Lean, Mean 2018

2018 certainly started right.

Late last year, Manuel, Andrew and I were talking about new projects for Thunderbird Studios. I pitched a few ideas, but also sent them the first half of a short story I’ve been struggling with. Yet Andrew and Manuel were excited enough for the tale that we swept almost all other projects off the table to work on a comic book for it.

Yesterday, a few hours of New Year’s Eve were spent finishing a 16-page long script. And today, the second draft. Manuel, our artist, received it this afternoon with the intention of printing, reading and returning revisions.

It might sound strange for an artist to do this, but here’s the thing. Writing a comic book script can be anything between writing and writing/graphic design. Pages have to be written with an idea of how many panels they’ll involve. We have to consider how much space is needed not just to show (rather than tell) the story, but also for speech balloons, sound effects and narration.

“Show don’t tell” is generally good advice for novice writers of novels and short stories, yet there are limits. For example, the difference between telling and showing could be the difference of one or two narrative sentences versus three to five additional paragraphs, pages… or even entire chapters.

So the question becomes whether or not the information conveyed in those brief sentences is worth:

  1. The extra time for the writer to produce the new content.
  2. The cost for the editor to check the extra material.
  3. The increased price of formatting the expanded manuscript.
  4. The expenses of printing them (physical copy only).
  5. The reader’s time to read it.

That last point is actually the most important. If that new content entertains readers, the combined effort of all the prior steps is likely validated. If not, then everyone’s time and money was wasted. If you need proof to believe me, try reading The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson. Or even just reading the comments and reviews.

Being pedantic can be a writer’s sin.

With comics, the problem can actually be reversed. The “show” aspect is naturally handled through the art. You can even tell a tale that intrigues readers’ speculations by removing all dialogue and narration. The Darkest Dungeon comics (online and free) are really good about this.

But when you want to confirm needed details or convey aspects of the world that are beyond the scope of the story, actually telling the story can be the way to go. It would be quite the challenge (not to mention expense) to draw everything.

As I’m finally getting back into the swing of writing, I’m hoping to be able to handle all revisions on the script, then fire and forget it. This may sound optimistic but part of my problem is that things keep “bubbling back” and grabbing my ankle. I end up getting pulled into many small issues that need work, affecting other projects.

Lately I’m trying to solve these issues by focusing on shorter works. While comics take about the same amount of time as short stories, novellas are considerably faster than novels. They’re also easier. Usually I find myself staring at a novel synopsis and scratching out entire sections that are nothing but “filler.” Or if they don’t fulfill two of the following three needs:

  1. Developing characters
  2. Advancing plot
  3. Expanding the world

I actually sat down and took a hard look at the math on novellas on Amazon’s sites. With e-books, it actually makes great sense. In print, it’s certainly possible although the extended distribution options can force prices above what I feel comfortable charging. But after taking a quick look at my well-selling novel, I noticed that extremely few of my sales come from those channels.

Let’s see what the new year brings…

Open Source Thinking: Author Pay Rates

The Good Fight

Super Hero Monster Hunter: The Good Fight from Emby Press is now available in print as well as for Kindle. Check it out for several amazing stories by yours truly and many other great authors! It’s the start of something big.

So in light of the post yesterday, I’ve been thinking some about how much we would be paying our authors for their work. But I’ve been thinking more and more about the slog to earn our stripes as a professional publishing company.

As I’ve noted before, being a professional author is harder than ever. And the joy and joke is that publishers need to pay off their starting cost debts and return to black on top of the need for authors to get paid. Granted, the debt isn’t much to surmount and people often supplement themselves with another career.

But let’s do some quick math here. E-books typically sell for either 35% or 70% royalties. Some may rush to point out the changes to Amazon’s royalties, but I would counter that it only applies to Kindle Unlimited and Lending Library. For the sake of argument, let’s say that the listed price is $5. Thus, at best we’re earning $3.50 and at worst, $1.75, and none of this includes printed royalties.

On the costs side, let’s focus strictly on what we’re paying the authors. In the past, the anthologies we’ve released have used pure profit sharing. This “nonprofit” (no entity keeps the money, just the creators) approach gave authors incentive to keep pushing the book after the release, and we had no real start up costs to worry about—we used the “free” ISBN from Amazon, and everything worked via a private contract rather than officially starting a company. There was no reason to preserve income because the project was never in the red.

This time around, we would have a minor debt to pay off and need additional capital to grow.

If you’re not willing to pay your authors what they’re worth, someone else will.

The usual approach for small press publishers is to compensate authors with token payments, exposure and a free copy of the book. Overall, not a bad package in lieu of professional pay for a fledgling writer. Let’s say that a publisher pays its authors $15 per a short story. A twelve story anthology costs $180 for the authors alone. And this doesn’t include cover art or editing (for which the business owners will probably be responsible.) If the sales are fifty-fifty on the 70% versus 35% royalty rates, that’s around $2.62 per sold copy.

That means to cover the authors alone, the book has to sell 69 copies. If you optimistically sell just 70% royalty stories, you can actually earn that cost back in 48 sold copies. If just the 35% rate, 103 copies.

So that is the most basic model. Lower the price of the book and you’ll have to increase sales. It also doesn’t cover the cost of the cover art, which one can technically do if they use a public domain image (possibly acceptable) or no cover (not recommended).

Now here’s the secret about artists. The average price of cover art is roughly $500. This is a stiff price to beat in the sales, but there’s actually some economic flexibility if people don’t mind paying for the difference in time.

Explained, a professional artist might have a back list of interested clients willing to pay $500 or more around the clock during the best of times. But on occasion, there maybe a lull in the number of demanding jobs, during which time it makes sense for an artist to take a lesser paying job as long as there is a very distant deadline and a patient customer.

So if you go to an artist and ask them, “I have a limited budget for this, but I’m also in no rush. Can we work out a lesser rate with expected delivery in 9 months? I understand if higher priority jobs come along in the mean time.”

And chances are, you can probably work something out depending on the artist’s schedule and professional philosophy. It helps if the artist is interested in the work you’re doing, because their muse needs inspiration too. But if you go rushing to them, exclaiming that you need this image and you need it now, now, now… well, have five Franklins ready at the very least. Because exposure doesn’t fill the pantry.

Which brings us back to the original point. Yeah, cover art will add more to the cost although as I said, there maybe room for some flexibility on that. Yet here’s what I suspect a lot of small press companies face—costs (should) inevitably grow.

Why are they growing? Well, the biggest reason would be author pay rates. If you find a good author who is willing to work for $15 a pop, they’ll probably be ecstatic to be published for the very first time. After a few more stories, they’ll start to wonder if maybe they could earn a bit more, so they start searching. Are their short stories worth $25? Yes, so what about $50? Sometimes? Can they get 1 cent a word? 2 cents? Always hunting for that professional rate of 5 cents a word.

At a 5,000 words pay cap at 5 cents a word, that same twelve story anthology suddenly costs $3,000. Chances are, that cover artist cut you a deal before because you were a small company. But if the authors are earning that kind of money, then the artist will probably want the average professional rate of $500. That means a game of professional ball costs you a minimum of $3,500. And there are bound to be additional costs I haven’t factored into the equation.

If you’re not willing to pay your authors what they’re worth, someone else will. If your readership base isn’t large enough to support higher rates, then your writers will start seeking a company who pays better and has a larger audience. If you’re not paying attention to the market, it’ll kick your ass.

A blog post I once read mentioned that large publishing companies seldom cultivate writers anymore. It took me less than a minute to realize that major publishers really don’t need to, not when you have hundreds of small companies willing to gold pan for them. Even if the little guys don’t realize it until they back a winner who brings in the readers… and then gets poached.

It’s a ceiling that stops many small press companies. And something every publisher has to bust through to join the major leagues.

Sunlight on a New Day

I’d say I’ve been thinking about starting a publishing company. But that would be an understatement.

The fact is, we (not I) have been doing more than just thinking about it. Yesterday I closed my eyes and opened them to a business plan, complete with a basic budget and a five year strategy. It had most of the essentials. LLC filing costs for tax considerations, policies, necessary tools we’ll need, growth ideas, purchasing of a round of ISBNs…

Although there is are initial costs to crest before we’re official, the plan covers the first round of critical questions. On some fronts, we’re not inexperienced in this, having gone through the process three times and figuring out the basics. But in other regards, we’re trailblazing. I’ve never set up a real company before. On the plus side, creating an LLC is cheap. There are tiered costs for converting it into stocks, and equity is an important consideration to maintain the nature of a startup company. But that’s something to visit another time.

For the moment, focus is on structuring our policies, mission statements and marketing considerations. We have a few ideas on that latter point. The biggest hurdle of any author is simply getting their name out there. A publishing company of reputable quality doesn’t take long to attract at least a small following of readers and interested parties. Last I checked, there are roughly half a million published writers in the United States alone. Writing good or even amazing material just isn’t enough to stand out.

Another factor we’ve been discussing is how much of our infrastructure we’re going to in-house. While there are some great services out there that I would strongly consider once we’re of a particular size, I want to handle as much as I can on my own and outsource as I realize that certain tasks are too complex or offer no real benefit to maintain. If I can in-house my own file management system with minimal problems, fantastic! If I’m blowing two or three hours a week dealing with an exploding mail server, I’ll probably just go with Google business emails.

Yeah, it sounds like a great deal of work. But we have a hotshot artist, an up-and-coming writer and a tech guy looking to automate aspects of the job. One could do worse. Yet nothing is happening until the royalty payments for Marching Time and Far Worlds are complete however. As eager as I am to get started, I need to wrap up the old business first.

Genre Writing (And Keeping Your Audience In Mind)

Coming down off the high of writing my first novel, I’ve returned to short story writing. I picked out four submission windows which interest me. Amusingly, I’ve jumped the vein of crime and horror writing and have been focusing my time more and more on fantasy, and am keeping an eye on science fiction. This was all part of my plan to alternate writing “what I know” and slowly expand and improve on what I don’t.

Of the four submission windows, two are fantasy, one is modern-meets-fantasy and the last is military science fiction. These days, it’s important to mention the intended sub-genre. Especially with fantasy, lest the editor be swarmed with Western medieval stories.

It’s not that European mythologies are bad or can’t be done well. The problem is that it’s too easy, too accessible. Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, The Lord of the Rings, The Witcher and Game of Thrones along with the books can easily trick hordes of fans into believing they are experts on the original mythologies and/or histories from which these works originated. One submission window I saw sometime back described the resulting work as, “fan fiction with the serial numbers filed off.”

I’ve long begun my research on the cultures of one particular story I have in mind and the pieces are coming together slowly. But while I was at a family reunion for the fourth of July, a story came to me like a bolt out of the blue. The idea had everything I really need, from the characters to the plot and the themes.

What made me laugh was that this story idea was for the genre I am least ready for—science fiction.

It’s been three years since I last attempted an independent (as in, not built on any pre-established intellectual property) science fiction story. After my last rejection, my friends explained to me that the intended publishers are tremendous believers (not just fans) of Star Trek. That it was the greatest sci-fi show ever concocted.

Since then I’ve figured that you can really learn a lot about a person from the kind of sci-fi they like.

I’ve wondered why that is and I would guess that as “science” is seen as a measurable metric of progress, science fiction can easily emphasis a positive view of the future. It’s not difficult to see science for the acts of technical, biological or chemical engineering. But stories have also investigated application of the scientific method on politics, history, sociology and exploration, some of which take us off the desired path.

I’ve barely saw more than a few scenes of the original Star Trek television series. But I have watched the original six movies, and both the movies and several episodes of The Next Generation. And yes, both of the J.J. Abrams films. The universe is surprisingly optimistic about our species, as most of the problems tend to revolve around foreign crises, the occasional distress call, time traveling to fix or prevent problems. Intra-humanity problems often take a backseat to Klingon aggression or Borg threats.

Sometimes I wonder if there isn’t some humanitarian pride hinted with Star Trek, as the Federation tends to cast us as a fairly advanced species compared to many of our war-inclined galactic neighbors. Although to be fair, I think most of its fans would stop short of saying the series depicts a total utopia. But if Star Trek is the pinnacle of our views as to what humanity can be, every franchise, book and movie after that slowly steps down that scale, away from the suggested, bright future.

I think from there, one could go down the list and classify each kind of science fiction for each kind of person. Very often, I suspect that it’s less about whether or not people are into sci-fi as a total genre and more about whether the sub-genre is to the audience’s taste. People who would roll their eyes at Star Wars and Star Trek could very well love Blade Runner or The Hunger Games, while never realizing that the latter is post-apocalyptic and both are varying degrees of dystopian visions of the future. Likewise, I remembered an amusing article which reminds us all that the family friend film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is steampunk.

So try to keep this in mind when working with your lab rats beta-readers to best figure preferred genres and tropes.

The Home Stretch

Yeah, I really hoped that the novel would be finished by now. But it isn’t.

I wrapped up the first draft, then proofed it. A good friend edited and returned it to me, and I improved it based on his invaluable input. After which, the draft was submitted to the beta readers and the major sponsors whose blessing I need.

And yes, they’ve provided their feedback.

A few canonical corrections are needed, and some improvements to the logic. But there are no more bottlenecks, so any delays are entirely my own. This would be the third round of editing. I guess I dread the possibility of a fourth round, as there will be at least one final party (beyond those already mentioned) who needs to provide approval before my work goes to print.

Is an author’s first novel always the hardest? The entire process has been a learning experience, and although I was able to apply a great deal of the hard earned experience from my previous anthologies, there was plenty of new lessons, new discoveries, and new stumbling blocks.

I have a rule that I don’t read the blogs of other, more established authors unless they’re a carefully cultivated platform for advising authors, like Anne R. Allen. There are two reasons for this. First, I don’t want their views to spoil my enjoyment of their work. And second, some of them cruelly and intentionally make the process sound more difficult if not impossible, to ward away competition.

But now I wonder if perhaps they could have warned me how hard being a writer can be, or perhaps provided valuable tips to help. I want the emotional explanations, wisdom and the insights they gained without ranting or venting frustrations or being put down for “threatening” their position. It has made me more thankful towards the few authors I’ve grown to view as mentors, and the handful of my writing friends I’ve picked up along the way.

So I intend to have the third and hopefully final draft complete by June 6th, and refuse to post another blog entry until then. Even this post was written on Friday and programmed for release today, just to provide some news and explain my upcoming silence. That is how badly I need to put off further distractions.

Anthology Publishing Theory

An idea came to me during the day. My friend sent some flash fiction to edit, which was intended to go between the stories of a new anthology we’re working on.

The flash was great, but diverse. Some were happier endings, some comical. Some were darker. They hit a wide range of emotions in anywhere from a paragraph to a page in length.

As I finished, a thought occurred to me. In my opinion, the grand problem with anthologies is that their nature doesn’t permit them to be page-turners quite like novels can. A story comes to an end, and you say goodbye to the characters, the setting, the events and plot. You have to start something new.

Every tale has an emotional impact associated with it. So when it ends, I suspect that most people shut the book and set it aside to digest the ending. We’ve made some effort in the past to be careful with the order of our tales, trying to keep similar stories apart.

But as I thought about it, what’s the job of a DJ? To come up with a playlist of songs to keep people dancing, to maintain a kind of energy high so people don’t want to leave the dance floor. If the music doesn’t keep up the pace, people start to hit the bar. (And if the music is bad, people leave.)

A flash vignette is tempting however. If the reader sees that there’s a short passage just after a short story has ended, I suspect that they’d want to read it just because it’s so simple and brief. So could there be a way to balance it? If the short story ends on an evil note, could a hopeful and uplifting flash fiction piece help the audience carry onto the next story more readily?

More initial instincts say that the emotions should contrast to find balance. If something is sad, make it happy. If something is depressing, give them hope. If a tale ends with the bad guys winning, have the next piece contain an outlet for the reader’s anger.

Will have to try it…