Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Times They Are A Changin'

CHANGE. It's the new buzzword in the 2008 presidential campaigns. All the candidates running in the primaries are telling voters that if they are elected, things will be different—meaning better.

But while the idea of change tends to be popular, actual changes are often resisted, mocked, and opposed by people who say the new ways are unwise, unfair, and irresponsible. The history of mankind is rife with examples of ideas, inventions and social policies that were originally considered foolhardy but are now mainstream. The automobile, airplane, telephone, and women's right to vote are a few examples.

I predict that trajectory for publishing. Soon digital printing, e-books and publishing formats we haven't heard of yet will be the order of the day. It's a long uphill road, but a lot has happened in the last few years and movement is accelerating.

For example, back in 2003 The Rocky Mountain Writer, the newsletter of the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers reported on a roundtable discussion where local editors and agents commented on publishing trends. They asked the panelists, "Is there a future for e-publishing and/or POD?" The unanimous answer was an emphatic "No!" In fact, one panelist suggested that, if an author’s contract with a publisher mentions POD, “run like your hair’s on fire!”

Fast forward to January 2008 and an Associated Press article entitled "Got a Manuscript? Publishing Now a Snap." How things have changed! The article, which has been widely reprinted, points out that because of new technologies today's writers—unlike those in past generations—all have the opportunity to have their work published, read, and listed for sale on online bookstores right along with traditionally published books.

Today more than three-quarters of the approximately 200,000 books published in this country each year are self-published or published by a small press. And eBooks are taking off. Amazon already has over 99,000 books available for sale to readers who use their Kindle, which only came out in December.

In the music industry artists are choosing to bypass major labels and offer albums directly to the public and/or make their work available for digital download. Record companies are no longer required. Not only are new artists putting their works out through self-produced digital recordings, megastars are joining in this trend. Last fall Radiohead offered its new album, In Rainbows, for direct download from its website for whatever price fans decided the album was worth.

Amateur filmmakers can upload their creations to YouTube, which currently has over 72 million videos available for viewing. Now frequent uploaders who have a loyal following can even apply to become YouTube partners who earn money by having ads spliced into their videos.

The old guard predictors were wrong about future trends in publishing and they continue to wear those blinders. But the days of a few major publishers, record labels or movie studios controlling what gets out to the public are over. We have entered a new populist era where consumers can access a wide variety of artistic works and decide for themselves what is worth their time and money.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Who Will Review Our Self-Published Fiction?

If you write a novel, you have to get it reviewed. A nonfiction book can succeed without reviews if it fills a niche and is written by someone with special expertise. But a novel—even if it's a great story, well-written, edited and professionally designed—won't get far without reviews. Few people will know about it—or believe it's any good—if you don't get it reviewed. So do you just send your book off to the New York Times (like one of my friends suggested I do) and wait for the review to show up? Or do you face reality and look for other possibilities?

More and more newspapers are eliminating their book review sections, and those that remain get hundreds of review requests every week, so unless you're a celebrity, your chances of getting a newspaper review aren't great. And then there are the big pre-publication reviewers—Kirkus Reviews, Library Journal, Publishers Weekly, and ForeWard Magazine—who require a specially prepared review copy four months in advance of the book's publication date. So if your book is already published, they are out.

And what if your book is self-published? That limits your review opportunities even more. Many newspapers and magazines have a policy of not reviewing self-published books.

In recent years, online book review sites have jumped in to fill the demand. After my novel, Too Near The Edge, was published in October 2006, I sent email queries to 15 online review sites requesting that they review my book. Of those, ten replied with requests for me to send a review copy, which I did. I got five reviews, the first within a few weeks from when I sent the review copy. I did not pay anything for any of these reviews and none of them took more than a month to complete. I did pay one site $22 to post the review their reviewer had written on Amazon and several other online sites. As far as I can see, the reviewers from the sites I used are volunteers who love books and care about writing useful reviews.

But the online review scene is changing all the time. New review sites continue to crop up and those that have been out there a while continue to change their requirements. I just did a search on—a site where you put in the type of book you've written and it spits out a list of possible reviewers for you. I put in "Fiction," "Mystery / Thriller / Suspense," "Published hardcover or softcover book," and the site came up with 129 review sites for me. And at least one of the sites that reviewed my book quickly and for free a year ago is now saying that they are limiting the number of free reviews they do each week and that they highly recommend that authors pay for an express review to get the review in a timely way.

I'm seeing discussion on author groups about the problems of paid reviews, how this cheapens the process and how these reviews are worthless. Some review sites are careful to say that the author is not paying for the review, but for getting it done quickly or posting it at various online locations. But others, including some that are subsidiaries of the most prestigious reviewers, are openly offering reviews to authors for a fee. For example, Clarion, a fee for review service now offered through ForeWord Magazine, offers authors "a professional review of your title, with the same quality and word length offered in the magazine and very often by the same reviewers" for $305.

And Kirkus Discoveries is "a paid review service that allows authors and publishers of overlooked titles to receive authoritative, careful assessment of their books," for $550 (reviews completed in 3-4 weeks) or $400 (reviews completed in 6-8 weeks).The author has the right to use these reviews as cover blurbs, in publicity materials, etc., and, if the author agrees, the reviewer will post the review in other locations. Assuming you pay the fee and get a good review is the review worth the price? Will it help your book get credibility or will it make you look desperate? Are we better off with no reviews if we can't get them from mainstream sources?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Sisters, Stand With Me

I just renewed my membership in Sisters In Crime—a great organization that offers networking, advice and support to mystery authors worldwide. Founded in 1986 by mystery writer Sara Paretsky, Sisters In Crime (SinC) has as its mission: "To combat discrimination against women in the mystery field, educate publishers and the general public as to inequities in the treatment of female authors, raise the level of awareness of their contributions to the field, and promote the professional advancement of women who write mysteries."

As I am fairly new to mystery writing, I've only been a SinC member for a few years, but I've benefited greatly from my local chapter's programs, critique groups, and support. And I admire and enjoy the mystery writers and fans I've met at local meetings and events.

SinC welcomes all mystery writers and readers to join and does not classify its members into superior and inferior categories the way Mystery Writers of America (MWA) does. (MWA has several classes of membership and restricts active membership to authors of mysteries that have been published by publishers on its approved list.) And the annual Sisters In Crime Books In Print lists members' books that are published by iUniverse, Lulu, Outskirts, PublishAmerica, AuthorHouse, Booksurge, Xlibris, etc., as well as those published by small independent and/or author-owned presses, right along with those published by well-known commercial publishers. SinC gives an equal listing to each author with no partiality shown to those published by mainstream publishers.

I applaud and appreciate SinC for accepting and treating all authors as equal. But I am seriously bothered by the fact that SinC is a sponsor of conferences that treat authors unequally based on how their books are published. For example, SinC will host a breakfast at the Left Coast Crime conference, and a chapter flash training session and a breakfast at Malice Domestic, where they will also be contributing souvenir tote bags. At Mayhem in the Midlands, SinC is sponsoring a buffet and has a link to its website from the conference site. SinC is intimately involved with Bouchercon, where it was founded in 1986, and where its current president was installed at a breakfast at the 2007 Bouchercon held in Anchorage, Alaska.Sadly, all of these conferences have restrictions that exclude from author status any authors whose books are self-published, printed by means of digital technology, or published by small presses that do not meet a list of criteria like those set up by the Mystery Writers of America. And many SinC members fall into the excluded groups of authors. How many? About 45% of them according to mystery-writer colleague who is a member of both SinC and MWA. She did a comparison of SinC published authors (as listed in 2007 SinC Books in Print) with the MWA approved publisher list (as of 11/22/07) and found that of the 496 published SinC members listed, only 275 have publishers who are on the approved list.

As an organization that was founded to combat discrimination against one group of mystery authors (females), I would expect SinC to stand up against discrimination against other groups of mystery authors. Instead my sisters seem to be giving tacit approval to discrimination against authors of mysteries that are published by companies that don't meet certain guidelines.

I expect more from my sisters. I want them to stand up with me and speak out for equal opportunity for authors whose books are self-published or published by small, independent publishers. When sisters stand together and speak the truth, we can prevail. I challenge the SinC leadership to take another look and become leaders for equity for all authors in the mystery genre.

Wednesday, January 9, 2008

Progress! Small Steps Away From the MWA List

I've been continuing to check websites of mystery writers' conferences to see how many are determining authors status for attendees by whether or not their publisher is on the Mystery Writers of America (MWA) list of approved publishers. And, to my surprise and delight, I've noticed some movement away from the MWA list!

Left Coast Crime (Denver, March 2008) continues to say they use the MWA approved publisher list, BUT they have added this statement: "Authors from publishers not on the approved list but who submit a signed affidavit stating that they print, in an initial edition, a minimum of 500 copies, pay standard royalties and/or advances without any hidden fees, do not require or accept any monetary contribution from their authors, including editing and promotional fees, and who make their books available at all times at standard trade discounts on a returnable basis will be accepted on a provisional basis.

"Mayhem in the Midlands (Omaha, May 2008) has changed their statement to read:"We will offer author assignments only to traditionally published authors of crime fiction or those who have been nominated for established mystery awards. We define traditional publisher authors as those who: (1) Did not pay any of the costs associated with the publication of their books; and (2) Are published by a company that: publishes at least three authors other than the publisher, members of the publisher's family, or staff of the publishing company; does not guarantee publication of all submissions; and provides editorial support to its authors.

"Malice Domestic (Arlington, VA, April 2008) is using the same statement as Mayhem in the Midlands. The site for Bouchercon 2008 (Baltimore, Oct. 2008) is incomplete and does not currently include any author criteria, but we know they planned to set up some criteria (see my Nov 29 post).

But wait—aren't these criteria still too restrictive? Of course they are. I'm not jumping up and down at these rules that continue to exclude authors whose books are printed with digital technology and those who are published by companies owned by themselves or a family member. And I'm especially unhappy that Left Coast, Malice and Bouchercon—all major mystery conferences—are limiting participation.

But I am clapping quietly that the MWA blacklist seems to be losing ground. Apparently the level of complaints has created some movement away from using a list of approved publishers, which I see as a very positive sign. If there's an accepted list it can easily be adopted by libraries, booksellers, reviewers and so on. All they have to do is check it, and if your publisher isn't on it, you're excluded. Lists of rules, even restrictive ones, are less accessible and more time-consuming to use. And we can work on chipping away at specific rules by pointing out how absurd some of them are.

I'm also happy that in my search process I discovered a whole bunch of mystery writing conferences that DO NOT list any author restrictions. I may have missed some, but here's my list of conferences that are open to all authors who write in the mystery genre, regardless of who their publisher is.

  • SleuthFest (Feb. 2008, Deerfield Beach, FL)

  • Love Is Murder (Feb 2008, Chicago)

  • Murder in the Magic City (Feb 2008, Birmingham, AL)

  • New England Crime Bake (March 2008, Dedham, MA)

  • NoirCon (April 2008, Philadelphia)

  • Romantic Times Booklovers Convention (April 2008, Pittsburgh, PA)

  • Public Safety Writer's Assoc (April, 2008, Las Vegas)

  • Deadly Ink (June 2008, Parsippany, NJ)

  • Murder In the Grove (June 2008, Boise, ID)

  • Mystery Florida (June 2008, Sarasota, FL)

  • International Mystery Writers Festival (June 2008, Owensboro, KY)

  • Book Passage Mystery Writers Conference (June 2008, San Francisco)

  • Thriller Fest (July 2008, NYC)

  • The Great Manhattan Mystery Conclave (Oct 2008, Manhattan, KS)

I'm sure there are many conferences outside the mystery genre that also welcome all authors. If, as an author, you belong to organizations or attend conferences that do not limit author participation, spread the word. Let's support those groups.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Publishing: Which Comes First, Art Or Business?

In a comment on my December 20 post, Jim Murdoch said:
The publishing industry is simply a business with a product to push. That the product is a book is academic. It could be widgets. 

I agree with Jim, but I know that not all writers do. The state of publishing today is a huge topic of discussion among writers. A major point of argument is the criteria publishers use to select books—which mainly goes to what you see as a publisher's primary goal. Here, in an admittedly oversimplified synopsis, are the two main positions:

1. Publishing is a business. Publishers primarily want to publish best-sellers. They need to make enough profit on the books they publish to keep their businesses financially lucrative. So they choose the books that they believe will be hot, that they think will sell and sell well. And they shape the books to be as marketable as possible.

2. Publishing is an art. Publishers primarily want to publish great books that readers will find thought-provoking, entertaining, and inspiring. So they choose the books that are the most original, smart, well-written, brilliant, gripping and memorable. And they work with the authors to revise and improve their manuscripts before the book is published.

Here's why this debate matters. If #1 is true and publishing is mainly a business, then the books selected by major publishers are those that have the most potential to make money—either because the author or topic is hot, or because the sales department can make them hot. This view holds that you can't judge the quality of one book vs. another by looking at which one was published by a traditional publisher.

If #2 is true and publishing is mainly an art, we must follow the thinking of the old guard. They believe publishers choose books based mainly on quality and that having a book selected for publication by a traditional publisher is an indicator of excellence. In support of that position, it is true that the big commercial publishers have brought us many great books that we love to read and re-read.

But these publishers have also brought us fake memoirs, plagiarism, books by non-writer criminals, mediocre books with predictable plots and tiresome characters, and plenty of other trash. So there is a lot of evidence supporting #1.

My personal experience also goes to #1. My nonfiction book, How To Deal With Your Parents When They Still Treat You Like A Child, was published by Berkley Books in 1992. As an academic gerontologist with a focus on communication, I saw a need for a popular book that dealt with the issues adults face in trying to get along better with their parents. I submitted a proposal and a couple of sample chapters to a NYC agent who began shopping it around to publishers. Initially there was interest and my agent suggested we might have an auction among several publishers. But then the sales departments began to weigh in, suggesting the book wouldn't sell well enough (no one ever told me why they thought that), so there was no auction. My agent continued showing the proposal to publishers until Berkley took it on. There too the sales department ruled, changing my original title and insisting I make the book longer than I thought it needed to be so that readers "would think they were getting their money's worth."

I have to admit that when my book was picked up by a NYC agent and publisher, I was a believer in #2. I felt honored that my book had been selected. I thought I would have one of those great relationships with an editor that I'm always reading about on books' acknowledgements pages. I was naïve. My first editor left the company almost as soon as I signed my contract. I had little contact with the next one. I've learned since that my experience wasn't unusual.

Today, as I've said, I'm in the publishing as business camp. I believe that having a book selected by a traditional publisher means only that they think it will sell. But I'm open to hearing evidence for the other side. What's your experience? Is publishing mostly a business pushing a product, or is it an art celebrating quality?