Franchises and Stuff

There’s a degree of palpable anxiety in the air.

The release date of the new Outliers volume is fast approaching and we’re perhaps 85% the way to complete. Much of what’s left is primarily grunt work: formatting, administrative, distributive. Being an editor for the project has me weighing in on techniques and methods to improve my writers’ skills. A great deal of the process boils down to something like this:

Step 1: The writer is tired and not as stoked because their creative energy was invested in writing the synopsis. They start writing.

Step 2: In the rush to finish it (and get to mentally rest), the writer blindly cranks out the first draft. The draft is never great, because in their haste, they:

  • overlook redundant sentences or even whole paragraphs
  • misuse form/from, pubic/public and other spell checker-immune horrors
  • forget to add a somewhere (hint: reread that)
  • use the same words, phrases and grammatical approaches too often
  • leave scenes too flat, or include an additional scene that doesn’t add much (I’m raising my hand on that latter point)
  • use too many words to superfluously describe something technically
  • or describe a technical matter badly
  • have POV errors galore
  • write plot holes

Step 3: Editor receives draft. Pretends he’s a proofreader and issues minor edits. Smiles and pats everyone on the back. Yay! Good job!

Step 4: …Editor suddenly remembers he’s an editor and the publisher. Transforms into Mr. Asshyde and starts tearing into the drafts. Process involves:

  • staring with total disbelief at a scene involving software security or medical operations that even a Hollywood writer would laugh at
  • researching appropriate details about said technical matters and rewriting section
  • wondering why the last two hours were blown making one single page look correct
  • cussing such profanity that would make a sailor blush
  • pondering what happened to that massive wound the main character received just one minute ago
  • privately wishing your own stories received this degree of abusive love
  • stopping pronoun juggling
  • consoling yourself with alcohol because you aren’t getting paid extra for this
  • finishing the last page and firing it to the writer, while finally understanding every story rejection you’ve personally ever received

Step 5: Editor wonders why people hate him.

I feel it takes frank honesty to transform a story one notch better than what it was. And I admit that fear is powering many of my decisions: if the series isn’t addictive, people will put it down. Great writing should be smooth, balanced between the eye opening and the jaw dropping, and leave readers hungry for more.

If your audience stops reading, they won’t talk about it. And that kind of silence is death.

And this is a factor that’s going to get tougher for me, because I have rapport with the five guys I’m working alongside. Outliers is a shared-universe, not another book series. Generally authors rarely allow others to develop in their literary universes, but the franchise nature changes the dynamic considerably.

Fellow authors whom I show our releases to swiftly pop the question, “Can I submit to this? When’s the open submission window?” And the reason I cannot give direct answers is because there’s a vision, a direction that the series is going.

Outliers is a road, and I hesitate because any writers joining us for the journey have to be prepared. Some are being readied even now, others are coming in time.

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Info on Amazon Reviews

primerToday, I want to talk about Amazon reviews. And this is of importance for both readers and authors.

First, I want to give a huge thanks to everyone who has been supporting, reading and helping us promote Outliers: The Shape of Things to Come. We truly hope you’re enjoying our work. It’s also available for free on Amazon until the end of today (September 16th), a magazine-style release complete with stories and artwork so why not pluck a copy to read later?  Last time I mention Outliers until next month, promise!

Now although we’re loving the promotions and marketing side of this, there’s a point that we could really use outside help.

Amazon uses a number of algorithms and business flows to help decide on what to market, what to suggest and promote in front of other buyers. There are millions of titles in the United States, and even within genres you can easily be talking some tens of thousands of titles.

Who knows what they like better than the readers themselves?

Or at least, those who are vocal about it by submitting reviews to the vendor. Right now, there’s a rumor that 20 reviews, good or ill, “bump” the appearance of a title on suggested reading lists. Another piece of gossip states that 50 reviews puts it among the spotlighted positions of mailing lists.

Now, it’s a safe assumption that these statements are just scuttlebutt. Maybe someone noticed a loose pattern in the advertising and drew these assumptions. Or maybe they were or even are true, although the latter is subject to change. Even the Amazon business guys probably couldn’t comment with certainty because code and formulas are always being tweaked and modified. In tech, what’s true today might not be true tomorrow.

But it’s also a safe assumption that there is some validity to it. Reviews undoubtedly have an effect on advertising suggestions. Feelings of any kind are a more valuable metric than numb silence. Whether you love it like the first season of True Detective or hate it like the second, saying so with reviews matters. So please, if you enjoyed or hated our work, say so. Artists cannot grow in the absence of valid criticisms, nor know what to keep producing without compliments to encourage that which is enjoyed.

Now… there’s one final point to cover, and I must admit that this is a saddening factor for authors: Amazon divides its reviews by region as well.

Some argue that it’s cultural preferences. I disagree, as few seem to care geographically where their entertainment comes from. The United States imports some of the finest actors from England, almost all variations of Sherlock tend to do well and Warhammer 40,000 of Nottingham is very acknowledged here. Likewise, I pal with my English friends knowing that we can quote The Simpsons with abandon or even recruit them into my growing Stranger Things cult.

But the stars from the Amazon.com site aren’t appearing on Amazon.co.uk. If nothing else, people browsing work would see far less in the ratings. Amazon is doing a beta of “the most helpful reviews” on the pages themselves which crosses the ocean (for example, with Far Worlds in the UK), but the results thereof are not being added topically into that region’s ratings.

So.

If you read our work, we love you. If you enjoy it, please say so back. And if you’re really feeling generous, try to log onto both Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk to leave reviews on both sites. I believe the login credentials are shared which should make it much easier. And thanks again for reading!

Outliers: The Shape of Things to Come

Outliers Primer CoverLadies and gentlemen, I could not be more proud to announce the release of Outliers: The Shape of Things to Come, a free chapbook we’re giving away to promote our forthcoming book series, Outliers.  The chapbook contains four short stories and immersive flash fiction, with character profiles and artwork by the amazing Manuel Mesones. And you can enjoy all of it for nothing.

So here’s the deal. It’s available for free on SmashWords and via DropBox. Amazon is forcing us to charge for it. So next week, we’re going to move to Kindle Select and Unlimited to see if we can promote it for free from there. But for the mean time, try one of the other sites and if you WANT to pay on Amazon, we’ll accept.

But more than money, the best ways to support us are to leave a review on Amazon (you don’t have to have purchased through them) and GoodReads. Also, you can help by following either @TbirdStudios or @OutliersSaga on Twitter or the Outliers Facebook page.

Amazon (mobi/azw4)

SmashWords (epub)

DropBox (Hi-Res PDFRegular-Res PDFmobi)

 

LitOps: Authorial Cross-Discipline

Outliers Primer Cover

Announcement: Join our Facebook event for the launch of our free chapbook set in the Outliers universe, available September 6th!

This post is about writing. Just bear with me a moment…

In 1776, a Scotsman by the name of Adam Smith published a book entitled The Wealth of Nations. As his work defined early capitalism, one of his largest concerns was how labor (particularly manufacturing-based) risked learning skills and tasks that were too specialized to acknowledge the greater whole of the process.

Fast forward to 2016 and in some fields we have the exact opposite problem: we’re asked to do almost too much.

If you ask me about my day job, my usual response is that I’m a developer. In truth, the term for my field is DevOps (Development Operations), a cross-discipline that consists of various kinds of programming, networking, and database administrations. I create interactive webpages, set up the end points that they pass on their way to the databases, plural. Sometimes I triage network or server performance issues, sometimes I connect to remote servers for deployments. Name just about any technical difficulty and I’ve either dealt with it or were somehow involved in the resolution thereof. Being a developer these days involves a great deal of skills and knowledge.

Being a litterateur (writer) is rather similar.

I suppose you can call it LitOps, literary operations. But whether it’s a truly self-published author or an independent press trying to get booted, there are many hats to wear. Aside from writing and editing manuscripts, there’s formatting (more complex these days due to print versus e-reader files such as mobi, pdf and epub). There’s cover art, which not only includes the illustrated or graphic front but measurements for the spine and the back cover. And all of this grows more complex with any experimental introductions, such as adding illustrations or e-book linking.

I’ve never tried a “choose your own adventure” book with hyperlinks but I suspect that would be technically interesting…

Outside of production there’s marketing; setting up promotions, contacting critics for reviews, author signings, online advertising and anything else that can influence readers. Sales can be automated online, but at conventions there is a need to ship or transport the goods, prepare the table, handle direct sales, and then break all that down after. And then there’s managing public relations. Aside from face-to-face, people often ask questions on Facebook or Twitter and they’re probably going to want to be answered in a professional manner.

And there’s even a legal side. At its simplest, a publisher has to deal with the terms of service with his/her distributors. If publishing third parties, there has to be written agreements regarding how rights and royalties are handled. If you work with other creators, there are franchise agreements too. I’ve signed and worked on franchised works include Stoic Studio’s The Banner Saga game series (The Gift of Hadrborg‘s print version is coming soon) and now my company’s forthcoming Outliers universe.

I suspect that if you’re an up-and-coming writer, you’re probably reading all this and saying “No, no I don’t want to deal with any of this!” Well, the old ways aren’t dead. There are still the successful and established publishing companies out there that can afford to have its employees and contractors specialize. A friend of mine mentioned how great it is to work for one of these: all he does is write and answer questions regarding editing, and occasionally attend a few signings.

But the hard truth is that many of those established, profitable publishers truly want established, profitable authors. Sometimes an author will “make it,” and get paid a professional’s salary. But unless they keep at it and find their audience, there’s little staying power. How often does a short story ever take a person to the top?  How often is an author’s debut novel the pinnacle of their bibliography? Examples exist, but it’s like that one school kid who becomes a professional athlete; exceedingly rare compared to the size of the field.

Learn. Grow. Expand. We all want to write, but never be afraid of kaizen. Sometimes that means doing things you don’t want to do, but someone has to. And no one is going to care more about your work than you. Learn the business, because knowing is powerful in its own right.

This is what it means to be an author these days.  And it is better to embrace the change until it affords one a better opportunity than to assume that the opportunity is ever coming.

Outliers: Facebook Launch Party

Outliers

Progress has often been measured by the advancement of technology and sciences. that which aides humanity’s ability to survive. But humanity itself has remained the constant. 

Until now.

They are anomalies. The gifted and the pariahs, the blessed and the cursed. Capable of reading minds, transforming their bodies or controlling forms of energy. They are Outliers. And as their numbers explode, modern civilization will be put to the crucible against the unexpectedly transhuman.

Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to invite you all to the free release launch party for the Outliers Saga. We’re giving away an e-chapbook, containing four short stories, character profiles and flash fiction, with artwork by the amazing Manuel Mesones.

This is a Facebook event, not a physical one, meaning there’s no need to show up anywhere. And be sure to follow Outliers on Twitter, or on Facebook.

Ginger Nuts, Specters and TPS Reports

“In a way, we were robbed thrice.”

Earlier today, the review site The Ginger Nuts of Horror released an update regarding the situation at Spectral Press. As usual, I advise anyone of interest (particularly fellow writers) to read the original post before continuing with my observations on the matter.

But for those who just need a recap, Spectral Press has declared itself in financial straits. Owner Simon Marshall-Jones also mentioned health problems, to which I wish him health and speedy recovery. But with regard to the former issue, The Ginger Nuts of Horror will be altering its policies.

  1. They will no longer review works that offer only exposure.
  2. They will firmly vet small press publishers to prevent abuse.
  3. They have shown concerns regarding fair payment.

I applaud points one and two with alacrity. The third point I’d like to discuss because of vagueness in need of redress. Particularly on the subject of the token payment system (ah yes, TPS reports) and business growth.

My friends and I have all made erroneous steps once or twice in the (mine)field of the small press industry; tiny businesses who exist thanks to the ease of Amazon’s print-on-demand and eBook publishing services. We know better than to submit for “exposure.” And any publisher who too readily accepts our work likely has a quality problem. Despite our cautions, we still made mistakes.

print pressWe have been victim of at least one publishing company who failed to make the promised royalty payments when it formally closed its doors. Not only did they fail to deliver the meager earnings owed, but the returned stories could not be published anywhere without the less valuable “reprint” status.

These stories were some of our best work too, now reduced in value. And worse, because these anthologies were on-and-off the market in a mere four months, even the promised exposure failed to really materialize.

In a way, we were robbed thrice.

It’s nothing new however. The problem of troubled publishers failing to pay their authors is far older than Amazon. Even legends like Robert E. Howard suffered. When the author died in 1936, Weird Tales still owed him at least $800. Adjusted for inflation, that’s around $13,800 by today’s standard. A serious chunk of change.

In an ideal world, we would be paid the professional rate of $.05 a word, at the very least. But as book sales drive compensation, it’s not uncommon to settle for something less if only to get both companies’ and authors’ feet in the door. As I read and reread The Ginger Nuts’ statement, I began to wonder what and how they defined fair payment.

Payments from small press generally come in two forms: royalties and token, both with boons and burdens.

Royalties cost the company little up front, as they instead divide and deliver percentages of the sales to the authors for as long as the book remains on the market. If the book does well and the percentages fair, the authors will probably make better than a token payment. For the companies, royalties also encourage authors to get out there and sell the books direct, as they have an on-going incentive. The downsides? Royalties can be nil if the book doesn’t sell, and the author and company could end with nothing. Plus, royalties have to be paid periodically.

Token payments come with a whole different set of pros and cons, an upfront payment for temporary publishing rights. The downside is that it’s an upfront cost to the company, while the authors gain the benefit of immediate pay. The authors have less incentive to promote their work– they’ve already been paid. On the flip side, once the book surmounts those costs, the company begins earning pure passive-profit that the authors never see.

commercial revolutionI can tell you from experience that capital-intensive token payments are much easier for all parties. After the Bolthole anthologies were released, I had to hound a couple of authors every few quarters, telling them to update their rejected PayPal contact information. Calculating totals wasn’t fun.

I also learned to set aside capital from my pocket to pay authors as on-time as possible– PayPal can have delays three to five day long when transferring funds. Geez. I almost forgot I have to do that this week for Far Worlds.

But I digress.

Still, there is a potential problem with the token payment system. When a publisher is young, a low token payment is probably fine– If authors don’t like it, they shouldn’t submit. But persistently low payments are telling. If a publisher opens in 2012 and offers $10 for short stories, and in 2016 they’re still offering only $10 for submissions, then either:

  • A) Check with the prior authors and see if they’ve been paid. If they haven’t been, there’s a good chance the publisher is hoping the next release will be a strong enough ROI to cover all debts. In which case, don’t trust them.
  • B) The publisher is barely breaking even, which is neither good nor damning.
  • C) The publisher is making bank from the difference of cost against profit.

A is the worst case scenario. Obviously an author shouldn’t submit to them, as the publisher is outright gambling that book sales will turn around their situation. B (if you can prove it) is not great either, and should lead authors to question the publisher’s direction.

But of these options, C is the most complicated. It means that the publisher is actually growing, but is milking the situation instead of upping payments for the benefit of their authors. Admittedly, publishers need capital to grow; to pay for site improvements and better art, to launch bigger projects and so forth. Yet they’re not helping their authors grow with them. If evidence suggests C, quality authors could and should go elsewhere.

How do you prove B versus C? Well, it would help if publishers were more forthright about their sales data. If not, you can try to make estimates against the book’s sales rankings on Amazon. You can also watch their website. Did they suddenly get way better looking banners and artwork? Are they obtaining costly features and plugins? Did they just procure an author you’ve actually heard of for a novel?

But before you jump to conclusions, dig deeper. Make sure that one of their staff isn’t an experienced web developer or artist. Or that they weren’t already friends with the author long before the company came into existence. Or perhaps they’re infusing their own, private money into improvements (in which case, they’re bloody awesome). If they’re using available resources and skills to get out of option B, you can’t blame them.

But if you are one of those C optioned publishers reading this, I’d advise you to raise your rates. If your response is that it’s a hobby and not a business… well, you’re going to have a bad time. Because for authors and writers out there, it is a business. It’s our business.

Treat it with respect or walk on. 

The Story’s The Thing!

ScholarSome ideas die hard.

That is the ailment of the month. A document keeps expanding whenever innovation strikes, as elements of a new novel are jotted down. It’s a yarn built upon twin short stories, both pitched to various publishers but rejected with encouraging remarks. A lack of depth is the usual problem, and that is the much sought solution.

The background for SFF novels often times becomes a double-trap for young authors. Fledgling word-smiths frequently fly by the seat of their pants, relying on strictly their imagination to fill in the blanks. At worst, the results are derivative of that writer’s most recent literary conquest. At best, their concoction is remarkably original but devoid of particulars and technicalities which audiences crave– with proper delivery.

Likewise, the note-taking developer types with their pseudo God-complexes can become so involved with research into each organization, country and character that production slows to a crawl. However should the effort avoid the pitfall of becoming a textbook of fiction, the outcome is often an achievement.

Such truths could sour hopes for the junior scribe. Yet the most memorable books often borrow strongest from true life. Robert E. Howard is said to have once stated, “There is no literary work, to me, half as zestful as rewriting history in the guise of fiction.” J.R.R. Tolkien drew heavy inspiration from Norse mythology including Elves, Dwarves and Der Ring des Nibelungen. And George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire draws inspiration from the War of Roses and, some believe, a few other sources.

Admittedly these facts are a deterrent. There is little pleasure to be derived from the crestfallen countenances of dreamers-turned-skjalds for whom this is the lesson du jour. The fusion of economics, history, politics, culture, religion, psychology and science and/or the occult into a tale is no trick. Such intellectual pack-rats authors can become, for no esoteric knowledge is worthless.

The cynicism is due to timing. National Novel Writing Month has nearly arrived. An event that floods publishers and book delivery platforms with thousands of manuscripts. An event sponsored and encouraged by various groups who financially benefit from the stoked competition that spawns the deluge. An event that sparks the yin and yang of ambivalent emotions; a desire to be encouraged and see folks succeed, yet fearing the earnest zeal of effort that shall be futilely deflected against an uncaring public.

There is the rest of the year to be a scrivener who needs no crutch. For now, the innovations shall brew and storm, a time of rest from the inferno that serves others and not the creator. And December shall be the month when the ink touches the page.