend to move more copies than single books.
  • AMS ad resulted in 23 sales, but barely paid for itself since the book is 99 cents.
  • Bookbub sponsored ads resulted in very few clicks, I suspect partly because they were targeted at smaller vendors, but mostly because I ran them at the end of the promo period, and most customers had probably already seen the book advertised that week.
  • Facebook sponsored ad had modest engagement but I'm not sure how much value I got from it.
  • I tried out Book Adrenaline, the new thriller list for Book Barbarian. Results were modest, but I still have high hopes for their future since I think Book Barbarian is a great service.
  • I think including the discount in my newsletter made a big difference. I try not to send too many newsletters, but I think I will start sending one out when I have a similar promo in the future, especially if I can coordinate it with a new release.
  • It's difficult to measure the effect the Blood Codex promo had on Anubis Key sales, but it took only four days for Anubis Key to surpass the what Blood Codex sold in its first month last year. How much of that is due to the series being more established, or the fact that Anubis Key had a preorder period, it's difficult to say, but I do believe it made a difference.
  • It took two days to get the Kindle version restored to full-price because a couple of the smaller vendors I reach through Draft 2 Digital were slow in updating the price. I generally like to make my books as widely available as possible, figuring any sale through these small channels is "found money," but if they're going to mess up my promotional strategies, they might not be worth it for what little money they bring in.
  • Starting the promo four days before the Bookbub ad made a difference in helping the book "stick" high in the rankings. Hopefully the added visibility.
  • Even if I hadn't run the Bookbub ad, the combination of smaller newsletters, AMS ads, Facebook post, and my own efforts probably accounted for several hundred sales. They might not have paid for themselves outright, but they definitely moved me up the charts. So, even if you can't get a Bookbub ad just yet, there are still opportunities out there for gaining increased visibility. 

That's all for now. Hope this has been helpful!

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Don't Be "That Guy"

Listen to the companion podcast episode.

I've seen a few things very recently that are definitely on the "don't" list for authors. I thought I'd share a few along with some discussion.

Lets start with this email to an editor after the editor politely declined the opportunity to edit the author's work for free:

So much wrong here:

  • It's not the fault of other professionals that you didn't set aside money to do what you need to do in terms of preparing your book for publication.
  • A "publishing professional" would know that people like editors, cover artists, book designers get paid for their services when those services are provided.
  • Exposure won't pay anyone's rent or mortgage, especially from work done for a beginning author who clearly has no clue.
  • Presumably, the author intends to charge for his book and earn money from his writing. Why shouldn't the others involved in the process expect the same?
  • Don't waste time trying to talk people into splitting future proceeds for your book which is going to be Yuge! (I mean, huge.) It makes you look foolish. 
  • The choice to indie publish is a risk, but it's a risk you choose to take. Others are under no obligation to take that risk with you.
  • Just because someone is foolish enough to work for free doesn't mean everyone else should, too.
  • This author is very lucky the editor chose not to share his name. The internet never forgets.
  •  If your budget is tight, start right away setting aside change, looking for corners to cut, or opportunities to make a little extra money. 

Here's something posted in a Facebook group:

Once again, we have the issue of someone looking to get something for nothing, but there's another problem here: the "trust" issue. Some authors are paranoid about people stealing their amazing book or idea, so much so that they include threats of lawsuits in cover letters to potential agents, editors, and other industry professionals. If someone is dishonest enough to steal your work, a threatening paragraph won't deter them . The only thing you'll accomplish is making yourself look like someone with whom no others would like to work.

And then there's this, which apparently transpired on Facebook, but I saw on Twitter:

I'm a believer in authors acting like adults and making their own informed decisions. If an author takes a look at this publication and thinks, "Sure, a photograph of the back cover is plenty of payment for my work," that's her or his prerogative. I would urge you however, to value your work more than that. I've been there. My first sale was a poem for $1. The next was a piece of flash fiction for $10. I wanted to "feel" like a writer. I wanted to be able to say I'd sold something, anything. But the good feeling didn't last long, and afterward I felt like a tool for making a big deal out of those sales. Some thoughts to consider:
  • Don't start at the bottom with "For the Love" or "Token Payment" markets. There's no harm in starting with markets that actually pay. Worst case, you get rejected. It's not the end of the world.
  • If you don't think your work is good enough for anything better than a publication that pays in photos of the back cover, then maybe don't put it out there. Perhaps you can come back to it later, after you've honed your skills, and improve it.
  • You won't build an audience by appearing in these sorts of publications.
  • Professional editors don't care that you've been published in this sort of market.
  • Readers definitely don't care that you've been published in some collection of which they've never heard.

Don't flog your one book over and over to the same group of people.

A few months back I joined a group dedicated to a specific subgenre. This group welcomes self-promotion, but I didn't do that right away. I noticed that this group is heavy with authors, which isn't exactly fertile ground for book sales, but I thought I might make some connections. I liked and replied to some posts, shared things I thought would be of interest, shared freebies or sales of books (other than mine) that I thought would be of interest to the group. It was a long time before I shared anything of my own, and I've only made two self-promo posts in the entire time I've been a member.

Let's contrast that with another group member. We'll call him "Bob."
  • Bob has one book. 
  • Bob's cover isn't terrible, but it definitely isn't good. 
  • Bob's product description literally tells us nothing about the plot. The first paragraph is a discussion of the classic niche into which this book fits. The second paragraph gives a sketch of the main character. It concludes with a ine from the author, praising his own work. I'm not even kidding.
  • The book itself has some issues. The formatting of the ebook is messed up. The writing is okay, but with beginner mistakes front and center.
  • Despite these issues, Bob's book is terribly overpriced.
  • Bob's book is, unsurprisingly, ranked in the millions. He hasn't sold a copy in months.

How does Bob promote his book? By coming almost every single day to this small group, a group heavy with writers, and posting a link to this same damn book, always citing (in all caps) some Amazon customer review. Bob, if no one in this book has bought your book yet (and they obviously haven't based on your ranking) they're not going to.

If you feel you positively must flog your book to other authors (not a great idea) make sure they've at least opted into your mailing list.

This is the story of a well-known, bestselling, traditionally-published author. We'll call her "Jane." Jane recently got an awesome book deal from her publisher. (Awesome for Jane! I mean that.) Apparently feeling the pressure of the healthy advance she received, Jane decided it would be a good idea to create a newsletter and add all of her professional contacts to it without their consent. Because Jane has long been an officer in a professional authors organization, she had loads of contacts with whom she had corresponded.. As you can expect, things got ugly when Jane spammed everyone in her professional network prior to the book's release.

Let's hit a few high points:
  • When Jane created her newsletter, her particular provider required that she check a box saying that all her contacts opted in to her newsletter, and were not being added without their consent. Jane lied.
  • Jane's newsletter service provider apparently gave her the boot for violation of Terms of Service, because on release day, Jane spammed us all again using a different newsletter provider.
  • Setting the spam issue aside, there were other flaws in Jane's plan.
  • Jane made no effort to make her newsletter engaging or attractive, or to even have an obvious "buy button." Instead, she wrote a lengthy letter (several paragraphs) with a hyperlink buried in the middle. 
  • Jane used the wrong strategy with her fellow authors. We generally know our genres and know who we like. We aren't going to respond to a sales pitch from our colleagues. What we might do, if we have a good relationship, is help you spread the word. If you don't mistreat us.
  • Jane could have reached out personally, preferably individually, to people within her professional network and asked for help. That would have been a lot more work, but it probably would have been more effective, and Jane would not have a reputation as a clueless spammer.

Those are just a few incidents from recent weeks. I'll do a "Stupid Author Tricks" episode some time in the future. Feel free to share things you've seen that are on the "Don't do" list.