by Louella Nelson
A Caveat In this report we aren’t talking about writing or marketing the literary masterpiece, although that may indeed happen when you publish; we are talking about taking a commercial writing career to the next level—ideally, up, up, up to the stratosphere.
“Outliers,” “Trad Pubs,” “Partnerships,” and “Hybrid Authors” (as if we were half alien, and some of us feel we are, in today’s publishing game): These terms were bandied about in Florida in October at the Novelists, Inc. writers’ conference. Featuring some of the top authors in the U.S. as well as abroad, the gathering was held at the quaint, quite respectable Trade Winds Island Grand Resort in St. Pete’s Beach, a spot on the Gulf of Mexico that features powdery white sand and gentle waves. The organization, short-named NINC, is in its 25th year. To join you must have at least two books published. The sessions ran from 8:30am to 11pm, all of them devoted to the business of book publishing. As you can probably tell, there is a new language emerging around publishing, words that reflect sweeping changes in the business. What follows is a recap of the concerns and trends, starting with—
Outlier—hugely successful, acclaimed author
Hybrid—author published traditionally as well as self-published
Trad Pub—a traditional publisher focused on print publishing (and trying to re-tool for ebooks)
Trad Author—an author published by a traditional publisher
ePub—ePublishing or ePublished or publishing ebooks
Indy Pub—a small press, independent press; or self-publishing, whether electronically or in print or both
Indy Author—an author published by a small press, independent press, or self-published
Mid-lister—an author who is publishing but hasn’t yet made it to the big time
Back-lister—an author who is re-issuing titles once published by a Trad house, usually in ebook format
Partnership—by leaving Trad Pubs in droves, established big-name authors are demonstrating that they want Trad Pubs to offer higher royalty rates, do away with boiler-plate contracts, and quit being “one way” about distribution rights. The Trad Pub’s latest grab is “all rights not yet invented.” Come on. Really? Authors feel they have way more than met the demands of Trad Pubs over the years. Now they want loyalty, respect, and a true partnership.
Metadata—information about your book (title, ISBN, copyright information, page count, etc.) but also the descriptive words the public might use to search online for you or your book. For more info on this, see my blog post on metadata: https://louellanelson.com/blog/
Scale—sales achieving the next level; doing social media and marketing tasks, hiring assistants, creating an author-alliance, or creating a partnership with a group of authors or an outside company that will take your sales to best-seller outlier status.
An Overview The NINC conference was impressive in terms of the sheer number of mega-published authors. Many attendees have sold 50+ books, up to well over 100 in a given career, and many are making a comfortable living if not six figures. These ultra-successful writers are called “outliers.” Whether or not you were ever published by a traditional house—Trad Pub, in the vernacular—if you got into electronic self-publishing in 2010 or 2011, you reaped tremendous sales (to hear it told), and you continue the upward climb as long as you continue to issue books, whether new or re-issued back-list. That success is less the case—but not out of the realm of possibility—with writers entering the ePub world today. And today that world is it jammed with new-comers as well as authors like myself whose river of creativity has at last reemerged. We once-and-former authors who are restarting our careers are called mid-listers and back-listers. “Indy” is hot hot hot. “Hybrid” half-Indy, half-Trad publishing is the oft-recommended route. And launching a career is best accomplished with four or five books on initial release, either all at once or parsed out over a few months, with a steady schedule of releases afterward, according to outliers Liliana Hart and Jana DeLeon.
In addition to friendly outliers from all over the U.S., Canada, and the U.K., an Orange County contingent at the conference made it possible to compare notes and discuss strategies with familiar ease. Attending from Orange County besides myself were Debra Holland, Mindy Neff, Jennifer Apodaca also writing as Jennifer Lyon, and historical romance and paranormal author Debra Mullins; Susan Liepitz writing as Gillian Doyle recently moved from the OC to the Las Vegas area; and a former Orange Countian and West Lake Village resident now living in the East, Cynthia Cooke, known for her paranormals, romances, and thrillers, also attended.
All of us kept busy. I moderated a panel on “Metadata” (see The Highlights below for strategies), while Debra Holland, a psychotherapist and a NY Times/USA Today/Amazon best-selling author, held a session on staying positive in a challenging business. She also spoke on a panel with her consortium partners, discussing their joint venture book, The Naked Truth About Self-Publishing.
Partnership The by-word of the conference, “Partnership” was repeated often at the podium and in informal meetings. Several long-time Trad authors expressed burnout as well as resentment about their current contracts: They wanted to get out of them so they could move to the more lucrative ebook platform. There is resentment overall toward Trad Pubs because the houses aren’t recognizing they are no longer the only game in town; aren’t upping royalty split to something even remotely close to the 65-70 percent ePub authors earn; aren’t giving back e-rights without a fight or at all; and aren’t rewarding their still-loyal authors with significant support in advertising and promotion, let alone development of a social media platform and reader contact list. Some of these benefits may be extended to a few outliers, but they are by no means standard benefits for mid-listers. I met a handful of Trad writers with 20-60 books in their recent backlist who aren’t making a solid living. They feel they’re on a treadmill. Several speakers, including former CNN reporter Porter Anderson, discussed ways the Trad Pubs need to re-appreciate and meet the current needs of authors. Boiler-plate contracts, low royalty rates, and lack of promotional support were among the key complaints that fell into the caldron of backlash. The Big 5 Trad Pubs are trying to gear up in the ebook area but are responding as any dinosaur might when trying to turn around on a dime. I encouraged one Big 5 editorial director to urge her bosses to be the first Trad Pub to respond in a meaningful way to authors’ wishes; it would go a long way toward instilling confidence in popular-fiction authors who have lost the faith and drifted away.
Collaborations/Consortiums Taking control of a career by self-publishing seems to have opened new pathways between writers, especially in the area of promotion. And new doors are opening between authors and fans. For instance, it’s common practice for scribes to collaborate with fellow authors on blog-fests and Facebook parties. At these events, colleagues put in guest-appearances; fans have real-time or same-day access to the authors, and readers compete to name book titles and characters’ names to win prizes such as autographed books, t-shirts, or a Kindle or Nook reader. The eParty seems to have replaced the book-signing, although signings still occur. Humorist Jana DeLeon, “a former CFO who jumped off the corporate ladder to write books,” according to her website, has nearly 3300 likes on her Facebook page. Most are fans who enjoy having access to one of their favorite authors. Meanwhile, joining a consortium is a growing practice. Indy best-selling Liliana Hart is part of the multi-author consortium “Club Indy” with Debra Holland, Jana DeLeon, and other outliers. They raise money for promotion with projects such as The Naked Truth About Self-Publishing, dream up ways to support and encourage other Indy writers, and brainstorm career moves on strategy trips to island paradises. Ultimately, ask, Can the partnership pull you out of the pack? What can you contribute to the success of its members?
Novel Series “Continuities,” or a series of books containing the same or related characters and/or settings, have been and continue to be popular, not only with fans but also with publishers. Publishers are more willing to get behind series with promotion, because by accretion it’s possible to reap a sales-benefit earlier than with the release of several stand-alone titles. Authors who write and self-publish series have the same potential benefits, with the added plus that research can be re-used.
The Serial Novel Charles Dickens’ landmark “serial novel” is making a come-back. One St. Martin’s Press author has enjoyed unexpected success with paranormal serialized works. She writes the entire book, then breaks it into four parts of roughly 25,000 words each and beefs up the end-hook for each section (but, she clarifies, never in the midst of a love scene). A Canadian author publishing with Random House writes very quickly without much planning or editing and releases one e-serialization at a time for a total of five, each released every couple of weeks. Both authors’ publishers release the whole novel as a stand-alone e- and print-book once the serialization is over. The Canadian author does considerable polishing of the final work before its release, whereas the St. Martin’s author does not because she “edits as she goes.”
Books on Tape Amazon’s ACX reps report that recorded books and stories comprise the fastest-growing segment of the book business. Debra Holland said she was surprised to see her God’s Dream fantasy series—launched a few months ago via Amazon’s subsidiary Audible.com to augment print and ebook sales—already paying back the cost of production. Narration and production can run $250 to $450 per finished hour, and up or down from there. To give you an idea of the cost, one of the reps estimated Mail-Order Mate, one of my 85,000-word novels, might run eight or nine recorded hours in final form. Apple also offers audio production or audio upload options for iBooks.
Foreign Translations For Indy authors, getting your book translated into foreign languages was a popular topic, long the purview of Trad Pubs. Germany is currently the number one most touted market for foreign language sales of American books. I met with the editorial director of Avon/Harper Collins/Morrow Books and learned a bit about the genre druthers of some key foreign-sales countries:
- Germany: Paranormal and historical
- France: Sexy contemporary
- England: Beyond-Fifty-Shades-of-Grey hot; contemporary
- China: Regency
- Japan: Contemporary
Warning: Check the country’s laws for ownership of the translation. German translators by law own the copyright on their translations. One strategy to avoid sharing copyright is to hire a translator in Austria to translate into the German language.
Metadata While “metadata” is a term that stands for various features of the book, including content, drawing readers to the book remains, for many, a challenge fraught with mystery. Lacy J. Williams, myself, and Randy Ingermanson, author of The Snowflake Method for Designing a Novel, co-hosted the panel on metadata and contributed ideas to a participatory audience of about 70 attendees. From Randy I learned there are “stealth” categories that more effectively draw browser searchers to your book, but these categories are not listed in any of Amazon’s help pages for self-publishers; the same may be true for other online retailers. If anyone knows how to find and employ stealth categories, please post back to me. I suspect, however, that one needs to know someone on the inside and develop a “partnership” to get the scoop. Meanwhile, advice from the panel includes studying the categories and keywords listed online next to similar books by best-selling authors and trying them with your books; if you are limited to only a handful of keywords, try using “strings” of words rather than single words in your list.
Pre-Orders A pre-sale of a book is more appreciated than in the past. Amazon and iBooks both tout the practice. iBooks will allow a pre-sale announcement and a book’s cover to be posted in their store up to a year in advance; but if you miss your deadline even once, i.e., fail to launch the book on time, they will remove your account. Amazon has a shorter lead time and for well-known authors is arranging promotions, especially of series, to create interest—and sales—before the book is even written. Debra Holland, my editing client who writes for Amazon’s Montlake line, does a pre-sale for her own Indy-published books, while Montlake mounts a pre-sale page for the books she writes for them. Liliana Hart’s readers are trained to buy on pre-order, rather than when the book gets released. Her training secret? Consistency. She always announces a pre-sale on a Tuesday and always releases the new book on a Tuesday.
Hammering the market As mentioned, the authors who are making five and six figures from a hybrid or strictly self-pub platform recommend that a new author release four or five books either at once or over a period of four to five months to take advantage of promotion momentum and follow-on sales as well as Amazon’s algorithms (which exist, but how they work to kick off an email or advertising promotion is a mystery to most of us). In today’s jammed market, a “good book” is important. But is it as important to an author who wants to make the big time by volume production? Sadly, not always. Not all authors care about commercial success, either, and prefer to focus on writing and perfecting the very finest book possible; but those who do want commercial success have to write quickly and be prepared to hammer the market with words.
To meet the demands of volume production, they have to build a team, relying on—
- a developmental editor like myself to smooth out plot potholes and ramp up character
- at least one copy editor to polish
- an artist to develop a snazzy cover
- an assistant to help build a social media presence and do all manner of crucial support services that free the author to write
- and a formatter to convert the book to a language read by the internal software at retailers Amazon, Kobo, Smashwords, iBooks, and Barnes & Noble, among others
- for foreign translations, a translator
- professional outside services such as an attorney, an accountant
Then there’s the whole discussion about promotion: How do you develop a contact list of readers? Who writes the book description, the author bio, the monthly or bi-annual newsletter to announce new releases? Who submits the manuscript to reviewers such as Kirkus Reviews and e-book promoters such as BookBub? And on and on—all the steps once conducted by Trad Pubs on the writer’s behalf and, too commonly, no longer done—all key jobs now shifted to the shoulders of the Indy and hybrid author. Again, “partnership” has to play a large part in what I call “volume publishing.” Scale and partnership.
If You’re Afraid Welcome to the club. The list of to-do’s is pretty intimidating. Volume publishing isn’t for everybody. But those outliers I met fairly sizzled with energy and optimism; it’s hard to resist their advice, isn’t it?
Does it seem daunting to get four or five works ready for market? It needn’t. Look at this combination: one novel completed plus one novella and three short stories, written or well along, all related by theme, by character/family of characters, and/or by setting—all released at once or in a condensed schedule. Another scenario: Write a serial novel in four or five parts, releasing each segment in quick succession. A third idea: Most unpublished writers have a store of material written but not plotted or otherwise perfected. Could some of this work be converted to short fiction and readied for market? Be flexible about the destiny of earlier works. Keep your end-goal in mind. If you do pirate these materials and send them out to market, there’s every possibility you could expand upon them later in your career. And begin to build your team. Reach out to a college for part-time help or an intern or ask a family member for help.
- BookBub, known for promoting the $.99 e-book sale, is respected; they can launch a book in a big way, even a career. The downside is, they are so established that it’s hard to get your new release selected for promotion. To have your novel considered, according to the owner, it needs some 100-150 reviews; the author being a NY Times and/or USA Today best-selling author gives the book a better chance. I suppose you could keep giving away free copies and hounding the recipients until the requisite number of reviews appears on Amazon or Goodreads….
- Even as Big Box Store book sales decline, making a come-back are bricks-and-mortar bookstores, especially independents, according to a couple of speakers. Ironically, Amazon is even opening on-the-ground “pop-up stores” that could possibly include on-the-shelf books.
- Apple is coming on strong. Their growing market share of book sales is giving Amazon serious competition. Liliana Hart says she sells more books via Apple than through Amazon.
Final Words While I have been aware of the glut of new books on the market due to the self-publishing revolution, and have worried that I or the writers I mentor have “missed the boat” in terms of establishing a successful career, I now know my fears are largely unwarranted (as most fears are). I have every confidence that the new writers I mentor can carve a place for themselves in the marketplace. There is no gate-keeper but their own creativity, stamina, and perseverance. There is every help available to show them the way.
No one to say they can’t.
No one to keep them from their destiny as a published writer, and that includes some of my freshman composition students at Orange Coast College who show promise.
It was a fine conference because I brought home hope for myself and my students and clients.
I want to close this post with the words of the conference chair, Kasey Michaels, who has won most of the women’s fiction awards to be had in the business, who knows the meaning of struggle for nursing her young son through dialysis and kidney transplant, who launched a writing career in the midst of that torture and went on to write more than 100 books—and whose tireless work to ensure a professional, organized, generous conference experience won the hearts of everyone present:
I don’t write to change the world. I write to entertain, and I want my books to bring a smile, maybe a tear or two, but then more smiles – and just be the sort of story that, when the reader finally closes the book over the last page, she just sits there and sort of rubs at the back cover for a moment, wishing the story wasn’t over yet.
Like many of you, I’m learning more and more every day about self-publishing and plan to keep posting information for writers. Little things fascinate: I find it odd that ePub has a capital in it but ebook is now so familiar it’s all lower case (and both drive Microsoft Word crazy). As careful as I tried to be, it’s possible there’s an error, omission, or some sort of snaggle in the post. If that happens, please send me an email via the Contact Me box. On the other hand, if you find this report helpful, feel free to share a link and your thoughts on Twitter and Facebook and follow me so I can see it. A little good news never hurts. 🙂 —Louella Nelson