Painful Lessons in Publishing

A more official word will be going out soon, but it looks like we’re cancelling the Outliers series for good.

The fact that it was ever made at all is something of a small miracle. Five authors putting together a world of stories and characters, each shared and culminating towards a greater epic? That’s no small feat. Yet even before founding Thunderbird Studios, we had a publisher who backed out. This was early 2016, and the small press market seemed to be in a real flux. So, I started an LLC, grabbed some ISBNs and got to work with Manuel.

To help promote it, we even put together a primer, Outliers: The Shape of Things to Come, that was regularly given away for free. What threw us for a loop was that the primer seemed to do pretty great. The shorter length plus the art helped us quickly reap ten very positive reviews on Amazon’s UK site.

It looked like a really promising start for us.

Then we published the first volume of five novellas.

And it did not sell.

That was a year ago. We blamed some of it on the election upset last year and kept trying to turn it around. Facebook advertising, reaching out to folks directly, trying to get reviews. We had almost 250 followers on Facebook and several groups we could tap for more, and a few more on Twitter. We had our own personal networks. And we even launched our own product site, backed with freebies. But none of this helped.

Ask me why and I can think of a dozen reasons. Maybe more.

We really fought against labeling it as “superheroes,” focusing more and more on the science fiction elements. We dived into more grounded concerns, a formula that involved adding incredible talented people to say… the nursing profession, government bureaucracy, crime and law enforcement, the plight of the poor, and market manipulation. There were even a few modern day political points, such as the Black Lives Matter movement and police being required to use cameras.

These weren’t superheroes. They were just ordinary folks who could do something unique, and the world itself was reacting instead of the other way around.

We had serious and lasting impacts from our antics. The final story of Outliers: 2016 involved a sizable chunk of New York burning down. In future volumes, that section of the city is still very gone. And the politics of that event were still being debated. Less laser beam eyes and more modern cloak and dagger.

But I guess people took one glance, saw superheroes and didn’t look again.

What’s wrong with superheroes? Nothing, unless you’re not Marvel or maybe DC. Jon called it when he pointed out that the glutted market (especially with three companies using Marvel’s properties) makes anything one does seem derivative. Particularly when Fox came out with The Gifted, one of several in-universe terms we used to describe our Outlier characters. He described it as “a kick in the teeth.”

And speaking of terminology, Outliers was not a great choice to call our series. Search for it and the first thing you’ll discover is the book by Malcolm Gladwell. Keep digging and you’ll find The Outliers, a novel by Kimberly McCreight that was released earlier in 2016. Our efforts were a painful third.

Another big sign, one I should have watched for, was that the only people who ever seemed excited for Outliers were other authors and writers. Conversations about it drifted towards, “Can I pitch something for that?”

Yet most of them backed away when they realized that Outliers called for no small amount of homework. We weren’t big on “limitless powers,” and frequently nerfed what our protagonists could do. There were factions to develop, and sharing characters meant learning about their backstories, abilities, relationships and philosophy. Basically, every contributor was an encyclopedia in a series. And the wiki we developed to hold all this information got pretty damn big.

Joining us was buying into a creative contract. And when they realized that meant limitations, they seemed to lose interest.

In the past, a few people who were cross with me called prior works failures. I always shrugged. Those efforts never bothered me because they were trial and error, and I was always upfront about that. They were projects of learning that actually did go on to make several dozen sales. In the case of Far Worldsa couple of hundred.

But Outliers was a true failure. It sucked because most people remained silent on the matter. Folks said that they would review it, then they flaked. Not only friends but family just couldn’t be bothered. No one wanted to be honest and say, “Yeah, cool. Listen, I’m not really interested in reading that. But good luck.”

Not loved, not hated. At best, unknown. At worst, no one cared. And we’re left humbled hard by that truth as we leave our work to be trampled into dust by time.


…Anyway. The Outliers site is shutting down in a few days. The primer is coming off market too, and we’ll probably be retiring our social media outlets as well.


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. 

Sunlight on a New Day

Hopi_Tawa_MuralI’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.

Tough Times For Authors

A BBC article has reported that 5% of authors made 42% of income from published works in 2013. The number of authors who can make a living writing has dropped from 40% (back around 2003) to 11.5%. I strongly recommend you read the article yourself.

The news made me grimace a little. Something like this wasn’t entirely unexpected by any means. A first hand look at sales reports illustrates how difficult it is to earn much. But seeing one’s fears in the raw numbers does give me pause.

When someone encounters a disheartening situation, it pays to take a pragmatic glance at ones’ goals. My personal objective was to build my name enough that perhaps I can comfortably write full-time when I retire. As it stands, my retirement is no less than 30 years away, and a lot can happen in those three decades. This report proved that the market has changed, and is probably preparing itself for a kind of bubble in the next couple of years.

marchingtimeBubbles, at least in the context of markets, are never fun. Amazon’s e-publishing services are a blessing and a curse in this regard, for they opened the flood gates and removed barriers to entry. I can’t complain, because if Amazon hadn’t offered these services, our anthologies like Far Worlds and Marching Time would never have been published. And some of the publishing companies I’ve worked with might not exist either.

But as Amazon has removed our inhibitions, they’ve also gone on to inflame our passions. Although not the only company to do so, Amazon’s print-on-demand service CreateSpace is a proud contributor to National Novel Writing Month. In 2013, there were over 310,000 contributors to that and more than 42,000 winners. Even if as little as .5% of just the winners decided to push their work onto Amazon in the next year, it creates a deluge of new titles for sale. And that doesn’t include the other 268k non-winning contestants who could finish and submit later.

The pressure is not going to alleviate for a while. It will eventually. There are many of folks who will realize that they only ever had one story in them. Others just wanted to crank out a novel for the sensation of accomplishment. And still others may realize that being a full-time author was not quite what they hoped to be their calling.

In the end, the situation only serves to reinforce the same rule that being a writer is tough and persistence is the only way it can pay off. I guess it finally makes sense of that old phrase how the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Far Worlds “A Pelnodan Bounty” – The Making

“How exponentially difficult would relationships be if a race had three sexes, all three of which were necessary for reproduction?”

Far Worlds

Click to like the Far Worlds Facebook page!

With the upcoming release of Far Worlds, I thought I’d take a few minutes to discuss where the wild ideas for the space western and crime drama piece A Pelnodan Bounty came from.

Pelnoda is a dry planet home to two races; the trimortals who have three sexes and the guests, a race who crash landed on the planet ages ago. Having been mind-wiped, the guests have no idea where they came from.

The trimortals welcomed and integrated the immigrants into their society. Grig is a guest who lives the quiet life, raising crops on his ranch. But when his old pal Zax comes along, asking a huge favor to find a pregnant trimortal, Grig is forced to confront his former life as a bounty hunter.

A Pelnodan Bounty was actually the result of merging two ideas into one.

Alien Families

The first idea was inspired by some gender studies non-fiction I’ve been studying on top of reading Ray A. Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles. It’s astounding to me that although human beings have recorded our history for millennium, we’re still debating and trying to figure out the dynamic between men and women. We’ve built up many laws and views, philosophies and studies just trying to make sense of our sexual dimorphism and apply some semblance of envisioned legal equality.

As I observed our changing acceptance of what constitutes family and reproductive strategies, I wondered, “How exponentially difficult would relationships be if a race had three sexes, all three of which were necessary for reproduction?”

This is an incredibly thick idea. And I’m loathe to admit that there are tons of unanswered and unexplored aspects. How would a three sexed race view family? How would such a species construct their laws and rights in a democratic manner? What about homosexuality? Inheritance and property rights and respect for privacy? The Martian Chronicles reminded me that sci-fi is a fantastic vehicle for envisioning and writing about these speculative theories. But as a short story, I would never have time to answer them all.

I also wasn’t very wild about my original idea by itself. The concept was simply an alien drama which explored the conflicts through casual conversations between neighbors, as a male and female trimortal searched for a pregnant, missing caretaker (the term for the third gender.) While curious and interesting, I wanted to hit a wider appeal…

A Space Western

Then the idea hit me. No one submitting to Far Worlds wanted to do a space western.

I used to hate westerns when I was a kid. But the older I get, the more they become a weakness of mine. Movies like No Country for Old Men, 3:10 to Yuma and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly had changed my displeasure with the wild west. So had Cormac McCarthy’s* novel, All the Pretty Horses and Rockstar Games’ amazing Red Dead Redemption. And I had visited the American mid-west a few times. The gorgeous landscape is something that must be experienced, not described.

One problem I had was that, without an outside viewpoint, you only ever see trimortal relations through the eyes of other trimortals. They can only ever accept it as “normal.” As I thought about the problem, I came up with a solution. Far Worlds rules said no faster than light transportation. But it said nothing about cryogenic transport. Andrew cleared the idea, so I introduced a second race that was named the guests.

Are the guests technically human? Not even they know. But they gave me the outside perspective I needed. They also permitted me to expand the depth of the world. They were also something the reader can more readily identify and attach themselves too, as we often prefer characters with whom we sympathize and connect with.

Connecting these two ideas into one, I had only to come up with an overall plot. That was the worst of it, as I couldn’t concoct something off the top of my head. So I wrote. Then proofread it. Then wrote and edited it. When I finished, I realize there was a good plot there, it just needed to be shuffled around and organized. This approach took longer than planning it out ahead of time, but it still got me to what I needed.

After that, it was a few touch ups, and the rest was history.

*- McCarthy wrote the novel No Country for Old Men upon which the aforementioned movie was based. I loved the movie but the novel is still on my to-be-read list.

Far Worlds – Promotions Day

Far WorldsFar Worlds is about a month from release. But today is all about the opening of the new Facebook page.

I can say without a doubt, that Far Worlds is our most ambitious anthology yet. Packed with 13 original short stories, additional flash fiction and illustrations, the anthology is one impressive feat of literature in the wide realm of speculative science fiction and epic fantasy, and yet all tying together.

Here’s a listing of what is featured:

“Rainer” by Heidi Ruby Miller.
“Anomaly” by Jonathan Ward.
“Alone” by Alex Helm.
“Shard of Heaven” by Damir Salkovic.
“Endaris” by Michael J. Hollows.
“The Lost and Found” by Kerri Fitzgerald.
“Helzenthrax” by A.R. Aston.
“Bequeathal” by K. Ceres Wright.
“City Blue” by Edward Smith.
“The War Room” by Michael Seese.
“A Pelnodan Bounty” by James Fadeley.
“Golden Planet” by Evan Purcell.
“Salvation Comes” by Simon Farrow.

And there’s more to come. We have a few other goodies and surprises in store. But for now, why not hop on over to Facebook and like the page to stay informed?