We Disrupt Your Regularly Scheduled Program

One of the things I keep hearing is that Amazon is disrupting the publishing business. That disruption is what allows independent authors like me to make a living in a field where - in the past - only a handful of superstars could quit their day jobs.

I've been looking at this for a couple of years now and I think we're focused on the wrong end of the paradigm.

Disruption is a technical term and happens when an innovation changes the marketplace for a new and under served populations of customers.

Who are the customers in publishing?

Certainly not the authors. Publishing has long see the authors and editors and artists less as customers than as piece work laborers, a necessary overhead cost in producing the books that they sell to the real end customers - readers.

I would argue that the disruption that Amazon has caused is in reading and they did it by changing the distribution model that a few (and shrinking) number of companies have controlled for decades. Ebooks in general and Amazon in particular gave people with limited means and limited mobility access to the community of letters in numbers that were unthinkable before. Those readers, and our ability to reach them, is what makes it possible for me to make a living writing novels.

So when the Wise and Powerful Wizard of 'Zon changes the rules, like trying out new subscription models or altering what authors get paid, remember one critically important distinction.

We're not the customers that their disruption serves. We're only the beneficiaries of that disruption.

Cash the checks and keep writing.

Image Credit:
https://www.flickr.com/photos/stevensnodgrass/
https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

[This post originally shared with the Writers Discussion Group on Google+ - Aug, 2015. Nothing has changed since then.]

The Wonders of Vellum—Ebook Formatting Made Easy

One of the challenges of self-publishing is formatting your final files so they create an easy-to-read, nicely formatted final product. While you can always just upload your Word files and have the target site (Amazon or B&N or Smashwords) convert it for you, this approach doesn’t always provide the best results. There are plenty of tutorials online that tell you how to convert your file and reformat it so it’ll make its way gracefully through these online converters, but wouldn’t it be nice to have a file that’s put together nicely to begin with?

Enter Vellum. Vellum is easy to use and spits out final files that are not only pretty, but get this—they pass the vetters at Smashwords on the first try. If, like me, you’ve had issues getting your files past Smashwords, then you know this is a big plus. I still have books sitting at Smashwords that I haven’t figured out how to get through the vetter. Now I know. I’ll reformat them with Vellum.

Before I continue to rave about it, I’ll mention the two drawbacks to the program. First, it’s a little pricey. You can either pay $30 per individual book or $200 for an unlimited license. I went ahead and opted for the unlimited license, because I knew I was going to want to use it for a good number of books. The other drawback is that it’s only available for Mac. On the positive side, you can try it out for free to see if the workflow works for you. You’ll have to pay to move on to the export stage, but by the time you’ve gotten to that point, you should have a pretty good idea whether or not you want to spend the money.

If you’ve got a Mac, though, you’re all set. I found Vellum so easy to use that I didn’t even need a user guide for most of what I needed to do. Basically, you just open a new file and start copying and pasting, one chapter at a time. A “Styles” tab lets you change certain formatting styles with one click. Adding elements allows you to drop in a partially preformatted copyright page, About the Author page, and other bits and pieces. The only thing I had a bit of trouble with was adding links to the page that lists other works. I also wish there were a way to save a default element so it’s already filled in when you bring it into the document. If there is, though, I haven’t found it yet.

When you’re done adding all your chapters and other elements, you export your files. This is also super easy—just a click and save operation. When the processing is done, you’ll find your files saved in separate folders for each format, all ready for uploading.

I’ve put up reformatting my older e-books because I knew it would be time consuming and tedious. But with Vellum, I’m ready to tackle the project. If you have large numbers of books to convert, like a substantial backlist, or if you’re planning to release regularly, I think Vellum is a solid investment for clean, professional, problem-free formatting. Rating: 10/10, would buy again.

The 411 on Category Romance

Are you tired of all the businessy stuff yet? You might be. But let’s not lose sight of the importance of knowing the industry. One more post and then we’re on to boy meets girl.

Today we’re addressing Category Romance, a.k.a. Series Romance. Here’s the definition from Goodreads: “Category romances are short, usually no more than 200 pages, or about 55,000 words. The books are published in clearly delineated lines, with a certain number of books published in each line every month. In many cases, the books are numbered sequentially within the line.”

The big players here are Harlequin and Silhouette. Harlequin was founded in 1949 in Canada as a paperback reprinting company. It wasn’t until the mid-50’s that the focus narrowed to Romance. They’ve partnered with many different publishers over the years and are now owned by Harper Collins. It wasn’t until the 70’s that they had American authors - it was all British writers until then. They actually turned down Nora Roberts because they’d signed Janet Daily and she was their “American.” Can’t you just see them sipping their afternoon tea with their noses in the air? Their bad. Eventually, Nora would write for them. So there was a happy ending.

In 1980 Harlequin terminated their relationship with Simon & Schuster, leaving them high and dry. So they formed Silhouette to compete with Harlequin. These books featured American settings and characters. Over time, the heat-level of romance went up and some other companies entered the scene. Harlequin didn’t adapt well, and in 1984, they purchased Silhouette. The Silhouette imprint continues, though. In the 90’s many of their authors began writing longer, single-title romance and, to keep them the Mira line of longer books was created.

But this was all before e-books. Remember, the way these category romances worked is that the company had a number of “lines” of books. Each line featured three or four books a month that were only on the shelves for that month. So a book had a 30-day window to sell. Many customers had subscriptions and got the entire line every month. That help these authors become successful, but it was truly a roll of the dice.

That 30-day window is still around. That’s still how these books are sold. Subscriptions are also still available but are much less popular. Of course, now these books are available beyond their store shelf-life on the Harlequin website in paperback (until sold out) and ebook format. Many romance author still make their living staying within the Harlequin walls.

One of the things - from an authors perspective - that sets Harlequin apart is that they do take un-agented queries. The first version of my True Valor went to New York after a request for the full manuscript. It was ultimately not a good fit for them but I was thrilled to have had it considered.

Their categories now include:

African-American
Classic Romance
Contemporary Romance
Erotic Fiction
Fantasy
Historical Romance
Home and Family
Inspirational Romance
Mystery
New Adult
Paranormal Romance
Passion
Relationship Novel
Romance with More
Spanish
Suspense
Teen
Thriller
Wholesome

Something for every romance reader and writer. If you’re at all interested in pursuing category romance, their guidelines are all available on their website.

Okay, campers. Next month - we’ll get into the nitty gritty of writing romance. In the meantime - happy Valentine’s Day.

Motivation

Motivation.

You hear it all the time. Your characters need to be motivated to pick up that sword and slay the dragon, venture to a distant galaxy, or figure out why there’s a dead body at the bottom of the well.

What motivates your character to do what they need to do in your story?

But, wait.

Strip away the story for a second. Let’s get back to your character before your story starts.

Long before...

Before she needed to grasp the sword, before he climbed into the rocket, before she lowered herself in the well to study the corpse.

Who is this person—at the core? How motivated was he or she--in general? As a person?

Was she ambitious to begin with? Or filled with ennui? Where did she draw motivation to, say, go to college or get a job? No, really, what drives her to get out of bed in the morning and go pursue her dream? Any dream?

And is it her own dream? Or a course charted by a parental unit? Family pressure? Family influence?

I’m thinking about all of this because I recently met a guy who was successful and highly visible for a long period of time.

And then, wham.

I mean, he got creamed. He was below down and he was below out. He had made some mistakes. He over-extended himself. He went completely belly up. He owed millions of dollars. It was a bleak scene. It took several years, but he’s picked himself back up. And now he's making another run at big-time business success.

He can trace his character and grit back to his parents and how he was raised. It’s such a key part of his life, how he absorbed what they taught him about how to approach that big wide world.

Why does anybody want to do anything?

That’s a common refrain of Brendan Murphy, a.k.a. “Murph,” the Asphalt Warrior (star of eight novels to date). Murph, the creation of the late Gary Reilly, lives a very alternative lifestyle. He questions capitalism, even the need for much of an income. How many people do you know who share that worldview?

With his idiosyncratic ways, Murph reminds me of Ivan Goncharov’s Oblomov, one of the most memorable novels I read in college, and Herman Melville’s Bartleby The Scrivener. Oblomov is incapable of doing anything significant. In the first 50 pages, he only moves from his bed to his chair. Told you. Great story.

And Bartleby declines most of the work assignments he’s given, even when the consequences mount.

Murph, Oblomov and Bartleby have their reasons. They are three-dimensional human beings.

Their lives are fascinating on their own because their sheer essence cuts against the grain of what’s acceptable.

Ignatius Reilly, also, the central character in John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces.

Ignatius Reilly: “I mingle with my peers or no one, and since I have no peers, I mingle with no one.” Yes, to varying degrees, these four are anti-social.

The vast majority of fictional characters are not.

Your dragon-slayer.

Your astronaut.

Your detective.

Before the inciting incident that interrupts your character's routine life, who was this person? What got them up in the morning?

I don’t think it hurts, at a very fundamental level, to understand the answer to that question.

So your character stands out from the crowd.

Final thought from George Carlin: “Actually, if you ask me, this country could do with a little less motivation. The people who are causing all the trouble seem highly motivated to me. Serial killers, stock swindlers, drug dealers, Christian Republicans. I’m not sure motivation is always a good thing. You show me a lazy prick who’s lying in bed all day, watching TV … and I’ll show you a guy who’s not causing any trouble.”

“Cataloging” Your Book

It’s been over twenty years since I started ordering fiction for the public library where I work. We divide adult fiction into four basic collections: mystery, western, sci-fi/fantasy and fiction (which encompasses everything that doesn’t fit into the first three). In the past, cataloging, or deciding where to shelve a book, was pretty simple. Occasionally there were questions about whether a book was suspense, which we shelve in fiction, or a mystery. Traditionally a mystery is a book that features a private detective or amateur sleuth, or a police procedural, but gradually we started adding crime fiction to the mystery section. Then the thriller category exploded, and some of our patrons thought John Grisham and James Patterson books should be mysteries. (We resisted and kept them in Fiction.)

But that was only the beginning. Charlene Harrison started the True Blood/Sookie Stackhouse series, and we cataloged the books as mystery because that’s the genre she’d been writing in previously. But they weren’t mysteries, really. They had vampires in them. And where do you catalog vampire books? Anne Rice’s vampire books were in fiction. But other authors, like Laurell Hamilton, wrote vampire books that had a lot of supernatural elements and those books seemed to fit better in sci-fi/fantasy. And then Jim Butcher started a fantasy series featuring a detective, and where do you put those?

Dystopian fiction has traditionally been cataloged as fiction, probably because classic dystopian novels like 1984 and The Handmaiden’s Tale are considered literature, which meant they’re shelved in fiction. But if a dystopian novel has zombies, does it really belong in fiction? Wouldn’t it check out better in sci fi/fantasy?

In the end, that’s what usually drives my decision: Where will the book check out best? Where will the readers searching for that kind of book most likely look for it? That’s why the question of what genre your book fits into is so important to you as a writer. Readers have to find your book. If the people who would love your story don’t find it in the area of the library—or more importantly, the section of the bookstore, digital or otherwise—they usually browse in, they’re never going to discover your book.

You can’t control where your book is shelved in libraries or bookstores, but you do have some control over how it is marketed. And that process starts even before you the sell the book to a publisher. It may even affect how you write the book, as in which genre rules you decide to follow or which ones you decide to break. When you make a pitch to an editor or agent, you should be telling them things about your book that help them categorize it so they can see how it fits into their company’s marketing plan.

If you’re indie-publishing your book, you have total control over the cover, the blurb and the category/genre it’s listed in. Which means you really can fine-tune where it’s going to be “shelved”, in either a digital bookstore or physical building. So think a lot about where your book fits in the market. What are some popular books that are like yours? What categories are they listed in on-line? What do their covers look like? How are they described, both in blurbs and by readers?

It can be overwhelming, but ultimately this is your baby. You want to make sure your book ends up in the right place so people can find it and fall in love.

Advertise or Die

I recently had a brief email exchange with Janet Lane on a blog entry she was writing on the topic of book marketing, a topic that I hate. On later reflection I decided to add my own thoughts to hers, which you've no doubt read, precisely because I hate the topic so much.

(Janet: Forgive me if I step on your topic here, I walk only in your shadow.)

Much has been written about how writers are introverts and not easily given to socializing, networking, and schmoozing, all of it true. Marketing is my least favorite part of writing, and I strongly suspect I'm not alone. Marketing is hard for me, and while it comes easily to some, there are even those out there who claim they enjoy it but who are, empirically by observation, not very good at it. Marketing is an art, a skill, one not easily acquired and impossible to fake your way through.

First, when you advertise, remember that you are not marketing this one book. You are not even marketing your entire collection of publications. You are marketing yourself. You want to build an audience not just for your most recent release, but for future releases as well. Marketing yourself is entirely different than trying to sell a product. You have to give others a reason to read what you write, make them intrigued enough to do so, which means bragging on yourself. And yet, to stay likable, you can't come off as bragging about yourself. Doing something while not seeming to do it at all is like trying to pick up a pencil without actually picking it up.

We also live in a climate of very savvy consumers these days - people are very acutely aware of when you are trying to sell them something. Everyone has had the experience of being set upon by a salesman the moment we enter a store or used car lot - we cringe and recoil and are uncomfortable, even resentful, of this kind of hard-sell tactic. It leaves a bad taste in our mouth, and these days we are more likely to walk away having bought nothing than giving in to the pressure.

The term channel-hopping refers to the act of changing the channel on a television every time a commercial comes on. On-demand television must disable the fast-forward feature of their programs because they know, if given the freedom, viewers would much rather skip a commercial than watch it. Commercial-free streaming services have become ever more popular. Web browser ad-blockers sell quite well. I myself am a charter member of the national do-not-call list, and I faithfully report every unsolicited sales call I get. Hell, I never even answer the door unless I'm expecting someone. In short, consumers want to buy, but by and large hate to be sold something.

So now we have to market ourselves while NOT bragging on ourselves, and sell books without seeming to sell books. A more impossible task was never set before mankind.

What's left to us? Mostly indirect sales techniques. In personal appearances you'll notice people will avoid your table. I like to engage them on something entirely unrelated to the books so obviously stacked around me. I comment on the weather, or something they are wearing, or on anything else. I do not address the books I am selling until they ask. I answer their questions succinctly, never going on-and-on or offering any information they did not ask about. And the minute they pick up a book and start to leaf through it I shut up and walk away. From that point on they will buy or not, you have no further control over it.

If you don't keep a blog, start one. But don't write about your books and how good they are and how everyone should buy one. Instead, interview other writers or industry professionals, or write about topics peripherally related to the themes covered in your books. If your books are mysteries, write about other unsolved crimes in current media. If you write romances, then blog about prominent figures who have recently gotten married or divorced. You get the idea.

Keep your books, with buy links, prominently visible on your blog pages, just don't try to sell them directly. The hope is that people who happen upon your blog and like what you have to say on other topics will be spurred enough to check out your books and maybe - hopefully - buy them.

(NOTE: For god's sake, don't get political in your blog. In our current hotly charged, cavernously divided political climate it takes very little to alienate half of your consumer base with an off-hand reference to topics about which very few agree. Steer clear.)

Participate in events, such as book fairs, book giveaways, library drives, etc. Volunteer for things such as public speaking engagements, guest blogs, organizations that dovetail with the topics you write about. Send letters to editors, comment on others' blogs, leave thoughtful reviews for books by other writers on places like Amazon and GoodReads.

The point is, marketing is never going to be easy, and it gets harder as our industry changes. Your best bet at selling more books is to keep your name as prominent and visible as possible while never hard-selling your books or alienating possible buyers. Finding that marketing sweet-spot is as elusive as that cat hair tickling your nose that you can't quite seem to find. And frankly just as annoying. But keep at it - you're only certain to fail at the things you don't try.

Not Yet … by Rebecca Hopkins

Her head covering was purple and she’s from an ancient Indonesian Muslim ethnic group. My pants were stained with ink marks and I’m American, now living in Indonesia. She’s pursuing journalism. Fiction writing for me.

We were two writers sitting next to each other in the airport as we both waited for our connections to different Borneo towns. We’d just been to the same Asia-wide writer’s conference in Bali. We both clutched books we’d bought from real-live published authors, both holding onto writing dreams. We mirrored that familiar mixture of desperation, inspiration and hope on both of our faces as we chatted.

“Where do you work?” I asked. “A newspaper? Magazine?”

“Not yet.”

I nodded. I’ve heard this answer hundreds of times since moving to Indonesia 11 years ago. Married? “Not yet.” Have kids? “Not yet.”

It’s the only right answer to these very specific culturally appropriate small-talk questions. Marriage and family are so important in this traditional culture that no one I’ve ever met here chooses a hard, definite “no.” In other words, “not yet” is an entirely acceptable place to be when life isn’t (yet) as they hope it to be.

We understand this as writers. None of us are choosing that hard “no.” We aren’t choosing to never write again (though I’ve pondered it a time or two when in the query trenches). We don’t choose not to get published (though the odds , at times, seem slim). We don’t want to write only for ourselves, (preferring instead to keep the hope alive for the special connection with a reader will someday happen).

photo credit: Wirasathya Darmaja from Ubud Fiction Writers Readers Festival

Our dream usually lies—very acceptably —in that “not yet.” As in, not yet settled on the right idea, but still exploring and researching for just the perfect gems that will bring the idea to life. Not yet done with the plot line or the character arc but hitting the computer keys at 5 a.m. every day to watch/force/hope for it to unfold. Not yet done rewriting, but still plodding along, shining those drab first-draft words into magical prose. Not yet got this whole writer’s life figured out, but still tweaking schedules, reading books, reaching out to others who are a little further down the writer’s track than us, balancing other important aspects of life like family and work.

And maybe…not yet published, but determined to keep querying, keep writing, keep learning, keep trying.

We write and live and connect and survive and struggle and rant and fight and create and delight and delete entire chapters and sometimes get our hearts broken and then open our documents the next day to begin to heal again. All in the “not yet.”

My flight was called, and the “not yet” journalist and I exchanged contact information, determined to keep in touch to cheer each other on toward our “not yet” but now a little more revived writing goals. Join us?

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Rebecca Hopkins writes novels about a world of ancient jungle tribes, sea-dwelling gypsies and isolated Balinese hand signing villages. It’s a world she’s trying to make her own—Indonesia. She’s lived in Indonesia with her relief pilot husband and three kids for eleven years.

Read more about her writing and life in Indonesia at www.rebeccahopkins.org. Rebecca can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

What “Starts with Action” Really Means

Writers are often advised to start their stories in medias res, or in the middle of action. This is pretty good advice—if you know what it means and how to make it work in your story!

First, though, let’s look at what it doesn’t mean. Some writers hear this advice and take action to mean an action scene. They might start chapter one with something like this:

Bullets zinged through the air. Bob dove behind a rusty old car parked outside the bank and jammed a new clip into his 9mm. “Run!” he yelled at Sam. “I’ll cover you!”

The problem with starting your story in the middle of an action scene is that you risk disorienting your reader—and readers, generally speaking, don’t like to be disoriented. Right off the bat, this opening introduces a lot of questions. Who’s shooting at Bob and why? How many shooters are there? A bank is mentioned, so is this shootout related to a robbery? And if so, are Bob and Sam the robbers or are they the cops? Who am I supposed to care about in this scene and why?

Other writers discard this advice altogether because their stories aren’t action stories—no shootouts, no high-speed car chases, no sprinting heroes, standoffs, shiny guns, or ticking bombs. They can’t possibly be expected to start with action if they’re not telling an action story, right?

The truth is, starting with action is something every writer can do, no matter what kind of story they’re writing. The trick is to understand that “start with action” really means “start in scene.”

Starting in scene means that from the very first word of your manuscript, you’re introducing us to a character in a setting and something is happening that hints at tension or conflict. Think of your novel as a play. When the curtain goes up, what do you want your reader see? A setting. A character or two. Movement of some kind that signals that something is happening.

When I’m reading sample pages, I often come across first lines that hold zero-tension and that project nothing but flickering white light on my mental movie screen. The author has not started in scene. Instead, they’ve started with narrative, exposition, or backstory:

When I was a child…

It all started when…

It is often said that…

Long before my troubles began…

My grandmother once told me…

If only I knew then what I know now…

Summertime always made Jane sad…

Some of these narrative intros go on for a few sentences before the author actually gets to his or her opening scene. Others go on for a few paragraphs or even pages. Still others become those dreaded prologues that many agents and editors—and readers!—simply skip because they want the curtain to go up. They want the story to start!

Look at your first line. Do you open in scene, with someone somewhere doing something? Or do you open with narrative, and then transition into scene later? If you opened with narrative, why? How long does it go on, and how does it serve your story or improve a reader’s experience of it? Put your finger on the line of text where your first scene actually starts. Can you chop everything that comes before that? If not, can you weave it in later, after you’ve established your opening scene?

Starting with action means that your opening scene should be external, something visible to your readers. To that end, remember that doing something does not mean your character is sitting alone and thinking. No cheating! If you’re opening with a character’s internalizations (thoughts, memories, ruminations), you’re really opening with disguised exposition or backstory.

Evaluate your opening scene and remember: A strong opening, written in scene, is one of the best ways to keep an agent turning the pages of your manuscript.

*Originally published in Nelson Literary Agency’s monthly newsletter

5 Important Things To Know About Self-Publishing–Part 1 … by Laura VanArendonk Baugh

Self-publishing (or indie publishing) is a big deal this days, as more and more authors use it exclusively or to supplement their traditional publishing catalog. But while self-publishing can be surprisingly fast and easy – one could take a Word document to retail ebook in about three minutes, if pressed – it’s definitely not a fast and easy path, and there’s lot of effort and knowledge required to be successful. Here’s what you need to know before you get started.

Self-Publishing Is An Industry.

There’s a thing about this industry that many authors fail to realize – it’s an industry. That means work. You can’t just vomit some words on paper, check that your mom likes them (“Lovely, dear, I’ll magnet them to the refrigerator”) and expect them to be profitable. That’s not how any industry anywhere works, and not here, either.

Authors write. That’s what they do.

Publishers publish. That means they are responsible for (including contracting for) cover design, distribution, marketing, ISBNs, layout, ebook conversion, audiobook production, front matter, back matter, ARCs, reviews, tracking sales, tracking expenses versus income to ensure profit, tracking and reporting sales tax, etc. (Oh, yeah, sales tax. You are doing that, aren’t you?)

“But I heard you can self-publish without an ISBN!” Maybe, yes, depending on your goals – but you’re missing the point. There’s a lot to do to publish a book, and more to do to publish a book successfully.

I keep hearing from self-publishing authors who are unhappy with their sales but are either unskilled at the above tasks or just plain don’t like them. You know what? That’s fine. If you don’t want to take on all the responsibilities of being a publisher, then don’t be a publisher. That’s what traditional publishing does. That’s why they get a larger percentage of profits, because they’re doing all that work you aren’t. And that is fine. If you want to be a writer and not a publisher, be a writer! Self-publishing is not the best choice for everyone, and there’s absolutely no shame in choosing a traditional path.

But if you choose to be a publisher, and then you do only a few of the publishing tasks or you do them halfway, then there’s no complaining at low profits. There’s no profit without work, because this is an industry.

Self-Publishing Costs Money.

Like other business ventures, capital is required.

Even after POD has eliminated the enormous upfront cost of printing, self-publishing has real expenses. An author-publisher may need to pay for editing, cover art, cover design, layout, ebook conversion, and probably also ISBN and copyright registration. You’ll also want a decent website and probably some business cards or promotional bookmarks, perhaps a banner for fairs. A versatilely-skilled author-publisher can do many of those tasks on her own (I actually like doing print layout and ebook conversions, though apparently I’m in the minority, and I have a lot of website background) but will still need to pay for tools, such as layout or graphics software, graphics resources and typefaces, web hosting, etc.

Most of us do not have a professional background in graphic design, so we’re better off hiring covers. A $10 cover is likely to yield a $10 sales quarter; save up and buy something professional. If you can’t afford a great cover to start, go ahead and work on the cheap, but then put your royalties right back into your writing career, making your next cover better (or going back and adding a new cover to an existing work).

A cheap cover or a bad website will hurt your sales; paying a little more for professional work will yield disproportionately greater sales (if your book quality supports it). You won’t save money by going cheap or doing yourself a job in which you aren’t trained. Learn the skills (there’s more to cover design than Photoshop!) or hire someone who has.

Vanity publishing still exists – and it’s dangerous.

The terms “author-publishing,” “self-publishing,” “indie-publishing,” and “vanity publishing” are often used interchangeably – the last usually with a distinct tone of disapproval and condescension. These are not all synonymous, but there can be considerable overlap in their Venn diagram, and it’s important to know the difference for your own protection.

“Author-publishing” and “self-publishing” are largely identical – it describes the author as the publisher of the work. The key here is that the author is responsible for publication and all its many tasks, from cover design to copyright registration to distribution arrangements (more on that later).

“Indie publishing” can be used to mean author/self-publishing, or it can refer to a small (“independent”) press, perhaps putting out ten titles a year from various contracted authors. This can occasionally be confusing – “What do you mean, you aren’t happy with your pricing? I thought you were indie?” – so ask if necessary.

“Vanity publishing” was once an author paying a printer to publish a work, and because it was not traditionally purchased work, it was often (not always) viewed as a lower tier of literary quality. Traditionally this author was recognizable by the full print run of boxed books in his basement or car trunk, but POD (printing on demand) has relieved that burden. While a number of classically famous authors have utilized vanity publishing (Edgar Allan Poe for one), it was usually because they couldn’t sell the book traditionally and it often didn’t fare well (Poe put out Tamerlane and Other Poems and moved 50 copies).

Today, vanity publishing has rebranded itself as “self-publishing” but with more predatory tactics: an author pays a company to produce his or her book, and the company makes money not from retailing the book but from the author. These books are often poorly produced, receive little to no distribution or marketing despite promises, and cost up to hundreds of times what self-publishing may have cost. While there are legitimate self-publishing services, be very cautious of all-in-one packages – and particularly of those with inflated price tags. Considering that the vast majority of self-published authors make less than $1000 in a year, how likely are you to make back that $4,000 publishing package cost? $8,000? $12,000? I know a couple who nearly lost their house via a vanity press con (“we just need a little more this month, and we’re projecting big sales of $100,000 in half a year”).

An author, receiving not the round of expected congratulations but a collective gasp of dismay when she announced she’d signed with a big name predatory vanity press, protested, “But how was I supposed to know they were bad?” I hit Google and found that while the first search result was their own website, the next five were pending lawsuits against the company. Do your research with any company you sign!

Part 2 of Laura's post is scheduled for Friday, February 24th.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Laura VanArendonk Baugh writes fantasy (epic, urban, and historical), mystery, and non-fiction. She enjoys helping other authors and will be teaching on writing craft and self-publishing with Ireland Writer Tours in August 2017. Find her at her website, on Facebook, and Twitter.

Word Economics 101

As my critique partners can attest, I’m a big proponent of what we call word economy. Not a technical term, exactly, but here's my definition: using only as many words as the story needs.

Of course, every story has different needs. Some need a clipped, concise writing style, while others need a more flowery voice. Some need mostly action, while others need lots of internal reflection and characterization. No matter what kind of story you’re writing, word economy always applies—and should never be overlooked. Word economy will help you keep readers engaged and make you look more professional to agents and editors. Here are my strategies for getting the most bang for my literary buck.

Firstly, I always keep in mind what I consider the Prime Directive of storytelling: Every single element (subplot, character, scene, paragraph, sentence, or word) must further the story in some way. This means each element has to move the plot forward, reveal character, and/or illuminate theme. No excuses.

I know, I know, your three-page description of the sunset is just so pretty! But don’t be so naïve, dear writer. Don’t flatter yourself that an agent, editor, or reader will love those three pages as much as you do. If they’re not meeting the Prime Directive, your story doesn’t need them.

Now, how do you determine which elements are meeting the Prime Directive? As you revise, give each element this litmus test: If you cut this element completely, would the story still stand? Too many side characters, subplots, and descriptive passages—especially if they’re not meeting the Prime Directive—can dilute your story. Cutting or combining them will make your story feel tighter, punchier, more powerful. If, however, cutting an element results in a weaker story, then that element is meeting the Prime Directive. The story needs it, so it can stay.

How could a three-page sunset meet the Prime Directive? Maybe it symbolizes the protagonist’s marriage coming to an end, or brings up memories of her father’s death, or foreshadows the murder she’s about to commit. But if not, cut it. And be prepared to be ruthless with your scissors.

When revising for word economy, it helps to start big and narrow your focus over time. In the early stages, consider word economy on the story level: subplots, characters, and scenes. Does Character X have an integral role in the story? If he serves a purpose, but not an integral one, could you combine him with Character Y to create a single more impactful character?

When evaluating scenes, consider each scene’s role in the overall plot. Does the scene bring your protagonist closer to or farther from her goal? Does it reveal some new, critical piece of information? Does it forge an alliance or drive a wedge between two characters? If not, it may be time to pull out your scissors again.

In later revisions, when your plot, characters, and scenes are in place, look at word economy on the word, sentence, and paragraph level. Is that chunk of backstory absolutely necessary, or is there a more concise, engaging way to deliver that information, such as through dialogue? Could those two sentences of description be reduced to one sentence, or cut altogether? Is that adjective or adverb telling the reader something he doesn’t already know?

Revising for word economy can be a liberating experience. It helps you break your story into elements and look at them more objectively, making it easier to “kill your darlings.” But with great power comes great responsibility. Don’t use your revision scissors lightly, or for the wrong reason. Word economy is not about sacrificing your voice and style so your story can be as short as possible. It’s also not about whittling your story down to fit the word count guidelines for your genre. It’s about what your story needs.

Writing is about giving your story what it needs—and word economy is about trimming the fat so the heart of your story can shine through.