Bits and Pieces

As the title implies, this is a post full of little bits of news you might not have heard if you either don’t follow me on Twitter (which is where all the GOOD stuff happens anymore) and a preview of sorts.

Last Day of “Free”

Today is your last day to get a copy of The Reiver for free at Smashwords. Use coupon code UJ84J. If you purchase and read, whether for free from Smashwords or at Amazon/B&N/anywhere else for actual money, I hope you’ll consider going back and giving a review or rating. Whether you liked it or not :).

According to Luke Gets a Great Review from Dear Author

I’m allowed to be stoked about this, right? Janine at Dear Author. reviewed the first Gospel of Love novella, According to Luke, and gave it a B. That grade was apparently high enough to earned a “Dear Author Recommends” stamp. You can read the review here, but to see the lovely “stamp” on the cover, you have to actually page through the website to get to it in its “abbreviated” form.

On the Writing Board

As luck would have it, I’m in the throes of wrapping up the third Gospel novella, According to Mark. You may remember Mark as the slightly acerbic doctor and Matthew’s twin brother. This novella is contracted and scheduled for release sometime in June. I’d be done with it already if the story hadn’t perversely decided to expand and go several thousand words past my original projection of its length.

I thought, in honor of my almost being done, I’d give you a tiny preview from the unedited manuscript. (Warning: There’s a dirty word at the end. Read at your own risk.) I hope you enjoy!

Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she had to walk into mine.

Okay, so strictly speaking, The Rack wasn’t mine the way Rick’s Café American was Bogie’s in Casablanca, but as one of the club’s regulars, I felt more than justified in having a proprietary claim on the place. After all, it was the one place where I could get my kink on in a sane, safe, no-strings-attached—and more importantly, Allison-free—environment.

And now it wasn’t Allison-free anymore. Which meant it was also neither safe nor sane.

After flashing her black membership card to the bouncer, she stepped tentatively into the dimly lit interior and made her way toward the bar. Dressed in white from her sandaled feet to the pearl choker around her neck, her auburn curls floating around her shoulders, she looked as lovely and chaste as an angel.

But her membership card told another story. The black color said she’d gone through the club’s rigorous screening process and paid the necessary fees to be allowed upstairs. Unlike most of the crowd, she wasn’t here to be a mere spectator. She had every intention of being a participant.

She’d come to be fucked.

Writers Must “Write What They Know”–or Do

By now, if you have been paying any attention whatsoever to the Internet, you will have learned that Ellora’s Cave author Judy Mays has been “outed” by local news outlet WNEP as a high school English teacher. Apparently, a few parents in the community are not happy to discover that she writes “those kind” of books and are bringing a complaint before the school board. It does appear, however, that the parents quoted in the article are not representative of the community as a whole–the comment thread on the original article is running almost entirely in Mrs. Mays’ favor and includes many supportive statements from her former students.

Among the more chilling complaints from the few parents who are quoted, however, is one mother’s fear that Mrs Mays’ might somehow be “modeling” her characters or situations on said mother’s teenaged son.

Okay, first of all, your son’s probably not that good-looking. (Yes, that’s petty, but I needed to cleanse myself of that thought.) But second of all, where in the world did you get the idea that:

a) The fact that someone writes romance (erotic or otherwise) for adults leads logically to the conclusion that he/she must have sexual fantasies about underage boys

b) The fact that someone DOESN’T write romance (erotic or otherwise) is any indication that they DON’T have sexual fantasies about underage boys

In other words, there’s simply no statistical correlation I’m aware of between writing erotic romance and being sexually attracted to children. I am equally sure that there is no statistical correlation between writing mystery novels and being a murderer or writing horror novels and being Freddie Krueger. Equally, the fact that one does NOT write romance or mystery or horror does not obviate the possibility that one is a pedophile or a murderer or a psychopath with a chainsaw.

And yet…and yet…this totally did not surprise me. To the contrary, I found it all too predictable. And that’s because I’ve experienced the phenomenon in my own life–not to this scary a degree, I grant you, but it’s there nonetheless. It’s one reason I have taken a pseudonym (the other being that my real surname is unpronounceable).

The phenomenon is this: many non-writers (and even some writers) believe that writers “write what they know.” This also means the corollary: that they write what they do. So if an author writes steamy sex scenes, especially those including elements such as BDSM, anal sex, or menage, it follows that–gasp!–the author must have personal experience with these activities. This is the level it has gotten to in my life. Some of my husband’s colleagues know I write romance and have read some of my books. There is, as a result, a lot of nudge, nudge, wink, wink about how lucky my husband is to have me. He is lucky, but not necessarily because I’ll do EVERYTHING I describe in my books–for starters, I’ve written m/m sex scenes and there’s not a lick of chance I’m going to be experiencing that first-hand in this lifetime.

Furthermore, people find it very easy to jump from the notion that a person must have a wild and inventive sex life to the idea that nothing would be sexually off-limits to such a person. Which of course leads them right down the path to “OMG, you might be a pedophile!”

What’s interesting about this, of course, is that these same people would almost never leap to the conclusion that the author of a murder mystery must have committed a murder in order to write about it, any more than they would posit that L. Frank Baum must have been carried off to Oz in a cyclone in order to write The Wizard of Oz. (Actually, that sounds like a really interesting book. Hmmmm.)

I think what’s happened here is utterly predictable because Americans are, quite frankly, so fucked up when it comes to sex and sexuality (not to mention that icky byproduct, love), they can’t separate fact from fantasy as they can in other areas of life. And that’s just sad. Because if there’s one area in which I believe every adult deserves a rich fantasy life and won’t harm anyone if they do, it’s sex and love.

The Sky Is Not Falling, or Why 99-Cent Books (Probably) Won’t Take Over the World

Over the past few days, I’ve noticed a lot of hand-wringing over the 99-cent book. Yesterday, both the Huffington Post and Nathan Bransford waxed eloquent on the problems with the 99 cent price point. Bransford was, in my opinon, considerably closer to the mark than the HuffPo’s writer when it comes to explicating the long-term implications of the 99-cent price trend.

So, here’s the thing. If you put your book up a year ago (or even 6 months ago) and priced it 99 cents, the chances that you would move a LOT of units at that price were very high. It made sense to price in the bargain basement, even if you only made 34 cents per copy, if you could sell ten books at that price point to every one you could sell at $2.99. ($2.99 x 70% = $2.09, while $0.99 x 35% x 10 copies = $3.40).

But, as Bransford rightly notes, there’s now a glut of 99-cent ebooks. There are so many, in fact, that the price point is no longer much of an enticement to readers. Yes, it’s easier to get the casual browser to buy book at 99 cents than at $2.99, but it’s not as much easier as it used to be. When there are so many 99-cent options to choose from, readers become pickier about what they’re willing to pay even 99 cents for.

It used to be that the 99-cent price point helped browsers find you. Now, there are so many books at 99 cents, pricing at that point no longer makes your book stand out. Instead, it just leaves your book swimming in an ever-expanding pool of other books at that same price. So, unless you have something ELSE to distinguish your book from all the others (great cover art, title, concept, and most especially IMO, lots of reviews/ratings), the chances that you are going to make 10x as many sales at 99 cents as at $2.99 are simply not that great. And for the 99-cent price point to make sense financially, at least as a price for a novel-length book, you really have to to sell a lot more copies.

The fact that 99 cents is not a huge incentive for readers anymore was brought home to me by watching sales of my short story, THE REIVER. When I initially released it, I priced it at 99 cents (it’s a very short story, so more than that seemed like price-gouging). Sales were in the neighborhood of 5-6 per day on Barnes & Noble but no more than 1 per day on Amazon. On Amazon, the book was quite simply LOST in the sea of 99 cent slush and people just weren’t finding it. After a couple of months, I decided to raise the price to $1.29 on the theory that the 99 cent point wasn’t bringing me any eyes I wasn’t finding otherwise. Sales dropped precipitously, but then a funny thing happened. Because the Smashwords version hadn’t sold but two copies, I didn’t bother raising its price and Kobo (one of the retailers that gets books from Smashwords) discounted the 99-cent version to 89 cents. Amazon, being all about keeping up with the Joneses, discounted the story on their site from $1.29 to $0.89 and, lo and behold, I very quickly started selling almost 10 copies a day on Amazon.

So, are people really that price sensitive? We’re talking a 10-cent difference between the original price and the discounted price that attracted so many more sales. What are people buying with the 10 cents they’re saving? The answer, of course, is that it wasn’t the prospect of saving an extra 10 cents that boosted sales–it was the fact that the 89-cent price is so unusual that by itself, it made the book stand out in a way it hadn’t before. More eyes FINDING my book led to more sales.

I think the fear of a lot of authors and publishers is that 99 cents is becoming “the price” of a book, the way 99 cents has become the “price” of a song on iTunes (although, in fact, most new/popular songs are now priced at $1.29). I can understand that concern, and I’ve shared it to some degree, but I think in the long run, it’s not going to happen because of the convergence of these three things:

1. 99 cents is no longer a point of differentiation, and…
2. The total number of books you must “differentiate” yourself from to attract readers/buyers is growing exponentially, so…
3. You will have to differentiate your book by something other than price.

It’s #3 that’s the sticky wicket. When 99 cents was a “marketing” point in and of itself, it made a certain amount of sense to price your book there, especially when you initially released it. But now, it’s not enough (if it ever really was, which I doubt). Smart writers and publishers know they have a following and that the market can and will support prices of $2.99 (and more) for ebooks. The key is that, whatever the price point, your book has to be able to find its readers and vice versa. And that is going to cost authors and publishers too much for them to afford to sell their book for 99 cents indefinitely.

Surprising Discovery: I Read More in Digital

Despite the fact that I’m published primarily in digital form (only one of my books has ever been released in print), I’ve always considered myself someone who preferred paper books to digital. I have a particular preference (or so I thought) for mass-market paperbacks, not so much because they are cheap (although that weighs into the equation), but because they are lightweight and portable. As a result of my belief in my love for the mass-market paperback, I have an mmpb TBR pile several feet high.

And yet, I’m not reading those books. Instead, I’m reading the digital books I’ve downloaded onto my iTouch. What’s more, I tend to FINISH the digital books that I do start reading, whereas the print books are far more likely to be picked up, paged through, and put down, never to be revisited.

I’ve been puzzling over this phenomenon since I realized I have read several novels and novellas start to finish in the last month while I have not finished reading a single print book in twice that time. Why should this be so, I wondered, especially since reading on the tiny screen provided by the iTouch isn’t exactly the most aesthetically pleasing experience?

One reason is actually pretty easy to ferret out: the light on my side of the bed is burnt out and I can’t be arsed to replace it, which means I CAN’T read paper books in bed, but I can read digital books on the backlit iTouch without a hitch.

But that doesn’t explain why I’m more likely to FINISH reading them, even those I find to be flawed in ways that would likely have me giving up on a paper book within a few chapters. The answer finally dawned on me yesterday, though.

You see, I’m currently reading a historical romance on the iTouch that I suepect I would have set aside long ago in paperback. It’s not that it’s bad, mind you. There are just…issues with it. It’s one of those books that might pan out and might not. And if I had it in print form, I’d have already looked ahead in the book to see if it would be worth my while to finish it. (Yes, I’m THAT kind of reader. For shame, I know.)

But on the iTouch, skipping around in the book is a pain in the you-know-what. Oh, I know I could do it, but it’s more effort than it’s worth. And so, I keep on reading. Which means, eventually, I read through to the end, even if the book doesn’t wind up panning out.

I’ve said for a long time that I won’t pay mass-market paperback prices for digital books, which meant agency-priced romances were strictly off my list. For all the reasons others have explicated in the past, I have always felt that digital books should be priced lower than paperbacks, and if I couldn’t get the digital version of a book for around the $5 mark ($6 at the absolute most), I wouldn’t be buying.

But this morning, I went to Amazon and picked up Julie Anne Long’s What I Did for a Duke, a book I’ve been dying to read for a long time but haven’t run across in paperback yet, for the exorbitant (in my former mind) price of $7.99? And I suspect it’s going to be worth every penny, because if I’d bought it in paperback, there is a good chance I’d never have finished it. But I KNOW I’m going to finish it in digital, and that means it’s worth as much or more as the paperback. To me.

It’s Not Always the Cream that Rises

I know I’ve been talking a lot about the self-publishing revolution on the blog lately, but it really seems to be the hot topic in writer circles and I think it OUGHT to be one in reader circles as well. Why should READERS care?

The answer is that readers should care MORE than authors because they are being saddled with the role of gatekeeper. And that means, like the gatekeepers of old (agents and editors), they are probably going to wind up reading a lot of crap to find the gems. Readers/consumers will be slogging through the slush pile in place of the agents and editors, and although I’ve never been an agent or an acquiring editor, I’d done enough copy editing and read enough unpublished contest entries to have a sense of just how unpleasant that can be.

Now, I suspect many readers will say that they are discerning enough that they won’t actually buy books that are poorly written, poorly edited, or just plain not ready for prime time. I’ve certainly heard many authors who advocate self-publishing say that with sampling on Kindle/Nook, no reader should ever wind up paying for a book that has serious mechanical errors (unless, of course, the author manages to edit them out of the sample and forgets to fix the remainder of the book). Moreover, there’s a belief that the market will “punish” authors who can’t get it right–even if they sell a lot of copies, word-of-mouth and poor ratings on Amazon/B&N will quickly tank their numbers.

Or…um…not.

I hate to pick on anyone in particular, but yesterday, I learned on the Kindle boards about a book that is currently riding in the 2-3k range overall on Amazon and in the 20s-30s on the bestsellers in the Books | Regency list. It is a historical romance priced at $3.99 (although the cover looks more like erotica than historical). The cover copy is poorly written (and all in past-tense, which for me is like nails on a chalkboard) and the sample begins with one of the most egregious examples of a dangling participial phrase I’ve ever read. It doesn’t get any better after that. Although there probably were a few sentences in the first few pages that were grammatically correct and appropriately punctuated, it was only because they were too short for the author to get anything wrong. And let’s not even get into the story itself. This isn’t an Amanda Hocking style book, with occasional editing issues but a great story that overcomes its minor mechanical flaws. This is a train wreck from the first sentence on.

In short, this book was clearly never even looked at by a copy editor (even one of the most minimal competence) and if the author had any critique partners, I suspect none of them was over the age of 10 (my 9yo has a better grasp of sentence structure and punctuation, for heaven’s sake!).

And yet…this book is selling very well. Getting into the top 2-3k overall on Amazon is no mean feat. Hitting the top 100 on the Books | Regency list is tough, too. I know from my own self-published short story that being in the low thousands in the rankings means you are selling somewhere in the neighborhood of 20 copies per day. (I was in the 7-8ks when I was selling 10-12 per day, so I’m extrapolating.) How on EARTH is this possible?

The answer is…I have no answer. It’s not as if I’ve seen any promo ANYWHERE for this particular book. No reviews on blogs, no ads, no buzz on Twitter/Facebook. I’d never even have known it existed if it hadn’t come up on the Kindle boards. It doesn’t have one of those low, low prices that entices impulse buys. The cover and title might be enticing some people to buy on the belief that it’s erotica, but even then–wouldn’t they SAMPLE it, discover what a horror show it is, and choose to spend their $3.99 on four 99-cent erotica titles that had actually SEEN an editor (there are PLENTY of them)? Perhaps they are lulled into a false sense of security by the reviews (12 overall, 2 1-star and 10 5-star) and the fact that it’s on a bestseller list, but if I’d spent that much money on this garbage, I’d go back and write a scathing review rather than letting other people fall into the same trap I did. But my greatest fear, honestly, is that many of the people who are buying this book don’t even REALIZE it’s bad. I’m not sure how that’s possible, but given the gross grammatical errors in most emails I get from my (intelligent and mostly well-educated) coworkers, I’m not sure I can discount the possibility.

By the way, I’m not going to name the book here, not to avoid hurting feelings but because it’s kind of irrelevant to the point I’m making. The fact is, this is ONE self-published book that’s selling well on Amazon despite being poorly written/edited but I’d bet there are dozens more that would make just as salient an example of my premise.

And that premise is–the market doesn’t ALWAYS punish crap. It equally does not always reward diamonds. Many objectively BAD books will sell well, relatively speaking, while many truly wonderful books will labor in obscurity for reasons it is nearly impossible to fathom.

The free market is just that–free. And like any free entity, it makes mistakes.

Why Agents Should NOT Become Publishers

I stayed up in my room this morning instead of attending workshops here at RT11 to write my novella, but instead, I’m writing this blog post because as I’ve been watching the happenings at this week’s conference and overhearing conversations, I’m seeing a phenomenon that’s giving me increasing cause for concern. To wit, it seems a lot of agents are seeing the growth in self-publishing as an opportunity to find new avenues of revenue for themselves as the money from traditional publishing continues to shrink.

I said on Twitter the other day that based on the workshop line-up here, self-publishing is the new black–everyone seems to be interested in it as the latest and greatest business model for authors. That doesn’t mean I don’t see authors, both aspiring and published, continuing to court agents and editors in the traditional system, but it is to say that the world is changing at a speed I can only call remarkable. A year ago, I doubt ANYONE would have asked on a Money Matters panel about the relative merits of going with a digital-first publisher vs. self-publishing. THIS year, it was the primary question. That’s a phenomenal change in a short period of time.

It’s definitely a tricky time for agents, who make their living in the space between writers and publishers. The typical agency contract specifies that the agent gets 15% of the author’s royalties on any project the agent sells. The agent gets this percentage in consideration of the doors he/she can open at publishing houses and (most importantly in my mind) for negotiating the contract and ensuring that the author does not sign something that it’s clearly not in his/her best interest. If the project doesn’t sell, the agent gets nada.

Fast forward to today. Offers and advances from traditional print publishers are shrinking along with physical shelf space, but the digital and self-publishing world is exploding. Agents are seeing an opportunity to earn money not by trying to sell books to other publisher, but by becoming publishers (or E-stributors, as Joe Konrath called it–you can read the pertinent excerpt from his conversation with Barry Eisler on this subject at Kristin Nelson’s blog) themselves.

The idea is that, should the agent not be able to sell a book for a client (or the offers received are not sufficiently attractive), the agent could instead take on the position of the “publisher,” assisting the author in editorial, cover art, marketing, etc. And for this, the agent could then continue to receive his/her 15% of the pie.

I see HUGE problems with this.

The biggest is that it may almost never be in the agent’s financial interest to take the offer from the traditional publisher over going the “e-stributor” route. The reason for this is simple. When a publisher buys an author’s book, the advance and royalty are based on a profit and loss statement that assumes the author is earning, at most, 15% of the cover price on each copy of the book sold (the scale varies depending on format, but 15% is about right for hardcover and also about what publishers are paying on digital copies regardless of the print format). The agent in this equation is therefore getting 15% of 15%.

But if the agent takes the role of publisher, presumably he/she will “net out” the cost of digital distribution (typically 30-35% if the book is priced $2.99 to $9.99) and then skim his/her 15% of the remaining 70%. That is a HUGE change in the REAL percentage the agent is getting paid. And although 15% of an advance is a GUARANTEED amount, while there’s no guarantee on earnings from a book the agent publishes himself, 15% of 70% for a book you didn’t sell to New York is WAY better than 15% of nothing and it might even be better than 15% of a lower end advance.

Using simple, round numbers, if the advance from a traditional publisher is $10,000, the agent earns $1500. If the book is mass market paperback at $7.99, 15,725 copies1 will have to sell before the agent receives another dime, and it will be a year or more before either the agent or author see additional payments. If instead of taking that offer, the agent publishes the book for the client and takes 15% of 70% of 2.99, the book only has to sell 3,345 copies to earn that $1,500 and the royalties will begin rolling in a few months after release. As an agent, if I really believed in my client’s book, I might be more inclined to go the e-stributor route than that traditional publishing route in that scenario because, quite honestly, I would think there was more money in it–for both of us.

So what’s the problem? The problem is first that there’s no one to negotiate the contract between the author and the agent anymore. If the agent is the publisher, who protects the author? Who ensures that 15% is really a fair percentage for the author to pay the publisher in this scenario? Who has control of the book once it’s released into the wild? Who monitors the sales and makes marketing decisions and adjustments? Should this be the author or the agent/publisher? Who holds the trump card–author or agent/publisher? Honestly, it would seem that authors in the scenario would need another agent to negotiate their contract with their agent. It’s simply ludicrous and unacceptable.

I think agents becoming publishers is a phenomenally bad idea, although some are already doing and more appear to be on the cusp of doing so. As an author, however, I wouldn’t sign with an agent who wanted to be my publisher if she didn’t sell my book to someone else, because I would never know whose best interest that agent was operating in. The author’s and the agent’s interests can only be the same if they are both working to get the best possible offer on the best terms from a third party. As soon as the agent takes on the role OF the third party, the author’s and agent’s interests no longer converge to the same degree as before. Just because the author and agent both earn more money the more books are sold does not mean the agent will work in the author’s best interest. If that were true, authors would never have needed agents to comb through their contracts with publishers, because publishers would have always been offering contracts that were in the authors’ best interests.

I have no issues whatsoever with the notion that agents should be able to recoup some income from books self-published by their authors after they fail to sell to New York (or the author chooses to turn down the offers received). But I question whether the “value” an agent offers if he isn’t handling the contract negotiation and running interference when things go wrong is really 15% of 70%. And I wouldn’t, as an author, want my agent to be handling/in control of the content of my book, its pricing, its marketing, or its distribution. We give a lot of that up when we sell books to traditional publishers. If we are going to take the riskier route of self-publishing, at least we should be able to keep that control for ourselves–along with more of the money.

In other words, I’m happy to negotiate a contract with an agent that specifies what the agent is paid in the event I self-publish something the agent has worked on. But I reject categorically the notion of having my agent be my publisher. Period.


1I’m applying the 8% print cover price rate here and ignoring the payout for digital sales, simply because it’s almost impossible to figure out what 25% of net will be unless you know how net is being calculated. But even if that were to cut the total number of sales required to earn out in half, the earn-out point disparity is still painfully apparent.

Thank You, Thank You!

At 6:00 PDT, Grace Under Fire hit the top 100 in Erotica on Amazon.

I am truly amazed, ecstatic, and humbled. If you bought a copy through any retailer, thank you very much. If you haven’t bought a copy yet but plan to…well, what are you waiting for ;).

Again, thank you. It’s readers who make a writer’s day. And mine has definitely been made!

P.S. I know the image quality sucks, but I am in a desperate hurry. My youngest son is in a play tonight and I needed to leave to get my seat ten minutes ago!

Today Is the Day!

And no, I don’t mean April Fool’s Day–although it is that, too. But no matter: I’m not pulling your leg when I say that Grace Under Fire is available today. I feel like I’ve been waiting forever to say that and now, at long last, I can!

So, in honor of the occasion, I was over at Selena Blake’s blog yesterday where I’m giving away a copy of Behind the Red Door (because, alas, I don’t have a way to give away copies of Grace yet) along with a couple of sets of my romance trading cards and a couple of notepads (contest open until Monday). The cards and notepads are swag I’m giving out at the Romantic Times Booklovers Convention next week, so this is an opportunity to get your hot little hands on these items without actually going to RT.

I’ll also be giving away the same set of items on Limecello’s blog starting on Saturday.

There will also a never-before-published excerpt up on The Season for Romance today.

And, to help you out in actually getting your hot little hands (metaphorically, anyway) on a copy of the book, here are buy links to some of the places I’ve found it for sale: