Introducing a New/Old Series

I started writing with the idea that I might get published in about 2005. Although I’d written many stories from the time I was about seven years old until I was into my twenties, but after I got married and had small kids, the urge died down and I didn’t do much more than toy with the idea of writing “something” sometime. Then, when my youngest was about three, a pair of characters and a story idea rushed into my head and demanded that I set them to paper.

The result of that was the first single title novel I ever wrote, UNBRIDLED. Since these days, I mostly write novellas and short stories, it might amuse you to know that the final word count of that book was 126,000. The first three chapters of UNBRIDLED finaled in and even won a couple of unpublished contests and garnered one request for a full from an agent, but after multiple attempts to “fix” whatever it was that made it a bridesmaid but never a bride, I shoved it under the bed and concentrated on writing the sequel.

My agent and I shopped that sequel, UNASHAMED, on proposal (about 100 pages + synopsis), but no one wanted to buy it. I sadly put that book, which was about half-written, under the bed beside UNBRIDLED and moved on to other manuscripts. Some of which I even finished and sold! I never really thought about returning to those unsold manuscripts because…well, they didn’t sell. It hardly seemed worth the effort.

Since then, however, the publishing landscape has really changed and it dawned on me a few weeks ago that between UNBRIDLED and UNASHAMED, I have one and one half single title novels I can share with the world. Obviously, I have to finish UNASHAMED and rework/cut parts of UNBRIDLED (although I feel much more capable of identifying and fixing its problems now than I did back when I was a “baby writer”), but they are both much closer to publication-ready than anything else in my “kitty”.

When I opened UNASHAMED and started reading it, I was smiling ear-to-ear because I had truly forgotten how much fun the story is. The hero and heroine wind up on a “treasure hunt” of sorts, which means it’s got all the hallmarks of a road romance plus a bit of a mystery/battle of wits as the characters try to unravel the clues to find the tresure.

Opening UNBRIDLED was a bit less of a joy-fest; I can really see why it got rejection after rejection, but the good news is, I know how to make it better. (Ironically, I knew how to make it better five years ago; I just didn’t want to do it because I didn’t want to make the characters less likable. Doh!) I figure of the 126,000 words in that book, about half will be cut and I’ll need to add another 10-15k to make what’s left hang together. That’s doable by the end of the year, even with the other projects on my plate, while I think I can get the econd half of UNASHAMED written and ready to publish by this time next year, maybe sooner.

So, with that in mind, I’m announcing this new/old series of novels (there are four altogether, although there could easily be more since I have a tendency to write secondary characters who naturally want to spin off into their own books):

All of the stories in the series revolve around a mesalliance of sorts–UNBRIDLED’s heroine is the daughter of a duke and the hero an Irish racehorse trainer; UNASHAMED features a widowed countess and a former French spy. I’ll reveal more about the characters in UNDENIABLE and UNFORGETTABLE, the last two books, as I get closer to writing and releasing them.

I’m still waiting for the right stock image for UNBRIDLED to come along, but I was able to find an absolutely perfect couple to represent the hero and heroine of UNASHAMED. Hot Damn Designs has once again done a brilliant job for me and I’m pleased to unveil the cover here (including the back cover for the print-on-demand version of the book):

Gorgeous, no?

I’ll post cover art for the first book as soon as its ready.

Comparing Apples to Apples

Today, the Guardian brought us a story ominously titled “Stop the press: half of self-published authors earn less than $500.” If you haven’t read it already, go ahead and click the link. I’ll wait for you to get back.

Okay, there are two bits of this that I want to comment on. This first is this:

…the average amount earned by DIY authors last year was just $10,000 (£6,375) – and half made less than $500.

This amount, however, is significantly skewed by the top earners, with less than 10% of self-publishing authors earning about 75% of the reported revenue and half of writers earning less than $500.

Um, I have just one question. When was this equation not true of traditionally published authors? And by traditionally published, I mean those published by the vaunted print publishers who pay advances. I know that when I was published by Kensington, I certainly earned less than $10,000 a year from my writing. (In fact, to this day, I haven’t earned that much from the book I sold to them, and it came out in June of 2009.)

The vast, vast majority of traditionally published authors do not make a living at it. The vast majority of authors published by digital small presses do not make a living at it. A sizable percentage of those published either traditionally or by digital small presses will earn less than $500 from their efforts. And 100% of the authors who don’t get a contract with one of those two types of publishers and don’t self-publish will make less than $500 a year.  This is basic math.

As you know, I don’t consider myself a self-publishing evangelist by any means. It’s a business decision, plain and simple, and I support authors in making the best business decision for them, whatever that is. And I happen to believe that, for a lot of authors, a traditional print publisher or small epress is a better business decision than self-publishing.

That said, articles like these that seem bent on scaring authors away from self-publishing by issuing dire warnings about how little money they might earn forget that regular publishing isn’t a guarantee of JK Rowling/Stephenie Meyers/Dan Brown-like success. Being published, however you get there, isn’t a quick road to riches. If anything, it’s a slow road to a little extra pocket money.1 ETA: An Author’s Guild study back in 2004 found the average income for its members was $5,213.28 per year. That’s hardly raking in the dough.

In other words, if you’re considering self-publishing, don’t let articles like this scare you off. Because, unless you’re offered a very tidy advance by a traditional publisher, the reality is that in an apples to apples comparison, self-publishing isn’t necessarily a bad business decision.

What is a bad business decision is the second point of the Guardian article I want to talk about. To wit:

Authors…would be well advised to spend time and money on making a title look professional, the survey found: self-publishers who received help (paid or unpaid) with story editing, copy editing and proofreading made 13% more than the average; help with cover design upped earnings by a further 34%.

So, yeah. If you do choose to self-publish, don’t cut corners. Produce a professional product. Generally, it pays off.

Okay, off my soapbox for the day.

1There’s an old joke from auto racing that my father used to tell that seems appropriate here: “How do you make a small fortune in racing? Start with a large one.”

How Traditional Print Publishing Works

In light of the DOJ’s lawsuit against Apple and several publishers for collusion in the setting of retail prices for ebooks (Dear Author has a great post on the latest revelations from the case), I thought it might be worth talking a little bit about why the major New York publishers were so worried about the rise of digital books that they embarked on this scheme in the first place. So, get in your “way back” machine and let the mists of time fade away before the world of Amazon and Kindles and wi-fi/3G. Back to the days when books were…well, BOOKS.

DISCLAIMER: I’m not an expert in this field. My observations are based on a combination of what I’ve gleaned from my own experience in print publishing and a rudimentary grasp of accounting. I am pretty sure that everything I’m saying is reasonably accurate, but I could be off on some details. If so, mea culpa!

The business model for a print publisher looks something like this:

The publisher acquires the book’s content from a writer, usually by paying that writer an “advance” on anticipated royalties. This advance is a guaranteed minimum amount that the author will earn from sale of the book. Depending on the format of the book (hardcover, trade paperback, or mass-market paperback), the author’s “cut” of the cover price of each book sold ranges from a high of around 15% (some hardcover deals MIGHT go as high as 20%) to a low of about 4% on certain mass-market paperbacks. Whether or not the royalties due the author from sales of the book ultimately equal or exceed the original advance (“earning out”), the author is never required to pay back any portion of that advance, although an author who persistently fails to earn out her advances is an author in danger of not getting a new contract.

The publisher further invests additional upfront monies in production of the print book—editing, cover art, typesetting, printing, marketing (directly primarily at booksellers, not reader, by the way), etc. The publisher then sells the books at wholesale to retailers, who in turn sell the books to consumers at either the cover price or at a discount price wholly at the retailer’s discretion. Because the publisher isn’t waiting for actual readers to buy the books, but rather registering the sale of the book to retailers, the publisher recognizes an immediate boost to its balance sheet when the books are printed. (This also, incidentally, explains why publishers don’t tend to think of readers as their customers, but booksellers, and why a huge proportion of their marketing budgets are spent on convincing retailers to order their books.) How big a boost the publisher gets from any individual book is tied directly to the format of the book (hardcover has a higher profit margin than trade paper and trade paper a higher margin than mass-market paperback) and the size of the initial print run (the more books are printed, the lower the unit cost for each book and the greater the profit).

This, by the way, is how all other manufacturers of products recognize sales, at least as far as I know. Apple doesn’t wait for you to go to Target and buy an iPod to recognize the sale of that iPod. Apple’s customer in that transaction is Target, not you, and Apple doesn’t really care whether Target makes or loses money on selling the iPod to you or even whether Target actually sells any individual iPod. As long as Target pays Apple the wholesale price for the iPods it intends to sell, Apple is happy. (As an aside, Apple is an interesting example here simply because, unlike the majority of manufacturers, they do place some price controls on their products that prevent retailers from discounting beyond a certain point and thereby using Apple products as “loss leaders”.)

In any event, however, this model that recognizes the income from the sale of a book to the retailer rather than the consumer is the reason traditional publishers are so keen to “protect” their print books from the encroachment of ebooks. Although the profit from the sale of an ebook may actually be greater than the profit from the sale of the same book in print format (the exception to this is hardcover—the profit margin from hardcover is much, much higher than for the corresponding digital edition of the same book), that profit can’t be recognized until an actual consumer purchases the book from a retailer. The publisher can’t “guess” at how many copies of any given ebook Amazon will sell and book the profit for those sales when the book is released. This means that the publisher now effectively sells one copy of the digital file to retailers and then has to wait (possibly for several months between reporting cycles) before it can book the profit of the individual sales of copies of that file to consumers.

Now, you may be thinking that this should make that much of a difference to publishers. After all, if the profit margin for a digital book is as high or higher than for a print book and there are no printing or distribution costs and copies never run out, in theory, everything should come out in the wash. In the long haul, the publisher might actually make more money from digital sales than print. And, of course, that’s true—as long as we eliminate the hardcover format from our discussions. But hardcover is where print publishers make the bulk of their profits, and when you combine the loss of hardcover sales due to digital adoption and the much longer window between the release of a title and recognizing its sales, and you can see that publishers could have a real liquidity problem.

Moreover, without order numbers from retailers, sales numbers become virtually impossible to predict. At least when booksellers ordered X copies of a book, the publisher could expect some percentage of X to sell. When they just ship off one digital file to a retailer, there’s really NO way to guess how many copies the retailer actually thinks can sell. Orders were a tangible measurement of salability. And that’s important for publishers to know, because it’s how they gauge the salability of the books they’re acquiring now. If they don’t know have firm numbers to tell them how well their soon-to-be-released titles are faring in the marketplace, they’re operating in a vacuum, mostly guessing how well the current books are going to do and hoping they’re making the right choices for future releases.

At this point, I’m sure you’ve got another objection. “But, wait, Jackie! What about returns? Don’t those screw things up just as much as digital books?”

I’m sure most of you know that books are one of the few items retailers can return to the manufacturer for credit. This system was born of the Great Depression, when booksellers feared they wouldn’t be able to sell the books they ordered, and publishers offered them the option to return unsold books for credit. This setup probably saved the book industry in the 1930s, but its legacy is a huge burden to publishers today.

Or is it?

Okay, I don’t know much about retail accounting, but I do know quite a bit about financial industry accounting. And one of the things I know is that accountants always make allowances for losses. Sometimes they allow too much and sometimes they allow too little (hello, 2008 financial market collapse), but by and large, the “loss” associated with returns on books is probably already built into the publishers’ profit and loss statements. They assume a certain percentage of books they print will be returned for credit and account for that accordingly, so that “loss” is already recognized, for the most part, when they record the sale of a new title to retailers. (By the way, that percentage is also accounted for in the author’s royalty statements for years, unless a book happens to sell through its entire print run.)

So, all of this is my way of saying that, while what the Big 6 and Apple did when they colluded to raise the price of digital books in the hopes of stemming the ebook adoption tide appears to be 100% illegal, they didn’t do it just because they wanted to shaft ebook readers or even because they were afraid of Amazon gaining too much market power. The shift to digital represents a real challenge to the model of traditional publishing, which is really a manufacturing model. Publishers made content into books. Retailers bought the books and sold them to consumers. It was no different than selling iPods.

Digital books came along and threw a huge monkey wrench into the gears, and the major publishing houses still haven’t figure out how to handle it. That doesn’t make their actions any less illegal or objectionable, but ebooks and print books really aren’t interchangeable products from the standpoint of the manufacturer, and that’s why publishers were so desperate to protect print.

Just a Little Something

This is going to be a very brief blog post. I’m trying very hard to get Hot Under the Collar ready to upload by mid-June. I’m behind my original hoped-for schedule by a couple of weeks, mainly due to my naughty vicar’s stubborn refusal to be naughty. (He will be naughty. I promise. Even if I have to rip his pants off myself!)

In the meantime, I had Kim Killion at Hot Damn Designs do an ad for me, which will be running at Dear Author in July. It’s so awesome-looking, though, that I couldn’t wait until July to share it with the handful of folks who drop by here. Therefore, without further ado:

Okay, back to the trenches! Miss me while I’m gone…