Thursday Throwdown: What Authors Really, Really Want

Before I launch into my post, just a quite note: I’ll be picking a winner from Monday’s contest for a copy of Erica Ridley‘s Too Wicked To Kiss tomorrow, so if you haven’t already commented to enter, be sure to do so today :).

Okay, onto the topic at hand.

My latest proposal went out on submission yesterday. This is the third proposal my agent and I have tried to sell since I received my contract with Kensington for Behind the Red Door back in April of 2008. Since you haven’t seen any sales announcements from me since then, I think you can safely assume that two of the three attempts were unsuccessful. We have yet to hear about the third, although I’m not holding my breath.

But this post isn’t to whine or curse the universe for failing to recognize my brilliance. Rather, it’s a reflection on what I’ve come to realize is most important to me. And perhaps it would surprise you to know that it isn’t landing another NY contract or getting the big bucks or racking up good reviews. Or maybe it wouldn’t, I don’t know, lol.

What I’ve realized, however, is that there’s really only ONE thing I want: to be read. I don’t write for any other reason than to share my stories with readers. Readers. Not my CPs (who are awesome, by the way, but have very different goals and motivations when reading my books than true readers). Not my agent (though, bless her, I think she’s my biggest fan). And not editors, whether they work for big traditional publishers or small epresses or any combination in between. Those folks I just listed are all in between you–the reader–and the story I want to share with you. Editors, in particular, can keep my story from ever making it into your hands

So, if that’s the way I feel, you might wonder why I don’t just self-publish my books. The answer is complicated, but I have to admit that I’m considering it more and more lately. When and if the time comes that I have a completed book that I really believe in and no publisher I want to work with makes me a reasonable offer for it, I’ll at least look into that possibility.

That said, I still want the help of a publisher to get my books into readers hands, and that’s simply because I don’t have a lot of faith that my books can find readers (and vice versa) without the help of a publisher. As much as I want you to be able to read my books and enjoy my stories, I want a publisher to believe in them and (most important) hel me get them into your hands. I’m only one person, and my reach is limited to what I can accomplish on the Internet, and let’s face it, the signal-to-noise ratio is high and getting higher.

But in the end, what I really, really want (and what I think most authors want) is to be read. Anything else is gravy.

Thursday Throwdown: How RWA Might Win the Battle, but Lose the War

By now, you’ve probably heard that RWA (Romance Writers of America) has pulled Harlequin Enterprises status as a recognized publisher as a result of its close ties to an entity known as Harlequin Horizons. I already explained in yesterday’s WTF Wednesday post what Harlequin Horizons is and how it’s tied to Harlequin proper, so I won’t belabor those points in this post. Instead, I want to talk about what pulling its recognition status means from the point of view of RWA and its members (and the future of both).

First, what does it mean that RWA no longer considers Harlequin a “recognized” publisher? Well, for Harlequin, it means they will no longer be able to sponsor events at the RWA National Conference. They cannot host a Publisher Spotlight session (which allows them to tell authors/agents at the conference what sorts of books they’re currently seeking, what programs they offer, etc.), and their editors cannot take pitches from conference attendees. Harlequin can still send its employees to the conference, but they will have to “pay their own freight” and they won’t get the visibility/cachet that holding a Spotlight and taking pitches provides.

It’s worth noting that this position is exactly the one that non-advance paying epubs and low-advance paying small presses are already in. Ellora’s Cave and Samhain and many other legitimate presses can’t do spotlights or take editor pitches because they don’t qualify, under RWA’s current rules, as “recognized” publishers. RWA’s rules specify that, to be recognized and permitted to do spotlights/editor pitches, the publisher must pay a minimum advance of $1,000 on every book they contract, and they must not ask the author to shoulder any of the costs of publication. By prominently featuring a vanity publishing option on their website and adding a line to their form rejection letters suggesting the Harlequin Horizons option as a route to publication, Harlequin effectively violated both of these criteria.

Now, it’s been argued by some folks that other publishers are engaged in similarly “rule-violating” practices and RWA hasn’t pulled their ticket, so this seems a bit like singling out Harlequin for special punishment. To some extent, that’s true. It is true that many other publishing houses own or are associated with vanity publishing arms. But if RWA has turned a blind to them, it’s likely because the publishing houses haven’t advertised those associations as blatantly or proudly as Harlequin seems to be doing. None of them, to my knowledge, suggest on their websites that authors seeking publication submit to their vanity publishing arm. And none of them, to my knowledge, recommend their vanity publishing company in their form rejection letters. That is how, IMO, Harlequin crossed the line and fell victim to RWA’s wrath while so far, other publishers have not.

This is not to say that other publishers are completely in the clear. Some of the practices are dubious at best, and it does seem to me that one publisher in particaly (I think it’s HarperCollins) has already violated the “minimum advance on every book” rule by establishing a line that specifically does not pay advances. Why/how did they get around RWA? I’m not sure, but I suspect that RWA took a wait and see approach because 1) it wasn’t sure whether the imprint would catch on at all and 2) there was no evidence that the regular HarperCollins imprints to which most of its members would be submitting would refer rejected manuscripts to the non-advance paying wing. It’s tricksy, I grant you, and more than a little questionable for RWA to continue considering them a recognized publisher, but I can see why they did it. The Harlequin case was a LOT more clear-cut, IMO.

Moreover, I think RWA was almost honor- and duty-bound to pull Harlequin’s recognition because it IS special. Harlequin is “the” romance publisher. It has been the RWA darling since the organization was formed. So when RWA has been saying for years things like “Money always flows to the author, not away,” and “Any agent/publisher that asks you to pay is a scam artist,” they cannot very well turn they other way when the premier publishers for their members (because it publishes more romances than anyone else) starts engaging in a practice which clearly violates the organization’s most dearly held precepts. Precepts which, frankly, I agree with.

I don’t necessarily agree with RWA’s stance on advances and I’d like to see that changed because I don’t think that’s the gold standard for good business practice in publishing anymore, but I cannot and will not argue that RWA should in any way endorse, support, or otherwise recommend a publisher that tries to get authors to pay for publication. Sure, authors can do that it they want to, and I would hope if they do, they understand exactly what they’re getting for their money, but RWA should not do anything which would have the effect of funneling its members in the direction of a publisher if that might lead to the publisher attempting to clean out the members’ pockets.

All of this is a very long way of saying I think RWA did the right thing here, and judging from what I’ve seen on Twitter and in the blogosphere, most of the RWA community agrees.

Buuuuut…and this is a big but, I don’t think, in the end, that Harlequin cares that it has lost its RWA recognition. I’m 99.9% sure that the honchos who made the decision to go into partnership with ASI and feature the Harlequin name and brand prominently in that effort KNEW they’d lose their recognition. And they did it anyway, because, in the final analysis, RWA’s stamp of approval was worth less to them than the potential revenue they can generate through Harlequin Horizons. (Incidentally, RWA isn’t the only writers’ organization that’s not happy about this. MWA is apparently threatening to pull Harlequin’s recognition status, too, although it’s giving them an opportutnity to comply before it boots them.)

Before I continue, I also want to explain that there’s a second level of publisher recognition, which has to do with whether RWA considers authors published by a house to be a) eligible to join PAN if they have earned a minimum from of $1,000 from a book, either in advance or royalty or a combination of both and b) whether their books are eligible to enter the RITA by virtue of being both in print and produced by a non-vanity/non-subsidy publisher. For this year, Harlequin authors will be allowed to enter because Harlequin’s status did not change until after the contest rules were established. But because RWA has classified Harlequin not only as “not recognized” in the way that Ellora’s Cave and Samhain or not, but has actually pulled their recognition because they are now a vanity/subsidy press, it’s quite possible that authors might NOT be able to enter Harlequin books in next year’s RITA, even if they aren’t published by the vanity/subsidy arm. (That would sure shake up the RITAs. All the categories for “category romances” would be eliminated.)

So, if Harlequin, the PREMIERE publisher of romance in the US (and probably the UK, what with Mills & Boon) doesn’t care about staying on the good side of the Romance Writers of America or about its authors’ eligibility to enter RWA’s premier published writing contest, what does it say about the future of RWA in general? Nothing good, obviously. As mentioned above, several other publishing houses have vanity arms, including Random House (Xlibris), HarperCollins (Authonomy), and Thomas Nelson (Westbow). Up to now, they haven’t been quite as overt in their efforts to sell aspiring authors on those options as Harlequin has been with this move, but if Harlequin can do it, lose their RWA recognition status, and NOTHING BAD HAPPENS TO THEM except that they don’t get to do things like Spotlights and editor pitches (which editors almost universally hate doing, anyway), believe me, they’ll ALL be doing it soon.

And that cannot bode well for RWA or its members, because if no publishers are eligible because they all engage in practices that look and smell unethical, how is the organization to help its members to discern the good guys from the bad guys? How is it to educate their members as to their best interests? How can it claim to lobby on behalf of its members’ interests if publishers don’t give a rat’s ass about complying?

The only way RWA or other writers organizations can affect publisher behavior is if their members start boycotting those publishers that don’t comply. In DROVES, to the point where the publisher can’t find enough good manuscripts to publish and keep their business going. But is it realistic to believe that romance authors, for whom Harlequin represents the single biggest chunk of the market for their books, will stop submitting to Harlequin because they’ve lost their recognition status and can’t enter the RITAs any more? My guess is that the answer to that is a big, fat no.

As disappointed as I am in this move by Harlequin, I’ll have to admit that I probably wouldn’t turn my nose up at a legitimate contract offer from them, because they are, all in all, a great publisher with excellent distribution, marketing, and reader loyalty. Yes, it might make me think twice, but in the end, what RWA thinks of my book or my publisher is less important to me than getting my book in the hands of readers. And Harlequin, with or without a tight link to a vanity publishing arm, is a force in that arena.

So, basically, I think RWA has won this battle, in the sense of doing the right thing under its longstanding policies and principles. Good for RWA. But in the end, it may well be that the war has already been lost.

Thursday Throwdown: Piracy for Dummies

Or maybe that should read “Piracy is for dummies.”

If you haven’t been around the Twitterverse or Dear Author lately, you may have missed the flare-up over an article in the New York Times yesterday, wherein a reader told a reported that she shares her Kindle account with several friends, does not always pay for the ebooks she reads, and was pretty sure what they were doing by sharing this Kindle account was exploiting a “loophole” in Kindle’s Terms of Service. Turns out, upon review, that there was nothing shady or dubious, let alone piractical, about what she and her friends were doing, but that didn’t stop some folks from castigating her and calling her a thief. It also let to a pretty lively discussion on Twitter about whether there was a difference between sharing ebooks within a household/among family members versus among friends who don’t live together.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time regurgitating my thoughts about this particular case of booksharing (which I have no issues with whatever and which others have already more than adequately explained1), but instead try to coalesce my thoughts about the issue underlying the outrage: ebook piracy.

There’s no doubt that true ebook piracy is rampant and poses a significant threat to authors. It’s simply far to easy (even with DRM) for a person to buy one copy of an ebook, then upload the file to a torrent site for thousands of passersby to download on a whim. Not only that, there are folks out there who take pride in never paying for books (or music) because they know how to suss out the free copies. They know they are stealing, and not only do they not care, they’re actually willing to brag about it.

A little harder to quantify is how many innocent folks stumble on a book or song they want on a torrent site and don’t realize it’s not legal to download it for free. Yes, yes, I know what you’re thinking. No one could be that stupid/Internet illiterate. Alas, I think they can be. And it doesn’t help, IMO, that Amazon has started offering some of its Kindle books for the whopping sum of $0.00. That may be a win for classic literature, but it does instill the notion that books can be downloaded for free and still be legal. (A lot of authors also offer free reads from their websites, and I think it’s a great strategy for attracting new readers. Buuuuut, it does have a downside, which is again to reinforce the idea that readers shouldn’t/don’t have to pay for content.)

All in all, I don’t think there is a topic out there that can touch off more moral outrage in the author community than piracy. Authors see pirates taking money out of their pockets, and they don’t like it.

I’m not about to say authors should like it, but I do think it wouldn’t hurt to get less exercised about it. Because in all honesty, I don’t think piracy by itself is near as big a threat to authors as (are you ready?) the fact that most publishers seem to have little or no interest in stopping it.

As angry as authors are about piracy, you would think publishers would be absolutely foaming at the mouth over it. You’d think they’d be threatening lawsuits against every illegal downloader the way the music industry publishers back in the days of Napster. You’d think they’d be hiring attorney to bring suit against ISPs for allowing torrent sites that regularly violate copyright. (Most of these sites are hosted in countries with questionable legal systems or enforcement of copyright laws, so going after the SITES is pretty tough.) And you’d think they’d be working way harder to get strong, consistent, coherent definitions of fair use and ownership of digital media so that people would be absolutely clear on what constitutes legal sharing and what constitutes thievery.

Instead, publishers seem to me to be doing little more than sticking their fingers in the dyke by putting DRM on their ebook files and/or otherwise dragging their feet to join the digital age. And frankly, DRMing or holding up ebook production is a little like sticking your fingers in your ears and going “neener, neener, neener” at piraters, because all it takes for someone to pirate your print is a scanner and a few too many hours of spare time. Bottom line: If someone wants to pirate your book, they will, because a) they can and b) there are no real consequences for doing so.

Why aren’t publishers as worked up about this as authors are? I have no idea. Maybe they are and I’m just not seeing the evidence of it. But will say this–authors can’t do much about stopping/reducing piracy without the help of the deep pockets in the game.

So, the next time you, the author, find your book on a torrent site for download, in addition to railing about the injustice of it all and emailing the site to get them to take it down, send the information to your editor or the sales department at your publishing house, along with the number of downloads. Maybe if publishers saw each and every instance of piracy in literally hundreds of emails from their authors, they’d take the threat a little more seriously.

1For great discussions of the situation, see:

Thursday Throwdown: Are Most Bestsellers Good or Garbage?

With Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol hitting the shelves this week and almost certainly destined to be a blockbuster bestseller, I remembered a discussion I had about a month ago on Twitter about whether or not books that make the bestseller list are, in some objective measure, “good”–even if we personally don’t see their appeal. I said I thought they were.

Just because I don’t like a particular book and/or don’t think it’s well-written doesn’t mean it’s a bad book. And I think if large numbers of people are buying and reading a book, there has to be something worthwhile about it. I just don’t subscribe to the theory that popular culture has poor/low taste and can’t recognize quality. For starters, if I did subscribe to that theory, I’d a) think democracy was the stupidest form of government on earth and b) stop trying to write good books and try to write crap instead.

The reason the release of the Dan Brown book made me think about this is that his breakout book, The DaVinci Code, is without a doubt one of the most maligned bestsellers in recent memory. According to many of its critics, it’s poorly written with wooden dialogue and a boring protagonist and a plot that’s both derivative (“Hey, someone else thought of that whole Mary Magdalene bit first! How dare the author use it?”) and predictable (“I figured out the last clue PAGES before the protagonists! How could they be so stupid?”).

Now, all of that may actually be true, but I’m going to tell you a secret: I liked The DaVinci Code. Not as much as Angels and Demons (which coincidentally had an even more absurd and fanciful plot, but who’s paying attention?), but…it was, for me, an enjoyable read. No, I didn’t think it was high literary art or destined to become a classic in the canon of American literature, but as entertainment, these books worked for me–and clearly for several million other people as well. And when we get right down to it, isn’t that what books are supposed to be? How can people be wrong about what entertains them?

None of this is to say that deserving books always become bestsellers. There are a whole host of factors that go into determining which books hit the bestseller lists, not the least of them being whether or not the publisher markets it with the intention of making it one. But I do think publishers have a pretty good idea which books have the right elements to become bestsellers and they plan accordingly. They aren’t stupid. Of course, sometimes, they get it wrong (like all the publishers who turned down The Shack, which has since become an enormous bestseller), but by and large, they do a pretty good job of guessing which books will have the popular appeal to hit the bestseller lists.

So, that’s my opinion. I think most bestsellers are, in fact, good rather than garbage. Even the ones I either didn’t like or that I have no interest in reading (dude, Twilight). Hey, I don’t have any interest in reading Moby Dick, either. I escaped it in high school and I know it’s supposed to be great literature, but I also really don’t care that much.

But I’m curious what you think. Do you think most bestsellers deserve their status or do you think they’re mostly garbage or is it somewhere in between. Vote below and leave your comments!

[poll id=”5″]

P.S. Yes, I’ll be buying The Lost Symbol but I’ll be waiting for it to come out in mass market paperback. Not only because I’m cheap, but because I just don’t like reading hardbacks!

Thursday Throwdown: Why You Should Want Universal Insurance

Yes, I’m pre-empting my normal ranting and raving about publishing and writing to bring you an overtly political rant and rave about healthcare reform.

Here’s the thing…I’m frankly baffled that this is political at all. Everyone should want universal access to healthcare in America. Everyone should want everyone else to have insurance coverage. Everyone. Including, yes, those terrible, evil illegal immigrants who are ruining America.

But I digress.

I have a very personal story to tell that illustrate why universal coverage should matter to you, even if you have health insurance. And no, it doesn’t have anything to do, really, with enlightened self-interest or lowering costs by getting all those uninsured people out of the emergency room.

No, it’s because it can save your life (or the life of someone you love).

Back in July of 2003, I had a sudden and severe asthma attack. The best way I can describe it is to say that it felt like someone had closed a door between my upper airways and my lungs. Everything seemed to have swollen shut. I tried my rescue inhaler without success. I tried my nebulizer, also without success. It was the middle of the night, so I called 911, imagining that there would be something the paramedics could do for me that I couldn’t do for myself. Then I woke my husband.

I don’t remember much after that. My husband says it took almost 15 minutes for the ambulance to arrive. They tried to get me to use my nebulizer (duh, I’d tried that; didn’t work). They tried giving me oxygen. And finally, they realized they had to transport me.

And then they spent SEVERAL MINUTES in the driveway of our house trying to get my husband (at 2am with his wife DYING in front of his eyes) to supply proof that we had insurance. Never mind that, even then, that was illegal. Never mind that I was in the back of the ambulance going cyanotic and gasping for air.

Obviously, they did eventually transport me and, thank God, a wonderful team of doctors and nurses saved my life. But by the time I arrived, I’d been in cardiac arrest for almost five minutes.

Now, if those paramedics hadn’t stood there in the driveway asking my husband about our insurance, I MIGHT have arrived at the hospital with a heartbeat. I might not have had to have CPR. I might have spent less time in the hospital, costing my insurance company and the health care system in general less money. At the time, I had a

Even though they weren’t supposed to ask, the fact that they KNEW many people don’t have insurance made them feel they were justified in doing so. They wanted to make sure they would get paid. I can’t say I entirely blame them. But that small delay could have been the difference between my living and dying.

When my husband arrived at the hospital, the paramedics were coming out. They wouldn’t look at him. He thought then that I was gone. They are probably lucky I lived, because he’d probably have had a cause of action in my wrongful death if I didn’t.

But either way, wouldn’t it be better if no one EVER had to worry whether a patient’s care would be paid for? It could save lives. Maybe yours.

Thursday Throwdown: Shelve the Books Already

We all know there’s something of a crisis in the bricks-and-mortar bookselling industry. Both independent and chain bookstores are strugging to survive as people are buying fewer books overall and more and more of those buyers are choosing to purchase from online retailers, especially the 1,000 lb. gorilla, Amazon. They’re also facing stiff competition from the big box chains like WalMart and Target, which stock a much more limited number of titles but provide nice discounts on the ones they do carry.

What are bookstores to do in this economy and environment? Well, I’ll tell you one thing they could do that would make me immensely happier and more likely to buy from them–shelve books on (if not before) their official release date! I cannot tell you how many times in the past few months I’ve gone into my nearest Borders or Barnes & Noble on the release date of a book I was craving only to discover it hadn’t been shelved yet. When I asked, I was told they hadn’t “broken down that box yet.”

Want specifics? How about this–although my Barnes & Noble had my book shelved several days early, my Borders didn’t bother putting out the one copy they apparently ordered for a full TWO WEEKS after its release date. TWO WEEKS! And I’m a local author. What’s up with that? And when I went there looking for Tessa Dare’s first book, Goddess of the Hunt, a few weeks later, it was also not shelved on its release date (although I did find it there a few days later).

I came to the conclusion that my Borders must be understaffed, but since the B&N had my book out few days earlier, when it was time for Tessa’s second book, Surrender of a Siren, to hit the shelves, I went there, sure they’d have it out. But they didn’t! They lost a significant sale from me as a result of this failure because I was going to buy the next two books in Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series, but since I couldn’t get everything I wanted and I knew I could also get the Westerfeld books at Target (which always stocks a good selection of YA), I left without buying anything. I went to Target two days later, where I scored everything I wanted for a lower price (and also purchased a bunch of need sundry items into the bargain…ah, convenience).

So, here’s the deal…if bookstores don’t get with the program and shelve by their release date (not the day after or two days after or a week after), it’s my personal belief that they will continue to lose more sales to the chains and to the online booksellers. Amazon was shipping my book, which had an official release date of May 26, 2009, as early as May 17. (If I had any notion of hitting any bestseller lists, that might have irritated me, since I know early release is bad for those “numbers,” but given that wasn’t even on my radar, it was actually nice to know they were sending it out to folks who’d preordered months before.) For Borders not to shelve it for a full two weeks after the release date is, IMO, unconscionable (and honestly, since the last attempt to find a book on its shelving date failed, I’m seriously considering never shopping there again).

What do you think? What do you think is killing brick-and-mortar booksellers? Am I onto something or are there other factors you’d like to discuss? I’d love to hear!