Thursday, October 28, 2010

Lessons Learned

I knew that my first published book would be a learning experience. I braced myself for the worst. Obviously I couldn’t imagine what the worst was. I think I have a better idea now. Yesterday, I got a congratulations email from Wingspan telling me that my book would be available at Amazon and in the next few days. They said I could order books for myself at cost if I wanted. Curious as to how much “at cost” was, I logged onto Wingspan’s site. I wasn’t so much shocked by how much they’d charge me for my own book. I was shocked to see how much they were going to charge my customers. My hardcover children’s book will be selling for a whopping $32! The softcover will be something like $16. My whole body went numb when I saw those prices. $32? Who in their right mind would pay 32 bucks for a first time hard cover book for their kid?? I personally spend hundreds of dollars a year on books, but I get a lot of books for that. I wouldn’t spend 32 bucks for Harry Potter, even if it was the first edition with J.K. Rowling’s eyebrow hair on page 145.
I am having a hard time not hyperventilating. I contacted my account manager to see if there is something that can be done about the price. I should have seen this coming. I asked them to set the book up in electronic form. The retail price they listed was pretty high even for e-books. I opted for the lowest listing price, but I still think it’s high. The royalties from Wingspan are pretty lame. I think it’s like 20%, which sounds great when you compare that to a traditional publisher’s standard 8%. The difference is that a first time, self-published book that is listed for $32 is not going to bring in any sales, whereas the lower priced publisher house book, even the worst story in the world, will at least bring in some stragglers. I am going to see if I can salvage this disastrous situation. The way I see it, the only way I can sell the book cheaper and still make money is if I buy the books myself (at cost) and sell them at a discounted price.
We can definitely mark this down as a hard lesson learned.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

The Experience

My first book is called Mourning Under the Bridge. It is about a little homeless girl named Mourning who can do magic but has to hide in the shadows because the kingdom kills their orphans. In the midst of trying to rob a house, she’s caught by the king’s healer, an uppity rich man who cannot stand strays (homeless orphans). He sends her to the dungeons. Instead of being executed or banished, it is discovered that she has a family – a very wealthy family. Now after ten years of living on the streets, Mourning must adjust to a life of luxuries. Seems like a simple task, except that she keeps stumbling into a number of “accidents.” So either Mourning is just not cut out for this life, or maybe someone doesn’t want her around.

It’s a juvenile fantasy book that focuses a little more on home and family than on magic. Most of my books will be fantasy. I love magic. There are very few rules – or rather, you can establish the rules from story to story. Magic gives an impossible situation hope. It’s also fun to think of different uses for it. I don’t like to overuse it, though. There should be some sort of logic behind magic, where people don’t sit on their big butts and wave wands around to do things. It should be hard work. Think about the skills we have. You can be a really fast runner, but that doesn’t mean you run everywhere you go. Sure, it would be quicker if you ran to the laundry room, but you don’t need to. You also wouldn’t run to the grocery store to buy a week’s worth of food. Magic should be a skill like that. You can do it, but you wouldn’t do it all the time. In fact, I’m not crazy about magic for the sake of magic. It has to be something, like energy or concentration. There has to be some kind of scientific reasoning behind it, even if the reader (or even the writer) doesn’t understand what it is. So my characters aren’t going to say, “Hey I want a cheese sandwich” and then pop, there’s a sandwich in front of them. If magic was that convenient, life would be pretty boring.

I say that this is my first book, but of course you know that’s not true. I have dozens of books completed over a period of twenty five years. Mourning will be the first published book, the first one available in hardcover or paperback to anyone who wants to read it.

I am publishing through Wingspan Press, a POD shop that’s sort of a no-nonsense, no frills publisher. When I first selected them a couple of years ago, they offered more services than they do now. By the time my book was ready for publishing, they had reduced their offerings significantly. They used to offer bookstore returns, for example. Allowing returns gave your book a better chance of landing in a physical store. But as I pointed out in my last blog, bookstores are no longer thriving. It turns out, book returns were costing more than they were worth. In the POD world, when a bookstore returns a book, the author has to buy it back. That gets pretty pricey, especially in today’s market. Wingspan also had more marketing services. Now all they seem to offer are bookmarks and business cards.

Since I am sacrificing Mourning Under the Bridge as a learning tool, I knew I’d make mistakes. I opted out of the promotional bookmarks, etc. I also opted out of the book review service, which is something I probably won’t do for my next one. I actually know the importance of book reviews. But for a first book, it seemed a little fake to pay someone to provide a happy little blurb about how great my book is. I will definitely do review services from now on, but at least next time, it’ll be more like “C. Amethyst Frost, author of Mourning Under the Bridge, writes an awesome book about….” Maybe I’m thinking about this too hard, but I’m still pretty humble as a first time author. As I said, this is a learning experience. Once I have a second book published, I will start a crazy marketing campaign. Because then I will be a real author and not just a person who happened to publish one book and then decided to retire. Have you ever seen people like that? They write one book and then they just walk away. In my mind, a real writer keeps writing. Even if you’re not published, you keep writing.

One thing I have learned about publishing is that it is hard work. For anyone who has romanticized the process as submitting a book to a publisher and then basking in the glory of fame and fortune, get your head out of the clouds. Whether you are self-published or traditionally published, you will work. First, as I said in my first blog, you have to edit, edit, edit, and edit. It can take forever. A self-published author must hire a professional editor. If you think you’re perfect, get that idea out of your head. I am a freelance editor (in addition to writing books and monkey work as a tech writer). I know English grammar like the back of my hand. I am a true language artist. But even I need an editor. Editing requires you to look at a document with a different set of eyes. Writers are too close to their work. They tend to get caught up in the story and can easily miss common errors. When you write, even if you know all the rules of writing, it’s very difficult to follow them one hundred percent of the time. You write what is in your head, and usually the flow is so fast, your brain doesn’t have time to filter. You’ve probably caught a few mistakes that I’ve made in this blog. I have a bad habit of placing commas where they don’t belong and mixing tenses. These are the sort of errors I would have caught as an editor. Not while I am writing. I remember one time I sent an email to a group of co-workers, telling them to “site” their references. As soon as I clicked send, I saw the mistake and was horrified enough that I sent a follow-up email correcting it. The co-workers ribbed me for it long afterward. They were engineers and wouldn’t have noticed anyway. But that’s my OCD. Anyway, that’s my long-winded way of saying that you need to hire an editor, even if you are the queen of the spelling bee.

More about the hard work. So, first you write. Then you rewrite, revise, and proofread. Then you send it to an editor, proofread it again yourself, and send it to your publisher. Your publisher may ask you to make some changes. You make the changes and proofread again. While they are working on the proof, you should be coming up with a marketing plan. Even if you work with a traditional publisher, you have to market your own book. I have a few friends who have published through traditional means. They learned very quickly that publishers are not going to put in the extra time or money to pump sunshine into their books. If the author wants to stay in the publishing loop, he or she must get that book sold. (This is another epiphany I had about publishing houses – you give up your rights, get very little royalty, market your own book, and then have to stress over being blacklisted. I’ll save that gripe for another blog.)

For me, the hardest part was coming up with a summary for the book. How funny is that? I can write a 300-page novel but can’t write a summary about it. I stressed over it for weeks before coming up with a pretty sparse summary. I’ll have to work on that skill for my next book. And here is another difference between traditional and self-publishing. If you self-publish, you have to provide the cover art. That can be a good or a bad thing, depending on how you play it. The POD shops do offer cover design at an extra cost. The problem is that they don’t exactly customize the design for your book. It is a design (lines and shapes and colors) and not a piece of art. So you won’t typically have your characters on the cover or an artifact from the story. For a more customized cover, you have to hire a book cover artist. For Mourning Under the Bridge, my artist was my daughter, Jessica. She is an awesome artist and her style of art (cartoonish/manga) is what I wanted for this particular book. She drew the scene exactly as I imagined it and then added a decorative border to accent the tone of the book. Once your illustrator provides the cover art, he/she has to work with the publisher to get the size and alignment just right.

Wingspan provided me with a proof of the interior when they were done. I wasn’t entirely satisfied with the first proof. They use a program called InDesign, which is an application that I use on a daily basis at work. The first proof looked like they pulled my Word document into InDesign, added drop-caps and headers and that was it. Didn’t look like much effort was put into it. The headers were too large, the lines were too close together, and the text spacing was weirdly spread out. So I had to read through the entire proof (remember, 300 pages) and make a list of where I wanted improvements. At first I was a little annoyed about this, because all the issues I came up with were with layout. It seems like for the money I was spending, Wingspan could have at least done a layout review. Fortunately, they were easy to work with. I sent a list of things that could have been improved with and they were very accommodating. The cover proof came next. Again, I thought the layout looked strange and requested a few changes. Again, they met my needs. So after consulting back and forth, I’m pretty satisfied with both interior and exterior. But I thought I’d share that bit of it, because if you’re going to self-publish, the book is not going to magically appear in perfect condition. You have to have some idea of what you want.

So now that I’m good with the interior and cover of the book, it goes to the printer, where it sits in a queue for about four weeks. In the meantime, I’ve asked Wingspan to set the book up in electronic format. They will do that for an additional fee and will submit the ebook to Ingram and to Amazon. For future books, I will probably do this myself. I didn’t realize that Wingspan was going to give me such small royalties for the ebook, even though all they had to do was convert it to digital (which is something I could have done in InDesign, probably what they are doing). The reason I’m having them do it this time is because of the learning experience. I want to see how this all works so I am educated enough to make better decisions next time. I do get to keep the rights to my ebook, so I am free to submit the book to other electronic outlets.

Now I wait a few weeks for print. In the meantime, I am working vigorously to finish my second book. I need to keep the flow going.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

My Journey Begins

My first blog. As with starting a new book, I first must stare at a blank page for a few minutes, feeling stupid and unworthy. That’s the routine. Writing for your own amusement is one thing. Writing something and knowing that someone else – possibly the whole world (that’s optimistic) – will read it is absolutely terrifying. It’s more frightening when I know that the reason for the blog is to record my success or, more realistically, my potential failure.

Let’s start with me. Who am I? I am a writer. I have always been a writer, although for many years, I quashed the idea in favor of more intelligent and scientific type of me. I used to write as a kid. I read constantly, no matter where I was. In between read-a-thons, I put pen to paper and wrote poems and short stories and children’s books. I even had an article published once when I was about 12. The tragedy of that little success was that I submitted it under an alias name. I had no idea that it would be published and that I would be paid for my contribution ( a whopping $25, which was a fortune for a first-time published writer of 12 in the early 1980s). I wrote the article for True Love magazine, and the reason I used a different name was because the story was based on a fantasy I had about a seventh grade boy who I had a crush on. Long after I had forgotten about submitting the article, I received a check for $25 and a copy of the magazine with my article. The check was made out to my fictitious name (it was Debra something, I think). I didn’t know at the time that you could submit a story under your real name and have a pseudonym byline. I wish I knew that, because that first publishing was gold to me, but without my own name and byline, it didn’t count.

Still, it was an inspiration. I spent the next ten years writing and submitting everything that flowed from my mind to my pen. Naturally, I also spent ten years receiving rejections. I finally gave up, deciding that I just wasn’t good enough to be a published writer. I kept writing, but I kept it to myself. I decided to try for something more scientific. I had the desire to be looked upon as someone intelligent. I did enjoy pondering over the universe and had developed an absolute passion for aviation and flying. So I thought aerospace engineering was my thing. Just the sound of it was impressive. A couple of years at UT Arlington --- and three do-overs of Calculus 3 – made me see that perhaps I was not cut out to be an engineer.

And then I got a story stuck in my head. Not just a little story, but an entire world with layers and complex characters. I lived it inside my head until I couldn’t hold it anymore and had to write it down. I wrote and wrote and wrote, all day. This other world was my whole motivation for life, for getting up in the morning. While I was writing, my daughter, who was about ten at the time, started reading behind me (I don’t normally let people do that). As I was into the fourth book of the series, my daughter asked when I was going to publish it, because she’s been telling her friends about it and they wanted to read it. It’s funny, but I had no intention of publishing this book. But once she said it, the idea was in my head. Unfortunately, the book was nowhere near publisher-ready. So I abandoned the fourth book for the time being and went back to the first, editing and revising over and over. It was painful, but I finally got the first book ready and submitted it. I waited for three months before getting that first rejection letter. Okay, no problem. I went back into the book and revised and re-edited. Then I resubmitted. Three months, rejection. Rewrite, rejection, rewrite, rejection.

Think about how time consuming that is. You have one book and even if you submit it to a dozen publishers, you still have to wait months for your rejection. And even if I did get it published, it would take years for the book to get to the printer. Then, there’s not even a guarantee that it would make it to the popular bookstores. It took me many years to learn this.

I finally decided that if I was going to be taken seriously by a publisher, I needed credentials, particularly an education in the field. So I went back to school and got a B.A. in Writing and Linguistics from Georgia Southern University. I had a minor in journalism and a concentration in technical writing (to hold me over while I sought to be a novelist). Sure enough, the publishers did now take me seriously. They still rejected my work, but at least now, I was getting personalized rejections and suggestions on how to improve the story. I also got personal letters saying that they enjoyed reading the book but they either didn’t have the space for my genre or the book didn’t get enough votes from the committee (My book made it to a committee! Woo hoo!).

Once again, I felt defeated. This time, I did not think it was my writing but rather the industry. It was just too competitive. So I turned to my backup career, technical writing. It’s an okay job. Right now, I work for an electronics company, and I get to play with toys before writing the user guides. But I have a stock pile of novels – entire worlds waiting to be released. And why shouldn’t they be?

I took another look at the industry and saw that a lot of things had changed since my first published work at the age of 12. A lot had changed since my book series was rejected. The world had gone digital. Readers had gone digital. Bookstores, which I visited on a regular basis, were no more than novelty shops. There were a handful of books from renowned best-selling authors and lots of celebrity and novelty items. But it was all so commercial and cookie-cutter. The good books were at I should have seen this sooner. I was an Amazon premium member. I spent hundreds of dollars a month at, and although I still visited physical bookstores, my purchases there were significantly smaller.

And then there was Kindle. People saw that they could carry entire libraries in their pockets. I personally would rather have the paper copy. There is something about the smell and feel of a good book. But the world is going compact, so digital reading caught on better than I would have imagined.

Now the traditional publisher is the underdog, and it is much easier for aspiring authors to get their work to the public. A decade ago, I believed that self-publishing was for untalented writers who couldn’t make it in the business. But have you seen the crap that is on the shelves these days? I have picked up about a dozen self-published books at comic conventions, stories that were so creative and entertaining that I could not believe they weren’t sold in physical bookstores. Of course, realistically, there’s not enough room at the bookstores for every awesome book in the world.

So now I had to look at self-publishing from a different perspective. Why did I want to publish? Well, it’s certainly not to be famous. I’m not really looking to be in the spotlight. In fact, I’m a bit of a closet writer, a hermit, really. I’m not interested in book tours or Oprah interviews. I’m interested in writing. I want my layers and layers of fictional worlds out of my head and into a binder. My mind is getting crowded. So if I pay a little money to transform my stories into an attractive physical book, I can set them up as print-on-demand, and then if anyone else wants to read them, they can. If I make a lot of money, that’s great. However, I don’t expect to get rich. I just want to write.

As for making money, if I am going to eventually make a living off of my novels, I do need a little bit of a marketing plan. Even though I am not expecting my first book to sell in the thousands, if I can get dozens of different books out there, I may be able to bring in enough income to write books full time – which means devoting more hours and hence, producing more books. (Sorry, I almost never use the word “hence” but it seemed fitting.) Okay, so the plan is to write books, publish them through POD, and then write more.

Now, just in case you are wondering, I don’t JUST write books. I go through the whole process. I outline, write a draft, rewrite the draft, edit, edit again, send the book for professional editing, send the book for an informal review, rewrite based on feedback, edit the book again, and do several proofreads before submitting it. The POD publisher then sends me the first proofs, after which I edit again.

I am OCD about writing well. I have seen some horribly written self-published books, where you can tell that the author has no grasp of English grammar and obviously puts no effort into editing or even sending the book for review. Of course you can break grammatical rules when you write. If you don’t, your story will be dull. But you have to understand the rules thoroughly before you can even consider breaking them. It is a craft in itself to know which rules can be broken and which cannot. So, just in case you are wondering if self-publishing means a sub-standard work, my answer is that it is not the publishing method but the writer who can make or break a book.