A Few Words for Writers
April 8, 2013
Here’s a post from last year that really belongs on this page:
ALL CHANGED, CHANGED UTTERLY…
All these things happened in the space of a week or so:
1. My friend Pat reported that the POD paperback of the book he’d co-authored with my friend Dick had gone on sale quietly at Amazon, with a score of copies sold in the first several days. (The eBook has already been selling for a month or so.)
The book is Bitter Medicine: What I’ve Learned and Teach about Malpractice Lawsuits (And How to Avoid Them), and I’ve been peripherally involved with it since Dick showed me some chapters he’d written several years ago. Dick is Richard Kessler, a retired surgeon and professor of medicine, with extensive service as an expert witness in malpractice lawsuits. Pat is Patrick Trese, also retired after a distinguished career as an Emmy-winning writer and producer at NBC News; in the course of it he’d also written and published a couple of books. I’ve known them both for thirty years or so, and they’ve known each other for about as long, and the partnership turned out to be a good fit. They put in a lot of hours over a couple of years, and wound up with a solid professional manuscript that told important stories in an accessible manner.
But nobody was interested. A couple of agents agreed to look at the manuscript, kept it forever, and then returned it. A publisher, in an uncharacteristic moment of candor, said essentially that every retired doctor wants to write a book, and many of them do, and nobody cares.
And then Pat had a revelation. Neither of the book’s authors was in it for wealth or glory. Dick had had a very important and useful tale to tell, and Pat had found a way to tell it clearly and forcefully, and what they both wanted was for it to be read. And Pat knew a couple of people who’d embraced the revolution of eBooks and self-publishing, and figured why not?
Pat’s work on Bitter Medicine is done, but he’s keeping busy. His first book, Penguins Have Square Eyes, grew out of his experiences as a TV reporter in Antarctica; it came out in 1962, and now fifty years later he’s tweaking it for self-publication. And he’s hard at work on the revision of a big thriller he’s had in the works for as long as I’ve known him. Some agents have seen versions of it over the years, and encouraged him, but this this time he plans to publish it himself.
2. My agent told me about a new client he’d just signed, a romance writer. She’d published several books with a commercial publisher, and then they dropped her. So she started publishing herself in eBooks, and in a little over a year she was making eight or ten times what she’d been earning in the past. She’d tried handling her own foreign rights, but it took too much time and she didn’t really know what she was doing, so she needed someone to represent her overseas, and negotiate other sub rights.
Now that she was doing so well, she said, publishers had come around, telling her how much they could do for her. “I tell them I already know what they can do for me,” she said. “They already did it.”
3. A few years ago I led a seminar at Listowel Writers Week, in Ireland’s County Kerry. There were ten or a dozen participants, but I’ve forgotten everything about all but one of them. She was a young Englishwoman whose stories just sprang off the page at you. And she was a demon for work, too, with a trunk full of unsold novels.
After class I took her aside and told her how much I liked her work, and that she’d probably have a hell of a time getting published. Her stories were a mix of genres, all the products of a wholly original imagination that defied categorization. But if she kept at it, I said, something would resonate with the right person, and it would all Work Out Fine.
We’ve stayed in touch. A few times I’ve suggested she try this editor or that agent, and nothing’s ever quite come of it. She got a gig writing a pair of biblical romance novels, and they’re better than they have any right to be, but her own work hasn’t made anyone stand up and salute.
She emailed me last week, and here’s what I found myself writing in reply:
“Have you thought about self-publishing? It seems to me you’re a great candidate for it, with a stack of unpublished books waiting to be shared with the world. I know that you know how much the publishing world has changed, and that self-publishing does not have the odium that once attached to it. And I know you know, through personal experience, how the gateway to commercial publication keeps narrowing—and what’s on the other side of it isn’t so great, anyway.
“What strikes me as wonderful about self-publishing is that it allows material to find an audience. What struck me about your work way back in Listowel was the originality of your voice and vision; I think I said then that it might be a while before you found an agent and/or an editor who shared it. (It’s taken rather longer than I thought it would!)”
4. The very next day an old friend emailed me; his daughter, who’s gone from being a falling-down drunk to a standing-up comic, wants to turn her own story into a book. She’s a good writer, does a weekly column that has amassed a strong following. He’s written successfully himself for film and TV, published several books early on, and is not unfamiliar with the business. Could I recommend an agent who might look with favor upon his daughter’s work?
My reply: “I can’t think of anyone. My agent wouldn’t be good for it—or interested. I no longer know anybody else well enough to point at them.
“One caveat: if she doesn’t find an agent who’s wildly enthusiastic, and if that enthusiasm is not shared by a publisher, she’d be well advised to consider publishing it herself. It’s fast and effective, and these days it’s often the best route to a decent book deal with a commercial publisher. The column gives her a platform, and she’s energetic and savvy; I would think she could generate strong sales with a self-published eBook, and whether or not some commercial house took it on afterward, she’d still be in good shape.”
5. While all this was going on, well within that seven-day span, I okayed the proofs of the trade paperback editions of three of my Matthew Scudder novels. Monday I gave the printer an initial order for a hundred copies of each title, and Wednesday UPS delivered thirteen cartons of books. We had a couple of busy days here, but by Friday we’d shipped around 250 autographed copies, and the POD books had joined their eBook fellows on the Barnes & Noble website. (We’re waiting on Amazon.)
THERE’S A WORD FOR ALL OF THAT:
When I began writing professionally, not long after the invention of movable type, people who published their own work were self-deluded ninnies, the natural prey of the jackals and bottom-feeders of vanity publishing.
Which is not to say that one didn’t get caught up in do-it-yourself fantasies. When my fellows and I would gather, glass in hand, for an evening of sociable shoptalk, the inanities of agents and editors and publishers were a frequent topic of conversation. Hell, all the bastards did was screw things up. But if we could do it ourselves—
Thinking back, I’m reminded of Henry Clay’s frustration at his nation’s incomprehensible refusal to award him its highest office. There was only one man who could guide his campaign properly, and the fellow as not available. “If there were two Henry Clays,” he groused, “one of them would make the other President of the United States of America.”
Right. And, if only the world were blessed with two Lawrence Blocks, wouldn’t one of them boost the other onto the higher rungs of the bestseller list? It certainly seemed probable, at least as long as one had a glass in one’s hand…
But the day after, along with sermons and soda water, one returned to one’s senses and saw the world in the light of cold reason. Tempting as it was to demonize editors and publishers and agents, it might not be entirely their fault, dear Brutus, that we were underlings. More to the point, they were indispensable, because successful self-publication was a pipe dream.
Except I knew, at least as far back as the mid-1980s, that this was not necessarily so. That’s when John Erickson told me (along with a whole roomful of people) about Hank the Cowdog.
I was one of the speakers at a writers conference in the Texas panhandle, and John Erickson’s talk is all I remember of the couple of days I spent there. (I remembered his first name, and I remembered Hank’s first name. Google got me all the way here.)
And I never forgot the story he told. He’d tried hard to break into the New York publishing world, and for ten or fifteen years he wrote books and stories, and he never got anywhere. But he was convinced that he was able to write what the sort of people he knew would like to read, and he wrote a book from the point of view of a canny old cattle dog, found a printer, set up shop in his garage, and offered the book for sale at feed stores. Now at the time nobody had ever bought a book at a feed store, but all that meant to him was that he didn’t have to worry about competition.
Just about every feed store and ranch supply outlet took a few copies and put them on the counter. And they paid him on the spot, and there wasn’t any nonsense about returns. And folks bought the books, and they liked Hank, and they liked John’s writing, and when Hank’s next adventure hit the feed stores, they bought that one, too. And the one after that.
The books found an audience.
Did this mean that the New York publishers were idiots? No, not at all. Put old Hank on the counter at Madison Avenue Bookshop and he’d curl up and die of neglect. The publishers were right to pass on Hank’s adventures, and John was brilliant to refuse to take no for an answer.
It made an impression. And I was to note that books with a pronounced regional appeal—Ghost Stories of the Susquehanna Valley, say, or HIking the Widdeshins Trail—were being successfully published by their authors; local interest kept them selling, and one man or woman with a station wagon could handle sales and distribution.
But if you were writing fiction for a far-flung audience, you wouldn’t get anywhere publishing it yourself. How were you going to get reviewed? How were you going to get the book in stores? How would anyone who might want to read it ever learn of its existence?
THAT WAS THEN…
And then, of course, everything changed. Computers happened, and the internet happened, and eBooks happened. And so on.
Meanwhile, publishing continued to evolve—or devolve, if you prefer. The industry, largely partnerships and sole proprietorships when I started writing, had become increasingly corporate, and the corporations set about swallowing one another. Books had to sell an ever-increasing number of copies in order to show up in black ink on a corporation’s balance sheet.
But bookstores were closing, and sales were down. Authors of mid-list books, many with lengthy backlists and no end of flattering reviews, found themselves cast adrift. Some of them were trying to do something about it.
I thought this was interesting. But I wasn’t having trouble getting published. I’d been doing what I do long enough, and had built enough of a following in the process, so that first-rate publishers were still willing to print and distribute my books, and to pay me decently for the privilege of so doing.
Still, I could see changes. My advances were down. And my books were getting harder to find. The new ones got shelf space, but the mass market backlist titles did not; for years my paperbacks filled two shelf sections at a Barnes & Noble, and then one day I stopped at a B&N and could only find one copy each of four titles. And it’s been like that ever since.
I moved very tentatively into self-publishing. Some publishers who’d reprinted early titles of mine—Hard Case Crime, Subterranean Press—were good enough to furnish word.doc files, and I taught myself how to publish them for Kindle,and had a few others scanned to keep them company. I withdrew them when I made an eBook deal with Open Road for 40+ backlist titles, but soon found myself back at the Kindle Direct Publishing platform, offering uncollected short stories at 99¢.
And so on. I’d been active on Facebook for a while, but I swear it took a long time before I saw it as anything other than a way to stay in touch with high school classmates and former neighbors. But I kept getting friended by people who knew my work, and I accepted anyone who friended me, and before I knew it I had an audience of a couple of thousand people out there. I don’t know that they were hanging on my every word, but neither were they hanging up on me.
…AND THIS IS NOW
Well. It was in June of 2011, ten months ago as I write this, that I got a Twitter account and started a WordPress blog. The following month, while I was thinking about having some Matthew Scudder short stories scanned for Kindle, I got the idea of bringing out a full book of them.
I could have proposed it to my publisher. Mulholland Books had brought out a new Scudder novel, A Drop of the Hard Stuff, in May; they’d done well with it, and I had no reason to doubt that they’d be receptive to a collection of Scudder stories.
But how hot a ticket would such a book be? There would be two new stories in the book, but all the rest had been published over the years. I figured a new collection would get respectful reviews, and sell reasonably well in mystery specialty bookstores, but would it fly out of the chains?
OTOH, here was a book I could publish myself. I’d spend a couple of dollars and do it right, hiring Telemachus Press to get it in shape and get it on the virtual shelves of the appropriate eTailers. Originally I was thinking in eBook terms only, but as it took shape I decided to publish a print-on-demand paperback as well, offering signed copies through my online bookstore and those aforementioned mystery booksellers.
Remember, I got the idea for this last July. The eBook of The Night and the Music went live the last day of September, and two weeks later we were carting paperbacks to the post office. (If I’d taken my notion to my publishers, and if they’d been enthusiastic, it would be coming out sometime this summer or fall.)
The book covered its costs within the first month or so, and continues to sell well. It seems to me that I’ve already netted more from it than the modest advance a publisher might have shelled out, and from this point on I can market the book at least as effectively as a publisher would, can keep the price point where I think it should be, and will receive a significantly higher portion of every sale than would ever appear on a publisher’s royalty statement.
Is The Night and the Music making me rich? No, hardly that. But it’s making me happy.
And, when my agent was able to retrieve the rights to A Stab in the Dark, A Walk Among the Tombstones, and A Long Line of Dead Men, I did not even consider trying to find a publisher for them.
WHO KNOWS WHERE IT GOES?
I don’t know where all of this is going—which gives me something in common with everybody else in the world. The publishing landscape is changing almost daily.
But I know this: my default response, when someone asks how to get an agent, or how to find a publisher, or any writerly version of what-do-I-do-now, is to suggest publishing it oneself. That’s a course I never would have recommended to anyone, except perhaps the occasional dotard who’d penned a memoir he hoped his grandchildren would read. And now I’m urging it upon everyone—writers whose publishers have dropped them, writers who never had publishers in the first place, writers whose early books have gone out of print.
Will everyone have a good experience with self-publishing? No, of course not, nor will every book show a profit. But it has never been so easy for readers and writers to find one another, and for any book to find its proper audience.
It’s pretty exciting. I’m no authority, and people like Joe Konrath and Lee Goldberg and Dean Wesley Smith know much more about the subject than I, and share what they know more effectively. Even so, I expect I’ll have more to say on the subject over the months.
January 11, 2013
Margaret Yang reviews The Liar’s Companion on her blog, Writing Slices:
THE LIAR’S COMPANION is a collection of columns Lawrence Block wrote for Writer’s Digest magazine from 1987 to 1990. This was before Block was a Grand Master of the mystery genre, so they’re written from the point of view of someone who is a full-time writer, but not a household name. Although the columns are old, they feel fresh. Block tackles enduring subjects with solid advice and a kind tone.
Most of the columns are about craft matters–how much research to do, how ideas become plot, the danger of writing in present tense, and how to write three-dimensional characters. Block covers beginnings, middles, and ends in three short chapters that are as good as entire books on the topic. He often addresses his fictional students by name, and lets them ask questions as proxies for the reader. Some people might find this too cute by half, but I loved it. It made me wish I could sit in that imaginary classroom and be Mr. Block’s student.
Several of the collected columns aren’t about craft matters, but about a writer’s lifestyle. Block made several visits to artists’ colonies, where he stayed up to six weeks. These colonies are idyllic retreats where writers and other artists are given unstructured free time to create. Block details how heavenly an artists’ colony is when the work is going well, and how hellish it is when the work is going poorly. He also frequently mentions his novel, RANDOM WALK, which was published around that time. The novel was a departure from his earlier work (The Matthew Scudder series) and Block alternates between extraordinary pride in the book and terror at how it would be received.
THE LIAR’S COMPANION also discusses touchier issues–joining writer’s groups, dealing with agents, and the agony of reviews. Block likes critique groups in theory, although he’s never joined one. His column on agents is a bit outdated. The agent’s role has changed too much in the last twenty years for this column to be helpful. However, his take on book reviews is timeless. Then, as now, it is best to ignore them if you can. If you can’t ignore them, try not to take them personally. Reviews don’t do much to sell books anyway.
Block says that writing about writing made him a better writer. Teaching others how to apply certain techniques made him aware of how he was using them in his own books. I’m so glad that writing these monthly columns made Block the writer he is today. I learned so much from reading Block’s collected columns that I can honestly say reading THE LIAR’S COMPANION made me a better writer, too.
rating: 5 stars
July 13, 2012
A Veteran Writer Embraces Self-Publishing
A very interesting announcement by the great Kate Wilhelm. Here’s the opening, with a link to the rest on her website:
“Open letter to word watchers:
“I’ve been a writer since 1956 when I sold my first short story. My first novel came in 1962. In all that time I’ve never seen a book contract that was entirely acceptable with the exception of the model contract Damon Knight wrote, or the model contract provided by the Authors Guild. Unfortunately, book publishers never used those contracts in my case, or for any other writers I have known. As a beginning writer I had no bargaining strength, and changes in contracts were rare, and rarely significant. Incrementally, contracts got better in some instances with some clauses, only to have new unacceptable clauses show up on later pages. Incrementally means in this case that the contract finally signed was still heavily weighted toward the publisher, which is understandable. They had the legal staff to write contracts, I was a lone writer trying to shift the balance somewhat. As telling as that fact is, it isn’t the most important one in the never-ending struggle for a fairer contract with a publisher.
“The most important factor is simple: if fish gotta swim and birds gotta fly, then writers gotta write. We write for publication in order to have readers, and the publishers were the only place to turn after we exhausted our family and friends. I was as gleeful and grateful as any new writer to have my work accepted. I signed contracts that made me wince, but I got published and read. I played their game because it was the only game in town, and I had to play. I’ve had marvelous editors over the years and I have no quarrel with any of them, but rather affection and appreciation. However, the editors do not set company policy and they do not write contracts.
“In the fall of 2011 I was offered a contract that was so egregious that the publishing house that sent it should have been ashamed, and if I had signed it I would have been shamed. I proposed additional changes to those my agent had already managed to have incorporated and each suggested change was refused. I rejected the contract and withdrew the novel…”
July 3, 2012
Lower Prices on eBooks for Writers
Yet another interesting aspect of eBooks is that it’s so easy to adjust their prices that publishers do so all the time. This can benefit all of us—authors and publishers, because price flexibility helps target readers and maximize sales, and readers, who can save money by taking advantage of bargains. If there’s a downside, it may be that it’s hard to keep up with what’s out there…and how much it costs. So I thought I’d review my own books for writers, all of which have gone through a price adjustment in recent months.
First, the three HarperCollins books. These were all priced around $7.99, IIRC, but a few months ago HC reduced prices of all my eBooks to $3.99 as a special promotion. They held the price for close to two months, then bumped everything up a notch to $4.99—which strikes me as a good deal all around. (When it comes to eBook prices, I don’t know anything—but neither does anybody else, so I feel comfortable expressing an opinion. I think the best price point for new eBooks is $9.99, and $4.99′s ideal for books that have been around a while.)
All of these books are available for all ePlatforms. Here, with links for Kindle and Nook, are my HarperCollins books for writers, currently pegged at $4.99:
HarperCollins also publishes Step By Step, a memoir that centers on my inglorious career as the world’s slowest racewalker, slogging my way through marathons and ultras. Metaphor aside, there’s inevitably a lot included about my writing life, and some fellow writers have found the book of interest:
Now for the books from Open Road. Along with 40+ backlist fiction titles of mine, Open Road offers four of my books for writers. The first two, The Liar’s Bible and The Liar’s Companion, are eRiginals, compiled from never-before-collected Writer’s Digest columns of mine and getting a great reception from fans of Telling Lies and Spider. They were initially quite expensive at $14.99, but a couple of weeks ago Open Road cut the price all the way down to $3.99, and will hold that price at least until the end of July:
When Open Road dropped Bible and Companion to $3.99, they left Writing the Novel up around $9.99. A reader wondered why, and I shared his wonder sufficiently to get in touch with my friends at Open Road and ask if they’d add the book to the special promotion. I just learned this morning that they’d gone me one better, slashing the price all the way down to $1.99. I’m not sure that was intentional, and it may yet turn out to be a mistake to be corrected as soon as someone notices it, but in the meantime the iron is hot, and you know what you’re supposed to do when that happens:
And there’s one more book for writers that hasn’t been reduced in price, and will probably never be reduced in price, because all along it’s been priced at 99¢. The title is Afterthoughts, and it consists of the collected afterwords I wrote for all my Open Road titles, and several other novels as well, and taken together they constitute a combination bibliography and autobiography (an autobibliography? never mind) of myself and my work over the past 50+ years.
Why so cheap? Well, we justified it on the grounds that the book is promotional; a reader might be moved to purchase one of the books discussed therein. I don’t know how effective it’s been in that capacity, but the book’s been very popular, with 14 five-star reviews on Amazon. (One more temperate reviewer held it down to four stars. Oh well.) Anyway, here it is, still just 99¢:
I’m a little bit diffident about pushing these books on you, because I’d be hard put to argue that anyone needs to read a book on writing in order to write well. On the other hand, Telling Lies and Writing the Novel have never been out of print in the past 30+ years, so somebody’s finding them of some use.
And one of the must useful books on the subject is one I didn’t write—but am happy to sell you. Just scroll down to the June 20, 2012 entry on this page and read about Jerrold Mundis’s indispensable little book, still on special at LB’s eBay Bookstore.
June 20, 2012
Break Writer’s Block Now!
Those four words, along with the perhaps inevitable exclamation point, constitute the title of a remarkably useful little book. It’s got a subtitle as well, or maybe two: “How to Demolish It Forever and Establish a Productive Working Schedule in One Afternoon” and “A Proven System.”
In all the years LB’s Bookstore has been up and running, first on my website and more recently (and successfully) on eBay, its listings have been limited to my own books. With a single exception—this slim volume by Jerrold Mundis. I’m not sure when I first started selling it, but it’s been quite a few years now, and it’s been far and away our most popular item. Year after year, the one book I didn’t write outsells all the books I did.
So let me tell you about the book and its author.
Jerrold Mundis has been a self-supporting freelance writer for half a century, and a close friend of mine for thirty of those years. He made his bones as a writer of fiction, and has recently ePublished much of his early work, including his Shame & Glory saga of African-American slavery and freedom. More recently, Jerry has concentrated on non-fiction, emerging as an expert in two specialized areas. One is personal finance; his How to Get Out of Debt, Stay Out of Debt, and Live Prosperously has established itself as the classic work on the subject.
The other is breaking writer’s block.
There’s a longstanding principle that you teach what you need to learn, and it’s never been more obvious than in Jerry’s case. His own personal struggles with debt led to all his writings in the field of money. And a fierce ongoing battle with writer’s block gave birth to his technique for overcoming it.
After he’d refined his method, he began conducting intensive multi-hour one-on-one sessions with blocked writers. The method proved so effective that he was able to offer a money-back guarantee—and it didn’t cost him anything. No matter who his clients were—writers of fiction or non-fiction, novices or veterans, doctoral candidates who stalled out on writing their theses, businessmen unable to get out their sales letters—Jerry’s method got results. It worked.
He wrote a book about it, and in 1991 St. Martin’s Press published it as an 88-page hardcover, priced at $13.95. Books for writers almost always rack up most of their sales in trade paperback, so this was a curious decision on the publisher’s part, and the book did not set the world on fire. When it went out of print, Jerry bought up the remainder and stuck them in storage. But he didn’t have an outlet for them,and after a year or two he tired of paying the warehouse charges and told me he was going to have the lot pulped.
I liked the book too much to see it die that way. And I had LB’s Bookstore up and running by then, and thought this would be a good item to offer. It has indeed been our top seller, year in and year out. For most of that time we sold it for $19.95 plus $5 shipping, and when we shifted the store to eBay, we listed the book for $14.99, plus $3.99 shipping.
Then the other day David Trevor pointed out that we might consider putting the book on special, as our stock would otherwise last until sometime in 2045. He suggested a price point of $9.99.
“Don’t be a kitty cat,” I said, approximately. “Let’s make it irresistible. The eBook of Break Writer’s Block Now! is selling for $5.99. That’s too cheap for a brand-new hardcover, but so what? That’s the price. $5.99.”
And so it is. I don’t expect we’ll keep it that low forever. When David tells me we’ve cleared enough of our storage space, the price will go back up again. But I’ll guarantee it for 100 copies minimum.
It shouldn’t need a sales pitch, not at $5.99, but I can’t resist pointing out that, in an era when self-publishing has become a genuine option for everyone, it’s neither the unapproachability of agents nor the intransigence of publishers that’s holding you back. All any writer really requires is the ability to get the words written. To whatever extent that’s a problem, Break Writer’s Block Now! is the solution.
You may want to buy more than one copy. If you’ve got writer friends, or wannabe-writer friends, or a retired uncle who keeps talking about the memoir he wants to write, well, you can see where this is going, can’t you? And at this price you can afford to be generous.
P.S. While I’ve got your attention, let me mention Affirmations For Writers. This is the tape I developed in connection with the Write For Your Life seminar in the mid 1980s. It’s designed for repeated listening, and aims to help you change the way you think about yourself as a writer. (The music track is by Jeremy Wall, longtime keyboard artist with Spiro Gyra.) We’re offering it now as an MP3 download, priced at $9.99; because we deliver it by email, there’s no shipping to pay, so that’s the total price anywhere in the world.
June 2, 2012
Why an eBook is a book, and why it isn’t
Yesterday my friend Jaye Manus, whose blog is indispensable for anyone with a passing interest in self-publishing, and merely incisive and fascinating for everyone else, took off from a remark of Stephen King’s that drew a line (albeit a thin one) between eBooks and real books. Here’s some of what Jaye wrote:
“I understand why some people don’t consider eBooks to be “real” books. On a Kindle ereader books look like ugly cousins. As far as e-ink readers go, the experience of reading a print book will never be replicated to anyone’s satisfaction. Then throw in the emotional, sentimental attachment to printed books that many have (myself included) and there are people who will never accept eBooks as real books.
“It’s not about technology. Notice how very few people bemoan the obsolescence of typewriters? It’s because typewriters were a pain in the ass. You had to actually be skilled to use them well. Typewritten pages could turn into unholy messes. Carbon paper? How about trotting a full manuscript to a copy shop in order to reproduce it (with all its mistakes). Computers and word processors are better. Period. Even the most hardcore typist gave up the old Underwood or Selectric with barely a whimper. I don’t know many people who feel sentimental about typewriters.
“eBooks, on the other hand, are not better (or worse) than printed books. They are different. We could argue all day over the pros and cons of text delivery systems (and that is pretty much the only thing they have in common) but the two sides wouldn’t actually be arguing about the same things.
“No matter how good the technology gets, how slick, fast, amazing, eBooks will never be the same as the physical object. I suspect there are some people who will go to their graves never considering ebooks to be real books.
“But. Go back to the quote from Craig Mod: “It’s a set of decisions clearly designed around efficiency (and, possibly, data) — get us into the text as quickly as possible.” As writers, when we produce eBooks, we focus on covers and content. Content and covers. Covers and content. Those are our priorities and that’s where all our time and talent goes. We are attempting to replicate a printed book in a digital format. What we forget or don’t consider at all is the gestalt–a printed book, when done well, is an experience greater than the sum of its parts. Our focus on covers and content–which are important, I’m not saying they aren’t–reduces our books to mere data streams. We’re treating eBooks like blog posts or newspapers, disposable information/entertainment, here today, gone tomorrow, with little to make them memorable. It’s no wonder to me, then, that many bibliophiles are appalled by eBooks. How they might think there is something suspect, even disrespectful about the medium.
“I’m not putting this out here to start arguments or to discuss the merits of one format over another. What I would like is for eBook producers to start thinking beyond creating digital replications of printed books. The best we’ll ever do on that path is create ugly and slightly less ugly cousins. We need to start thinking in terms of each ebook as an object that creates for the user an experience. We’ll have to find our own unique stamp. How to do that? I don’t know yet. The secret, I suspect, lies in the technology, much of which is already present and barely exploited.
“What I’d really like to see is the day when consumers choose ebooks not because of the convenience of the eReading device, but because the actual reading experience, the total package, the book, is better.”
I spent some time thinking about Jaye’s observations, and it struck me the extent to which eBooks and physical books are very different creatures.
An eBook is entirely functional and insubstantial. It exists for the sole purpose of providing a reading experience, one that is often (though not always) superior to that afforded by the physical book.
Its essential insubstantiality gives it several advantages. I don’t have to give it shelf space. It adds no weight to my suitcase. If I want to refer to it again, I don’t have to struggle to remember where I put it. I can call it back in an instant—wherever I am. (I did just that a couple of months ago in a flight lounge in Dubai.)
The physical book is also engineered to provide a reading experience, but it is also an object. I can put it on a shelf to help decorate a room, and take it down at will to admire it. It may be an attractive object irrespective of its contents; I have books it pleases me to own, even though I have not the slightest interest in their contents. I have others I’ve read and know I’ll never want to read again, and nevertheless it would pain me to let go of them.
Physical books are collectible in a way that eBooks can never be. I may draw solid satisfaction out of having on my Kindle all the eWorks of a favorite author, but I don’t expect my friends to ooh and ahh over my collection of bits and bytes.
All right, we knew all that. The eBook and the physical book. One’s pure functionality, the other’s that and more. And it’s the nature of the book as decorative and collectible object that has made it thus far endure in its present form.
The development and rapid acceptance of eBooks has been heralded, not without justification, as a game changer in the same league with the invention of moveable type. It’s worth remembering, though, that today’s eBook revolution was preceded half a century ago by the paperback revolution—which also drew Gutenbergian comparisons. Paperbacks—compact, affordable, does any of this sound familiar?—were decried early on as tawdry and ephemeral, with their sensational covers cheapening literature even as they made it available to the great unwashed.
But of course they caught on, to the point where, thirty years ago, it was the conventional wisdom in publishing that the hardcover book was essentially dead, as least insofar as new fiction was concerned. Everyone in the business pretty much agreed that hardcover fiction was on its way out, and we were all wrong. As it turned out, hardcover books more than held their own, in good times and in bad, until now—when hardcover books still find buyers, while trade paperbacks have been largely elbowed aside by eBooks even as their mass-market cousins are essentially reduced to a handful of Pattersonian bestsellers at airport newsstands.
Why? Not because the hardcover book is such a stellar system for the delivery of information. A trade paperback in an otherwise identical format weighs less, costs less, and is easier to handle. But a surprising number of us want the hardcover book anyway. We cherish the object.
(You can spot this bias, incidentally, even in the collector market. Many of my early books first saw print as paperback originals, and not a few of those were subsequently reprinted in hardcover. Book collectors typically seek out a title’s first edition, its initial appearance in print, so you would think those PBO firsts would be more in demand and command higher prices than the Johnny-come-lately hardcovers. And you’d be wrong. For a clear majority of collectors, what’s wanted is the first hardcover edition. Because it looks so much nicer on the shelf or the coffee table. Because it gladdens the eye, the hands, and the heart. Because it is ever so much more desirable as an object.)
This perspective becomes useful when we try to figure out, say, the role of a cover for an eBook. The cover of a physical book, hardcover or paperback, had a dual purpose. The first was to draw favorable attention when the book was on a table or shelf at a bookstore. The more appealing a cover, the greater the likelihood that a passerby would reach out and pick the thing up. A study a few years ago determined that, when a customer actually lifts a book from a shelf, there’s something like a forty percent chance he’ll take it to the cashier. (More to the point, if he doesn’t pick the book up, the chance he’ll tote it to the register drops to zero.)
That’s one aim of the cover—that it be sufficiently striking and attractive to get the book into a customer’s hands, and subsequently into his library. A secondary aim is that it continue to be attractive, contributing to his satisfaction at having bought it, and predisposing him to buy the author’s next book.
An eBook cover has a similar job, but only up to the point of sale. It has to look good on the product page at Amazon, has to catch the eye and suggest that this is something the prospective buyer will want to read. Once the one-click purchase is made, the cover has done its job. The buyer doesn’t care if he ever sees it again.
(And it’s entirely possible that he won’t. Kindle programs books so that they generally open to the first page of text, hurrying one right into the story. If I want to see the cover, I have to page backward from that first page. I wonder if anybody ever bothers. I know I don’t.)
I’ve self-published four books to date with the capable assistance of Telemachus Press, and we’ve put a lot of effort into the covers. I’m more than happy with them—which you’ll notice I’ve scattered along the right hand edge of this post. I think the covers work for both the eBooks and the trade paperbacks. I’m very gratified by the way the books have been selling in both formats, but there’s a greater satisfaction with the physical books—because they are attractive objects, and their covers are beautiful, and when I take one in hand I cannot but admire it.
I’ve made ten linked short stories available individually on Kindle. They’re all about a criminous criminal lawyer named Ehrengraf, and I cobbled up covers myself. All they had to do was suggest the nature of the story—a stock photo of a gavel worked just fine—and beyond that the covers differed only in the last words of their titles. Would I have taken the same approach if the Ehrengraf ouevre were a series of novels and I was bringing them out as physical books? I would probably aim at uniformity, I’ve always felt a series ought to look like a series, but I’m sure I’d have wanted the covers to be a bit more elaborate.
When Open Road brought out forty-plus of me eBooks early in 2011, they developed a template and stayed with it. They’re instantly identifiable, and brand the books effectively, I think; on the downside, they’re not terribly attractive, and one wouldn’t for a moment want to employ them as the covers of physical books. Does it matter? Would more buyers take them up off Amazon’s virtual shelves if they had more eye appeal? I don’t know. The Open Road covers are essentially icons, and not co vers at all, maybe that’s what they ought to be. My guess is they do their job quite well.
I could go on,but this post is already longer than I’d intended, and it’s not as though I were likely to come up with a conclusion. Jaye’s post got me thinking, and I wanted to share some of my thoughts. And if any of the above should get you thinking, Gentle Reader, well, your comments are invited.
May 18, 2012
MARGARET YANG REVIEWS WRITING THE NOVEL
“It’s hard for me to be objective about Lawrence Block. His photo was taped to the wall above my computer for several years. I considered him my mentor, but not like the guru who dispenses wisdom from on high. To me, he was more like a big brother who’s been where you are (not so very long ago) and will always reach back to hold your hand if you need it. That feeling comes from Block’s conversational tone, his optimistic view of the world, and his honesty about his own failings.
“However, I suspect my real love for WRITING THE NOVEL comes from it being the right book at the right time. It was published in 1979, but I didn’t discover it until many years later, sometime in the 90′s. Even so, it was just what a brand-new baby writer needed, and I read it three or four times. I recently revisited it for this review, and was shocked at how timely it still is. A lot has changed in the last thirty-three years, but a lot has not. Oddly enough, a few things have come full-circle and become newly relevant.
“WRITING THE NOVEL is meant to set your feet firmly on the novelist’s path with the minimal amount of drama. It also separates technical progress from creative breakthroughs. Block teaches you to cultivate the former, knowing the latter will take care of themselves. He is also quick to point out that every bit of his advice is optional. Do what works.
“Publishing may have changed over the years, but the craft of writing hasn’t. Block discusses the importance of nurturing your ideas, the advantages of outlining, how much research is necessary, staying with the novel for the long haul, and how to revise your work….”
There’s more, including a persuasive argument for an updated edition. Click here to read the rest.
Writers Digest Books published WRITING THE NOVEL over thirty years ago, and kept it in print for most of those years, but printed copies now seem to be available only in the aftermarket. Happily (for me at least,and I c an only hope for y’all as well) it’s enjoying a second life as an Open Road eBook, and the least I can do is leave you with links for Kindle and Nook.
April 29, 2012
SELF-PUBLISHING BACK IN THE DAY
A few weeks ago I was looking over the eBook of The Liar’s Bible. I came across a piece I wrote in the early 1980s, “Getting By on a Writer’s Income.” When I posted it on my blog, it got touted and tweeted and reposted to a fare-thee-well. If my site had sustained any more hits it would have wound up punch-drunk.
Then a week or two later I wrote a new blog post and called it “All Changed, Changed Utterly,” about the revolution in self-publishing. It drew an even stronger reception than “Getting By”, careening around the blogosphere, gladhanding its way through the social media, and going—well, if not viral, then at the very least bacterial.
So I had another look at The Liar’s Bible, and found a piece I hadn’t even glanced at since I wrote it in 1986. It appeared the following year in the 1987 Writers Yearbook, and should give you an idea of the very different process that self-publishing was a quarter of a century ago:
ARE YOU SURE ALFRED KNOPF STARTED THIS WAY?
It was a Monday, the 20th of January, 1986, and the country was celebrating Martin Luther King’s birthday, but on Estero Boulevard ij Fort Myers Beach, Florida, it was just another day on which my books were not arriving from the manufacturer. When the Ryder van began backing into our driveway, a little after noon, though, I decided it was altogether fitting and proper that the day be observed as a national holiday.
“The books are here!” I cried. And rushed out to greet the driver.
There were 107 cartons of the little darlings. My daughter Jill was visiting, and she joined me and Lynne to form a sort of box brigade, shuttling the cartons from the back of the truck up a flight of stairs and into what a previous owner had thought was the house’s fourth bedroom, but which was clearly intended to be a stockroom and shipping room.
Twenty-five years earlier I’d been writing soft-core sex novels under a pen name. I had a publisher who wanted to give me more work than I could handle, and a friend introduced me to a fellow he thought might be able to subcontract some of the books from me. The friend’s friend was delighted with the opportunity. He had a wife and infant daughter, and had been forced to shelve his dream of writing; he was then making ends meet by unloading trucks in a warehouse.
Now, a quarter of a century later, I was unloading trucks in a driveway.
“I dunno,” I said to Lynne. “Are you sure Alfred Knopf started this way?”
For many self-publishers, the alternative is no publication at all. Writers turn to self-publishing when they’ve been unable to interest commercial publishers in their work.
My own circumstances were somewhat different. By the time I was thinking of writing Write for Your Life, I had published more than 30 books with commercial firms. Two were instructional books for writers, Writing the Novel: From Plot to Print (Writer’s Digest Books) and Telling Lies for Fun and Profit (Arbor House). Both books had sold well and remained in print, and with both publishers I enjoyed an excellent personal and professional relationship. I had every reason to anticipate that a book version of my seminar for writers would be welcomed by either of the two.
It seemed to me, though, that self-publishing would serve me better. I had several reasons to think this.
First of all, I had cause to believe that I could merchandise the book very effectively myself. The book struck me as an ideal mail-order item. Whether or not I published it myself, I would want to sell it at my seminars and through the mails.
I knew how to do this, and I knew that I enjoyed this sort of thing, because I was already in the mail-order business, having already sold more than 2,000 copies of my cassette Affirmations for Writers. Even before that, I’d bought up remainder stocks of a couple of my out-of-print novels and peddled them through the mails. The mail-order business is more efficient when you can offer more items to your customer, and the book I wanted to write was wholly compatible with the products I was already selling.
If I let someone else publish Write for Your Life, I couldn’t sell it effectively by mail. I could at best buy copies from my publisher at a 50% discount, and you need a larger margin than that to come out ahead in mail order. (Ideally, your total cost on your product, including your mailing expenses, should be no more than a third of your price, and it’s best if you can keep it down to a fourth. Otherwise you don’t have a sufficient cushion to promote your product effectively.)
I would probably lose store sales by self-publishing my book, but I decided store sales were secondary. Besides, if the book did well, I figured it would be easy enough somewhere down the line to get a commercial book distributor to take it on. First things first; my primary market was reachable through mail order, and self-publishing looked to be the best way to go after that market.
But that was just one reason. Time was a strong second reason. I hadn’t written the book yet, but I already knew one thing. I wanted copies in a hurry.
The sooner I had books, the sooner I could start selling them. More to the point, the sooner I sold them, the sooner they could start selling the seminar. One of my chief motives in writing the book lay in the fact that I had trouble explaining to people what the seminar was and wasn’t. I wanted to write the book so that it would put people in a position to decide whether or not the seminar was something they could use.
I also wanted to make the book available to graduates, so that they could take the seminar home with them. And I wanted to make the material accessible to the overwhelming majority of writers who would never have the chance to take the seminar. All of these factors made me want books as soon as possible. I certainly didn’t want to wait a year or more, and I had to expect at least that much waiting time with a commercial publisher.
I wanted books in time for the seminar season in the spring of ’86. I wasn’t going to be able to start writing the book until August of ’85. A glance at the calendar provided a powerful argument indeed for self-publishing.
Finally, and perhaps most important, I wanted to do it because I wanted to do it.
Most of the writers I’ve known have had fantasies of self-publishing. Here was a chance to fulfill that fantasy, and with a book that seemed to lend itself to that treatment. I had learned a lot and had a lot of fun making my affirmations tape.
And I’d enjoyed selling it, too.
One of the processes in the seminar consists of coming up with actions one can take to add to one’s bank of experiences. A way I could add to my own bank of experiences was by publishing my own book, and I couldn’t wait to get started.
As a first step, I read The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing, by Tom and Marilyn Ross. Then I very nearly decided to say to hell with the whole thing.
The book is excellent, let me say, and I recommend it wholeheartedly, and without reservation. It tells you exactly how to contend with the entire business of publishing your own work, from writing and product development through the whole process of book production, and on to advertising and promotion and distribution. It’s all there, and it’s presented clearly and concisely.
And it almost scared me off.
It was the material on getting the book produced that intimidated me. The authors explained just how to deal with typesetters and printers, how to get bids from various firms, how to make decisions about paper and page size and type. The more I read, the more I felt incapable of handling all of that. It sounded impossibly complex.
A week or so after I read the book, I was having lunch with a friend named Richard, a sales rep for a major trade publisher. I talked about my desire to publish Write for Your Life myself and my concern about my ability to handle the production adequately.
“It seems to me,” I said, “that there ought to be people who handle that whole process for you.”
“There are,” he said. “I know a lot of guys who work in the production departments of publishing houses. They do all of this every day for their employers, and they handle book production for self-publishers on a freelance spare-time basis.”
“Could you recommend one?”
“I could recommend several,” he said, and did.
I called only one of them. It was, after all, the third week in July already, and we were moving from New York to Florida on the 25th of the month. So a couple of days after my lunch with Richard, I sat down to lunch with a fellow I’ll call Lou. I told him what I wanted to do, and he said he’d be delighted to help me do it.
“The book’s not written yet,” I said. “I’ll be able to start work on it around the first of the month, as soon as we’re settled in our new home. I know what I want to say in it and I don’t think it should take more than a month, two months at the outside, so I can have the manuscript to you by the end of September.”
In that case, he said, I could probably have books in February. I allowed as to how it would be nice to have them earlier than that.
“You could,” he said, “but you’d pay a price for it. Publishers have gotten books out in three days, but the costs escalate when you rush things.”
I decided I could live with a February delivery, although January would be better and December better still. I asked what role I would have to play in the production process.
“You give me the manuscript,” Lou said, “and I’ll give you the finished books. Along the way, you can participate to whatever extent you want. Some clients don’t want to hear from me until the books are ready to ship. Others want to consult about typefaces and paper and everything else.”
I said I would like to be kept in the picture. Then we talked about Lou’s compensation. There were, he said, two ways freelance book production people worked. Some of them billed the client for a straight 10% of total production expenses. Others quoted a figure to the client, paid the printing and typesetting and binding costs themselves, and pocketed the difference.
“I prefer to work the first way,” he said. “Otherwise I’d have an incentive to get the book produced as cheaply as possible.”
That made sense to me.
How many copies would I want to print? The per-copy cost would be lower the more copies I printed, but the overall cost would rise. I said I was thinking in terms of 5,000 copies, and Lou told me that was a good number. He suggested that his estimate include two sets of figures—for a 5,000-copy first printing, and for a 3,000-copy first run to be followed if necessary by a 2,000-copy reprint.
By the end of the lunch hour, we had agreed that he would get estimates of presswork, binding and printing costs, and send me a letter enumerating the probable schedule of the whole process along with an estimate of the costs. I left the restaurant confident that I had found the right person, and that it would not be necessary to interview anybody else. If I had had more time available, I probably would have met with two or three of the other people Richard had recommended, but I don’t see how I could have made a better choice.
We moved on schedule, and had been in Florida for several days, waiting for our furniture, when Lou’s letter reached me. He had secured several estimates, and had prepared a detailed breakdown of fixed and variable costs. According to his figures, a first printing of 3,000 copies would cost me $2.55 per book. Upping the run to 5,000 copies would bring the per-copy cost down to $1.83.
He also included a rough schedule, which looked something like this:
9/30: Ms to me
10/11: Designer’s text layouts (tissues) in for approval (2 weeks)
10/18: Designer’s text layouts OK’d and ms sent to compositor (1 week); cover concept discussed and assigned to artist for tight comp (3 weeks)
11/1: Sample pages in from compositor for approval (2 weeks)
11/8: Sample pages OK’d and returned to compositor for galleys (1 week); cover comp in for approval (2 weeks)
11/20: Galleys in (1 weeks)
11/22: Final cover copy to me and comp OK’d (2 weeks)
12/4: Author’s and proofreader’s galleys to me (2 weeks)
12/6: Final cover mechanical to printer for 3M (2 weeks)
12/11: Collated master galleys back to compositor for pages (1 week)
12/23: Cover 3M in for final OK
12/30: Pages in (2 weeks)
1/6: Pages back to comp for repro (1 week)
1/10: Cover 3M back to printer for final printing (3 weeks)
1/13: Repro in for checking (1 week)
1/20: Corrected repro on hand/repro to printer (1 week)
1/31: Final covers ship to binder (3 weeks)
2/3: First sig blues in for OK (2 weeks)
2/10: First sig blues back to printer for final printing (1 week)
2/28: Finished books available
(A brief explanation: tissues are designs using tissue overlays; a comp is a composite, a step in the proofing stages; galleys are prepublication proofs of typeset copy; 3M means a color proof; the mechanical contains type and shows how artwork will be printed; repro means galleys that are ready to be sent to the printer for reproduction; a sig is a signature, a section of the book that comes off the press in 8-, 16- or 32-page groupings; blues are blueprint proofs of how the book will look when it comes off the press.)
“This is a conservative schedule,” Lou added, “but I wanted to give you one you could reasonably count on. I wouldn’t advise you to set out to do this much faster or you’ll find yourself under pressure to cut corners.”
That made sense, but I wasn’t nuts about the February 28th delivery date. I could see one trouble-free way to hurry things, however. I could get busy writing the book.
Writing the book was the easy part.
Our furniture arrived July 31st. The following morning I sat down at my desk, plugged in my typewriter, and went to work.
Twelve days later I was done.
I had expected it to go quickly. After all, I could hardly have been more familiar with the material. I had spent the spring months presenting the seminar a dozen times all around the country. While I wasn’t sure I could do it in my sleep, I had on one occasion done it in lieu of sleep—I was up all night before the June seminar in Chicago. I thought it would be eminently possible to bat out ten pages a day, even with the distractions and disturbances that were a part of relocating to Florida.
As it turned out, I had no trouble turning out 20 pages a day. Understand, please, that those were arduous days. The writing was demanding. I had to turn an oral in-person seminar into something that would work on paper. I had to adapt various interactional processes so that they could be performed by an individual alone at home.
No matter. In less than two weeks I had produced a 250-page manuscript. Since one way I intended to save both time and money was to dispense with the services of a copy editor, I went over the manuscript carefully before sending it off. Lynne gave it a thorough reading and provided me with 11 pages of notes and suggestions. I incorporated some of these and shrugged off the rest with pigheaded abandon, and the manuscript went off to Lou by UPS Next Day Air.
Lou got back to me by Express Mail the first week in September. He enclosed what he informed me was the first of many bills, this for $350 for the book designer. It was accompanied by the original manuscript, which had gone through the designing process, along with tissue layouts and a complete composition order. A page of type set the way my book would be set was included to show me what my book pages would look like.
First problem. I didn’t like the way they looked. The type looked small, was set very tight, and was sans-serif type.
I never did like sans-serif type for text. It’s less readable. Nor did I like the way the pages were going to be so compressed. On the other hand, Lou had anticipated my objections and mentioned in his letter that he had worked with the designer to hold down costs. “The design may look a little tight,” he said, “but it will save you money.”
I thought this over for a couple of hours. That night I called Lou and told him how I felt. No problem, he said, agreeing that the book would look better set looser and in a face like Bodoni or Baskerville. But that would increase the book’s size from 160 to 208 pages, which would boost typesetting costs, paper costs, book production costs, and freight charges as well. The change would probably run me an additional 25¢ a copy, maybe a little more.
Well, I was going to sell the book for ten bucks. What was 25¢ a copy?
A lot, actually. Every penny saved at the cost end makes an enormous difference in the profitability of a venture. And I realized, too, that spending the extra quarter wouldn’t increase my sales at all. I was going to sell the book through the mails, so people would be buying it sight unseen. They wouldn’t return it because the type was set tight, or because they preferred Baskerville to Optima. Books produced for the mail-order market are typically underproduced. The mail-order book buyer who sends off ten dollars to a self-published author generally receives a small, inexpensively made book or pamphlet with an amateur look to it. If the information within is adequate, he generally overlooks the homemade production job.
But I didn’t want this. If I were ever going to get the book into stores, I would have to be able to offer them a professionally produced, attractive book that would look good enough to engender point-of-purchase sales. More important than that, the book was going to have my name on it. I wanted it to look good, and I wanted all my customers to feel they were getting more than their money’s worth.
“The hell with it,” I said. “Let’s do it right.”
I returned the manuscript to Lou, along with a copy of a page that he’d noticed was missing. A day or two later I was able to send him the introduction, and an about-the-author blurb for the back cover. On the 10th of the month he sent me revised text layouts, with the body type changed.
It looked beautiful.
So did the cover design, which Lou sent to me on September 19th. I had suggested that the cover be predominantly yellow, since that color gets identified with Write for Your Life. (The pens we give out are yellow, the floral arrangement at the head table is yellow, and for a while I was compulsive about wearing yellow neckties.) The proposed cover looked like a yellow legal pad, and I thought it was terrific.
“Things are rolling now,” Lou advised. “The manuscript is at the compositor, and the next step will be sample pages set in type. I’ll check them to make sure no problems exist and give the typesetter the go-ahead to proceed to galleys. You should see galleys around mid October.”
The typesetter’s estimate was enclosed, with one half due with the purchase order. I wrote out a check for $900.
The cover layout looked fine, but as I studied it I decided that the title itself was typographically unexciting. Then Lynne or I remembered that we already had an excellent Write for Your Life logo. George Sorenson, our good friend and organizer in Minneapolis, had created a logo for a brochure he put together for the Minneapolis seminar, and was going to use it in the ad he was designing for us. Couldn’t we use that on the book cover?
We could indeed. I got a repro proof off to Lou, and he had the designer incorporate the change.
Galleys arrived early, the first week of October. Lou wanted them back by the week of the 21st; I proofed them in two days and got them back immediately. “We should have no trouble getting books finished in January,” he wrote. “I wouldn’t be surprised if you had them quite a bit earlier. Don’t count on it, but I’ll do all possible to have them before Christmas.”
With the galleys, I sent along a check for $122.33 for the cover type.
We still didn’t have a photo for the back cover. A session with a local photographer yielded nothing recognizable, let alone usable, and I wound up sending Lou the photo that had run on my short story collection Like a Lamb to Slaughter. It was a good picture, but I’d hoped for something newer and with more definition.
In mid October, Lynne and I flew to France to attend a conference in Reims. In Paris I met with the good people at Gallimard, my French publishers. After lunch, one of their photographers took me down alongside the Seine and snapped away. A few days later in Reims someone from Gallimard handed me an envelope full of glossies. Jacques Sassier, the photographer, had done an astonishing job, considering the material he had to work with. I came back from France with the cover photo in hand.
I came back to some bills, too: $350 for cover design, including sketches, comp, mechanical, stats and miscellaneous type; $250 for proofreading; $500 for one half the estimated cost of cover prep, plates, stock, printing and lamination.
It was time, Lou wrote, to finalize quantity. Did I want to print 5,000 right away, which was cheaper but riskier, or 3,000 now and 2,000 when needed, which was more expensive but safer? I bit the bullet and stayed with the decision to run 5,000.
A copy of the cover mechanical was there for my approval. “I tried and tried to work the photo onto the back and it just didn’t look right,” he wrote. “My suggestion is to drop it. Most paperbacks don’t carry authors’ photos.”
Time, obviously, for another Executive Decision, and this one was easy to make. I have come to believe that all books should carry photographs of their authors, and this looked to be doubly true with Write for Your Life, which was such a thoroughly personal book, with the author talking directly to the reader on every page. Besides, I had this great photo I’d just schlepped back from France.
I called Lou and told him a photo had to run, and that I was sending him a new one. The about-the-author blurb could be cut or set tight—that didn’t matter—but the photo had to run.
About this time, forms arrived from R. R. Bowker. I had to fill them out in order to get an ISBN number assigned. (Lou had tried to handle this for me, but Bowker insists on dealing directly with authors of self-published books.) I filled out the forms and sent them off by return mail.
A couple of weeks later, Lou wrote that he needed the ISBN number. Could I call him as soon as it arrived so that it could be added to the back covers? When the time came to print the covers, I still hadn’t heard from Bowker. It was time to make another decision—did we hold off until we had the number or go ahead and print without it? I didn’t even have to think about it. At this point we had advertising scheduled and would be getting orders in a matter of weeks. I didn’t want to do anything that would delay the books. Every book should have an ISBN—it’s hard for stores to order them without it—but I decided I could always add the number when we went back for a second printing. The first printing probably wasn’t going to have any store sales anyway.
More bills to pay. The final payment for composition, and the first half to the book manufacturer. Manufacturing costs had originally been estimated at $3,860, but that was for a 160-page book. The new estimate was $5,018, and the difference was right around the 25¢ a book Lou had said it would be, since freight costs would also be increased.
Twenty-five cents doesn’t sound like much. $1,250 does.
I sat down and wrote out some checks.
Late in November, a note from Lou advised me that books would be ready December 20th. Then, in mid December, he wrote that the completion date would be a week later than projected. He took some of the sting out of the news by enclosing a copy of the printed cover.
By this time, our first ad for the book had run in Writer’s Digest and orders were coming in every day. I prepared shipping envelopes, and sat tight.
On the last day of the year, six copies of the book arrived by Express Mail. The bulk shipment left Pennsylvania on Friday, Lou wrote, so I could expect arrival around the sixth of January.
The books looked beautiful. I sent a couple out to reviewers and kept the rest around the house to look at. January 6th came and went. The following week I called Lou, and it turned out that the books had not been shipped; the manufacturer was holding them pending payment, and I was holding his check pending their arrival. A couple of phone calls straightened this out, and on January 20th the books came.
We stacked 106 cartons in the spare room, toted the 107th into the dining room, and went to work. The envelopes were already stamped and labeled. We stuffed and stapled, and first thing next morning I drove down to the Post Office. Even with those delays at the end, we were shipping orders less than six full months after my first lunch with Lou.
What did it cost me?
My total expenditure for the production of 5,000 books came to $8,742.70, exclusive of office overhead. In addition, I paid Lou his fee of 10% of costs, or $874.27, and reimbursed him for $53.75 for five Express Mail shipments to me. Freight added another $440.08, which made the bottom-line figure $10,110.80, or approximately $2.02 per book.
I could not have managed this without Lou’s help. I’m sure his expertise in dealing with printers and typesetters saved me considerably more than his fee in dollars alone, not to mention the savings in time and aggravation. The book he produced for me looks perfectly professional, with nothing of the homemade look about it that marks so many self-published volumes. I don’t think I could have achieved anything like it on my own.
With the books in hand, I started to find out how different things look from a publisher’s standpoint. I’d always been irked when my own publishers failed to send out dozens upon dozens of freebies, thinking it only sound business for them to blanket the globe with review copies.
Why shouldn’t I think so? It didn’t cost me a dime.
But now it cost me three bucks every time I mailed off a copy—$2.02 manufacturing cost and a dollar’s worth of stamps and envelope. I felt myself turning more miserly than any publisher I’d ever been associated with. I managed to realize the folly of being penny wise, but it still stuck in my craw every time I mailed out a comp.
Would I Do It Again?
I suppose that depends on how this venture pays off, and it’s a little too early to tell at this writing. While I have every expectation that I’ll sell every copy and reap a handsome profit, the Literary Digest was every bit as certain that Alf Landon would swamp Roosevelt in ’36. If I wind up using the books to insulate the attic, my enthusiasm for the whole project will very likely wane.
Even if that turns out to be the case, I’ll still be glad I had the experience. As I mentioned, the fantasy of self-publishing is one I entertained for years. Relatively few of my long-standing fantasies can be realized without risking public embarrassment or a jail sentence. When I find one that can, my inclination is to go for it.
The work doesn’t end when the books arrive, incidentally. My job now is to sell them, and it’s at this point that the Rosses’ book becomes especially useful. I keep finding new ways to get these books out of the storeroom and into people’s hands.
Incidentally, my ISBN arrived from R. R. Bowker just a week after we took delivery on the books. I’m glad I didn’t wait, but I’m also glad I’ve got it now.
We can put it on the cover when we go back to press for a second printing.
AND NOW LET’S FAST-FORWARD TWENTY-SIX YEARS…
We never did go back for a second printing. But we sold over 4900 of the 5000 books we printed. So I guess the venture was successful.
Did we make a profit? I don’t honestly know. We priced the book too low; given our costs, it should have retailed for $15, not $10. Aside from the copies we sold face-to-face at seminars, all our orders came through the mail. We weren’t able to take credit cards, so every order had to be accompanied by a check. (Yes, credit cards existed by then, but not for a small mail-order merchant at a new address. We couldn’t get approved.)
We piggybacked our book advertising with the seminar promotion, so it’s hard to calculate costs. If we’d done all this in the era of email and online orders and credit card access, I’m sure we could have moved 15-20,000 books; as far as that goes, we could have sold out the hall every time we held a seminar. The evolution of the way business is conducted is almost as dramatic as the sea-change in self-publishing.
Write For Your Life has been eVailable for several years now, as a HarperCollins eBook. (Like all my HarperCollins titles, it’s been reduced in price for at least the next several weeks to $3.99.)
A couple of observations: (1) The book I mentioned, The Complete Guide to Self-Publishing, is still in print. It was a good book then, and I’ve no reason to doubt that it’s a good book now. The current edition was revised in 2010, and if there is an entire sentence in it that appeared in the book I read, I’d be greatly surprised. (2) There are still people who can do for today’s self-publisher what Lou did so capably for me. But there’s less for them to do, and plenty of writers can do it all on their own. (3) Nobody will ever pull up in a truck and drop 5000 eBooks in your driveway. Even if you decide to print physical books, Print-On-Demand technology means never having to print that many books all at once or figure out where to put them. (4) Not everything’s changed. It’s still way faster to publish something yourself than to wait around for a commercial publisher to get it out there.
And (5) it’s still fun.