Big News and Query Stats

I’ll not bury the lede. After a long, involved process of writing, editing, querying, repeat, I’m over-the-moon excited to announce that I’m being represented by the awesome Susan Velazquez at the esteemed JABberwocky Literary Agency. I don’t want to oversell it; I know this is only the beginning of the publishing journey, and there’s plenty of hard work, heartache and (hopefully) happiness in my future. But for now, I’m going to jump up and down and scream my joy to the heavens.

To commemorate the occasion, I wanted to do the standard New Babby Author query stats post. While splurting out this data is a rite of passage at this point (possibly to make us feel like we haven’t wasted our time gathering it), I do think it continues to be useful for authors who are just starting the querying process.

“You’ll get a lot of rejections” is a common refrain in the publishing industry, yes, but I don’t think people realize how common the inverse is. I’ve attended multiple “how to get published” panels where the stories given were “I queried a few agents, got multiple offers, chose one, got into a bidding war and then they made my book into a movie.” I don’t want to take anything away from those highly successful authors (except maybe a few million dollars, venmo me plz), but I want to make sure as-of-yet unagented authors know that the long hard slog of cold querying can reap rewards. You are not alone.

With that said, let’s jump into the time machine and travel waaaaay back to Matt’s First Query…

Book One – 120k Epic Fantasy, 05/2012-06/2012

Queries Sent: 15
Requests Received: 0
Request Rate: 0%

Ouch! Suffice it to say, this book was not ready for prime-time. There are a few likely reasons: one, though I still love the novel’s characters, the plot itself is bog-standard fantasy, and thus doesn’t pop particularly well in a query. Two, 120k is generally too long for a debut novel, even in fantasy. Longer books occasionally sell, but they’re the exception. Three, I was a young writer, and the writing itself just didn’t shine as much as it needed to.

So was querying this book a mistake? Well, if the goal is solely to land an agent, then sure. But I found learning the query process with a “test project” invaluable. I picked up query-writing and synopsis-writing skills first-hand, became familiar with agents, agencies and publishers, and shed my fear of rejection (indeed, as the stats show, rejection became my base assumption). It became clear after a relatively small number of queries that the manuscript hadn’t gathered the kind of reception I’d hoped for, and the time spent querying didn’t stop me from working on my next project, which I did simultaneously.

Now, the caveat is that you should never query a project you’re not willing to stand behind as publishable. Hands-on learning is great, but the risk of querying a project that’s laughably, cringingly bad (thankfully not the case here) is that your name becomes memorable for bad reasons. If that’s the case, maybe just shelve that manuscript.

Book Two – 100k Fantasy/Adventure, 04/2013-08/2013

Queries Sent: 75
Partial Requests: 4
Full Requests: 3 (includes 1 partial->full)
Total Request Rate: 8%

Better! At least, a little. 8% is still a low request rate (from what I’ve seen and experienced, a 10-20% request rate is what you want to shoot for). The higher number of queries sent here indicated my higher confidence in the book. I’m still really proud of this one, and though I’d tweak several things about it if I were to try to sell it again, I think it’s overall a strong manuscript.

Looking back on the query, I believe it could stand some improvement. The biggest problem is the opening pages, though. The book starts with a professor musing, quite vaguely, about equations, and if there’s one intro more boring than detailed math, it’s ambiguous math. If I could go back in time, I’d definitely make the first few chapters more engaging than they were when I queried.

Book Three – 100k Epic Fantasy, 02/2015 – 05/2017 (!!!)

Queries Sent: 67
Partial Requests: 8
Full Requests: 4
Revise and Resubmit Requests: 1
Total Request Rate: 19.4% (!)

This one stings. That request rate is right in line with something I’d expect to get a representation offer (though it should be self-evident that there are no guarantees). This novel kind of ended up with the opposite problem as the previous MS. The opening pages were solid, if I do say so myself, and I worked a very long time on crafting an engaging query, and that resulted in a lot more requests than I’d received previously (or, to be frank, even subsequently!)

The issue ended up being that the novel was a bit too … let’s say, ambitious. I pitched it as an Epic Fantasy Cloud Atlas (a concept I’m still 100% in love with, so feel free to @ me with recommendations), but Cloud Atlas was not a debut novel, and likely wouldn’t have sold if it had been (also, I just checked, and it turns out I’m not David Mitchell).

I knew while writing the manuscript that it would be a hard sell, so I wasn’t exactly disappointed. And ultimately the structure (five disparate protagonists whose stories only marginally converged by the end) proved too unwieldy, and if I revisit the manuscript, I’ll likely prune a lot.

All that said … see that date range up there? I spent over two years querying this novel, and that is frankly unacceptable. A big reason is because of that sole Revise and Resubmit noted above. For the record, I am not blaming the agent who requested the revision at all; their issues with the novel were 100% on point. But the changes essentially required me to write a second novel (I wrote something like 60-80k worth of new words), tack it onto the original manuscript and edit the whole thing into some semblance of cohesiveness. Needless to say, this did not work.

Am I advising people not to consider R&Rs? Absolutely not. Lots of R&Rs turn into offers of representation, and if those revisions align with how you already feel about the manuscript, it’s totally worth the effort to make changes that will likely improve the manuscript for future querying in any case.

For this particular project, though, the R&R came at the tail end of my query list, which meant unless I wanted to re-query agents, I was revising for this agent alone. In addition, the revisions were so substantial that I spent nearly a year on them, which meant an entire year not working on a new project. My advice for R&Rs would be to take a long, hard look at whether the advised revisions align with your particular vision for the book, and also to make a realistic cost-benefit analysis. It’s hard not to be swayed by the temptation of an offer; BELIEVE me, I know. But in many cases, spending a year crafting something brand new (with the benefit of everything you learned from writing previous works) will turn out better than spending a year futzing with an older manuscript with only vague guidance from an agent or editor.

Book Four – 100k Science Fiction, 03/2018 – 10/2018

Queries Sent: 58
Partial Requests: 5
Full Requests: 3
Offers of Representation: 2
Total Request Rate: 12%

Four books (five, if you want to count the ‘second half’ of the previous manuscript). Six years. Over half a million words. And finally, finally, we see some success.

What’s interesting here is that, especially compared to the stats for the previous novel, this set of queries was not a mind blowing success! My request rate stayed above 10%, but was not particularly impressive on its own. I liked my original query, but it was vastly improved with professional critiques from Dongwon Song and Katherine Locke, to whom I am incredibly grateful. And after a first round of queries, I decided to punch up the voice in my first few chapters, which I believe brought me over the finish line (if you take any advice from this, let it be that your opening pages have to be solid motherfucking platinum. Good enough is not good enough).

You’ll see from the plural in Offers of Representations that I did indeed end up choosing between two stellar agents to represent my novel. I don’t want to pretend that this isn’t an enviable position; I, like so many others, worked my ass off for the better part of a decade trying to get one offer, and it turns out when it rains, it pours. That said, I also don’t want to pretend that it was all sugar and rainbows. Making a decision of that magnitude was more anxiety-inducing than anything else I’ve done in my life, and rejecting people, even in a purely professional capacity, sucks. It really does.

But I am proud as hell of this book, unsurprised that it succeeded more than previous manuscripts, and so excited for the world to read it. I really hope I get to announce its publication before the heat death of the universe!


What to make of all this? As I noted above, the conclusion I drew is that your query+opening pages are by far the most important keys to query success. If I had to choose between the two, I’d much rather have a great opening than a great ending (though, of course, you should have both). An agent might see the potential in a great manuscript with a meh ending; they won’t even bother reading a great manuscript with a meh opening.

But more than that, what I want to highlight here is that PERSISTENCE MATTERS. I’m sure I took this from someone more clever than me (and if so, let me know so I can credit them!) but I like to think the only three aspects to being a successful creative are luck, skill and persistence. I don’t think anyone knows the true relative ranking of those aspects, but persistence is the only one you can really, truly control. You don’t choose your luck, and while you can absolutely focus on your craft, it’s never as simple as an RPG, where x amount of grinding will give you y number of levels. What you can do, though, and what no one can ever stop you from doing, is showing the fuck up. You can keep submitting stories, keep querying novels, keep finishing work until you succeed. And if you never do (hey, who knows — I could totally strike out with publishers!), at least you can say it wasn’t for lack of trying.

And now, y’all, I’ve got some editing to do, and new projects to bang out. I’ll see you on the other side.

Oyster, the Netflix of books, is done. I’m not shocked.

Insert your own pun about Oyster being fried, or failing to produce a pearl.

Most of you probably haven’t even heard of it, but Oyster, the self-proclaimed ‘Netflix for Books,’ has been operating for a little over a year. It debuted to some pretty bad reviews and worries about the business model, but so did Netflix originally.

Of course, Netflix was adaptable, and proved that their ultimate vision was one consumers shared. Oyster? Not so much. It’s shutting down.

The aforelinked IBT article feels prescient, but being a consumer and producer of written stories, I think there are a few simple reasons why Oyster failed, and why future startups with the same model likely will as well.

Books Aren’t As Consumable

This was the big killer, and it was obvious to pretty much anyone in the business. As the IBT article says, none but the most voracious readers can finish more than a few books a month.  Add to that the fact that books are already sport a fantastically high time-to-cost ratio — you can purchase anywhere from 3-9 Kindle Daily Deal books for Oyster’s $9.99 subscription price — and it’s hard to see where Oyster’s value proposition is.

Publishers Are Conservative and Fearful

Book publishers hate change. Of course, so do network and film executives. But the publishing industry has been particularly slow to embrace the digital age — see all their petty fights with Amazon and Google about eBook pricing, archiving, etc. Oyster, from all the hearsay, had a a rough time getting some publishers on board, and though all the Big Six minus Amazon did eventually put titles on the service, even at the end the list felt anemic. The store is bulked up by entries that are actually just purchase links (imagine how infuriating it would be to click on a Netflix title only to hear that it’ll cost you an extra $12.99). New releases are nonexistent, and even many older, popular books are unavailable (Want to read the original Game of Thrones, released in 1996? That’ll be $6.99!)

There is Already a Netflix of Books — And It’s Successful

Thing is, we have a company that provides a service similar to what Oyster was trying to be. It’s Audible, the largest audiobook provider (some would say monopoly). An Audible subscription isn’t quite a buffet, but that’s okay — we rarely binge on books in the same way that we blaze through an entire season of a television show in a day. A single audio book often has a running time longer than thirteen hours, and the ‘power user’ audible subscription gives two books a month, which I’d equate to anywhere from one to three seasons, depending on how big of a doorstop you choose. That’s plenty for all but the most dedicated Netflix viewers.

Some might claim that Audible is far less relevant to the publishing industry than Netflix is to the television industry. I kind of doubt it. As proof, I submit to you John Scalzi’s post from a few months back showing that audio sales were fully half of his total sales. Not revenue — sales. Audible has become a major player in this space, and while Scalzi’s previous books might have grown him a bigger audio audience than normal (and his famous narrators don’t hurt!), I suspect this is not wildly out of line with what other authors are seeing.

So what now? Well, as the article says, many from the Oyster team have jumped ship to Google (Alphabet?) Play Books, leading to some speculation that Google is going to start a book subscription service. I kinda doubt it. Google would have to overcome the same problems Oyster faced, and while they certainly be able to throw a ton of money at the problem, money doesn’t change consumer habits by itself. And convincing publishers to participate might actually be harder given that industry’s distrust stemming from the book scanning fight.

I think what’s next is the status quo. eBooks, eBooks, eBooks, with a growing dominance of audio as well. Given Kindle’s success, consumers seem pretty happy with the way books are purchased right now (unlike in the days before Netflix, where your only choice for rewatching a show was buying $40+ physical DVD sets). Until that changes, there’s probably not much room for disruption.

Go Set a Watchman – Climbing That Ethical Ladder

Who Sets the Watchmen?

To Kill a Mockingbird is my favorite novel. After reading its controversial sequel, Go Set a Watchman, I’m wondering if it should be.

Which is not to say that Watchman is a bad novel. Nor is it to say that it tarnishes the legacy of its beloved predecessor. It does complicate that legacy. Go Set a Watchman is an intensely uncomfortable experience. In my opinion, it is designed as such.

DOWN HERE THERE BE SPOILERS. While this isn’t really a novel that suffers when ‘spoiled,’ it’s worth warning anyway. If you want my one-paragraph recommendation, jump to the end!

The hows of Watchman’s drastic reversal of characterization should be plenty familiar by now: Atticus is not the hero we thought he was. Atticus is a bigot.

The easiest theme to identify here is disillusionment. Atticus Finch reveals himself to be a racist, and in so doing destroys the pedestal that Jean Louise “Scout” Finch, the hero of To Kill a Mockingbird, has placed him on.

While that development is interesting enough, the far more compelling conflict is the one that Harper Lee brings up in her reader. There is, of course, the controversy over the publishing of the novel. There’s not a whole lot I can add to that — plenty has been written about some of the creepy stuff coming from Lee’s lawyer and publishers — and I was absolutely cognizant of that while reading. Discomfort all around.

But there’s a deeper layer of connection with her readers, which plays directly on Lee’s characterization of Atticus. In breaking him before our eyes, Lee is telling us directly that we need to grow our sense of morality beyond a small town lawyer showing the most basic amount of humanity to a black man.

The official story, of course, is that Go Set a Watchman was written first and included several flashbacks to Scout’s childhood. When Watchman was rejected, a publisher suggested she turn those flashbacks into a standalone novel, which became Mockingbird. I don’t doubt the truth of that, but the implication has always been that this version of Watchman is essentially the original one Lee wrote, with the bits that went into Mockingbird excised.

That is the part I tend to doubt.

It’s unlikely we’ll ever know for certain, but Watchman certainly feels aware of its own place in history. While Scout’s disappointment in Atticus fuels her growth as a character, it’s hard not to read between the lines and see Lee trying to grow her readers in the same way.

This is all dependent, of course, in how much of Watchman you believe was written or modified after the publication of Mockingbird. My guess: a nontrivial portion of it. But your interpretation may differ. One thing is inarguable, however. Even if Harper Lee didn’t mean to challenge our understanding of Mockingbird, she absolutely means to challenge our understanding of morality.

The Ziggurat of Morality

The crux of Watchman, as I see it, is that while believing the right thing for the wrong reasons may be better than doing the wrong thing, it can still lead to disastrous consequences in the long run. After finishing the novel, I thought of nothing so much as psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg’s stages of moral development.

At the end of Watchman, Jean Louise learns her father is actually proud that she disagrees with his bigotry. Which doesn’t mean he’s going to consider being less bigoted, of course — only that he seems to recognize that he’s on the wrong side of the ethical line, but is going to stick to his guns anyway.

How does this relate to Kohlberg? Quoting Harvard’s phrasing of the first moral stage:

Stage 1: Egocentric deference to superior power or prestige

This is essentially Scout’s status at the end of To Kill a Mockingbird. She worships Atticus. His actions in defending Tom Robinson are seen as moral and heroic, but mostly because he says they are. The novel draws significant attention to Atticus shaping young Scout’s morality, but it should be noted that, according to Kohlberg, this is the lowest level of morality. It is based on a logical fallacy, and can be exceedingly dangerous if the ‘superior power’ is himself an immoral person (or an immoral text, *cough cough*). It should also be noted that Jean Louise’s friend Henry seems permanently stuck in this phase. He’s mostly not a bad guy, but that’s because he’s modeled himself after Atticus. Everything he does is to fit in, and at the end of the book, we can see that he worships the man even more than his daughter did.

But where do Atticus’s morals come from? It’s easy to see in the subtext of To Kill a Mockingbird (this article has some good sources for this), but Watchman makes it explicit: Atticus’s morality comes from the law. Which is not a horrible place to derive morality. Heck, it’s number 5 on Kohlberg’s list:

Stage 5: Contractual/legalistic orientation

  • Norms of right and wrong are defined in terms of laws or institutionalized rules which seem to have a rational basis.
  • When conflict arises between individual needs and law or contract, though sympathetic to the former, the individual believes the latter must prevail because of its greater functional rationality for society, the majority will and welfare.

This is Atticus to a T. He is a hyper-rational, stoic defender of the law. While this is laudable in a sense — especially when contrasted with people who let their biases outweigh what’s legal — it’s easy to see how this can go wrong. Atticus, when employing this way of thinking, lacks any sense of empathy. He is Antonin Scalia. While he’ll certainly defend a black man accused of rape, because the law says that every man deserves a defense, he has no problem supporting Jim Crow laws or the Ku Klux Klan. Laws, by definition, can’t be unjust. Because they are the law.

While this is a higher state of reasoning than Stage 1, it’s still not the top of Kohlberg’s pyramid. The top stage is “individual principles of conscience.” If that doesn’t sound familiar, perhaps you haven’t read the quote on the back of the book beating the theme of the story into your head:

This comes from Scout’s Uncle Jack, in reference to Scout’s rejection of her father’s philosophy. It doesn’t get much clearer of that. Atticus has been superseded in Jean Louise’s mind by her own watchman, her own conscience.

It may be time for the rest of us to follow her lead.

Controversy aside, how is the rest of it?

Well … it’s not terrible. I realize that may be a presumptuous thing to say about Harper Lee, one of my favorite authors (though given the story’s warning against hero worship, perhaps she’d be proud of me). But considered as a standalone story, divorced from the context of its author and her previous work, it feels … sort of flat.

Lee devotes much of the book to describing Maycomb, Alabama and the South in general, but as a transplanted Southerner with a not-so-cheery view of the states below the Mason-Dixon line, it was hard for me, personally, to be all that engaged by the rosy hue Lee uses to paint setting. Or by Scout’s presumed decision at the end of the novel to stay and make Maycomb the place she imagined it was — it’s a decision I can respect, but I still feel like it portrays the region’s bitter hatred in far too much of an ‘aw shucks!’ way.

And until the last quarter of the book, when Scout’s conflict with her father presents itself, there’s nothing driving the plot. Sure, she’s a little bit nostalgic for her home, and there’s a hint of strife between Scout and her suitor, Henry. But it’s clear from early on that she’s never going to marry the guy, and most of her hemming and hawing is simply trying to identify why she feels that way.

Henry’s story connects nicely with Atticus’s, and is ultimately satisfying. But it doesn’t make his pleading and pestering for Scout’s hand any less of a slog.

But is it worth reading? Well, yes. It’s an enjoyable enough read, it adds unneeded but not unwelcome context to Mockingbird, and it does play with some interesting themes. If you’re okay with the Atticus twist, you should pick it up! If you’re not … well, you should definitely pick it up. If you’re one of those people who based their morals on Atticus Finch, who became a lawyer because of a fictional character and whose foundations would be shaken upon seeing him in a new light, you’re the exact person this novel is speaking to.

News from the Litosphere

Things are happening! And I have opinions about them!

First up is Amazon’s fight with mega publisher Hachette. Amazon wanted a better contract — what exactly that entails isn’t clear, but it doesn’t really matter. Their response to it has been reportedly pretty dramatic. Raising prices on Hachette books, suggesting books from other publishers to customers, and even, supposedly, delaying shipping when a customer actually orders a Hachette book.

What to think of all this? Well, back when Amazon was fighting with Macmillan over the high price of eBooks. I was firmly on Amazon’s side here, since they were directly acting on behalf of their customers. Here, their position is less sympathetic. One because we’re not really sure what Amazon is trying to extract from the publisher. Two because, to get what they want, they’re actively making life harder for their customers. And that’s a shitty thing to do.

I’ve heard some more serious talk, though, that this might be an antitrust violation. That Amazon’s status as the number one bookseller constitutes a monopoly, and these negotiations with Hachette are therefore illegal. Which … I don’t know if I agree with.

With the caveat that I’m not a lawyer, simply having a high market share doesn’t make you a monopoly. Do Amazon’s practices prevent others from competing fairly? Not hardly. Plenty of local, independent bookstores manage to succeed in spite of Amazon, and Barnes and Noble is much more aggressive and choosy about what they stock and carry.

Plus, it’s hard to argue that Amazon is monopolistic when they allow (and actually make it easy) eBooks from competitors on their Kindle device. If you want to sell your eBook outside of Amazon, there is literally nothing stopping you. The only thing Amazon provides is publicity and familiarity with consumers, neither of which I see them as required to provide to every single publisher and self-publisher.

That said, given that Amazon is getting into the publishing game with imprints like 47North, they’re under a lot more scrutiny now. Could it be said that their actions toward Hachette are being done as a way to promote their own published works? If so, I could easily see the government frowning on that (though, the likelihood of any big company getting dinged for anything these days is pretty low).

Next on my list is the 2014 Hugos. Normally, the publishers and authors nominated for Hugos provide the voters with the nominated works free of charge. So, you know, the voters can read them and vote. Kind of an important thing.

This year has made news for two reasons. One is that Tor is giving out the entire Wheel of Time series, which has been nominated for Best Novel (yes, the whole series, don’t get me started), in the Hugo packet. Which is awesome!

Not so awesome? Orbit, publisher of Best Novel nominees Parasite, Ancillary Justice and Neptune’s Brood, has opted to provide only excerpts. I find this incredibly problematic. Not because I demand FREE BOOKZ! That’s not the point, and anyone made because they think they’re entitled to the work is in the wrong here.

But reading the Hugo packet is a pretty big time commitment for me in general, especially given that I read fairly slowly and we don’t have a whole lot of lead time. I will probably not seek out the Orbit novels in their entirety by the voting date, and I will not vote for them if I haven’t read them.

That’s not punishing the authors or being spitefully entitled. I really like Seanan’s work, and I’ve heard great things about Ancillary Justice. It’s just the reality of the situation — including full works makes it easy and convenient for me to get them, and removing that convenience makes it a lot less likely I’m going to read everything in time.

The authors themselves have actually stepped back from the decision. They didn’t quite decry it, but they did make it clear that it the decision was entirely the publishers, and they had no input or choice in the matter. Curious, especially since Orbit’s justification is that they’re looking out for their authors.

Clearly Orbit thinks that giving out the full novels with the packet will hurt sales. Which, frankly, I find offensive. They’re viewing Hugo voters as direct income sources. Imagine if an indie film distributor got nominated for an Oscar, then refused to provide the film to Academy voters on the basis that those deadbeats should just go out and buy a ticket! It’s ridiculous.

I don’t know if they’ll change their decision. I hope they do, and if not, I hope I can get around to reading the novels anyway. But I’m not going to guarantee it.

Work for Hire — Unfair, or Decent Opportunity?

Parafantasy dropped a pretty distressing bomb by covering the story that popular author L. J. Smith was fired from writing The Vampire Diaries, the story she (essentially) created.

“To put it briefly, I’ve been fired from writing the Vampire Diaries. And I’ve been fighting and fighting this since last fall, but there is absolutely no recourse. Midnight is the last L. J. Smith book in the Vampire Diaries series….”

Ouch. For fans of the series, I’m sure the news that their author is being switched up is a kick in the gut. Even for non-fans, it might be mystifying how something like this could happen. It’s got to be some stupid legalese loophole, right? Well … sort of.

The Vampire Diaries were created under what’s known as a “work-for-hire” agreement:

And both these series were written “for hire” which means that the book packager owns the books the author produces. Although I didn’t even understand what “for hire” meant back in 1990, when I agreed to write books for them, I found out eventually, to my horror and dismay. It means that even though I have written the entire series, I don’t own anything about The Vampire Diaries.

How true is what Smith says? Well, completely true. Writing something for-hire means it’s no longer yours — the characters, settings, words are owned by the parent company. The question, then, is whether or not this is fair. And the answer … yes and no.

For-hire writing is often seen in the context of shared universes. If you’re hired to write a Star Wars novel, for instance, you’re doing so for-hire. You don’t get to own the concept of lightsabers, the planet Tatooine, or even the original Jedi character you introduced. Those belong to Lucas, and it sort of makes sense in this context.

Now, The Vampire Diaries is a bit different. From what I can tell, HarperCollins hired Smith to create the series and characters from the ground up, and from Smith’s comments (“…I pleaded and promised to do Phantom as they required.”), it’s clear they had a strong presence not only in the editing, but in the overall design of the series. Thus, it’s not “I’ve written a book series, and HarperCollins is publishing it!” It’s “HarperCollins has an idea for a book series, and they want you to write it for them.”

So is it fair for HarperCollins to kick Smith out? At the very least, it sounds like they should have been far more up-front about what was going on here, if Smith is being honest when she said she didn’t know she was writing for-hire. If there was any deception going on, that’s incredibly shitty. But assuming there wasn’t any malfeasance, it’s hard to be too angry. HarperCollins will probably get a lot of justified anger over their douche move, but in the end, The Vampire Diaries as a concept was their project.

And furthermore, I don’t think Smith or Ezmirelda are quite correct to characterize Smith as being screwed by the fine print. Yes, it would have been better if Smith were aware of what she had signed to prevent this sort of blindsiding. But really, what would her options have been? It’s extraordinarily unlikely for a project like this that HarperCollins would have agreed to remove the for-hire stipulation; if Smith insisted, they likely would have just chosen another offer (remember, L.J. Smith was definitely not a well-known author at this point). And now, even though Smith has been removed, and that’s horrible, she’s gained a ton of publicity and a fanbase — I would think she could her pick of publishers for her next novel. Those are things she wouldn’t have necessarily gained before signing the work-for-hire contract.

Benefits aside, however, all decisions should be done with forethought. I had no idea what the “for-hire” phrase meant before a fellow author ran into it a few months back, so I absolutely know where Smith is coming from. If you’re not interested in an agent (and if Smith got this contract even with an agent, and was confused about the contents, something’s very wrong), then all writers should take the time to read over each contract in its entirety, and educate themselves about the meaning of the terms within.

And as much as I’m sure Smith is steaming over what happened, I’m sure her fans will follow her to whatever her future projects may be. I wish her the best of luck.

Story Announcement

This shall be short and sweet. My story, “We are Not the Favored Children,” was selected to be published in the Dark Tales of Lost Civilizations anthology, edited by Eric J. Guignard and published by Dark Moon Books. The anthology will hit in both paper and electronic formats in Spring 2012, and I’ll post more information here (and in the Bibliography up above) when it’s available. Thanks to everyone who has sent me encouragement over the years! Hopefully this is the first step of a larger journey.

The Line Between Connecting With Fans and TMI

The recent firing of Bocephus for some (not-too-controversial) comments, as well as conversations with some friends, have got me thinking about publishing and politics. We live in a hyper-polarized world. There’s no such thing as a moderate anymore. If you think sales of assault weapons should maybe sort of be controlled, you’re an evil communist who wants to government to control our lives and take away all of our means to defend ourselves. If you think some of the data surrounding climate change is a little bit questionable, you’re an anti-science creationist wacko. There’s no middle ground.

This is an unfortunate byproduct of modern society, created largely by a sensationalist media. The concept has been covered ad naseum by media critics like Jon Stewart, but suffice it to say that, with a lack of 24 hours of real news, the 24-hour news stations resort to blowing up trivial differences and pretending that we need to go to war over things that normal people can resolve with “Ahh, Bob, you’re crazy!” There’s also the broader issue of those in power encouraging the peasants to fight amongst themselves lest there be some sort of silly revolt, but one could write a book (and many have) on that.

So what does this have to do with writing? In the connected age, everything. Unless your words are so mind-bogglingly brilliant that the teeming masses have no choice but to buy them, you’re going to be in the position of selling yourself just as much as you’re selling your books. Many of the big success stories in the past few years, both in literature and in other forms of media, take advantage of the ability to connect with fans. Gone are the days J.D. Salinger or Harper Lee. Today’s successful authors have a presence on blogs, Facebook, Twitter and Google+ (well, okay, no one really has a presence on Google+).

But there’s a danger. Like a little boy who worships his grandfather only to grow up and find out the grandma left him because of the nightly beatings, we don’t always want to know everything about the people who make our entertainment. Crossing the line from “purely professional” to “friendly” with your audience can give you some benefits, but it can also be risky. Example time!

A few months back, prolific author Jane Yolen participated in an interview in which she derided the Tea Party. Some conservative commenters interpreted this to say that she didn’t want Tea Partiers reading her books. Now, for the record, I don’t agree that’s what she actually said. But talking politics in general is risky. Since I’m not a member of the Tea Party, it would be easy for me to say that the Tea Partiers overreacted here. But could I really say that if Jane Yolen went on a screed about some group I was affiliated with, I wouldn’t even hesitate when considering buying one of her books? And hesitation is absolutely not what you want your audience to feel when they see your latest novel has hit the shelves.

Another famous example is Orson Scott Card, one of my favorite authors. Card is highly religious, notoriously opinionated, and not afraid to speak (er, write?) his mind, as evidenced by his anti-gay marriage rant (gotta love the constant quotes around “marriage” — you just know he does the air-quote thing when he talks about this in person). He has an absolute right to his opinion, of course, and an absolute right to share it. But readers have a right to avoid his work if they choose. And that’s exactly what some of them, many of whom were once big fans of Card’s books, have done.

And it goes beyond controversy — sometimes people just aren’t going to like you. Shocking, I know, but it’s very likely that if you picked 100 fans and decided to spend a week with each of them, at least a few wouldn’t be your fans anymore. I don’t want to name any names here, but there is one author in specific whose novel I enjoyed enough to follow this author’s blog. Several months of whining about personal matters later, I unsubscribed. Does that mean I’m not going to buy any more books from this person? Of course not! But it also means I’m no longer tuned in to the author’s feeds, which makes it probable that I’ll miss when that new novel hits.

I’m not a fan of boycotts for political opinions. As much as possible, I try to separate the art from the artist. In the case of Orson Scott Card, I don’t believe his political and religious opinions bleed into his work, and I continue to enjoy them (except Empire, which was … hmm …). But, as one of the aforementioned friends said to me, why should this necessarily be the case? If you find out the owner of your favorite coffee shops is a proud, card-carrying member of the Ku Klux Klan, even if the business itself has no history of discrimination in any way, would you not hesitate to continue going there? It’s an uncomfortable topic to think about. I would feel horrible if someone, or a large group of someones, decided they couldn’t read my work because of some trivial opinion I’d mentioned in an interview. But if they chose to do so, could I really blame them?

All that considered, though, I’m absolutely not saying that authors should feel the need to censor themselves. If you have something you feel like you have to say, say it, especially when it comes to issues you feel passionate about. I suspect Mr. Card feels the same way about the topic of gay marriage as I do, although on the opposite side of the fence: it’s important enough to speak about regardless of whether it costs him readers. That’s a choice each author needs to make on each individual issue: is it important enough to risk losing a piece of my fanbase by revealing my views? Sometimes the answer is going to be yes. Writers especially can’t second guess every single thing they write on the basis of whether or not it’s going to offend someone.

But what writers should be mindful of is that sometimes it’s beneficial to keep things back. Do you hate soap operas? Perhaps. But does it help you to write a rant about how terrible they are and alienate the people who like them? Probably not. If you think it’s important, go for it. But be aware of the consequences. Connecting with your fans is encouraged and very nearly necessary for success, but connecting with fans does not mean letting the whole wide world in on your every secret and opinion on every little issue. In the end, there’s some things we’d prefer not to know.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to finish my posts about abortion and circumcision. See you soon!

The Case of the Icky Readers

Nathan Bransford generated some interesting comments last week about the value of 99-cent readers. The initial conversation revolved around an interview with Zoe Winters, an eBook author. The article, “Does Lowballing Attract the Wrong Kind of Reader?”, sent chills down my spine just reading the title. The wrong kind of reader? What, exactly, is that? It seems like a business complaining about “the wrong kind of customer” or “the wrong kind of venture capitalist.” But maybe she has a point? It’s worth exploring, right?

No, not really.

The Quality of the Customer

The thrust of the argument is that “quality” of a customer is more important than “quantity.” Let’s briefly touch on the assumption that someone who would purchase a $37 eBook, a price-point that interviewer Jennifer Mattern seems to advocate, is “higher quality” than a reader who buy at 99-cents. The idea is that buying a book at a high price instills reader loyalty, whereas a lowball price does not. That’s absurd on its face. How many times has a high price made you more likely to buy something else from the same company or author? How many computer manufacturers, for instance, try to shoot for the highest price possible out of the idea that if consumers pay too little, they won’t be likely to buy from that company again? Nobody, of course. If, out of some case of temporary insanity, I pay $37 for your eBook, it better damn well be one of the best books I’ve ever read, or I’m exceedingly unlikely to purchase any of your future works. On the other hand, price your book at $.99, and not only will I be more likely to buy it, I’ll be a lot more likely to give it the benefit of the doubt, see the potential, overlook the flaws and try your next book.

I have a feeling that Ms. Winters and Ms. Mattern agree with my logic up to now. “Of course a higher price doesn’t instill loyalty. It weeds out those readers who aren’t loyal!” Ms. Winters even says:

I think the readers I attract now are truly interested in MY work, and not just a bargain. I feel like the readers I’m attracting are the types of readers who are going to be passionate about the work and tell other people.”

This, to put it simply, is a fallacy. Math averse should look away right now. Let’s call X the set of readers that will read a book at a $9 price point. Let’s call Y the set of readers that will read a book at a $.99 price point. I’ll use some of Ms. Mattern’s noncontroversial assumptions that the readers in Y are, on average, more loyal (and thus more desirable) than the readers in X. This is certainly true; if you’re selling your book at a bottom-of-the-barrel price, you’r certainly going to attract a certain readership that is voracious in reading, and don’t really care who or what they consume as long as it’s cheap. 

However, where I believe Ms. Mattern’s and Ms. Winter’s argument breaks down is in the assumption that X is not a part of Y. The assumption is that all those loyal readers somehow won’t be there if you sell your book for cheap. That’s false logic. A low price point doesn’t scare away loyal reader, or if it does, that has failed to be proven to me. Ms. Winters muses that a low price creates some sort of psychological idea that the book is going to suck, which is not the way it works in any other creative medium, so I’m not sure why anyone would think it would be the case here. Instead, the likely truth is that X is a subset of Y. Y has all those crazy, unloyal, finicky readers, sure, but it has all the same loyal readers as X. If your only concern is having “the right kind” of readers, I see no reason why a higher price point would help you achieve this goal.

So 99-cents is the way to go?

Not necessarily. What my post shouldn’t be construed as is an economic suggestion one way or another. The interview itself shies away from the examples of 99-cent millionaires, instead focusing on how such successes are rare. Ms. Winters says:

“I think almost no one can make a solid living with 99 cent ebooks because you have to have huge volume for that. When I sold 6,500 ebooks in June 2010, that was around $2,300. Well, most people can’t live on that, especially after you take out Uncle Sam’s cut.”

And that is a completely fair statement. Maybe most authors can’t make a living at that price point. If that’s the case, raise your prices to $2.99. Or $4.99. Or $37.99. The idea that 99-cent eBooks exert a downward pressure on all prices is a similarly valid one, but that’s not a worry that individual authors have control of. Regardless of how you price your books, there will be authors that sell for 99-cents. Hell, there will be authors that give their works away for free, and not all of these works are “low-quality.” Some people just care more for readership than money. That is their right, and it’s pointless to think that the entire marketplace is controlled by how you price your books. 

One of the strawmen that gets thrown around, sometimes, is that people like me (sometimes referred to as ‘Freevangelists’) think everything should be free, and an author shouldn’t deserve to make money. Nothing could be further from the truth. I think great artists deserve to be compensated, and I would love a world where talented authors could be guaranteed a living. But that is beside the point. 

The argument from ‘Freevangelists’ is not that free or low-price is always ideal, but that it’s sometimes ideal. If you can make $1,000,000 selling eBooks at 99-cents, but you only make $500,000 selling eBooks at $2.99, should you raise your prices simply because 99-cents “devalues your work?” Of course not! It’s silly! I’m absolutely not saying that 99-cents is an ideal price, or that all authors should aim for that. Each author and publisher is going to need to make economic decisions based on their individual situation. That’s part of running a successful business. What I’m saying is that discounting a certain price point because of it makes you feel icky is wrong, both from an economic view, and from the view of respecting your fans, regardless of how much cash they shell out. A fan is a fan. A reader is a reader. Cherish them.