Reactions to Amanda Hocking’s SMP Deal

Writers, never ones to be quiet, are sounding off about Amanda Hocking’s lucrative deal with St. Martin’s Press.  Weighing in at $2 million, the deal is big by any standard and immediately raises Hocking to the very tippy-top tier of writers who actually do this thing for money.

So what are others= authors saying?  Predictably, there’s a lot of you go, girl! sentiment tempered by a lot of be careful out there in the big city! condescension.

Check it out for yourself here.

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Pricing e-books: race to the bottom?

Writers clutch their chests at the idea of pricing their self-published e-books at 99¢.  Literature, they hiss, is worth more than gum.

But is it? Let’s break it down: A newly released hardback book from a legacy publisher might be priced at $24.95.  Most of that goes to the publisher and pays for the paper used to print your book, the teamsters who schlepped it from the plant to the bookstore, your editor, your editor’s boss, your editor’s boss’s boss, and so on.  You, the author, get about 10% of that for the first run of 5,000 copies, or $2.50 per book sold.  Subtract your agent’s 15% cut and you end up with $2.13 per copy.  Of course, that’s still better on a per copy basis than the 35¢ you’d earn per copy selling the title for 99¢ on Amazon.

However, that equation doesn’t address the all-important issue of volume.  At 99¢, far more readers are likely to pick your book than they would if it were priced at $24.95.  This isn’t basic economics, it’s common sense.  Consider a typical print run of 5,000 copies for a hardback book.  To sell out the run at $24.95 per copy, readers must collectively shell out a total of $124,750.  To sell 5,000 copies at 99¢, however, readers need to shell out a mere $4,950.

Legacy publishers are essentially making a bet that your book — or at least the first 5,000 copies of it — are worth $124,750 to the reading public.  Let’s assume they’re right.  If they are, your take will be $10, 650.  At the 99¢ price point, however, your take by self-publishing the title as an e-book would be $43,662.50.

The most loathsome thing about writers is our affectation that what we’re creating is “literature.” We like to swan around like bad actors in a Victorian-era touring company humping Shakespeare in Kansas and pretending we’re on the West End.  What we’re really doing is paying the bills.

Even though writers are notoriously bad at math, it should be evident to all of us that $43,662.50 pays more bills than $10,650.

To be clear, I don’t yet have a horse in this race or a dog in this hunt or whatever folksy colloquialism means I’m a genuinely disinterested party.  I have an agent who is currently looking for a legacy publisher and I have no intention of changing that arrangement.  (I wrote the book with a client who wants a legacy publisher, so it’s not my call anyway.)  That said, as a former Madison Avenue copywriter, I know that writing is a business that, in the end, is all about the money.  Just ask Amanda Hocking, or J.A. Konrath, or Barry Eisler — all writers who have, are, and will make their fortunes self-publishing.  From a purely economic perspective, the numbers are clear: literature isn’t worth more than gum, but it is worth a whole lot of gum.

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Eisler & Konrath: a counterpoint

The brilliant dialogue between thriller writers Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath has by now been read by almost everyone.  There are perhaps two or three people in rural Tibet without internet access who have not, but I am assured print outs of the conversation have been made and Sherpa couriers have been dispatched.

Yet less well known is author Dean Wesley Smith’s contribution to what may become one of the most important discussions of our time on the future of publishing.  Smith calls Eisler and Konrath to task on several points, particularly in regard to their prediction that literary agents will soon evolve into “estributors” for indie authors.

Are agent’s really worth 15% of an author’s take, or is their function better suited to a job-for-hire model?

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Recommendation: Kiana Davenport’s HOUSE OF SKIN

One of the curious things about Kindle and iBooks self-pub phenomenon is its focus on genre fiction.  There’s nothing wrong with genre, of course.  It’s entertaining, and often just as well written technically as literary fiction.  Writers and critics who look down in snobby disapproval at genre titles are missing the point entirely.  They’re like chefs who fail to understand the appeal of a brilliantly executed Kobe beef hamburger.  Not that genre writers mind; they typically make more money than their poncey literary counterparts anyway.

And yet one cannot live on breathless chase scenes and the blood of teen vampires alone.  Which is why I was glad to find Kiana Davenport’s excellent collection of short stories House of Skin. For now, it’s exclusively available for e-readers.  But it’s so finely crafted I imagine a legacy publisher will pick it up soon.  Davenport, as you may know, is an award-winning short story writer with strong critical bona fides.  This collection of short stories is a compelling read and lovely change of pace.

Davenport recently had a small bump in sales when she was mentioned on J.A. Konrath’s blog.  Sadly, the momentum it generated seemed to be short lived.  And that’s too bad.  A book like Davenport’s deserves a spot in the top 100.

Let’s help her get there.

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Pub Crawl part 2: How I got my agent

Getting your manuscript before a good literary agent isn’t all that difficult. Getting them to agree to represent you, however, is another story.

I’m lucky to have many, many friends in creative industries from music to advertising to film.  I even have a few friends with published novels under their belts.  Thus I thought it would be easy getting a referral to an agent.  I was wrong.

People tend to hold their literary agent contacts pretty close to the vest.  Like the number of a good babysitter, they want to keep the contact to themselves.  Perhaps it’s out of fear your query will be so unbelievably awful that you’ll taint the literary agent’s opinion of them.

I managed to track mine down through a surprising source — an attorney who had once worked with my wife.  He knew an entertainment lawyer who had worked with an agent he thought might be well-suited to my project.  After forwarding my query, draft book proposal, and sample chapters to the entertainment lawyer, she put me in touch with the agent.

Intrigued enough by the project to look it over, the agent offered a few suggestions on how to improve it.  I told her I would make the changes and get back to her when I had.  At no point did she say she was interested in representing me, but just getting her feedback was enough.  I followed up a month or so later after the changes were made and she suggested additional ways the manuscript might be improved.  Just as before, the topic of her representing me was never addressed.

When I had incorporated her suggestions into the sample chapters, I contacted her again.  She said she was pleased with how they had come out.

“So,” I said, “does this mean you’d like you to represent me?”

“Yes!” she laughed.  “I think I would.”

We signed the agency agreement the following week.  It was a surprisingly informal affair.  She emailed me a contract.  I signed it and sent it back.  We have yet to meet in person, though we have tentatively agreed to get together next month.

My agent is highly selective about who she takes on as a client.  She reassured me on several occasions that she doesn’t sign on to any project she is not reasonably sure she can sell.  This only makes sense, of course, since she doesn’t earn a dime until I do.  Her roster of writers is pretty impressive, and I’m honored to be numbered among them.  Still, getting to that point was not easy.  The protracted courting ritual lasted perhaps five or six months.  In that time, she saw me as someone who took criticism well and was an apt enough writer to incorporate her suggestions into the manuscript.  Never — not once — did I become defensive or dismissive or even try very hard to defend the things she wanted to change.  In short, I did as I was told, and that made all the difference.

Have spent most of my adult life writing ads for Madison Avenue, I learned long ago that if you can’t take criticism, you’d better find a new occupation.  The same is true here.  That oh so original description of your lead character as “blonde, leggy, yet possessing of a sharp intelligence belied by her beauty,” might strike your agent as trite and overwrought.   Your ingenious way of having the story leap back and forth from past to future to present might strike your agent as needlessly confusing.  Listen to your prospective agent.  If you can make the changes, then make them.  If you can’t, then learn to be content writing for an audience of one.

Certainly mining your friends and acquaintances can get you get you the name of a good literary agent.  It might even get you to the top of their slush pile.  But connections give you no advantage whatsoever when it comes to actually signing with an agent.  Crap is still crap, even if it comes from the agent’s own mother. To gain any traction, your proposal will need to have merit.  In my case — and maybe this isn’t the norm — I had to prove myself over several months and several revisions to show that my manuscript deserved the agent’s commitment.



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Pub Crawl Part 1: the long, slow road to getting published

One of the reasons I resurrected this blog was to provide one writer’s experience of what it takes to get a book published.

I’ve made a living as a writer for well over a decade now.  Note that I said writer, not author.  Until very recently I had little interest in writing books.  For a long time, I made a name for myself as a copywriter with a large ad agency in New York.  The TV commercials and Websites and print ads I wrote were used to sell a wide range of products.  I’ve shilled for everything from pizza to financial products to pickup trucks to democracy.  I’ve also written magazine articles, done PR work for the medical marijuana lobby, and gotten paid for blogging.  This latter is a little like being a high-end hooker.  In the end, everyone involved feels ashamed, but it’s easy and you can always use those $100 bills to wipe away the tears.

Then, about a year ago, one of my clients — one of my respectable, perfectly legal clients — came to me with an unusual project.  Can you write a book, he asked?  Sure, I said.  I’d written everything else, so why not?  He agreed to take me on a credited co-author.  (For the time being, I’ve decided not to name either the client nor the book’s title nor even the general subject of the book.  It’s currently being shopped around to publishers and I don’t want to send so much as a breeze in the direction of that particular butterfly, lest its delicate course be altered.)

After a year of work, the manuscript is about a month away from completion.  I’ve found a high-profile agent who is, as I write this, casting about for interest from a publisher.

My goal for this blog is to report, in real time, what it takes to get a manuscript from completion to publication.  It’s possible, and even likely, the journey has already come to an end before it ever really started.  Then again, it’s possible this is the start of a really great ride.

I’ll let you know.

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John Le Carré asks to be removed from Man Booker International Prize shortlist

John Le Carré, father of the modern spy novel, has asked to have his name removed from the Man Booker International prize shortlist.  According to the Guardian, Le Carré released a statement saying, “I am enormously flattered to be named as a finalist of the 2011 Man Booker International prize.  However, I do not compete for literary prizes and have therefore asked for my name to be withdrawn.”

Agents of Goldstein has always admired Le Carré, not least because he eschews the usual black & white, us vs. them approach to espionage fiction that has so long plagued the genre.  Le Carré opts for a subtler, more nuanced approach where the line between good an bad is often porous, and sometimes not there at all.  Scenes of murders, beatings, and assassinations are rare in Le Carré’s work, as they are in real espionage work.  Most of the action takes place in contentious meetings and conversations taken along the rain-soaked sidewalks of London.  Only Le Carré could spend fifteen pages on a what is essentially a  PowerPoint presentation to bureaucrats seem spellbinding, as he did in Our Kind of Traitor.

At this point in his career, Le Carré needs no more validation, and certainly the Booker Prize won’t raise his already high-profile by all that much.  He is an author with nothing left to prove.  Despite his best efforts, he has seen the genre he fathered grow into the monster that it is today, riven as it is with unidimensional heroes and cardboard villains.  Perhaps he has grown cynical.

Or maybe he’s just content.

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