Musing on Monday: Judging the Golden Heart

First of all, I have some unfinished business to transact: The winner of Erica Ridley’s Too Wicked to Kiss, selected at random, is Jane, the thread’s first poster. Jane, please email your address to me at jackie at jackiebarbosa.com and I’ll get the book into the mail to you ASAP. Congratulations :). And thanks to everyone who commented and shared favorite openings.

With that out of the way, I finished reading the last of the Golden Heart entries I received to judge this year, and I have a few thoughts on how I scored them and why that I thought you might be interested in (especially if you entered this year or might enter in the future).

For those who don’t know much about the Golden Heart, I should probably explain that it’s RWA’s premier contest for unpublished manuscripts. Each entry consists of a synopsis and partial manuscript. The two items together cannot exceed 55 pages. Entrants must also provide proof to RWA that the manuscript is completed, usually in the form of the entire file provided on a CD or other medium. No one reads this full manuscript in the judging round, but the goal is to ensure that entrants actually have a full manuscript to submit to editors or agents should their entry reach the final round.

Each entry is scored on a scale of 1 to 9, with 9 representing a perfect score. Tenths of a point are allowed. From what I’ve seen in past contests, to final, an entry must basically run the table in terms of perfect scores (although a slate of multiple 8.8s to 8.9s can be good enough to reach the final depending on the number of entries in the category). Judges cannot provide comments or feedback as they do in many RWA chapter contests, which is both a positive and a negative for authors. On the one hand, it means authors don’t always know WHY they got the score they did. On the other, it means they can also write off low scores as just having gotten a judge who was incredibly mean and picky or just hated their voice or some other factor over which the author had no control.

Because I couldn’t give feedback on my entries, I’m giving feedback (broad and general–I’m not identifying the manuscripts I received for judging nor do I think any of my comments are likely to let on to those authors whose entries I did judge that I got theirs) here.

First of all, the lowest score I gave was a 5.6; the highest an 8.6. This is the first year I’ve judged where I didn’t have any entries that I felt deserved below an “average” grade. For that, I am grateful, because reading the ones that do score below a 5 is a real chore!

So, with that in mind, why did I score my entries as I did and where did they tend to fall down the most? Here, in no particular order, are the things that stuck out to me most:

  1. Story issues: I always judge first on the story. Are the pages engaging? Are the characters interesting? Is the setup believable? Does the story start in the right place. Does each scene have a clear purpose and end with a change in the story question?

    On each and every one of these questions, every one of the entries I received lost some points. Sometimes it was only a tenth of a point lost, sometimes it was whole integers. In the case of most of my entries that lost whole points, it came down to one of two things: either the story was simply not very interesting (the stakes weren’t high enough and/or the scenes didn’t convey any urgency) or I didn’t buy the setup. Particularly in historical romance, the setup is so important. If I can’t believe people in the time period in question would behave in the manner described in the story, I’m not going to believe anything else in the manuscript, either, no matter how well it’s executed. I had one very, very good entry that I scored very high, but that, when it came right down to it, I just couldn’t “buy” the plot.

  2. Weak mechanics: Yes, it’s true. I’m a frustrated high school English teacher, and mechanics matter to me. I will overlook minor issues with grammar and punctuation if they occur fairly infrequently or, oddly enough, if they occur consistently (in other words, you make the same mistake regularly).

    What I can’t overlook is overuse of commas in all the wrong places (it makes me stutter in my head), grammatical inconsistencies, and (this one hurt a manuscript that otherwise had a lot going for it) wrong word uses (e.g., discrete for discreet). Although I understand that wrong words can slip in from time to time, if it happens more than once in fifty pages of manuscript that you should have polished to DEATH before submitting, I’m going to take off points. Same goes for the commas and grammatical errors.

    Yes, editors will buy manuscripts that have errors easily corrected by a copy editor. Notwithstanding, this is a fifty page entry for the most important and prestigious contest RWA has for unpublished writers. Take the time to make it as close to perfect as humanly possible.

  3. Voice issues: Voice is a hard thing to describe, let alone score. However, I didn’t score anyone down for a voice I didn’t “like.” I scored down for voice only once, and that was on an entry I liked a lot. It was extremely well executed overall and I actually loved the voice. Why did I score down for voice, then? Because the voice didn’t fit the book’s time period. The book was set in the 19th century, yet the voice read like a contemporary, which pulled me out of the story.
     
  4. Poor synopsis: I have to say that in the stack of entries I received, there was not one GOOD synopsis. Not one. And, although the pages are the most important part of the entry, if the synopsis is a garbled mess that I can’t follow to save my life, I have to deduct points.

    One of the reasons writers are asked to provide a synopsis for the Golden Heart is that most of the time, when submitting to an agent or editor, you will probably at some point be asked to send a partial and (gasp!) a synopsis. The synopsis, while not as important in terms of voice and verve as the actual manuscript pages, is critical for an agent or editor to determine what your story is going to be about. The first fifty pages give a sense of your voice and how you execute a story, but it’s only fifty pages, perhaps 10-15% of the total book (slightly more if you write category length). It’s nearly impossible to tell from a mere fifty pages whether the total story is going to be worth reading without a decent synopsis to explain where you’re going “from there.”

    And most of the synopses I received were a nightmare. The primary problem most of them had was that they mentioned FAR TOO MANY characters by name. There were so many names in one synopsis, if I hadn’t read the pages, I wouldn’t have known who the hero and heroine were. In your synopsis, you must concentrate on the hero and heroine. You should only name secondary characters when absolutely necessary, and then, the character must have a significant role in the plot (e.g., he/she is the villain or plays a pivotal role in multiple scenes). I simply don’t need to know the heroine’s best friend’s name or the name of the girl who broke the hero’s heart or the name of the maid who appears in one scene and never again.

    There was also one synopsis (for an entry I otherwise scored very well) that was so sketchy, I had absolutely no idea what the plot was. I just knew the hero and heroine would fall in love and live HEA. Sorry, not enough. I needed more to judge the partial appropriately.

So, if I scored your manuscript in the Golden Heart this year, your entry got the score it did based on some combination of the four factors listed above. Of course, it’s entirely possible I didn’t score your manuscript, but who knows, maybe whoever did used similar criteria. Either way, I hope you find the information helpful :).

Musing on Monday: Opening Paragraphs and a Giveaway

After sending my latest proposal to my agent (it’ll be going out to some editors in the next week or so…commence nail-biting), I decided it would probably be a good time to open up a erotic short I started writing at the end of the summer then set aside in favor of other projects when I reached an “OMG, I think this sucks” moment.

Rereading what I had so far, I don’t know WHY I came to the conclusion that it sucked. It’s actually–dare I say it myself?–pretty good. Yes, the scenario is far-fetched and, yes, given that I’m trying to keep it short (15k or less so it can go to Spice Briefs), the HEA might come (pun intended, lol) a trifle quickly, but I have to admit that as I was reading what I’d written, I completely BOUGHT that these characters were meant to be together and would have an HEA.

Okay, so now, having meandered far from the subject line of this post, I have to say that one of my favorite things about this manuscript is the opening paragraph. Although I’m not one of those who believes the opening of every book has to be mind-blowingly good, I am well aware that the first paragraph(s)/pages of a book can strongly influence how I feel about the characters and a great opening will make me want to read more as fast as possible. It’s also the case that opening paragraphs, even if well-written and catchy, can spoil a book for me. I won’t name the book, but there is one highly acclaimed romance that I simply never liked, and I think it’s because the first paragraphs distanced me from the characters and I just never came to care about them as a result.

Because I like this opening so much, I thought I’d share it with y’all:

It was a truth universally acknowledged that Lady Grace Hannington was the most inaptly named young lady in all of England, if not all Christendom. Within two months of her debut, she had ruined at least a dozen gowns—none of them her own—and half as many cravats by spilling tea, wine, or some sort of sauce upon them, trod heavily upon many a gentleman’s slippered toe, and broken the nose of one unfortunate chap with a misplaced elbow during a reel. That list of missteps did not encompass the full measure of the lady’s sheer gracelessness, however, for she was herself forever nursing some sort of self-inflicted injury, ranging from a sprained wrist and a stubbed toe to this evening’s glorious and ill-concealed black eye.

So, how do you feel about openings? Any books in particular that you think have stellar openings (or really bad ones, lol)? Or, if you’re a writer and motivated enough, share your favorite opening paragraph from one of your books. From all the comments, I’ll pick one poster at random to receive a copy of Erica Ridley‘s wonderful debut (with some great opening paragraphs), Too Wicked to Kiss, which officially hits the shelves next Tuesday.

Musing on Monday: How Much Are Books Worth?

In case you missed the MacMillan/Amazon ebook price crisis over the weekend, you can catch up on the details (along with a very cogent analysis) at agent Nathan Bransford’s blog. There are several posts over at Dear Author as well.

Hidden in the midst of all this controversy, however, is the question that really interests me: how much are books worth? And by “books,” I mean not the paper and ink on which they’re printed or the computer bytes on which they’re stored, but the actual dollar value of STORY they contain, however packaged. In other words, when you buy a book, are you buying it for the storage medium or for what you perceive its entertainment/informational value to be?

I’ll be honest–I’m still a primarily paper book reader. This is a function of a combination of factors, including the fact that I don’t feel ready to invest in an ereader as I think the technology is still too fluid and the prices for the devices too high for what they do. I worry about amassing a library of ebooks in formats that will become obsolete and unreadable, something I know will never happen to my paper books (well, unless my house burns down). That’s not to say I can’t be converted–and in fact, the groaning of my bookshelves argues I should hope to be converted soon–but I’m just not there yet.

That said, I have bought ebooks, though usually these are books that aren’t available in print format. I don’t dislike ebooks by any means, nor do I feel they’re intrinsically less valuable than print books. Yet I know many, many people DO think ebooks are instrinsically less valuable (in the dollar sense) than print books for a number of reasons, including the fact that there is no physical object, the digital file cannot be legally shared or resold, and (in the case of Kindle) the file can be removed remotely by the vendor. And then there’s the whole DRM thing (something I’ve honestly never encountered because I don’t believe I’ve ever purchased an ebook that had it).

Okay, so I do agree that a physical book has slightly greater intrinsic value than a digital one because, once purchased, it cannot be repossessed and it can be legally shared or resold. Obviously, it also costs more per unit to produce paper books, which argues for a higher price than digital books. But how MUCH more?

A large part of the MacMillan/Amazon kerfuffle was driven by publishers’ fears that setting prices too low for digital books would act to “cannibalize” hardcopy sales, especially of hardcovers, and also set consumer expectations that a digital book is NEVER worth more than $9.99. MacMillan would prefer to have more flexibility in establishing the core value of the CONTENT of their books than Amazon’s pricing structure would have allowed, even though (according to Nathan Bransford’s analysis), the Amazon structure actually results in the publishers receiving about $2 more per copy sold.

The thing is, I sympathize with MacMillan’s position even though I don’t know that I’ll ever be willing to pay much more than $9.99 for a digital book. Certainly, the high end that’s being discussed for digital books in the “agency” model of $14.99 is WAY more than I’d ever pay. But that isn’t because we’re talking about DIGITAL books. It’s because, as a book-buyer in ANY format, my price range for a single title novel is no more than about $10, with an absolute ceiling of about $14, and I’ll pay that only in VERY special cases. (If I want to buy a book that’s only in trade paper, I’ll wait for a coupon or a special 3 for 2 deal to come along to make the unit price more tolerable.) I never buy hardbacks, not only because I think $20+ is outrageous for a book, but because I find them heavy and unwieldy.

So, basically, I don’t see my price tolerance for books changing all that much based on whether it’s digital or print. I don’t tend to pass on my paper books to other people very often (most of the folks I know IRL don’t share my taste in reading material), so the whole “I can share/resell it” thing doesn’t factor into how much I’m willing to pay.

In the final analysis, I’m willing to pay for a book what I think the story contained within its pages or bits and bytes is worth. For me, that’s around $10. But that doesn’t mean I begrudge publishers for wanting to establish higher prices for their books. Maybe I’ll adjust to those prices or maybe I won’t. Only time will tell. But I don’t think format should be a SIGNIFICANT factor in determining the dollar value of a book’s contents.

Okay, tell me why I’m all wet :). And how much do YOU think books are worth?

Musing on Monday: Bronzing My Rejection Letters

Or I would…if they weren’t all email correspondence these days :).

It goes almost without saying that rejection is one of the most difficult things authors have to endure. (The only thing harder is writing the darned book, lol.) Even published, “successful” authors get rejections from publishers. It’s the rarefied author indeed who never has to contemplate the possibility that a manuscript won’t pick up an offer of publication somewhere, sometime.

The last round of rejections I received was pretty crushing, honestly. It’s taken me a long time to get my writerly mojo back. Not because they were awful rejections suggesting I didn’t know how to write my way out of a paper bag (although a couple came remarkably close, lol) or even that they were just form letters saying thanks but no thanks. No, it was hard because, let’s face it, as an author, I have to believe my characters and my story are wonderful and worthy or I wouldn’t bother writing them in the first place. No one likes to be told the characters and story they love aren’t up to snuff.

But you know…I’m starting to change my mind. While I don’t think I’ll ever be happy to get a rejection letter, I’ve decided I’d prefer for them to tell me forthrightly that my book/writing isn’t good enough for them to invest their hard-earned cash in than say that and then suggest I invest my hard-earned cash instead. I’d rather get an honest “You’re not there yet with this book, but keep working,” than “maybe you’ll rise to the top through self-publishing and then we’ll see the error of our ways.”

There’s been a lot of talk the last few days about agents and editors and the gatekeeper function and how that might be keeping readers from getting books they really want. That may be true in a handful of cases. I’m sure there are books out there that get rejected by publishers that would be blockbusters if they’d just gotten a contract and appropriate backing. But those books are few and far between. And more to the point, just because there are books like that our there doesn’t mean MINE is necessarily the diamond that editors just can’t see through the rough. As a reader, there are still plenty of books that are published that aren’t my cup of tea, but without that gatekeeper function to vet books for some level of quality, I think there’d be far more sub-par books published, not thousands of overlooked diamonds.

The publisher is right when it rejects a manuscript that the book isn’t “right” for the publisher. That doesn’t have to mean the writing sucks or that it’s a bad book, just that there are a lot of books being published and this book doesn’t really make the cut in terms of fighting for readers and shelf space. I’m honestly okay with that…as long as you don’t tell me to turn around and claw for the shelf space on my own dime, especially when you know the likelihood of my finding that shelf space is slim to none.

Anyway, I just want to let all the editors at all the publishing houses out there know that I will henceforth treasure every rejection letter. I will hate being rejected just as much as ever, but I appreciate your honesty in evaluating my manuscripts and deciding they’re just not there yet. Because that just means I know next time, I have to try to write a better book.

Musing on Monday: To Enter or Not to Enter

The RITAs, that is.

Now that they are open for entry, I have to decide (and fairly quickly) whether or not to enter any (or all) of the novellas in Behind the Red Door.

It wouldn’t be such a difficult decision if I could enter the anthology as a unit. But because the book consists of three novellas, I must enter each novella separately in the Romance Novella category. At $40 a pop, the entry fee alone adds up pretty quickly, to say nothing of the expense of shipping 15 copies of the book.

The decision would be easier if I thought one of the novellas was far and away better than the others, but…I don’t. I like them all for different reasons. More, I’m pretty sure if I chose one just one to enter, it would be wrong one.

And then there’s the fact that even if I entered all three, the likelihood of any of them reaching the final round is very, very small. Aside from any other factor, erotic romances don’t tend to fare well in the RITAs, Pam Rosenthal’s Edge of Impropriety notwithstanding.

There are all the reasons NOT to enter. But, there are reasons to enter. First and foremost is that, while the chance of finaling might be small, it’s only zero if I don’t enter. And reaching the finals would be amazing and awesome. Not that I remotely expect it, enter or not. There are way too many other great authors entering wonderful novellas this year (particularly Courtney Milan and her lovely novella, This Wicked Gift, which comes out at the end of this month). That said, it’s hard to make the deliberate choice not to play.

So, what would you do? Enter them all? Close your eyes, pick one, and enter that one? Or enter none at all?

Decisions, decisions. (I’m a Gemini. I’m bad at them!)

Edited to add: I decided it was worth asking the National office whether novellas in single author anthologies were treated the same as novellas in multiple author anthologies. Some contests I’ve found do treat them as a novel, so I thought it was worth asking. Alas, it is as I thought…to enter all three, I must enter all three individually and send in 15 copies of the book.

Musing on Monday: Placement Does Matter

Last week, I asked you all what most influenced your book buying decisions. The results (you can see them yourself by clicking “View Results” on the poll in the right margin) were quite interesting to me, mainly because they confirmed my long-held believe that there’s not much an author can do to materially affect her book’s sales. I was especially interested to see that very few people cited advertisements or online blog appearances as having a significant impact on their buying choices.

What I did notice, however, is that the majority of the respondents said the book’s cover, title, and blurb, along with a scan of its contents was a factor in their choices. That makes sense to me. I know those are a factor in my decisions as well, along with the second-biggest vote-getter, word of mouth recommentations from friends and family. But while most everyone knows that picking up and reading/handling the book is an important part of their book-buying choices, few of you acknowledged that the book’s placement in the store or availability in stores like Target/Walmart had an affect on what you choose to buy.

Now, I suppose if you do a lot of research on books before you even walk into the bookstore and have a very strong idea of what you’re looking for when you get there (and I generally do), store placement/distribution probably doesn’t have much effect on what you purchase. You’ll go searching in the stack for that book you’re interested in whether you can find it easily or not.

But what about those impulse buys? I have to admit, store placement makes a huge difference to me, because I certainly haven’t got the time to go through ALL the books that are shelved, spine-out only, in the romance section to see if the cover and title then the blurb and contents grab me. So it’s just a fact that the books that are shelved face out, whether in the front of the store or on end caps and tables, are going to draw more attention from me unless I’m looking for something specific. And while the cover and title may entice me to pick up the book, the blurb may intrigue me, and the contents may actually induce me to buy, unless I SEE that cover and title, I’m never going to pick the book up in the first place unless I’m actively looking for it.

This is even more true if you do most of your book-buying (as I suspect the majority of Americans do) not at book stores that shelve a wide variety of titles, but at big box chains like WalMart, Target, and Costco. Everything at those retailers is stocked face out, but it’s only a limited subset of everything that’s available at any given time. Those stores have, quite honestly, a huge impact on the reading tastes of Americans. A book that doesn’t get stocked in WalMart, for example, will generally wind up with an initial print run of less than half a book that they do pick up.

All of this makes it tough for authors whose books don’t get picked up by those big chain stores AND whose publishers don’t choose to purchase that face-out space in brick-and-more stores. Your initial print run is pretty much guaranteed to be under 30,000 books. And many potential book buyers who might really like your book will never even see it, because it will be buried in the shelves at Borders or B. Dalton, spine out, between hundreds of other spine-out books. It’ll be there for people who are actually looking for it, and that’s a good thing. No one can buy a book that isn’t stocked. But it’s an uphill battle to get exposure for a book unless the publisher buys it, because there just isn’t a whole lot the author can buy that works half as well.

Musing on Monday: Identifying Your Business Philosophy

In recent months, I’ve come to realize that writing is a lot more business than art. A lot more. Oh, the writing part is still the most important thing–it’s the production end of the business equation. You can’t sell a product you haven’t made (and although it’s possible to sell an unfinished product on proposal, in the final analysis, you still have to produce it at some point!).

As authors, we spend a lot of time and effort worrying about the writing end of our jobs. About all the C’s: craft, conflict, characterization. We read books about these things, about how to hone our product to perfection. We chat about them with our critique partners and writer friends. Agonize over them during revisions, and stress over whether we’ve done them “right” when we start submitting to agents or editors.

But oddly enough, I think most of us spend very little time analyzing our business philosophy when it comes to actually selling our product. Just getting an offer of publication can seem so remote and unlikely that we rarely think beyond that point about what we want from being published.

I know when I got the call from my Kensington editor offering to publish Behind the Red Door, I was so thrilled someone loved the book enough to want to publish it at all, I didn’t think very far ahead. I had achieved my dream–I was going to be published, my book was going to be in bookstores across the country. That was enough. I didn’t think to worry about how big my print run would be, which bookstores would have my book in them, whether my book would have any special in store placement (i.e., coop), what the publisher would do to market my book, or what they would expect/like me to do to promote it myself. None of those questions occurred to me and now, I really wish they had.

Now, I’m not saying any of this by way of complaining. I am still thrilled and delighted that Kensington published my book, that they gave it a beautiful cover, and that their sales force obviously did their job in terms of getting it into bookstores. But…I wish I’d gone into this whole publishing gig with a clearer idea of my business philosophy and strategy.

So, as I pursue that next contract, I’m thinking long and hard about the business end of things. Asking myself what will, for me, constitute not merely being published, but being published well. These are questions not just about money, but about things like format (would I be happy with another trade format book, or do I really want mass market paperback?), distribution (I want to be in WalMart and Target if possible, right?), promotion (is the publisher going to provide me with a publicist or other marketing support?), and so on. And they’re not questions to which I have perfectly straight answers. In some cases, the answer is it depends on the book. But by and large, I have a pretty good feel now for what I want versus what I need, and I know the difference between them (i.e., I know what’s a dealbreaker and what’s not).

The thing is, as a writer, you have to know enough about your business philosophy to walk away from an offer for publication if it doesn’t meet your minimum requirements. But you can’t do that unless you know what those minimums are. So, before you start seriously pursuing publication (especially with any of the major New York houses), be sure you know what you need. If you have an agent, be sure she knows what you need.

And then don’t take less, even if it means a dream deferred.

Musing on Monday: Digital Rights for the New Millenium

…Or The Reason We Need Big Name Authors to Care about Digital Royalties.

By now, you probably know that the fabulous team of Jane Litte (Dear Author), Sara Wendell (Smart Bitches, Trashy Books), Angela James (executive editor at Samhain), Kassia Kroszer (Booksquare and Quartet Press), and authors Lauren Dane and Maya Banks will be giving a “Rogue Workshop” on Digital Publishing alongside (but separate from) the RWA National Convention in Washington DC this week. (Deets here. The Twitter hashtag for the session, which will be live-tweeted, is #rd09.)

In large part, this fine group of experts in digital publishing decided to put on this workshop because RWA’s final conference schedule include nothing on epublishing. Not, as far as anyone could tell, the barest mention of it. But in the thread at DA that I linked to above, a bit of a dustup erupted over whether the workshop they’ve put together is a) necessary or b) really addresses the needs of broader RWA membership since it’s focused primarily on digital only publishers.

Now, I happen to think that the real crime here isn’t that there isn’t a workshop on epublishing per se (not that I don’t think it would be great and worthy), but that no one’s talking about digital rights and royalty rates at traditional print publishers. Because I’m telling you, folks, this is gonna come back and bite us all in the butt in another 10-15 years (maybe less). Edited on 2/22/11 to add: Okay, I was wrong. Wrong wrong wrong. The time horizon from this post was a little less than 2 years. I posited a 90:10 print:digital ratio in my numbers below. A lot of authors are already at WAY over that ratio.)

Right now, publishers who distribute primarily in digital format offer royalty rates to authors ranging from roughly 35%-50%. (Some may be a little lower, some a little higher.) If the publisher also offers print copies of the books, they pay royalties similar to print publishers.

By contrast, publishers who distribute primarily in print (i.e., the major New York houses) tend to offer royalty rates on digital copies that are less than half what the digital publisher pay. I would have to go check my print contract to see what my royalty rate on my digital copies it, but I know it’s standard for the publisher’s contracts, it’s probably not more than 15%, and we didn’t try to negotiate a higher rate because, at the time, it didn’t occur to me that I should try.

Looking back, I wish I had tried, although I doubt my agent’s efforts on my behalf would have been successful. Because, while digital copies are likely to be a very small percentage of my overall sales, by accepting that royalty rate, I basically made it harder for other authors who follow me to ask for more.

And this is why it’s so important for the big name, bestselling authors to start pushing the royalty rate envelope on digital. Now. Before it’s too late and the paltry 10-25% rates we’re seeing now become so ingrained, they never go away. So ingrained that even the primarily digital publishers start lowering their rates to match. (Because believe me, they will. I frankly don’t wear the rose-colored glasses that say epublishers are “the good guys” who will never take advantage of their authors. Um, maybe a select few, but even they are businesspeople and they publish books to make a profit, not to make authors happy/rich.)

As worried as traditional print authors are now about the possibility that their publishers will follow suit with primarily digital publishers and stop offering advances (a concern I know is out there despite claims to the contrary), they ought to be worried that they’re setting a precedent when it comes to digital royalties which, in the future, will ultimately cost all authors a BIG chunk of money. Including themselves.

It might be hard to see this right now if you’re a bestselling author in mass-market paperback. My bud and critique partner, Amie Stuart did an informal survey about digital royalty rates a while back, and one of the respondents said her royalty rate was quite low (perhaps around 15%) but that it didn’t concern her because while on of her books sold 800,000 copies in paperback, less than 800 digital copies had been sold. In that context, the difference between 15% and 35% is pretty meaningless.

The problem is, of course, that the numbers won’t continue to be skewed that way forever. More and more people are beginning to prefer reading on a digital device, be it a dedicated reader, a smart phone, or even their computers. (My 12yo would rather read on the computer screen than read a paperback. I bet, in his generation, he’s far from unique.) And while the traditional print publishers seem determined to make every effort to keep digital from gaining a foothold in the marketplace (DRM, high prices, and withholding release of the digital book for weeks or even months after the print book is on the shelves), in the end, the revolution will come. Print books will never go away, but those 800,000 to 800 numbers are simply not going to last. And even if we never reach the point where digital sales of New York Times bestsellers outstrip print sales, when they reach even 10% of all sales, the royalty percentages will begin to matter. A lot.

Let’s make the numbers easy. Say you’re the author of a book that sells 100,000 total copies. Let’s assume 90% of those are print copies at an $8.00 cover price ($7.99 is very common, but I’m rounding for simplicity) and your royalty rate for print copies is 8% (that’s pretty standard for mass market paperback, I believe), so you make $0.64 for every copy sold. You’ll bring in a tidy $57,600. Not bad, you say (and I agree; I’d be thrilled with that, lol).

But let’s look at the 10,000 copies sold in digital format (because we’re in the world of 90/10–and believe me, that’s coming fast!). Let’s say you got a fairly standard 15% royalty rate on your digital sales. Let’s further assume that your publisher is forward-thinking enough to offer digital books at a slightly reduced cover price, so they only cost $6.50 instead of $8.00 (in part because Walmart/Target/et al. probably doesn’t charge a full $8 for your print book, even though you get paid as if it did). You still make more per ebook sale than mmpb sale–97 cents per copy, and that means an additional $9,700 in royalties for you, which is quite nice. But…if you’d held out for the kind of royalty rates digital publishers off, even at the low end of 35%, you’d be earning 2.275/copy or $22,750. So even at 90/10 split in terms of sales, your income for the 10% digital sales are nearly half your total print sales earning.

Who wouldn’t want that? Especially since the percentage of readers who’ll be buying digital is only going to increase. At the point at which it reaches even 25% of gross sales, your digital royalties will account for fully half your income.

Now, maybe there are some folks who don’t believe that authors should get a significantly higher royalty rate for digital books than for print. If anyone wants to make that argument, go ahead, although a lot of folks also claim that the only reason digital publishers offer such high royalty rates is because they don’t have to support the overhead of print costs and returns. So, you know, either the digital distribution model is cheaper or it’s not, but if it is, why shouldn’t the author get a larger percentage of the return. Why willingly give up 85% of the profit to the publisher in that scenario.

But here’s the thing: we need print authors with bestseller status to be the ones to demand better royalty rates for their digital books. Because those of us still in the shallow end of the publishing pool just don’t have the clout. If we walk away from contracts with poor digital royalty rates, the publisher will just find someone else who will take it. We’re kind of a dime a dozen to them. It’s the big name authors who regularly hit the New York Times and USA Today lists who have the ability to make publishers sit up and notice.

Please? Because even if it never makes much of a difference to you, the next generation of writers is going to thank you.

Musing on Monday: Keeping the Faith

It’s over.

The proposal we had out on submission didn’t pick up any offers. Most of the rejections were along the lines of “love the writing, but…”

(FWIW, I always think that’s a cop-out. If you really loved the writing, there would be no “buts” because the writing is what makes the characters come to life and plot work.)

Naturally, I was discouraged and upset, even to the point of railing that boy, this time, I am really quitting.

“Why do I put myself through this?” I asked myself over and over.

It’s a damn good question. In publishing, you hear no a lot more than you hear yes (even if your book sells, you probably got a “No, thanks” from at least one editor on the way to garnering that contract). Even if you are lucky enough to land a contract, the publisher is probably not going to throw large wads of cash at you (unless you happen to be one of the tiny subset of writers who are already so “proven,” you could write the phone book and NY would want to buy it for six figures).

And guess what? After you do that the first time, you’re not done. No, it’s wash, rinse, repeat…possibly for years until you have that “breakout book” and possibly for always.

As my dear friend and CP Lacey Kaye said to me in email yesterday, this business is not for the faint of heart. I’m not even sure it’s for the bold of heart.

You see, I was pretty upfront and honest with myself about the relative chances of getting a contract for this book. Now, I still happen to think it’s a good book, more than good enough for New York publishers, but I also knew going in that even good books don’t always get contracted, and for reasons that don’t have all that much to do with their quality. Just for example, Several editors mentioned, for example, that their historical lists were very full and they had very few slots to acquire for.

So, before the proposal went out, I told myself in no uncertain terms that I would not EXPECT it to sell. None of this “positive thinking” stuff for me, no sir! I knew it wouldn’t sell and if it did, it would be the rough equivalent of winning the lottery.

Now, I think it served me well that I didn’t have high expectations, but I’d be lying if I said I truly had no hope. I did have hope. I mean, if I really thought it was so bad it had no chance of garnering an offer, I wouldn’t have put it out on submission in the first place. I may be a glutton for punishment, but I’m not that big a glutton.

When I realized it was definitely not going to sell (which was actually the day before the last two rejections came in), I didn’t cry, but I came pretty close to it. And over the next couple of days, I had to do a lot of soul-searching to decide whether I’m cut out for this or not. Because if I could be that upset when my expectations were low, how could I put myself through it again and again? What would happen the next time a project I really loved was rejected? And the next and the next? My answer to myself was pretty much that I’ll be just as crushed and raw as I was this time.

So, am I hanging it all up? Honestly, I sometimes wish I could.

The problem is, I can’t seem to stop writing. I can’t seem to stop. It happens in my head whether I want it to or not. Even while I was grousing to myself about this whole gig being so not worth it, I had multiple stories and characters pop into being and whisper sweet nothings in my ear. It’s kind of like a disease. In a way, I’d love to be cured. In another, it would be the rough equivalent of excising a part of my personality and changing the essence of “me.”

So, chucking the towel probably isn’t a choice. But I did come to a couple of conclusions about how my own goals need to shift as a result of this experience. Maybe, if you’re also out there chasing that contract, be it the first one or the one after that or the one after that, something here will keep you from contemplating towel-chucking:

1) It’s not about the contract; it’s about the writing. You don’t stop being a writer just because you don’t pick up a contract for publication. You stop being a writer because you stop writing. Period.

I know this isn’t an original thought, but I came to the conclusion that I’ve been far too focused on landing that next contract and a lot less focused than I ought to be on writing a book that pleases me, regardless of whether it pleases anyone else. It’s also something I have to remind myself of over and over and over again. Because I will forget sometimes.

2) Bite the bullet and write the whole book before trying to sell it.

I’m not saying this because I don’t think I can sell a book on proposal. It’s just that, if it’s rejected by all the NY publishers, I’m left with a book I can’t sell to anyone else without finishing it first. That’s a dilemma, because while it could earn me some money with an epublisher, there’s no guarantee that it will be worth the investment of the time and writing resources to finish it when I could be writing something else instead.

I am in a bit of a quandary over UNASHAMED, the book we just shopped unsuccessfully. It’s about half written. I love the characters and I really want to see them through to their HEA. But I also don’t know if that’s a worthwhile investment of my time when I have dozens of other things I could be working on that haven’t made the NY rounds and been rejected.

In other words, while there’s no guarantee that anything else I write will sell to an NY publisher, there’s a 100% guarantee that UNASHAMED won’t. Do I write it anyway? Decisions, decisions…

Decisions I’d rather not have to make next time!

3) Rejections are neither bad nor good. They just are. Overanalyzing them will only drive you crazy, so just set them aside and move on.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been told “Oh, but that’s a good rejection.” I’d be equally hard-pressed to recall how many times I’ve used those very same words with my writer friends.

Now I think there’s no such thing as a good one. There’s equally no such thing as a bad one (well, perhaps if the editor tells your agent to stick this writer’s garbage where the sun don’t shine, but I don’t think that happens too often).

A rejection is a rejection, period. It means you didn’t sell the book. It sucks. No amount of positive feedback can sugarcoat that, nor do any glowing comments about this or that aspect of your project mean that this editor is any more likely to offer for the next one than for this one. Ditto the editor who loathed the book and apparently thinks you should go back and read Novel-Writing for Dummies a few more times. There’s nothing to say the next project you offer up won’t be right up that editor’s alley.

So, don’t try to figure them out. Don’t second-guess the book you wrote and wonder what if you’d just done this or that differently. It will only drive you crazy and keep you from focusing on the next project.

And whatever else we can say about ourselves as writers, it’s that there’s always a next project.

Musing on Monday: When Will I Make It?

I wasn’t going to post anything today, but then I read this fabulous post on Zoe Winters’ blog. (Don’t worry, I’ll be waiting for you when you get back from reading it.) A few minutes after that, I started chatting with one of my critique partners about how easy it is to fall into the trap of measuring your own success (or failure) by the yardstick of other writers’ successes.

Of course, we all know better than to do that, right? No one else is you, no one else writes your books (if someone else does, you’re either plagiarizing or have a ghostwriter, and either way, it means you’re not a writer), and no one’s path will be your path.

But the truth is, it’s hard not to feel a little bit of envy (or even a lot bit) when you see other writers achieving the type of success and recognition you so desperately crave. It’s doubly difficult to avoid when some of those writers are your friends, especially if they started writing and seeking publication at roughly the same time you did. It was easy to commiserate with each other over rejections. It’s much harder to congratulate those same friends when they’ve received great publishing contracts and are clearly well on their way to stardom while you’re still digging in the trenches, just praying you can land an agent, let alone a contract. (None of which is to say that said envy makes you not happy to see your friends’ successes. But I will say that I have seen more critique partner relationships break up when one gets a publishing contract and the other doesn’t. It just isn’t easy.)

So how does this tie into Zoe’s post? Well, she’s right. We all want validation. And we all probably have pretty much the same yardstick for validation–that is, that our writing is good enough for other people to want to read it. Or perhaps more accurately, good enough for other people to be willing to pay to read it. Whether you’re published by a big New York house, a small press, an epub, or even self-published, it comes down to having the sense that someone other than you values your writing. 

The problem is, for most of us, that goal of being valued by someone other than yourself is a moving goal post. At first, maybe all you want is for an agent to offer representation. It seems like that will be “making it.” But then, once you have an agent, the goal changes. Now you have to get an editor to like your book enough to publish it. But even when you get your contract, you haven’t “made” it, because now readers have to love it enough to buy it and recommend it to their friends and make you, if not an NYT bestselling author, at least a moderately successful one with good sales numbers so that your agent can sell your next book.

And man, it never ends. Wherever you’re at on the continuum, the goal post is always shifting and there’s always someone who’s “ahead” of you on the continuum. (Unless, of course, you’re Nora Roberts. But let’s face it, there’s only one of her.) Always someone who’s getting more love from editors, more love from reviewers, more love from readers.

So, how does one avoid this pitfall? Frankly, I don’t know if it’s entirely possible. And maybe a little envy is healthy. Maybe it makes us work harder, dream bigger, live larger.

But in the end, I think all writers (and artists of any stripe) have to come back to the place where “making it” isn’t defined by anyone or anything but our own satisfaction in having created a world we love in that place we call a book.