Category Archives: Traditional Publishing

End of Amateur Hour?

Back in the days of yore otherwise known as 2011 the self publishing thing was still basically only getting off the ground (yes I’m ignoring pre ebook vanity publishing) and I had no way of knowing whether The Nameless War would be a success. Splashing out on cover art using money I didn’t really have spare didn’t seem like a great idea. So when I launched the Nameless War, the cover art was among the tasks I decided to tackle myself. I’ve upgraded a couple of times since then but if we are to be brutally honest, my best efforts come out at passable. Back in 2011 however that was enough. Every so often I peruse through the Amazon categories that are relevant to my books to see what’s popular and I’ve noticed that the quality of cover art has improved. Yes, there are still some god-awful covers on books that based on their position in the Amazon charts still sell but they seem to becoming an ever shrinking minority.

I’ve been saying to friends and family for a while that my current WIP (which is probably about a year away from release) so going to be getting a professionally designed cover but what about my older works? Well at the moment I’m currently investigating the possibilities of commissioning an artist who’s work I find attractive. One of the questions however is whether such as investment on my older works worth it at this stage of their life? The answer I’m edging towards is yes on a number of grounds. Unlike paper books, ebooks can remain available indefinitely. Even though we’re still in the early days of ebooks, it isn’t hard to imagine that a title published today could continue to earn for decades, even if annual sales are small a revenue stream is still a revenue stream. Certainly there is going to be a balancing act between spending enough to keep the title attractive to potential buyers and spending more than the title will every pay back.

The other reason I believe is that we have reached the end of line for the amateur looking works. I don’t mean an end to self publishing, much as some in the publishing industry would wish otherwise that’s here to stay. No what I mean is that works produced by individuals like myself – part-time, self published writers, can no longer expect to prosper unless our products can match the production qualities of traditionally published works. A book can be written by an amateur, but it can not look amateurish. In some respects this is a new barrier to entry but it one that comes from demands of the book buying public as opposed to any kind of artificial construction.

 

I suppose on a side note this is the reply to those* who a few years ago were predicting that self publishing would drown literature in a wave of rubbish.

 

* A self serving few in my experience.

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Writing for a living

Over the weekend I attended a house warming barbeque and I got talking to cousin I haven’t spoken to in a while. They were telling me about an in-law who has recently moved back to Ireland and has yet to get a job and start supporting themselves. One of their alternatives to employment my cousin told me, was to instead write a book. I was not supportive. In fact I was even less supportive of the idea than my cousin is.

Hard information on how the average writer does in financial terms from their work is hard to come by. Based on the occasional article I’ve read and other anecdotal information, I believe this is where I fall on the old bell curve.

Bell curve

I published my first work in July of 2011 and since then I have sold a combined total of twenty seven and a half thousand copies. Of this twelve and a half thousand are the Nameless War, a little under eight thousand the Landfall Campaign, five and a half the Last Charge, with the balance covered by the Job Offer novella and the two tech manuals. What has this amount to financially? Well in three years after expenses and taxes I’ve made about the equivalent of one year of the take home pay from my day job. As a supplement, that’s really good. As an actual primary income, not so good.

In fact the situation is worse than that. The Last Charge was about my most efficient book; it took two years and about a thousand man hours to get it from the first word to the finished product. I have no idea how many man hours the Nameless War took but to say many, many thousands is probably no word of a lie. Of course all the expenses from living costs, editing, cover art, etc are all front loaded. You will have to pay these out months or years before you can hope to see a penny come back.

Okay but that’s self publishing, what about traditional publishing? I have never gone down the traditionally published road so what follows is deeply anecdotal.

Assuming you’re first time writer, based on what I’ve read, advances on a first book are likely at best single digit thousands, with little likelihood that there will be anything beyond that*. This is to be expected, there aren’t many lines of work out there where you immediately walk into the top job, you have to prove yourself and writing is no different. Also once again even with traditional publishing, that first book is going to have to be written before you approach a publisher, so you’re front loading the living costs while you write.

Does this mean I’m saying you shouldn’t even try? No, definitely not. What I am saying is that even you’re a really good writer with a compelling story to tell, writing is difficult way to earn money and if you get to the point where you earn minimum wage through writing, you are doing very well. Certainly for several years something else is going to have to meet the bills. It is worth remembering that even the boys and girls who’ve made it big in publishing were often several books in before they started to see major money.

So in conclusion writing as a means of earning a living. Possible? Yes. Easy? No. Fast? Definitely no.

 

 

* If any readers can offer better information I would certainly welcome hearing from you.

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Amateur or Professional?

As previously mentioned last weekend I was at Shamrokon – the Eurocon for 2014, which saw my debut as a convention panelist and something else I might be mentioning at a later time. But what I’d like to talk about the question of when does the amateur become professional?

To date in a little under three years the combined sales of my three titles are over fifteen thousand copies. It is always hard to get any serious data on what constitutes average sales. There was a report in the media a year or more back that suggested that the average self-publisher makes less than $500 from their books, which assuming it was true then or now, would put me well on the far side of that particular bell curve.

I’ve always referred to myself as an amateur writer but over the course of the con I got into conversation with a number of other creators, who felt that the word isn’t one that I should really be applying to myself. The argument was put that once being paid, a writer should call themselves a professional.

Before going any further let me to introduce the accountancy concept of materiality. It tends to be a big deal especially in auditing work, but basically it means at what point does a sum of money or figure matter or become material? For example ten thousand euros/dollars/pounds would likely be a material amount for an individual or small business but not so much for the Microsoft corporation.

Why do I mention this? Well my definition of professional writer has been: where writing represents the individual’s primary revenue stream – or in other words it is where they get most of their money. Clinical but it does get us to why call myself an amateur – my day job is the one that pays my bills, the writing income is a supplement.

Still, I do know writers who have number of titles to their name – through traditional publishing – who still have day jobs because that is what is necessary to bring in the necessary funds. But because it has gone through traditional publishing, no one would question their credentials as professional authors. Self publishing doesn’t have quite such a clear line and for my tastes as-soon-as-being-paid fails the test of materiality. Ten sales doesn’t make you a professional, nor does a fifty but a hundred thousand does. Where is the line? I’m not sure but think I am a bit close to it than ever expected.

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Writer Beware

A celebrated children’s author-turned-publisher has left the country, with a trail of unpaid debts and angry authors in her wake.

It started so promisingly and ended so horribly. Twenty months ago Jill Marshall was a local hero, albeit an adopted one. In 2011, Next magazine chose her as its Woman of the Year (arts and culture), an honour still listed on her profile on internet site LinkedIn.

Marshall is now back in England, having left behind a posse of irate and disillusioned authors, a trail of debt and no forwarding address. A “desperately-seeking-Jill” message by one of the authors on Marshall’s Facebook page has gone unanswered, attempts to contact her by email and via the two vice-presidents appointed to her company have proved equally fruitless…

The above quote is take from the New Zealand Herald and the full article can be found here. Now I’ve talked quite a bit about self publishing and traditional publishing but now I’d like to say a word about publishing in general.

For the would be writer I believe we have entered a golden age. With the advent of e-publishing the writer has never had more potential routes to the book buying public. But while there are readers out there, there are also sharks. The vanity press industry has of course a long and inglorious history and somewhat inexplicably still exists. But they aren’t the only ones a writer should beware of.

In the case of the article at the top I would guess1) that the individual in question went in with honest intentions but found herself in over her head. What can be taken from that is that someone can be honest but that doesn’t make them competent.

So what I my watch out for points? Well…

1) Money. Lets start with the sordid one. If a ‘publisher’ can make money without you making money, that’s not a warning sign, it’s all the reason you should need to walk away2).

2) Know what level you’re aiming for and develop the necessary skills. Self publishing mean developing certain computer skills3). Traditional publishing means entering into business relationships4). Either way do the research to know what you’re getting into – do not assume it-will-be-all-right-on-the-night.

3) Research anyone/organization you deal with. There are plenty of places on the net where other writers will have reported the dishonest and inept. Find them.

At the end of the day if you have written a book, then what you have is probably the fruits of several years of effort. You have likely poured yourself into it and regardless to what it is, how good it is or how you would like to put it out to the world you are proud of it. Don’t you want to stay proud? You don’t want in a few years time to be looking back on it with anger and bitterness because you or someone else screwed it up.

So take a step back, engage what in the world of accountancy is called Professional Scepticism to take a cold hard look at your options, then proceed.

Regards

 

1) Emphasis on the word ‘guess’

2) Obviously there are a couple of qualifiers to that statement. If you self pub editors and cover designers are going to be paid before you make anything. But the point is these individuals offer only one service. Anyone calling themselves a publisher is in theory offering the full range of services needed to bring the book to market. If they’re looking for you to pony up cash… well then you’re effectively taking all the financial risks of self publishing without the potential rewards or put more succinctly – a sucker.

3) Which are surprisingly limited. I am not a computer expert and my first port of call when the computer acts up is to swear at it. After that I generally muddle through.

4) It is especially important that once contracts are mentioned you damn well read it. If it is over your head get someone with the necessary know-how and training to read it. Sign without knowing what you’re signing is just asking to be ripped off.

The Nameless War, available on Kindle, Smashwords, Kobo and paperback.

The Landfall Campaign, available on Kindle, Kobo, Smashwords and paperback.

The Job Offer, available on Kindle Smashwords and Kobo.

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I can’t eat publicity

Something topical culled from the internet.

There’s been a lot of talk online about authors being asked or expected to do events for free, or virtually for free. So I figured I’d stick my oar in on this.

When I started out as an illustrator, I took crap jobs for crap money, because I figured it was the price of getting established. And it was. There was no back-up or support for illustrators, particularly in Ireland. You were on your own. I sometimes took even crapper money for good jobs, just to get those jobs to have in the portfolio. I don’t do that any more, because I’ve been at this malarky for a long time now, and I expect to be treated like a professional.

But one of the most valuable lessons I learned was that I had to sell myself as a tradesman. If you wanted my work, you had to pay me an hourly rate. If you wanted ideas, I would charge you for the amount of time I figured I could put into coming up with that idea, and what it was worth to you.

As I did when I was an illustrator, I took on a lot of badly paid events, and free stuff and daft stuff, because I considered these the price of learning the ropes, getting established and getting publicity for my books. Most authors – particularly children’s authors – start off the same way

And while events are an essential part of getting publicity, if we were to do it for just the publicity, there would be almost no full-time writers, and therefore no one available to do these events, and certainly to do them to the standard that people can expect today.Let’s say you run a festival, and you want a writer to do it for free – for the publicity. Let’s say they’re a typical mid-level, full-time author, so you’re confident you can get an audience for them: maybe fifty people. You could maybe get more in than that, but you don’t want to hire a bigger hall, in case you can’t fill it. Let’s be really generous – to keep the numbers simple – and say that the author gets one euro for every book that sells for ten euros (they often don’t) as a result of that session. If every single person in that audience bought a book, that author would get fifty quid for travelling to your event, and performing for an hour with skills and experience that take years to develop. Does that sound reasonable to you?

All the various people and organizations who build their businesses around books expect to get paid for the work they do, but it’s astonishing that writers, and to a lesser extent, illustrators, whose work is the foundation of these businesses, are expected to give their time for free, in return for royalties they may eventually earn after every other person involved in the sales chain – most of whom are employed full-time – has been paid first.Do you work for a company or organization? Would you be willing to travel to another town or county to work for free, in the hope that you might get paid a little more somewhere down the line in return for this work . . .

And if you’re running a big, prestigious festival that can draw audiences because it has a powerful brand, and you think you can offer little or no fee on the basis that an author should be grateful they’ve been invited, then bear in mind we’re all talking to each other a lot more these days. Word gets around fast. And the problem with brands is that once a company’s brand becomes tainted, everything they do and everything they’re associated with becomes tainted too.

If you want people to bring their time and expertise to events you intend to hold, and you are counting on those people to attract audiences and make your events a success, you can’t expect them to come for free. We’re professionals. And professionals get paid.

The full post can be found here, I’ve met Oisin Mc Gann at a couple of the small conventions here in Dublin and he is an informative speaker.  Myself  I’ve never been asked to speak at event; since I am pretty small time and content to be an amateur writer this isn’t surprising. Still what I would take from Oisin is that a writer (or anyone creating with the aim to sell) has to grasp sooner or later is that it is a business. Sure not everything is about the pursuit of the mighty Dollar/Pound/Euro/Insert-Name- of-Reasonably-Hard-Currency-Here but unless independently wealthy, an average standard of living requires a certain amount of cold hard cash each year.

We can loop this back to what I said about linking to Amazon, that reaching out to a small geographically limited group is probably never going to pay its way even if the event is in the writers hometown and expenses are minimal. If further a-field then travel and accommodation are factored in so then the average writer will have to sell a significant number of books just to break-even on a single event. At the end of the day publicity might be nice but no one can pay next months credit card bill with it.

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Branding, Oblivion and Big Breaks

As you many have heard the  big news in writing in the last week is that male debut writer Robert Galbraith has been… lets say outed as the female and decidedly not debut writer J.K. Rowling. The full story can be found on BBC and I recommend you read it.

It’s an interesting story because it does show fairly graphically the problems faced by a new author and the power of branding. Depending on which source you read, in the time between launch in April and the Outing the book had sold somewhere between five or fifteen hundred copies in I believe hardback. Which, lets be honest is not that impressive a number. Even if we assume the writer got a pound for every copy sold (which she certainly did not) that’s not going to yield anything close to a living wage, especially if we consider that under the old school book-are-sold-in-bookshops model that a titles first few months are the make or break. After that it it will be sent back to make room for the next new release. Even in the new world of electronic publishing as I have experienced it, the first couple of months are the best you’re ever going to get for title.

It’s worth dwelling on the following facts.

  1. This book was written by someone who can clearly string words together.
  2. But stripped of the ‘Big Name’ was turned down by at least one editor and probably others (doubt many will admit to it though)
  3. This is a book which has made it past the Gatekeepers.
  4. So by conventional publishing logical that means it is ‘good’
  5. It has received all the support traditional publishing can offer in terms of editing, cover art, etc
  6. Has received good reviews from fellow writers in the genre
  7. Still hasn’t sold very well
  8. At least not until ‘The Big Name’ is revealed.

Probably more by accident than design J.K. Rowling has offered us a really interesting live demonstration on the limitations of traditional publishing and the power of a writers Brand. Traditional publishing could sell very few Robert Galbraith books, J.K. Rowling on the strength of her name alone could sell them by the shed load.

 

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Exactly zero reasons to link to Amazon (unless you live in the real world)

A few days ago a post went up on the Booksellers website berating writers for putting links to their books on Amazon. It was followed a few days later by another on the Melville site going by the catchy title ‘There are exactly zero defensible reasons for authors to link to Amazon’; there are links to both articles at the bottom of this post, be advised in both cases the tone is aggressive. The gist of each post is that authors should seek to support their local book – indeed that they have a duty to.

Now I will clear, I like bookshops, I like wandering around them, I like buying books and I have a home where books are colonizing most flat surfaces. My books however, have never been sold in any of Dublin’s bookshops. They were briefly sold in a hobby shop owned by an acquaintance of mine but didn’t sell fast enough for me to feel it was an experiment worth repeating. I have never approached any of the city’s book shops because I don’t believe it is worth my time. The nature of self publishing and print on demand would make it a bit problematic but even were I traditionally published I doubt it would make much difference.

One of the accounting and economic concepts that can be applied to the business writing is that of Opportunity Cost.  It is basically the idea that all resources are limited and a resource spent in one way can not then be spent another. I’m pretty sure I’ve made this point before, a writer is a small businessman/woman. They have to be business like. Which is where these proposals come unstuck.

I am based in Dublin, Ireland. The majority of my readers are in the UK but I have also that I know of, had sales in the USA, Romania, Brazil and New Zealand – which is about as far away from me as you can get without leaving planet Earth. A link to Amazon offers the casual visitor from almost anywhere in the world a chance to purchase my books. A link to a Dublin bookshop offer a chance to buy in one tiny little piece of the world. In essence these proposals are asking writers to make their own financial interests subordinate to that of the book shops, which is not realistic. So in short if independent book shops wish writers to engage with them they need to remember this is a business – writers can and must be business like. There is no debt owed, only however much or little independent book shops can do for us. If the independent book shops wish writers to engage with them, then they have to  give those writers a good solid reasons for doing so.

Bookseller

Melville House

The Nameless War, available on Kindle, Smashwords, Kobo and paperback.

The Landfall Campaign, available on Kindle, Kobo, Smashwords and paperback.

The Job Offer, currently only available on Kindle.

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