Monthly Archives: November 2017

Publishing in 2017

publishing2017 might turn out to be the year in which declining book sales finally start to take a real toll on major publishing houses. Niche and independent writers like me have been talking about these trends for years, but for the longest time it seemed like big publishers who could position books were essentially immune. The democratization of publishing has meant that anybody can publish their work, but what that means in practice is that there are now millions and millions of books out there that hardly anybody will ever hear of, with all of them in competition with each other.

Marketing is an entirely separate skill from writing, and beyond that, the only organizations willing to put significant resources towards it are the big publishing houses – so their status as de facto gatekeepers has not really changed that much. But as this Slate article points out, 2017 was a little different. Even for the big publishers, it was a pretty bad year for book sales. At the end of 2016 sales were flat, and Carolyn Kellogg of the LA Times opined that the publishing industry really needed a 2017 blockbuster. But it did not get one.

Only a handful of overtly political books broke through this tranquil surface in 2017. First and foremost—among political books, but also among pretty much all books—was Hillary Clinton’s memoir, What Happened, which sold 167,000 copies its first week according to BookScan and kept on trucking through the fall. This Fight Is Our Fight by Elizabeth Warren and Understanding Trump by Newt Gingrich made brief appearances on BookScan’s top 10. Rediscovering Americanism and the Tyranny of Progressivism by radio personality Mark R. Levin had a bit more staying power. But the sales of every non-Clinton political book were easily dwarfed by those of the latest John Grisham or, for that matter, Neil deGrasse Tyson, whose Astrophysics for People in a Hurry is one of those titles that never hits the No. 1 spot but ends up selling far more copies over time than the hot screed of the moment. A couple of perennial best-selling authors, however, performed considerably below their previous numbers this year. Dan Brown sold 144,759 copies of Origin in its first week out. That’s a staggering amount, but less than half of the first-week sales of his previous blockbuster, 2013’s Inferno, and Inferno’s first week was less than half as impressive as that of Brown’s 2009 novel, The Lost Symbol.

Brown isn’t the only franchise whose brand appears to be cooling. Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard have been raking it in for several years with their Killing series of page-turning popular histories. These books aren’t overtly polemical—unlike O’Reilly’s other titles, authored on his own—and the most popular volume in the series, Killing Patton, sold 163,208 copies during its first week of publication in 2014. Last year’s Killing the Rising Sun also did well—144,657 copies sold—in its first week. But the most recent installment, Killing England, moved only 64,723 copies during its first week in September. This is almost certainly due to O’Reilly’s ouster from Fox News earlier this year, and with it his inability to hawk the new book on TV every weeknight. With O’Reilly out of commission, Brian Kilmeade of Fox & Friends is clearly hoping to don the mantle of Fox News personality lending his brand to ghostwritten potboilers that burnish all the annoying moral nuance out of American history. His Andrew Jackson and the Miracle of New Orleans: The Battle That Shaped America’s Destiny has loitered around the midsection of the list for the past few weeks.

Leveraging a massive publicity platform is one of the few proven methods of selling a lot of books, but the media has become so balkanized that many best-selling authors are “celebrities” invisible to most of the nation: YouTube stars, radio hosts, reality TV contestants. The Canadian poet Rupi Kaur has enjoyed a degree of popularity few poets would dare to hope for. Her work, by turns mawkishly sentimental and quotably confessional, makes her the Rod McKuen of her generation. Kaur’s success—her new book, The Sun and Her Flowers, sold more than 75,000 copies in its debut week last month and has racked up a total of 252,602 sales in the month or so since—isn’t entirely due to her ability to produce lines like “i do not want to have you/ to fill the empty parts of me/ i want to be full on my own.” She has 1.8 million followers on Instagram, where her fame was initially spurred when a self-portrait in pajamas stained with period blood was banned by the platform. In a paradox worthy of our late, decadent stage of internet culture, Kaur’s career is dependent on Instagram both because it puts her on millions of teenagers’ cellphones and because she is seen as having defied it.

It’s not so much that those numbers are that small, but compare them to some numbers from the past. Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code sold 81 million copies as recently as 2003. Nothing like that ever seems to happen these days, and that only happened fourteen years ago. Not hundreds of thousands, millions. A while back I published an article in Denver Witch Quarterly addressing the entirely wrongheaded idea that you can freely publish occult books because occult writers like me are swimming in money. The reality is that occult books make next to nothing in terms of real money, so every single sale counts.

Now that might be starting to happen for mainstream authors as well. Maybe that means we’ll see some changes in the industry at this point, but unfortunately I have no idea what would work. Business is not my strong suit and it never has been. Probably it will be something that takes us all totally by surprise. The next big hit might be just around the corner, ready to revitalize the industry, and 2017 might just be a fluke or an outlier. At least, for now we all can hope that something will emerge to turn things around.

Check It Out! I’m Rich!

arcana_screenshotWell no, not really. But this listing on Amazon was too good not to share. You can click on the image to enlarge.

Now to be clear, that’s a real listing, not something I whipped up with my mad MS Paint skills. You can check it out right here. Somebody has a used copy of my novel Arcana on sale for $713.52. Besides being an oddly specific number, that’s way more than it costs anywhere else. If one copy is worth $713.52, and I’ve got twenty of them in a box right here plus a few more on my bookshelf, that’s like fifteen thousand bucks. I’m sitting on a small fortune, right?

Amazon will even give you five dollars off your order. What a deal!

In fact, this listing highlights one of the more dubious practices I see on Amazon whenever a new book comes out. Somebody will put up a listing for a used copy – you know, before any copies have been sold and when I know that for sure – for some ridiculous price. Then, the listing just sits there for years. My working hypothesis is that it takes very little effort to list a book, and there are a few collectors out there dumb enough to pay those silly prices on the assumption that the book must be worth something if it’s priced so high and they’ve never heard of it. Then, on the off chance the vendor does make a sale, they buy the book at the regular price, ship it to the buyer, and pocket the difference.

It’s sure nice work if you can get it.

Is Trump Card Non-Fiction?

At one point, a friend of mine commented that with the way things were going, I should be marketing Trump Card as non-fiction. I conceded that perhaps what was really needed was some version of the opening to the film The Men Who Stare At Goats – “More of this is true than you would believe.” But as this article from Slate points out, because of an oddity in how books are classified, a parody Donald Trump memoir by Alec Baldwin and Kurt Andersen is listed under non-fiction. Even though it’s a parody, and obviously not a real memoir by Donald Trump.

This is not to say that Times readers are likely to be confused by the memoir (though who really knows anymore). The book doesn’t conceal the fact that it is a parody, but there are fictional moments within it that could almost be true, knowing Trump. The book is even written to read like him, with ridiculous lines like “Mitt looks like he could be a winner, but he just doesn’t smell like one” actually being painfully plausible.

Andersen, who sees his book as a work of fiction, said he finds the whole situation “hilariously and delightfully meta.” (Anderson’s radio show, Studio 360, is part of the Slate podcast fold.) When asked why the book was on the Nonfiction list, staff members at the Times said that the book fell under parody or humor (though Jason Zinoman, who reviewed it for Slate, might disagree) and that humor falls under nonfiction. Other parodies to have been categorized as nonfiction include The Onion Book Of Known Knowledge, Earth (The Book), America Again, and I Am America (And So Can You!), though “determinations are made on a case by case basis.”

This is relevant for Trump Card because when I was self-publishing it I had to pick a single category, and settled on Humor/Topical/Political. Even though the book is also a parody of the Young Adult Dystopia genre, the book constructed around a satirical look at Donald Trump and his administration. So it’s humor. Does that make it non-fiction? Some of the material in the book about “David Godfrey” and his “Golden Dawn” group supporting Trump turned out to be weirdly accurate if you substitute some names in there from the real occult community. But otherwise? Of course it’s fiction, regardless of how the classifications fall.

Do Readers Dismiss Science Fiction?

science_fiction_quote_bradburyThe Guardian has an article up today discussing the results of a study that to my way of thinking plays right into the “literary versus genre” fiction debate. As I’ve mentioned a couple of time, I had an English teacher in high school who insisted that science fiction was automatically not literature, which to my way of thinking conveyed a lot of ignorance about the genre. Sure, there’s pulpy science fiction that isn’t written well enough to give it much value beyond passing entertainment, but there are also examples of the form that are written at least as well as most literary novels.

According to the study, readers were given 1000 word short stories to read. The stories were identical in terms of writing quality and content, except that a “literary” version was set in an ordinary cafe, and a “science fiction” version was set on board a space station at some point in the far future. The study found that readers tended to dismiss the science fiction version and not read it as carefully as they did the literary version.

Their study, detailed in the paper The Genre Effect, saw the academics work with around 150 participants who were given a text of 1,000 words to read. In each version of the text, a character enters a public eating area and interacts with the people there, after his negative opinion of the community has been made public. In the “literary” version of the text, the character enters a diner after his letter to the editor has been published in the town newspaper. In the science fiction version, he enters a galley in a space station inhabited by aliens and androids as well as humans.

After they read the text, participants were asked how much they agreed with statements such as “I felt like I could put myself in the shoes of the character in the story”, and how much effort they spent trying to work out what characters were feeling. Gavaler and Johnson write that the texts are identical apart from “setting-creating” words such as “door” and “airlock”: they say this should have meant that readers were equally good at inferring the feelings of characters, an ability known as theory of mind.

This was not the case. “Converting the text’s world to science fiction dramatically reduced perceptions of literary quality, despite the fact participants were reading the same story in terms of plot and character relationships,” they write. “In comparison to narrative realism readers, science fiction readers reported lower transportation, experience taking, and empathy. Science fiction readers also reported exerting greater effort to understand the world of the story, but less effort to understand the minds of the characters. Science fiction readers scored lower in comprehension, generally, and in the subcategories of theory of mind, world, and plot.”

As the article goes on to explain, the study has a number of problems. The authors made no effort to sort their subjects according to what they actually liked to read, which is an enormous hole. It seems to me that the most obvious observation in the world from this is that once you identify a piece of writing as a genre you don’t really like, you tend to just skim over it. I like fantasy and science fiction and don’t read romance, for example, and I can certainly see if somebody handed me a “romance” piece and a “science fiction” piece, I would probably test a lot better on the science fiction one than the romance. I’m automatically not going to read something as closely once I identify that it’s in a genre I don’t particularly like.

This would require a new study that would group the participants into science fiction readers and non-science fiction readers, and compare their scores. I suspect that among the science fiction readers, the scores would be similar for the two pieces, and among the non-science fiction readers the scores would diverge dramatically. Since science fiction is not the most popular genre out there, my guess is that these two sets got averaged together to produce the final result. I would also predict that if a follow-up was done on genre preferences, it would find that there are far fewer science fiction readers in the sample than non-science fiction readers, just due to random selection.

So I think the answer to my question up there would be that yes, readers dismiss science fiction if they don’t like science fiction. But seriously, did we really need a study to work that out? My guess is that it holds across the board, with readers engaging with genre fiction that they like and dismissing the rest. And as for literary fiction, the primary characteristic of that version seems to be that there was nothing in the story that allowed a reader to classify it into a genre. There was no real difference in writing quality or content, just the setting. So to frame it as the headline does – suggesting that there is something in particular about science fiction that makes people “poorer readers” is just plain wrong.

So one takeaway – if you can write a piece that people can’t easily classify into a genre, you maybe have a larger potential audience. But it’s also challenging to get there, because people tend to look for writing in the genres they like, not pieces of writing that might or might not fall into their preferred categories. “Literary” readers tend to go for stuff in the “dysfunctional family” genre – which is totally a genre with a whole detailed set of tropes – and pieces that appear to be about “real life,” which basically just strike me as drop-dead boring. Maybe that means I would score better on the science fiction piece in the study – after all, at least in that version something is going on that has the potential of holding my attention.

Shouting Trump Card

TrumpCard_Front_250wOne of the things I really did not understand about writing when I finally managed to get a book published back in 2009 is that writing the book is the easy part. Marketing the book is the real challenge. I recently read an interview with an author who was asked for tips on marketing books, and not one of their responses was even marginally useful. The recommendations were all basically “make the story as good as you can,” which doesn’t help you at all if you can’t get your book in front of people in the first place.

Don’t get me wrong, whenever you write you do want to make the story as good as you possibly can. But aren’t we already working on this? Maybe the author interviewed was talking about a strategy that I’ve seen some ebook authors use of cranking out as many books as possible without much editing or revision on the grounds that it gives them that many more chances for readers to happen upon their work. I will grant, that strategy can produce some really bad writing, and when people do come upon it they are less likely to be captivated by it – even if the bad stuff does get popular sometimes.

But still, all of that is on the writing side. I’m convinced there has to be some sort of trick to cracking book marketing – some people seem to be good at it and others not so much. Part of it seems to be surprisingly old-school, as I wrote about awhile back – you need to get your book mentioned on the largest media platform possible for it to get traction. That’s old-school in that it’s less of a change to the market than a lot of people think. Twenty or thirty years ago publishers were the gatekeepers, and now it seems that media companies serve the same role.

Over the next couple of months I’m going to be experimenting with some of the book marketing services out there, and I’ll let you know what my results are. The first one I’m trying out is free promotion from Shout My Book. They have paid plans that are not that expensive, and if the free promotion gets results I’ll go ahead a likely do one of those as well. I just submitted Trump Card for promotion, and it should go out sometime in the next week.

Instead of linking directly to Amazon or any other retailer, I’ve retooled the links here and over on Augoeides to point to my book landing pages so I can analyze the traffic more easily. One of my first takeaways is that I get basically zero click-throughs on my fiction from my magick blog, even though it racks up something like twenty thousands hits a month. I do get some click-throughs on my non-fiction magick books, but it seems that Augoeides is totally the wrong market for fiction. That’s one of the reasons I’m trying to do more blogging about writing over here.

But I don’t really know if that’s the answer, either. This author site gets nowhere near the traffic that Augoeides does, and it has to become more popular before I get a good sense of all that. That’s another reason I used the landing page link for my Shout My Book submission rather than Amazon. Hopefully some of the folks who click on Trump Card – which, by the way, is just terrific, will find themselves on this site and like more of what they see.

So the whole point is to find out. If I keep getting a good sense of the traffic from my various promotional efforts, I can focus on keeping what works and not wasting my time on stuff that doesn’t. Not only that, I hope that by sharing those results I can help other authors understand the game of marketing better as I learn about it myself.

Second-Guessing Doesn’t Help

martin_and_kingFor those of my writer friends currently doing NaNoWriMo, here’s a piece of advice from Stephen King himself. King is famous for writing books very quickly. For years and years he kept up a pace of writing 2,000 words per day, every day, no matter what. Basically, he did NaNoWriMo full-time, as his job, for all those years. So one could perhaps argue that King is the greatest NaNoWriMo-er of all time – and he certainly has a lot more experience with it at this point than any writer I know of.

His advice comes in the context of a conversation with Game of Thrones author George R. R. Martin, whose writing speed has become a bit of joke in the fan community over the years. Martin’s books are long, intricate, and well-written – but he produces them quite slowly. So when Martin got a chance to sit down with Stephen King, he asked how King managed to write books so quickly. King’s advice is pretty simple.

This entire nearly hour-long conversation between writing luminaries George R. R. Martin and Stephen King is well worth listening to in its entirety, but before that: skip to around 50:08 and hear Martin ask the one question he’s always wanted to put to King. It’s worth it.

The interview comes from a recent event in Albuquerque, New Mexico that’s been recently made available online, and Martin’s demand to know how King writes “so many books, so fast” isn’t just cute—especially considering Martin’s own infamous writing pace when it comes to A Song of Ice and Fire—but a really interesting insight into how the two writers approach their work ethic. King just writes and writes and writes, regardless of if it’ll end up being cut or not. Martin, on the other hand, prefers to take his time.

Bottom line? When you’re writing, don’t second-guess yourself. Just write, and worry about the editing later. In On Writing, King explains that he expects to edit out about ten percent of everything he writes and rework some of the rest. But that’s okay. Getting all the words on the page is important, even if not all of it winds up in the finished piece. If you try to basically edit as you go, like Martin does, your books will take a lot longer to finish. So just go for it, and trust that your writing can always be cleaned up when you go back to edit it.

After years of being an “edit-as-you-go” type, I think I finally am to the point where I can relax enough to edit later – and it’s kind of a liberating experience, to tell you the truth. I have thrown out some large sections, too – the original Pathless Void was going to be a longer piece, but I decided I didn’t like the direction I went in at about the 40,000 word mark. So I published the good part as a novella, and figure I’ll get back to doing a second section that is more to my liking later on.

So that’s my advice, which is the same as King’s – just go for it. A lot of the time when you edit later, you wind up realizing that some of the stuff you had doubts about really does work after all in context. And if it doesn’t, you can always fix in post so to speak.