For Your Consideration: Publishers Need to Adapt in the Digital Age

I’ve recently been re-listening to the Writing Excuses podcasts and found them as enjoyable as ever (including LOL moments every few episodes). In this blog post I want to drill-in slightly to Season 1, Episode 20 and then pivot from that onto my own thoughts, especially about how I think publishers need to continue to evolve.

Setting the Scene

(Bare in mind that this podcast is now a decade old. Predictions made about the future of the industry may be well-along to either fruition or stunted after the passing of time, fruit unrealised).

In this episode Brandon asks a question of audience member, author Mike Stackpole who had this to say (slightly paraphrased, mostly verbatim):

“It’s only been the last 70-80 years we’ve been churning out literature, prior to that, we were entertainers. Now with the coming of e-books we can sell direct to endusers and cut out the publishers. … The problem for traditional publishing is they only own the electronic rights on manuscripts since about 1996 and since now were in 2008 they’ve got 12 years’ worth of novels and no writer needs to sell electronic versions to them anymore because we can sell direct. They’re in trouble.

The big problem for traditional publishers is their business has never been about bringing us fiction. It has been about them bringing to us blocks of wood. Their whole business is based around printing, shipping and warehousing blocks of wood. Their not that vital any more. We can find editors, copy editors, etc ourselves.”

To emphasise his point he says he can make greater profit by selling a short story from his website for $2 than he makes selling 2x $8 paperbacks. Additionally he gets the money instantly, not 9-15 months later as he would with a publisher.

As it relates to the Author

It’s pretty hard to argue with the real-world example given. There’s more profit in it for the author to sell direct-to-consumer, rather than via a publisher.

And there’s certainly truth to the point that the writer’s efforts are the main commodity being sold by a publisher. That’s not to say that the publisher doesn’t add value. The publisher brings professionals who have expertise and more experience than most authors ever will in their chosen field: editors, marketers, illustrators etc.

As an example, there’s a reason why most authors aren’t consulted about what their front cover look like. Publisher’s know what will sell, and also have a better understanding of what’s in the marketplace at the present time.

Publishers also bring credibility. Until you’re an established author you’re trading on the brand of your publisher.

However, the publishing world is changing. It is now easier for the author to editors, line editors and research assistants online. Websites like 99 designs exist to let you choose between competing artists for book cover designs. Sites like Patreon make it easier for creative people to be funded by those who love their creativity.

Personally, I don’t want to have to make all of those decisions. I prefer to think of myself as focussed on the writing, not lazy. Just like I could change the oil on my car, but I’m OK with paying someone else to do it.

Perhaps I’ve been reading too many fantasy books lately but I wonder in an internet full of people offering their services if we will see a return to guilds? Where groups of similarly skilled people will form to enhance their own credibility and exposure to potential customers.

For the Publisher

I am not unbiased in this discussion. Not too long ago I submitted a manuscript sample to a US publisher via the postal system as prescribed. And it disappeared.

Thinking about this podcast and the changing nature of technology it made me wonder: why would a publisher ever want to receive a manuscript by mail? The only reason I can possibly think of, is that it lowers the volume of submissions. What if embracing technology could actually make the submission process easier and cheaper?

What I’d suggest is that publishers should provide an electronic submission process. They could even charge an administration/submission fee (which would cover the costs of printing at their end, if printing is still necessary?). There are numerous benefits for the publisher:

  • An additional revenue stream (submission fee)
  • Automated-checking to see if the document complies with the submission guidelines. If it doesn’t you can reject it outright. (If you’re nice you can let the author know; if you’re so inclined you can reject it ‘quietly’ and keep their submission fee without much guilt. They, after all, didn’t follow the rules, so be it on their own head).
  • Use machine-learning to automatically check and redirect to the recycle bin. (Too many spelling errors? Rejected. Tense confusion? Rejected. Swear-word tolerance breached? Rejected. Foul content? Rejected).
  • Author-filtering. Get a submission from someone who is truly terrible at writing? Auto-reject anything they submit for the next year. (Or if reject is too strong, though I doubt it, at least put them toward the bottom of the slush pile).
  • Implement a “submission alpha reader” process where unpaid minions can up-or-down vote manuscript samples.
  • Environmentally friendly: less printing.
  • Author-history. Hit gold with an excellent author? Want to see everything else they’ve submitted before?
  • Faster submission process. When you’re already waiting for months, it’d be nice to streamline any part of the process as an author.

Am I a genius or diabolically evil?

Advertisements

There is No Excuse

When you use your real name as a domain name you’re making yourself something of a public figure. (Possibly in the loosest sense of the word, just go with me for now). When you’re a public figure you have to be very careful how and what you say, so as to not unintentionally offend.

If you want to be a writer of fiction and you haven’t listened to the Writing Excuses podcasts then you’re flat-out crazy.

It needed to be said.

And perhaps you needed to hear it. You’re welcome.

As an amateur writer when I insert a character into a story I’m aware of their motivations and how they’ll interact with the other characters and situations. (At least I try to be).

When one of the Writing Excuses podcasters puts a character into a story their aware of so much more on a fundamentally deeper level. When it comes to constructing stories, while I build a lean-to in a slum they build a Palace fit for a King.

In a recent podcast (s9) Dan Brown talks about how his main character is a sociopath. The problem with sociopaths is they’re not really very likable people. So Brown puts in even more  unlikable characters around the sociopath. Relatively speaking therefore the reader likes the sociopath. He also gives him a healthy dose of gallows humour (pun intentional).

Just a small example of how they’re thinking way beyond the sentence structure. When you have to take some time out from writing, you’d be wise to listen to Writing Excuses. It’s fifteen minutes of informative conversation interspersed with humour that will have you laughing out loud. Probably best not to listen to it at funerals.

Jumping the Productivity Moat

Although revision on Vengeance Will Come has only just begun I’m reasonably happy with the progress so far.

Revision Work…

Here’s a summary of what I’m looking at:

  • I’m Cutting out superfluous words. Not just the occasional word in a sentence, but also entire sentences. For example, the following line of dialogue:

“Physical muscles are less important than mental strength and wisdom, neither of which is guaranteed by age.”

I originally wrote it as a subtle dig at a character that he was physically weak, to feed a sense of inadequacy. That reference is no longer required and its presence is now out-of-place. It adds no value and causes only distraction. The delete key fixed that.

  • Word choice. Sometimes I’m using the same word in quick succession and that is poor form. (Sidebar: A previous Writing Excuses podcast I listened to mentioned that there are some words you can only use once in a story).
  • Using contractions in dialogue. This, strangely doesn’t come naturally to me. Although I speak with them, for some reason I write long-form. My flow-of-consciousness dialogue tends to be formal and so feels scripted. It was something an earlier version alpha reader detected, and I was trying to fix this… obviously I missed a lot. I suspect the further into the story the less I detected.
  • being more descriptive about motion and emotion; trying to show in a more nuanced way, instead of telling the reader.
  • Evaluating the criticisms of my beta readers, and adjusting accordingly (more about that in another post).

…Meets Productivity Moat

But then my forward progress is halted, midway through chapter 2 (of 29). I’ve hit a piece of text that’s really slowing me down: a productivity moat that’s blocking my path.

I’m not happy with the paragraph of text and are indecisive about wording and positioning. Several times I have opened up the document and sat there looking at it, as though it were written in Swahili (which I can’t read). After an annoying ten minutes of staring, my enthusiasm begins to wane. Stupid moat. I’ve tried to skip it and move on, but it’s like I know it’s there like an enemy at my flank and it’s on my mind.

I have a new strategy. To be honest it’s not much different from my previous strategies, but often I’ve found writing is a mind game. So if my slightly modified strategy works – hooray. They say you need an edge over your enemy: not a whole new weapon, just an edge.

I’m going to:

  1. Highlight the paragraph, admit to myself that I currently lack the ability to solve it and I can’t allow it to slow me down.
  2. Write some extensive comments: what I think is wrong with it (why I am having difficulty) and any possible options I can see to fix it in the future. I’m going to try to be descriptive e.g. “Z might work but that would require Y (which I don’t have)”.
  3. I’m going to move on, having done everything I can currently.
  4. At a later date, either at the end or when the answer presents itself, I’ll go back and fix it.

The productivity moat may cause a change in strategy, but it won’t stop me.

Our job as Authors

Writing Excuses Season 7 (episode 10) with David Brin. He’s talking about murder mystery, but I think the passion with which he speaks and the imagery is encouraging for authors of all genres.

[At the resolution of the mystery] “What you want is the third possible action:a shocked dismay in the reader’s face, pounding their head, hating themselves from being five IQ points from figuring it out, and of course they would have been disappointed if they had figured it out.

You want them to rip the book in half, throw it out the window and dive after it. And that proves that you have a sadomasochistic relationship. Your job is to make the reader late for work, unable to sleep, unable to do their homework. You want to make them unable to feed their kids. If you do all this to them, they will buy your next book.”

Picking up the Tools

It’s six o’clock and I’m expecting the wife home in ten minutes. At which time I need to fulfill my promise of making us dinner. That could be a problem considering there is no meat defrosted and no other preparations underway. Simple toasties or two-minute noodles will not suffice… not after the  promises I made. Dining ‘out’ or takeaway is not going to cut it either; they should be treats to her, not an antidote for my laziness...

The above is not a true story (well, not today anyway) but an analogy for how I feel I have treated you, my readers. I know we aren’t married and most of you peruse my blog like a casual night out… But still when I promise something, I need to deliver. And the deliveries haven’t been on time lately.

Recently I’d been going through a hard patch where my stress levels were getting out of control. I needed to take some time off and change my routine, so I did. The problem was, I never really came back. Like a guy sunning himself on annual leave, I just forgot to come back to the cubicle.

Publishers and readers will have a right to expect professionalism from me, and that involves delivering on promises.

I am reminded of something on one of the Writing Excuses podcasts: If you want to be professional at writing, then be professional. Treat it like a job. That means:

  • writing when it’s hard, or
  • writing when you’d rather be doing something else

I would never stop working while I’m on the company’s time; and so I shouldn’t stop working when I’m on my ‘writing time’.

I am going to start planning my writing time in advance, and sticking to it.

I’d love to stay and talk philosophical, but I’ve got writing to do.

Author’s Notes

The Latest Confession
I haven’t been doing a whole lot of writing lately; my mental powers of concentration being depleted by work and other commitments. I am serious about writing, but the reality is that it isn’t my highest priority in life. Holding onto sanity during the busy times sometimes necessitates a putting down of the discretionary, and so my keyboard has been less abused than normal.

I absolutely enjoy writing, but is it not the most relaxing activity: with the brain juggling a myriad of things as I write. Sometimes the brain needs down time too. Lately I have needed to shift gears and do something completely different. That is an earth shattering revelation if you know how habitually strong I am.

A lazy thirty minute chat with my wife can be more restorative than a three-hour session of writing. Compound that by a billion if the words aren’t flowing nicely. Yep, had those days.

Not for the first time, and certainly not for the last: editing is hard work. Hours of tedious tinkering for very little forward momentum. (My progress bar is a bit out of date, but still…). It would be easier to edit a story that wasn’t 110,000+ words long. I have a whole new respect for professional editors.

Author’s Notes
To sharpen my editing powers and to give outlet to my creativity I am writing a companion document Author’s Notes for Vengeance Will Come.

In the Author’s Notes for each scene I am writing:

  1. The goal of the scene, and describing how I am achieving that goal through the prose. What words, phrases and sentences particularly work toward that goal.
  2. The edits (or changes) I am making between alpha and beta versions. What am I changing, and why. I am expanding on themes, admitting faults and describing the process which I am using.

Memorable Quote
The other day I heard this and thought immediately I am stealing that… “Like the blessing of taking a drink from a fire hose.” What a wonderful turn of phrase.

More Q&A

(These are my notes and thoughts in relation to the Writing Excuses podcast Season 1, episodes 20 ‘More Q&A’. I will also disseminate this information to the topical sections of my resource section).

Question: How necessary are plot twists?

  • Don’t over-inflate the term ‘plot twist’ to always be the dramatic reveal which changes everything. This is not required in every book and if you’re not good at doing them then don’t do it. Small things going wrong are also plot twists.
  • There must be conflict and challenge for the protagonists; these are more required and important than dramatic reveals.

This is freeing, and correlates with my thoughts I wrote about in relation to the last episode plot twists. It isn’t always necessary.

  • The requirement for plot twists depends upon the genre: romance novels don’t really have plot twists because the reader doesn’t want it; science fiction it is more important; mysteries there must be multiple plot twists.

Question: How is the market changing with electronic media?

  • Speculation that the majority of future readers will want commute-friendly length chapters. The number quoted is 2500-3000 words long.

As someone who regularly reads on a 20 minute commute to work, I agree with this. It is much more satisfying to finish a chapter than to have to stop part way through a chapter.

I know that I am reading a great book when I consider stopping for a coffee (and a bit more reading) on the short walk to work. As an aspiring author I want to write books that completely mess up people’s schedules 🙂

  • Note the increase in the number and spread of audio books; becoming more mainstream.

I’ve never actually listened to an audio book. Maybe it’s because of my disability: I literally can’t walk and think about things at the same time. Sure, I can do some low-level thinking, but walking really does take up a large part of my active concentration. Some thoughts can distract me enough that I fall over. So multi-tasking is not something I do well… listening to a novel via audio book would make me feel as though I’m missing bits.

  • With the advent of the internet, e-books etc authors can now sell direct to readers. (The example is given that a $2 short story sold direct-to-reader gives the author more money than 2 sales of an $8 paperbacks, and the author doesn’t have to wait for 9-15 months for the publisher to send the $0.80).
  • Copy editing / editor can become contract services to individuals.

This is incredibly disruptive. As they describe in more detail in the podcast, this partially breaks the traditional publishing model.

The benefit with the traditional publisher is that they have experts in the fields of editing, marketing etc. You can do it all yourself, as many have successfully done, but it is an additional burden upon the author.

  • Could we see the return of the weekly serial?

I like the romanticism involved in this idea. I love the idea of the weekly radio broadcast where they tell a riveting story… I suspect though our attention span is not good enough these days. We are a binge-watching society, used to getting what we want exactly when we want it, on-demand. I think this would negate our ability to enjoy a weekly-released (or even daily-released) serial; we would find the wait too frustrating.

Yes, audiences tune into popular TV series season after season, grumpily enduring the between season periods… but that is entertainment that comes with visual and audio candy and multi-million dollar budgets. Broad-appeal literary serials: it would have to be exceptional material to work.

Question: How do you make your protagonists as interesting as your villains?

  • Blur the line between hero and villain.
  • Villains are more interesting because they often have better conflicts. Ensure your heroes have good/deep/interesting conflicts or they will be weak characters.
  • Protagonist should be competent but not overly-so.
  • Villains are more active, heroes are reactive. Try and make your heroes active. David Gerrold says that for the first half of the story the antagonist is driving, but for the second half the protagonist should be driving. (In the first half the monster chases the hero, in the second half the hero chases the monster).

Question: How much to sell a story for?

(This is obviously going to be the US-version of the answer, so factor in exchange rates and probably, differing markets).

  • Short stories – about $0.05 per word.
  • Novel – about $5000 advance for a first novelist is a good amount; at least $1000.

Additional Wisdom

 

  • Recommended way to break writer’s block: take the last line of dialog and make it the inverse…which then forces you to explain why they say that.
  • Ralan.com – resource.
  • The importance of networking (i.e. at conventions).