Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Monday, August 23, 2010

Conversation Continued

The cool thing about it still being Monday, is that I can post again, and still be legal. Heck, I can probably post again tomorrow and still not step on anyone’s toes. We used to have a Tuesday guy. He was funny, and made great pirate ships. I think he had a rib infection or infarction or something. But, since he (or the janitor pretending to be him) occasionally drops by, I’ll limit my additional blog posts to today.

So anyway, I wrote the equivalent of a novel chapter in my earlier blog. While I was eating pretzels and glorying in the fact that I’d posted regularly for like 1700 weeks—more or less—William Morris dropped by. We started to chat.

“1. I think much of what you say, Jeff, holds true for fiction. I'd be very, very worried if I was non-self-help, non-fiction writer,” William said, munching on a handful of pretzels.

“I agree,” I said, trying to get my pretzels back. “I think non-fiction has always been an easier transition to electronic media. “

“2. Publishers are going to try to wring out as much as they can out of fiction authors when it comes to e-rights,” William replied, holding the bag out of my reach. “That may be fine for many authors. But if publishers (or a publisher -- they're not going to act in unison, or at least signs point to that not happening) get things wrong and depress potential e-book sales (because they are trying to protect their paper business) and take huge cuts of e-book profit, then you as an author are leaving money on the table. There are lots of "ifs" there, of course. At the very least, if you have a back catalog of books with no e-rights attached, talk to somebody before you sign anything your publisher puts in front of you.”

I nodded vigorously, licking the salt off my fingers and wishing William wasn’t such a snack bully. “Yeah. Royalties on e-books are absolutely going to be an issue. The tricky calculation is how much less an e-book costs to produce and how much of that profit should go to the author. In general a hardback costs around $2 to print. There are huge variances based on type of printing, dust jacket, color, foil, illustrations, etc. But let’s use that as an example. So if a hardback lists for $20, and I make 12.5%, that means my royalty is $2.50. If it wholesales for 60%, that means the publisher grosses $12, less my royalty. So call it $9.50 per book. Subtract the $2 production cost and the book brings in $7.50. (Of course this still isn’t taking into account the other costs, editing, art, marketing, PR, etc. But those are the same with an e-book as well. So let’s call them a fixed cost of goods.)

“Now if an e-book sells for $10, and I make the same 12.5%, I only make $1.25. So I need to sell twice as many e-books to make the same royalty. The publisher is probably selling the book for a bigger margin. Let’s say 80%. So they get $8. Take away my $1.25 and they make $6.75 per book. Less than they make on hardbacks, but lots more than they make on paperbacks. I think there is room to increase my margin. But not the fifty percent some people are talking about unless there are significant additional sales.”

“The big publishers so far have bet on the iPad,” William says, getting rid of the numerals to my relief. “All signs point to Amazon dominating the e-book space in the near term. This debate about bookstores and e-book adoption is cast in too large of terms -- the focus really needs to be: who can give you as an author the best profits over the next five years while also being nimble enough to put you in a good position should major changes happen to the market?”

“Not to mention who can sell more books,” I add, sneaking the pretzel bag back and looking for a Dr. Pepper. “If you sell books for less money, you really hope more people are buying books. But I’m not sure that’s true. What if the same number of people buy books, but more of them buy e-books for $10?”

William swishes his drink. Wait where did he find a soda in my house? “The dreck argument doesn't mean much in this debate. In fact, sometimes somebody gets lucky and dreck sells. But the real book-buying public will find good work and the self-publishing stigma is rapidly eroding IF the final product is compelling and of good quality. The democratization of content isn't all that the utopians claim it is, but technology does allow individuals to produce high quality work -- and to be honest some of the best stuff out there is done by individuals with skills. The DIY ethos produces some amazing creative work that looks as professional and is often more fresh and in tune with current trends than the big firms. And these days a viral hit can be a viral hit no matter the provenance (but don't count on that -- work instead on a cultivating an audience).

“The quality of the final product and the marketing and sales and distribution all needs to be right on -- how that happens can vary. Big publishers can screw up any of those stages. So can self-publishers. So can indie presses. The basic advice is still the same: write the best book you can BUT ALSO be informed and in control. If your agent sucks, fire him or her. If you don't like the e-rights contract (or anything else), shop the book around and if there are no takers at your terms and you think you can do it, self-publish. The point is that authors now more than ever need to be small business owners and entrepreneurs.”

“This where we may have to disagree,” I say, settling for a day old opened Fresca. “The stigma of self-publishing is every bit as string today ad it was five years ago. If you don’t believe that try getting your self-pubbed book into a book store’s shelves. Once a self-pubbed book has proven itself, it’s a different story. But the book store doesn’t have the time to pull the hay from the chaff. I don’t believe most readers want to either. In a perfect democratic process, all books would be put in a big electronic pile and readers would pour through each of them raising the cream to the top. But unlike a song, where garage bands can pull this off, a novel is a huge commitment of time. Generally you’re not willing to read 100 bad self-pubbed books to find the good one. And if you aren’t who will? That’s the role that agents and editors currently play. Not perfectly, but they wade through tons of bad books to find a few good ones. I believe that you could write an amazing book, self-publish it as an e-book, have a blog, tweet, facebook, and all that good stuff, and still sell 20 copies, because it’s just too easy to get lost if you don’t already have an audience. I think most authors who self-publish e-books without a base of readers are going to be extremely disappointed.”

William asks if we can get rid of the whole phony discussion thing for the sake of getting on with it. I agree, but decide to leave the colors so you can tell who's commenting.

5. Mid-list authors are being dropped left and right (or at least having advances curtailed). If you are going to stake your hopes on a big publisher (or are already in bed with one), make sure you have an agent that is up-to-date on industry issues, dogged as all get out, and a firm believer in you as both an author and a generator of book sales.

Midlist is fine in the LDS market. In fact one might argue the LDS argue is best at making midlist authors. But that’s always been a dangerous position to be in the national market. And with the current economy it is even more so. If you are not growing in readership, there’s a good chance you will get left behind.

6. You don't have to blog or use Twitter. But you have to figure out where your audience is and how to connect with it. There are all sorts of pockets of people out there using all sorts of technologies (from Google Groups to web forums to microblogging to blogs, etc.) that have grouped themselves for various reasons. Figure out how to reach them and then actively and appropriately engage them.

True. But I will say this. Most authors are currently using these tools not to build a readership but to maintain what their books have given them. Without a base of readers in the first place, a Twitter account will not do much for you.

7. There's no doubt that publishers do a lot of things. But they also do a lot less than they used to in terms of quality control and marketing. Much more is put on the agent and the author. Make sure that you are getting real value out of your publisher for the percentages you're getting.

The economy has caused layoffs in all aspects of the publishing world. But as my friend Brandon Mull said, a big publisher can do nothing for you and a small publisher can do nothing for you. But if the big publisher gets behind you, they can do a lot more. Yes Paolini started as a self-published author, but look how quickly he jumped on the big publisher gravy train as soon as it came along.

8. Don't go the self-publishing or indie press route because you think it's going to be easier or that you are going to make more money (70% on e-books from Amazon!). Do it because you want that level of control, you have the skills (or can acquire them), and you want to write stuff that for whatever reason isn't a good fit for the major publishing houses.

Right. I see way too many people convinced that throwing an e-book onto Amazon, or wherever is going to build them a nice retirement income. I think they will be surprised as how most books sit there selling next to nothing, no matter how good they are. Self-publishing is not for the faint of heart.

9. If you are a current working author and writing your only means of support, sock away as much as you can. There's a real potential for there to be a narrowing of income streams before they widen up again (if they widen up again). Also strongly consider opening up another market (age, genre, whatever --possibly with a pseudonym) with your writing (although be aware that every Mormon and his/her cousin is writing YA these days).

Yep. It’s a crazy space right now. And even a fairly successful author can find themselves out of work like that.

The beautiful thing is that all of these changes mean that authors have more flexibility than ever before. And the road to success (no matter which one you take) is still the same: write well, find an audience, actively manage your career and your brand.


There's been a wave of Utah writers getting picked up by national publishers (it's in part the network effect) -- the question is: when will it crest? Hopefully not for awhile.

Knowing most of these authors, it’s a lot less of the network effect than you might think. My suspicion is that more of it is the concept of seeing your friend doing it and having that give you the confidence to believe you can do. I can take you to my agents front door (figuratively speaking.) But if your book doesn’t knock him out, it won’t help a bit.

That's interesting to hear about your LDS royalties. I think that the LDS market has room for some decent growth -- or at least to have a smoother transition.

a) because American Mormons tend to adopt technologies [I see a lot of smartphones and even some iPads and e-readers at church] I think the e-book market will be strong for LDS titles.

(Plus the fact that you can read a novel during Priesthood.)

b) hopefully the Harry Potter generation (and their parents) will continue to be readers and bring in their younger siblings (and even kids -- I mean some of them are close to becoming parents now); there's some serious momentum in the fantasy realm thanks to LDS success in the national market and Shadow Mountain's titles. Such trends tend to slow down, but I would guess (just a guess) that it'll have more legs in the Mormon market because of our overrepresentation as authors and aspiring authors and because fantasy is uniquely suited to modern Mormon mores (for example, I don't see a trend in gritty urban YA gaining quite so much traction among young LDS readers).

(You might be surprised. Twilight is huge among the LDS crowd.)

c) from what I can tell there are a still large numbers of LDS who ignore fiction coming out in the Mormon market (whether LDS-themed or not) because they only know the market from 15 years ago when the quality and diversity wasn't what it is now. There's potential for some of those folks to be drawn in.

Yeah, but that has proven a hard barrier to break. In my opinion a big part of that is the sheer number of titles being published. Quantity and variety has risen faster than quality has, although generally quality is up.

d) Deseret Book is a diversified bookseller (within its niche). Yes, some stores may have to be shut down, but I think consumers will see a need for a DB store for quite a bit longer than, say, a local Borders or Barnes & Noble.


William leaves and some street person wanders in.

This is a great book. I've been reading about the Dance Teacher and it's a wonderful story about how to get things accomplished through dance. That's for the reference.

Wait who are you. Get out of here and give me my pretzels back.

Michael holds up his new Kindle. “Great points all. I was one of those who said I'll never do without hard books until I actually held a friend's Kindle in my hands and I was converted in about 15 seconds. It might not happen so fast, but book media will certainly be diversifying in a major way over the next 12-24 months.”

Deb baps him on the head with her knuckles.

“Kindles are all well and good, but the baby boomers of this country are quickly becoming seniors, and our eyesight isn't quite like it was when we were "kids". I'm not saying I'm old, but reading something as small as a Kindle can be eye-straining. iPads may be bigger, but, they’re not that much different than a laptop.

I buy books.

Hard covers and paperbacks. I will, on occasion, read stories on my computer, but anything smaller than a full screen is more difficult to see without reader glasses. My sons are in their early twenties, and the last time either of them bought something to read, it was a hardcover book, and they both have Apple laptop computers and iPods. Granted, this is a very small control group. But the boomers are a huge consumer category, and their opinions shouldn't be shelved.

So, who are the people buying Kindles, exactly? There must be demographic studies done. And if the publishers are smart, they will use this information and target specific books to these ages. As I see it, the influx of e-readers, and therefore the selling of e-books are just an addition to publishing, buttressing the world of reading, and will, in no way, replace paper publishing, or the necessity of literary agents to screen the mediocre writers from the good.”

As Michael and Deb duke it out, Marion wanders in wearing a “Rob Wells for President” tee-shirt.

Debra, you can adjust the font size on a kindle. Crank that font all the way up to 60! Don't think you can do that on a paperback. :)

Marion whips out seventeen gizmos and adjust them all with a single remote.

Jeff, sounds like you, and I need to have a public debate at the next Storymakers. An oratorical fisticuffs! :)

That would be a riot. As long as you didn’t have funny sayings showing up on the screen behind me . . . wait a minute. I sense a trap.

Truth be told, I think much of what you say holds merit. But I also think the industry will be affected in a deeper way than you're describing above. No, bookstores aren't going away. No, publishers, editors, agents aren’t going to disappear. But make no bones about it, their industry is going through significant changes, and those that adapt to those changes will emerge as the new leaders in the market.

True. But I still think it comes down to who has the best story and the most marketing.

Think Amazon vs. Barnes & Noble. Which one has a for sale sign up in their front yard? If the publishers don't make changes, and make them fast, they'll find themselves irrelevant.

Okay. I was with you on the first part, although I think B&N’s troubles are more related to a tight economy than e-books. When money is tight you go shopping less and look harder for the lowest price. But I still think the publishers being irrelevant thing is way off track. E-books are another form of the same product. The fact that it’s on a screen instead of paper doesn’t change all the things a publisher can provide.

We’re also looking at the golden age for authors. Yes, Kindle will give everybody and their uncle a chance to sell their book. But the internet gave everybody and their uncle a chance to create a webpage, and the end result was that a lot of really cool stuff was created. Social media gives us the perfect tools to help push the cream to the top, and it can be enjoyed by all for a much cheaper price, and at a much greater convenience.

Ahh, but along with all the really cool websites, came a ton of not so cool stuff. For every web site that is new and exciting and interesting, there are thousands that are boring and unread by anyone other than a few friends and family. Nothing against those, everyone should have a chance to write what they want. But look how lost a single web-site can be right now and then turn that into books. Will some of the self-published e-book authors become rock stars? Yes. But the chances will be about as good as your personal website getting a million viewers. And despite all the mom and pop sites out there, the big guys still get the most views.

Electronic publishing gives you a chance to put your writing out there without anything standing in your way. But what most people fail to realize is that distribution and demand are not the same thing. You can make your novel available to anyone with a computer or e-reader and 99 cents to spend. But what you can’t do is create the buzz that a big publisher can. You can’t create the credibility. You can’t get the big reviewers. You can’t get the media attention. You envision a perfect world where everyone reads every book and the best rise to the top. But the truth is that most self-published e-books won’t get the views necessary to rise at all, because they will be buried by the avalanche of other self-published books. There will be exceptions, but they will be just that. It’s tough to get a snowball rolling without having any snow in the first place.

Great post, thanks for your thoughts.

You too!


At 8/24/2010 1:37 AM, Blogger Matthew Buckley said...

More great thoughts, Jeff. One further thought from me, if I may.

"And despite all the mom and pop sites out there, the big guys still get the most views."

If there is one thing the internet has done it's spread the wealth from the big guys to the medium guys. 50 years ago we had a handful of television stations. If you had a good idea for a TV program, you only had a few people you could pitch your idea to. Along comes cable and suddenly there are a lot more places you can pitch your show. And now that we have YouTube, we have yet another medium to share ideas. Yes, many of those ideas are not-so-good, but the good news is I don't have to watch them all. The good stuff rises to the top.

Publishing is TV a few years ago. You've got the big six. If you want the big paycheck, you have to get a big publisher. If you want a big publisher, you have to get a big agent. If the publisher puts big marketing bucks behind you, you'll probably sell pretty well, even if your book isn't that good.

E-books are kind of like cable. Authors now have more ways to reach fans. Yes, there is/will be a lot of not-so-good stuff produced and sold, but just like the boring videos on YouTube, you and I don't have to read them all. Just like the viral videos and interesting websites, the good stuff will bubble to the top.

And they won't be the big names from the big agents and the big publishers. "Little" authors are going to come out of nowhere and knock our socks off. Many of these authors will land big contracts, but some will make decent money just selling e-books online.

Who knows, maybe Kindle and e-books are just a passing fad. I'll be sad if that is the case. I think we're in for some interesting times.

At 8/24/2010 10:28 AM, Blogger kbrebes said...

Wonderful post!

At 8/24/2010 11:18 AM, Anonymous Wm Morris said...

Wait a sec. Twilight counts as gritty YA? I'm well aware of the phenomenon among Mormon readers, and I've even read the first book in the series, but it never occurred to me to tie it in to gritty YA. Plus it's still fantasy.


To expand on my nonfiction thing...

a) it's going to be much harder to get the type of advances you used to be able to get to research a nonfiction book
b) i suspect that sales of nonfiction (especially topical) books are going to go way down because with the internet consumers have already seen such topics completely beaten to death
c) however, the internet could be a boon to nonfiction authors who use their work and online presence to leverage consulting and speaking gigs


On e-book sales and pricing: I don't think there are any easy answers here (although speaking as a consumer, it seems to me that e-books should be priced the same as paperbacks -- or that at the very least publishers should be willing to experiment with dynamic pricing), but it sure seems as if the big publishers are worried more about protecting their current business models -- which is obviously what they are going to do. Creative destruction is very hard to pull off with an existing company even when it's clear that disruptive technologies have arrived (or are soon to arrive).

It's not at all clear, though, that that is what's best for the author because most publishers right now are holding back when it comes to e-book sales: either not making product available, or not making it available on enough platforms, or not making quality e-book files, or not being aggressive (or at least willing to experiment) with the pricing.

At 8/24/2010 11:19 AM, Anonymous Wm Morris said...

Regarding the pile of dreck, Jeff writes:

"If you don’t believe that try getting your self-pubbed book into a book store’s shelves. Once a self-pubbed book has proven itself, it’s a different story."


"I think most authors who self-publish e-books without a base of readers are going to be extremely disappointed."

It all depends on their expectations, skills, timing, luck, marketing, etc. etc. Just like it does with a publisher. Publishers put out duds all the time. As I mention before there's a risk/reward ratio to be considered.

"I don’t believe most readers want to either."

I don't know about that. The big huge slush pile trope is used quite often in these discussions, but I think it's overstated as an issue. The beauty of the internet is that it's not one person facing the slush pile -- it's many people, a lot of them connected by shared interests. And technology makes it easy to screen a huge chunk of the most obvious dreck out. Most readers want a good story and they want someone they trust to to tell them it's a good story -- that someone doesn't have to be a traditional publisher.

Of course, there will most likely continue to be an audience that wants the imprimatur of the agent or the editor. And depending on the market, most authors should try to obtain that imprimatur.

The other thing to mention is that some agents are considering cutting out the publisher (especially since they are often doing more of the editing and screening than editors are these days) entirely. I don't know if that's a viable solution (in some cases, it's obviously a negotiating ploy to get better e-book terms from publishers), but since nobody really knows how things are going to shape up long term, it's all worth considering if you are an author or aspiring author.

"Without a base of readers in the first place, a Twitter account will not do much for you."

You gotta start somewhere. If you wait to use the tools until you get a publishing contract, you aren't going to have even a small built-in audience, you won't be up to speed on how to use the tools. It's never too early to start building your online presence and brand as an author. But again: it's not about the tool -- it's about the engaging potential audiences where they are most active. This again points back to the notion that authors need to actively manage their careers.

At 8/24/2010 11:28 AM, Anonymous Wm Morris said...

I don't think we're looking at a golden age for authors, even though I think there will be opportunities for some authors to bypass the traditional publishing system and make a decent living and I also think that there's going to be more room for smaller presses to have stronger sales and bottom lines than in the past.

I do think, though, that we're looking at a golden age for readers.

At 8/24/2010 11:31 AM, Blogger Jon Spell said...

I bought a Kindle for my mother for her 60th birthday. I think she'll love it and she has been a voracious book reader her whole life (I inherited the gene from her)

Of course, I want one for myself, too. Free wikipedia for life, sign me up! Still, there's something to be said for holding a solid book in your hands, putting it up on a bookshelf, loaning it out to friends...

Amazon is very convenient for getting books, but I doubt all the bookstores will go away. (Certainly not Powell's in Portland!)

At 8/24/2010 1:15 PM, Anonymous Wm Morris said...

"Knowing most of these authors, it’s a lot less of the network effect than you might think. My suspicion is that more of it is the concept of seeing your friend doing it and having that give you the confidence to believe you can do."

Rob can correct me if I'm wrong because he's the one with the MBA, but by network effect, I don't mean that all of these writers are convincing their agents to pick up their friends work. Rather that their successes (as you note) are driving friends and acquaintances to try which leads to more work, and, often better work because of the presence of the published authors who model or actively help the other folks in the network with both the craft of writing and understanding the market. That's called a positive feedback loop. That positive feedback loop then not only generates more, better work (which is thus more likely to find success in the market), but it also gets noticed by the big agents and publishers that there's some energy or buzz to a scene (the same thing happens in popular music) and so there's added credibility to the work.

I would bet that 20 years ago, a return address of Utah would be a liability in some publishing circles. Now, especially in YA and speculative fiction, there's that little extra glow. Now that's not going to help if the work isn't up to snuff. But I think it's fair to say that Utah writers are very much on the radar in a way that they weren't in the past.

And it should be said that this isn't just Shannon Hale and Brandon Sanderson doing the heavy lifting -- there's a whole slew of successes going back to the '80s that led to the current environment.

At 8/24/2010 1:20 PM, Blogger Jeff Savage said...

With that clarification of networking, William, you are 100% right in my opinion. Many people think that these deals are getting done because somebody knew somebody. But many of them are still slush pile, and even when they have a contact with an agent, knowing somebody doesn't do much of anything.

But as you are saying, UT is starting to mean something in the YA world.

At 8/25/2010 12:49 PM, Blogger Tanya Parker Mills said...

Loved this post and all the thoughts contained. Do you really get that many visitors dropping by in a day? :/

Seriously, I'd love to get in on some of that pretzel sharing action (and I'm not talking so much about the food, but the food for thought) some time. I'm coming down to Utah in mid-September and in preparation for a presentation I'll be doing for a writing retreat in October, I'd really appreciate being able to pick your brains on developing trends in publishing. Any chance you'd be available?

At 8/25/2010 1:43 PM, Blogger J Scott Savage said...

I'm always up for lunch!!

At 8/25/2010 2:06 PM, Blogger J Scott Savage said...

I do believe that self-published e-book authors will find big followings. But I believe it will be the huge exception. If your goal is to have more control, more speed to publication, and a higher margin, I say go for it. But if you are thinking of e-books as a shortcut to huge sales, I don't buy it.

The thing with Youtube is that these are generally 2-5 minute clips. Your friend sends it to you and you can check it out without much investment. A novel is much more time consuming. Even with cheap cameras, and free distribution, how many full length movies made by amateurs have you watched in the last five years? Any? For that matter, how many self-published books have you read in the last twelve months. 1? 2? None? And of those, how many to your friends read because of you?

The internet is the perfect medium for building an avalanche out of a snowball. But getting the snowball big enough to create its own momentum is incredibly difficult. Trust me, I’m speaking as one the first LDS authors I know of to do a blog tour—before most people even knew what one was. I got 200 people to review Farworld Water Keep. But without the publisher pushing it, the momentum didn’t continue. I’ve done newspaper stories, national reviews, contests, forums, games, you name it. I even left work for a year to promote my book. It is incredibly difficult to create enough buzz, to make any significant difference without a big publisher behind you. And even with one there are no guarantees.


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