Dodgy deals in a murky market

A few months ago, I posted my thoughts regarding the need for Literary Agents to reinvent themselves so that they may remain relevant in the context of a changing industry. Since then it seems that some ‘enterprising’ persons and/or organisations have done just this and developed a business model that looks to address increasing demand in ePublishing.

These emerging models seem quite profitable to the agents themselves, but (and it’s a very big BUT), to the financial detriment of the author. Ordinarily, agents charge a percentage of income earned by the authors they represent. They don’t charge fees to read submissions or to sign an author up. Typically, literary agents liaise with publishers on behalf of authors.  They take care of submissions, and negotiate contracts that are in the authors’ best interests. Basically, it’s the agent’s job to sell the author’s manuscript.

But that is not what this new mob of ‘literary agents’ are doing. It seems that some persons calling themselves agents are targeting authors in rather unscrupulous ways. They are charging huge (sometimes even exorbitant) upfront fees to represent authors, as well as claiming a portion of any royalties earned. And some are less than forthcoming in explaining the extent of the representation they’re offering.

Some agents do not even bother trying to get the author a publisher―for eBooks or paperbacks. They simply take on the role of distribution with the currently available eBook distributors. At best they might secure a contract with emerging ePublisher such as the new Penguin venture (discussed at length here).

Not cool!

Once you have parted with your hard-earned cash, these contracts do not involve the promotion of your eBook, but leave you locked into a contract where you lose control of the rights, sometimes for years at a time.

There are legitimate businesses who will design your eBook cover and format your manuscript for the various eReaders available. And of course, you can always do your research and engage a reputable editor to go over your manuscript before you submit or self-publish.

I’m not suggesting that authors should avoid agents. I’m just saying authors need to be aware. Do your research. Know what you can do yourself and what you need help with. And if you are unsure about anything―ask!

While the publishing industry is undergoing the technological metamorphosis it's currently experiencing, I guess it's inevitable that the rapidity of change will leave many confused about how best to establish or maintain themselves, their work and their profiles as authors. When the dust settles a bit, it will be interesting to see what we're left with. But in the meantime, just be careful about signing any contract with anyone.

There are plenty of organisations that can advise. The Australian Society of Authors has written about this very issue. And there is a great website called Editors and Predators that monitors the behaviour of agents and publishers, and keeps tabs on other matters relating to publishing for writers.

The impending changes are exciting for authors. We just need to move through them with eyes wide open.

Penguin. Playing the game or playing authors?

The journey of a self-pubbed eBook author is an arduous one. They go through the same challenges during the drafting, editing, redrafting, editing, writing, rewriting and polishing stages of developing their manuscripts as any author worth their salt. The difference lies in what happens then.

Traditionally, when an author was accepted by a publisher, the cover design, layout, formatting and promotion of the book were all taken on as part of this contract. The author might maintain their own website and even maybe write a blog, but the majority of promotional work was taken care of by the publisher (most of it by the mere use of their name).

I’ve written before about the changing nature of the publishing industry―as have many others―and I’ve expressed views about the need for publishers to adapt their game to remain relevant, so the other day when I heard that Penguin was jumping into technological relevance to be publishing eBooks of eAuthors I was overjoyed. Until I read the details.

The imprint Penguin is using for the self-pubbed author is Book Country, and by all accounts it presents reasonably well on initial examination. It’s not until you actually read through the entire process they propose that the hackles begin to rise. And I’m pretty sure you’d only recognise the issues if you’ve already experienced the eBook publishing process.

To have your eBook published by Book Country will cost you $99. And they say they will pay you 70% royalties. But that is NET royalties, which means 70% of the 30% royalty you’ll get from Amazon for example. It’s a little misleading. And what concerns me more about the Penguin eBook publishing proposal is that what they are offering to do can be done by the author, with relative ease at no cost. They don’t tell you this.

Penguin/Book Country will not take on any of the cover design or manuscript editing that a traditional publisher (or even print self-publisher agency) does, nor will they do any promotion. The Author still has to manage and/fund that crucial part of the process themselves. But they will convert your Word.doc into the appropriate format for eReaders. And they will distribute it to the major eBook retailers. So does Smashwords―for free! Amazon does the same thing―also for free.

Both Smashwords and Amazon also provide space for an Author Profile, and both provide informational assistance to point you in the right direction to promote your work. FOR FREE. They also both provide very clear instructions about how you can best format your manuscript for submission. It’s hard work and it is time consuming, yes. At least initially. But being an author is not an easy ride. And you can get someone to format your manuscript for you for much less that what Penguin is charging, without having to sacrifice your royalties.

Forgive me if I’m coming across a bit cynical, but it sounds to me like, rather than delving into 21st century book publishing in a positive and innovative way, Penguin recognises the possibility that they (along with other traditional publishers) may eventually sink into oblivion, and so are desperately attempting to assert their technological relevance by staking a financial claim on new and emerging authors. Seems a little disingenuous to me.

Have a look for yourself and see what you think: Penguin's Book Country

Farewell my friends, it’s been great…

They say the second novel is harder to finish than the first. I’m not sure about that. My second novel, the one I’m writing now, is coming along just fine. At least it was until I reached the climax— it was only then that it came to a grinding halt. But the same thing happened during my first novel. I began writing the climax where something major happened to one or other of the main characters, and then it all stopped. It wasn’t that the inspiration or plot ideas dried up because I knew what was going to happen, what needed to happen. Nor was it the normal run-of-the-mill procrastination or busyness of life. No ― it was more of a mind-numbing, hair-tearing, fear inducing, writing catatonia that lasted for months.  And now it has happened again. Aaargh!

I don’t know why. At least I didn’t until I chatted to some of my writerly colleagues. Apparently, it seems to be a little more common that one would think. There are a few theories floating around about why writers may suddenly find themselves staring forlornly at the screen wondering what happened to their muse. Probably the most common of these is the attachment we feel to the characters we create.

A writer typically spends quite a long time with these characters inside their heads. Conversations happen at all hours of the day and night for months (sometimes years) at a time. To write effective narrative, characters must be authentic and to be able to communicate this authenticity it is imperative that an author knows their characters inside out and back to front. We have to know their likes and dislikes, what sets them off, what calms them down, how they might react in any given situation; we have to know all the nuances of their personalities. We need to know the type of person they’re attracted to, or repulsed by, where their soft spot is, what makes them jealous, what excites them. And to get to know them we talk to them. Often. And everywhere. They come with us in the car and on the bus or train. They’re with us when we walk the dog and when we’re having a shower. They come to work with us and accompany us shopping and visiting. They are there, in our heads, all the time. Is it any wonder then that we find it difficult to write trauma into their lives?  Or to let them go?

During the drafting process of my first novel I wrote and rewrote the last few chapters so many times it was ridiculous. I spent more time on the final three or four chapters than I had done on the preceding twenty. After many a sleepless night I finally gave in to the distress caused by the experience one of my characters, and wrote the trauma into another character’s story-line. I slept well after that and it was then that I could write the ending satisfactorily. But it took months of angst.

This time round, I am facing a similar dilemma. Not so much the reluctance to write trauma, but to progress the story-line beyond the climax. Something is yet to be resolved. I just don’t know what. I know how it ends. My kids (aka my four YA characters) are with me constantly but, as happened last time, now they are waiting patiently for me to finish with them. Maybe it’s because I need to adjust the plot line a little, maybe I have to be far more disciplined with them and just tell them how it’s going to be, or maybe I need to be patient and wait for them to tell me how they think it should end. Or maybe it’s because  I’m just not quite ready to let them go yet.

How do you farewell your characters?

Do you write to live or live to write?

They say that when you love what you do, you never have to work a day in your life. I get that. When I write, I am at peace with myself, the universe and everything. I love creating characters and plots and watching them come to together to form ‘story.’ I love being woken in the middle of the night with that flash of inspiration and having to scramble around to find a pen before I forget it. I love the excitement I feel when a new story idea comes to mind. And the satisfaction when a character finally finds ‘their’ voice.  I even quite enjoy the battle with procrastination I sometimes (okay, often) have.

I just love being a writer. At least, I do when I can just write. Fiction is my first love, but I’m also happy writing creative non-fiction and other articles. But writing for a living these days involves so much more than just writing. Writers are finding themselves increasingly responsible for the marketing, publicity and promotion of their work. And if they publish eBooks, they often have to format, design and distribute themselves as well.

We are in the midst of an industry metamorphosis where the only certainty is change. It’s hard to navigate a constantly evolving landscape, and what the publish industry will look like in a few years time is anyone’s guess. In the meantime, authors are left wondering what the best course of action might be to get their work into the public domain.  Especially emerging and developing authors.

Traditional publishers seem less likely to take a risk on a new author and if they do, author advances appear not to be as common as they once were. One emerging author I know was recently offered —as a first contract, a three-book deal with no advance and 7% of net royalties. 7% of NET royalties. An enormous amount of time and hard work goes in to writing a book. Then there’s the redrafting and editing and agonising. I don’t think any writer worth their salt would accept such an insulting offer. And luckily, neither did the aforementioned author. She told them what they could do with their 7% of net royalties.

That brings me back to the business of being a writer. If traditional publishers cannot adapt to a changing industry quickly enough, it is up to authors to take the reins to ensure that readers are not left without enough new material available in emerging formats to keep them reading. And this is where it becomes challenging.

Creating an eBook is not just a matter of writing the narrative and sending it off for someone else to do the work. Learning to format the manuscript into the various document styles required by the different eReader technology is both challenging and time-consuming. And just as time-consuming is designing the cover for the eBook, which needs to be a jpg image file. There are plenty of people out there who will do it for you and small businesses are cropping up purporting to manage everything for you—for a price.

Problem is, without an advance on the manuscript, writers often don’t always have the initial outlay required to get their manuscript eBook ready. And then there's the publicity side of things to be concerned about. Writers need to let people know that their book is ready for reading. This means marketing and promotion. And of course, the best means of marketing and promoting an eBook (or any book for that matter) is by using social media.

An author website, a blog, a Facebook fan page, LinkedIn and Twitter accounts, have all become necessities. And that’s before you start thinking about a YouTube book trailer. All these practices are incredibly time-consuming and labour intensive, and though you may be able to outsource some of them, they still need regular and consistent input and maintenance.

Yep, writing the book the book is the easy part and probably makes up about 15% of the journey. The hard work begins when you complete that manuscript.

Does genre matter?

Someone once told me that to be a successful writer, you need to choose a genre you are happy to be known for and stick to it. The idea is that to establish credibility and develop your profile as an author, you have to make your mark in a specific genre before you can risk delving into other styles for fear of undermining your appeal.

I don’t know if this is an accurate assumption. I can certainly see the reasoning behind the advice. I suppose it’s important to carve out a niche for your writing, and I guess the more you write in a particular genre, the greater exposure you gain, but would being a multi-genre writer really make that much difference? What if you have expertise or interest in a few different areas?

If you are a quality writer, wouldn’t that be conveyed whatever you write? And if you are a developing writer, isn’t it a better idea to try your hand at different styles/genres until you find something you are completely comfortable with?

More recently a YA publisher told me that they were only interested in ‘genre’ books. But isn’t this a contradiction in terms? Is YA not a genre in itself? Now not to get technical, after all, I’m no pedant, but the etymology of the word ‘genre’ details it’s Old French origin as meaning "kind, sort, style" and was typically used in French to denote “independent style.”

That suggests to me that genre should refer to the style of writing rather than the content, but the industry tends to classify content as well, which means creating sub-genres. My current novel is Young Adult Crime Fiction, does that mean I’m writing in a multi-genre format? Young Adult +Crime +Fiction…?

Is it really necessary to classify each aspect of our writing? Would it really muddy the waters if we branched out a bit? Thoughts….?