Thursday, March 20, 2014

Workshop and Sales and Business

So the first chunk of the year was pretty hectic, and I'm just getting back to normal. I wrote six stories in six weeks starting in early January, for Dean and Kris's anthology workshop. The way this works is, there are six professional editors, each editing an anthology that'll be brought out as part of the Fiction River line. Writers who've signed up get guidelines (book title, length requirements, theme, sometimes more info depending on the editor) and deadlines. The deadlines were one per week for six weeks, each Sunday, midnight Pacific time, no late subs accepted, no excuses, period. A lot more students got all six stories in than any of the instructors expected, although considering how Dean pounds the pulpit of getting your butt in the seat and your hands on the keyboard and doing the work, about how writing faster means spending more time writing not just typing faster, of how to make it as a pro you need a good work ethic (see previous about spending more time writing), I'm not sure why they were surprised. :) Personally, I was kind of afraid to sub fewer than six stories and then show my face at the workshop, so I didn't. Anyway.

The workshop was pretty awesome, although hectic. We all read all the subbed stories, which totalled about 250. So between writing for six weeks, then frantically reading up to and through most of the workshop, I did very little else for the first two months and change of this year. Once we were all settled in Lincoln City and got rolling, the way it worked was that the editors sat up at the front of the room, with the students in rows, sort of like a college classroom, but with rectangular two-person tables instead of those awful little desk-chair things. Lots of laptops and notebooks for taking notes.

We did one book per day. All the editors commented on each story, with the editor who was actually editing the book going last. Other editors either pretended they were editing that particular anthology, or in Kris's case she pretended she was still editing F&SF, and in Dean's case he pretended he was still editing Pulphouse Magazine. They went through the stories one at a time, each editor saying whether they read all the way through and why or why not, whether the story hit any of their reader cookies or anti-cookies[1], and whether they'd buy it. The final (actual) editor did the same, but if they said "Buy" they actually were making an offer. Or sometimes they held a story to the end, then looked over all the held stories and made final buy/no-buy decisions while building their TOC on the white board in front of the class. That's always fun to watch, and instructive.

The point of having all the editors talking about all the stories is to show us that editors disagree. I think we all know this on an intellectual level, but still, there's a strong tendency in Writerland to assume that because a story gets a form rejection right off the bat, the story must suck. Some writers send a story out once or twice and never again, convinced it's garbage because it didn't get bought right away, or because it only got form rejections. (Kris, a bestselling writer, an award winner in multiple genres, got three form rejections just that week. Which is a pretty rude thing for an editor to do to a name writer, but still, it happens to everyone.)

Actually seeing the editors not only disagreeing but actively arguing with one another makes quite an impact, though. Three editors tried to convince Dean to buy the story I'd written for his book. They failed, but they all (including Dean) were pretty sure I'd sell it somewhere else. (It's sitting in an SF magazine editor's queue as I type.) Three editors tried to convince Kris to buy the story I wrote for her book. They failed, but again, everyone agreed it'd probably sell. (And it's sitting in a mystery magazine editor's queue.) People were still needling Dean about the story of mine that he'd passed up days later. Kris said they'd talked about it at home while they were reading submissions, but she couldn't convince him, and neither could all three professional editors when they ganged up on him in class.

Now, all this was a wonderful balm for my disappointment at not making this or that sale, but the point is that three professional editors would have bought that story if they were the one editing that particular anthology. We all know that different editors produce different anthologies, that two editors doing similar books with the same or similar themes will put together books that feel different, have a different subtheme or a different point of view, and therefore a different list of stories. We all know that. But seeing it playing out in front of you, sometimes with raised voices or pointed jokes or annoyed scowls or incredulous expressions? That makes you feel it, not just know it, and I think that after watching the editors arguing over stories one is less likely to think, Yeah, I know a lot of stories just had to find the right editor after fifty submissions, but MY story sucks.

Watching an editor narrow their holds down to the final roster is instructive as well. I imagine most of us have had the experience of being told in a rejection letter, "I had enough great stories for four books, but unfortunately I can only publish one," or something similar. It's easy to think, Yeah, but my story wasn't quite great enough, or maybe, The editor's just being nice, letting me down easy. But actually watching an editor agonize over the decisions makes it clear that this is hard. One of the editors, I thought she was about to start crying a number of times, and particularly when she was letting down people whose held stories didn't quite make it.

One difference I noticed from last year was that there weren't as many invites. Last year each book was at least half full by the time the workshop convened. Name writers were invited to submit, presumably to get some names on the covers that'd help sell the books. (How to Save the World, the book I sold a story to, has David Gerrold and Laura Resnick on the cover, among others.) That makes sense; anthologies are a tough sell anyway, and it's clear why Kris and Dean, as the series editors and owners of the publishing company behind Fiction River, would want to give their new anthology series the best launch possible. I was expecting the same thing this year, actually, but there were very few invites this time.

Which isn't to say there won't be any "names" in the books. Aside from Kris and Dean, who write stories for all the anthologies, Lisa Silverthorne and Ron Collins are regulars at the anthology workshop; their names regularly appear on the covers of SF magazines. And I spent the workshop week sitting next to Cat Rambo. (I managed not to ever fangirl her, because I am not a complete dork one hundred percent of the time. [cough]) But they reported that the series is doing better than they'd expected, reviews have been good, and they're gearing up for more publicity and some experimentation.

One of the experiments came about during one of the aforementioned sessions of agonizing over the final buy list on a book. There were three more stories Kevin Anderson, who's editing Pulse Pounders -- basically a collection of short thriller type stories -- wanted to buy, but he didn't have the budget. Mark LeFevre, the Kobo Writing Life guy, was also attending the workshop. He cornered Kevin, Kris and Dean during a break and made an offer on behalf of Kobo to help fund the three extra stories for a special expanded Kobo edition of the book. There'll be an expanded edition of Kris's book too, Past Crimes, a collection of historical mysteries. He was actually willing to do Kobo special editions of all the books, but Kris and Dean want to start slowly, with the two books that they think have the widest audience. The reasoning is that because this is something new, they want to give it the best chance to succeed. If they do special editions of all the books and some don't sell well, it might be taken as a failure of the expanded edition concept, rather than just the individual books selling slowly. They want to give the concept the best chance to succeed, so it can become a thing that other editors/publishers and other e-book vendors would consider doing.

Another new thing is that they're filling and scheduling books a lot farther out, so that they can get ARCs done and available in time to send them out to the major review sites the requisite 5-8 months in advance. For that reason, the two books I sold stories to won't be out until 2015.

Oh, right, I sold a couple of stories. :) John Helfers, who bought my story for How to Save the World last year, is editing a book called Recycled Pulp this year. It's a cool idea -- he created a bunch of ultra-pulpy sounding titles, and we had to write modern, non-pulpy stories that fit the titles. Each writer who wanted to sub for that book sent in three numbers between 1 and 250, and we got back three of the titles off the list. We could write to whichever title we wanted. My story is called "The Crypt of the Metal Ghouls," and it was a lot of fun to write.

Kerrie Hughes is editing Alchemy and Steam, which is pretty much what it says on the tin. Kerrie really likes alchemy -- it's one of her reader cookies -- and she wanted stories that were a blend of alchemy and steampunk. I wrote a story called "The Rites of Zosimos," with plot points based on some actual concepts a Greek alchemist named Zosimos of Panopolis wrote about. She liked it a lot and it'll be fun working with her. And I think I might get a series out of the setting/characters. [ponder]

Alchemy and Steam is scheduled for April of 2015, and Recycled Pulp is scheduled for December of 2015.

And I might have some work lined up for later this year -- more info 1) when/if it happens, and 2) when I can talk about it. There's awesome networking at these workshops, though.

Random notes from the workshop discussions, both during the week around stories and on the last day when we did break-out sessions with experts in various areas:

Kris told some stories about crazy-ass things writers do to get an editor's attention. Everyone's heard the story of the guy who sent his manuscript in a pizza box, with a pizza in it, right? With a note saying something like, "Thought you'd enjoy a snack while you read...?" I heard that online back in the 80s. Well, Kris had a better one. When she was editing F&SF, she'd head down to the Post Office regularly to pick up bins of mail, and she got a note to go pick something up at the window. The Postmaster came up holding an envelope dangling at arm's length. The envelope was black and covered with actual (not fake) cobwebs, and had actual dead spiders glued to it. O_O The Postmaster asked her, "Do you want this?" Kris sort of stared at it and said, "No." Postmaster said, "Good," and went to throw it away. Seriously, who thinks that kind of thing is a good idea?

Writers are usually wrong about what genre their story is. If you have something out in submission or indie pubbed that's not selling, and you're pretty sure it's a good, well-written story, that might be why. Have a few people read it cold, then ask them what genre they think it is. You might be sending it to the wrong editors, or have it tagged as the wrong genre/subgenre at the vendor sites. Genre is a marketing tool, so if you mess that up, everything else about your marketing of that story collapses.

Ever notice how SF in books and magazines is such a tiny genre compared with SF in movies and TV shows? SF is huge everywhere except in the books and magazines where it began. Originally, SF stories all had basically the same endings -- science triumphed and the good guys always won. Then in the seventies, SF sort of collectively decided to go all literary, and a story could have pretty much any ending, including negative or depressing or bleak ones. Genre readers like knowing approximately how the story is going to end, though, so SF has lost a lot of readers, both people deciding they didn't like the new stuff and leaving, and older readers dying without being replaced by new readers. (I can confirm that the attendees at SF conventions centered on book/magazine fiction are greying; I'm probably on the low end of average age at most of those cons, and I'm 50. Whereas media SF conventions and comic book conventions are full of kids in their teens and twenties.) Literary fans expect their endings to be variable, so they read literary and like it. Most SF fans, though, expect science to triumph and the good guys to win, and since the seventies, fewer stories delivered that. So most SF fans watch the movies and TV shows but don't read the books or magazines. Most fans of book/magazine SF don't consider the TV/movie fans to be "real" SF fans, but come on, seriously? [sigh] There are still stories with that kind of ending, but you're not guaranteed to find one if you pick an SF book at random off the shelf. In trying to be literary, SF is slowly strangling itself. (I've heard discussions on the convention side that in a generation or two, the traditional, fan-run convention for people who read SF will vanish as its attendees -- and the people running the conventions -- age and die. Same thing, from the readers' perspective instead of the writers'.) The take-away from this discussion, IMO, is that if you want to build a good fan base with your SF, and attract younger readers, write stories where science triumphs and the good guys win. Or if that's not what you're into, that's fine but be aware that your reader pool is shrinking.

Genre is moving toward being an author name rather than a traditional genre category. (Dean is pulling all his different genres, written under a pile of pseuds, most of whom nobody knows are him, back under his Dean Wesley Smith name.) You can make this work, especially going indie, but it'll take longer to build your reader base if you're writing all over the genre map. Although in reality, if you do want to write across various genres, it's going to take you a while anyway. It takes a certain number of books/stories -- individual titles -- to hit a tipping point where your discoverability starts fueling itself. This number, which seems to be between 25 and 50, depending on a lot of factors including luck, is per genre/name. So if you write SF/F, romance and thrillers, for example, it'll take 25-50 titles in each genre to get your sales and visibility in that genre to take off, if you're publishing under three names. It's looking like publishing three different genres all under one name doesn't change that very much; a lot of readers still read only one genre, although that's slowly changing.

(Related story -- I was talking to a writer friend who knew a third writer who was complaining that his career hadn't taken off, his sales were abysmal, he needed an agent because he had to have the career help. [sigh] I poked around and saw that he had three pen names, each with one book published. [headdesk] Well, no wonder he hadn't taken off! Three books under one name would still make him a newbie and almost invisible so far as the readers are concerned. The way he's been doing it, though, from the POV of the readers he's three newbie writers, each of whom has only one book out. No wonder readers hadn't noticed him. Same thing, though -- visibility is about volume, about having enough titles out there that readers have a chance of tripping over one and then finding the rest.)

Speaking about short fiction, once an editor starts buying your stuff, show some loyalty to that editor. If you sell an SF story to a magazine, send that magazine all your SF stories first, give that editor first refusal on your stuff. Particularly if you're writing a series, always send new stories in that series to the same editor who's been buying the series. Offering a series story first to someone else, a different magazine or an anthology, is rude and unprofessional.

When you set up your business account for your writing income (you did that, right? especially if you're indie pubbing?) refuse overdraft protection. If someone hacks your account and overdraws it by a few thousand, the bank will be happy to give them that money, then not only charge you that amount but also the overdraft fee.

Be careful about (book) contracts from British publishers, which are reportedly even worse than book contracts from American publishers.

John saw a contract which said that if the copyright laws changed in any way in the future, you automatically agree to it, in perpetuity. It's unenforcable, but would still be a pain to deal with.

Some setting details are what Kris calls phony setting. So frex., if you say your characters are in "a renovated church," each reader is going to have a different image in their head, which are all probably going to be different from the image in your head. Actually describe the setting so the picture in the reader's head is at least close to the one in your own. That prevents sudden jolts later on when you refer to something that doesn't at all match what the reader was imagining.

The Cricket magazines (which pay wonderfully well) have a horrible contract, but if you tell them you can't sign it, they'll send you the good one.

Hard fantasy is like hard SF, but the fantasy is the tech -- it's explained, works consistently, and has the nuts-and-bolts feel that hard SF has, if the world actually worked on magic. (I actually write a lot of hard fantasy and didn't know it. :) )

We talked some about how Audible was lowering its royalty from 50% to 40%. Dean says that's a good thing because their business model is sustainable now. Also, they're dropping the dollar per sale that they paid directly to the writers -- circumventing the publisher -- whenever an audiobook was sold. They did that to force the publishers to clean up their accounting. A writer who got $X whenever they sold X audiobooks knew that they'd better see X audiobook sales on their royalty statement from their publisher. I wish the e-book vendors would/could do something similar and force the publishers to clean up their e-book accounting the same way.

We talked some about manuscript formatting, and how italics has replaced underlining in modern manuscript formats. Although if a market still demands paper submissions, assume they're also old-fashioned in their formatting, and use underlines.

The choice to quit the day job and go completely freelance is usually made at a point of crisis -- a lost job, frex. -- rather than because a reasoned decision has been made. Start thinking about what you'd do and how you'd do it. What if you lose your job next month? And can't find another one in a month or two or six? Do you know how to gear up to get your writing paying more of the bills, or any of the bills? Having some idea of what to do and how to do it if you have to transition over to full time writing Right Now will make a horribly stressful life roll a little easier.

If/when you do go full time, cut expenses as much as you can. Protect your writing time; that's what pays the bills. If you're selling regularly, a cleaning lady can be a good investment. If you make $30/hour or $50/hour on your writing, it's totally worth it to pay someone $15-$20/hour to wash dishes and vacuum and do laundry. Also mowing the lawn, pruning the trees, cleaning the pool, whatever. Protect the writing, and spend that protected time writing.

Don't let the publishing overrun the writing; one suggestion is to set aside one day per week for doing your publishing work, formatting and covers and uploading and updating the accounting. The rest of the time, write. New words of fiction. Research isn't writing, outlining isn't writing, editing isn't writing. Marketing/promo is most definitely not writing. (One of the worst things you can do is write and publish one book and then spend the next year on marketing and promo. Don't do that. Write the next book. And the next and the next.)

One way to protect your writing time is to stay organized. Checklists are good. So are systems you can implement over and over again. Have a long-term plan so you know what you want to accomplish (including non-writing tasks, like learning to do covers, learning to format POD paperbacks, setting up and starting to collect sign-ups for a newsletter, learn/implement a more comprehensive business accounting system, take a class -- larger one-time goals you want to hit) and in what order you want to do them. That way, when you find you have time/money for a larger task, you can look on your list and see what's next, rather than have to dither around, doing "research" and making the decision over again every time it comes up. Your goals and ordered list can change, if there's a reason, but making that list in the first place is part of your long-term planning.

Have similar plans month-to-month. List deadlines for any trad-pub books or stories you're doing, plus goals for finishing writing on Book C, formatting on Book B, a cover for book A and uploading it to vendors P, Q and R. Monthly goals should be realistic, based on how much time and/or money you have to spend, but treating it like a business with goals and deadlines makes it that much more likely things will get done. (No, I'm not this organized yet myself.)

Schedule time to learn stuff. There's a lot to learn if you're going freelance, especially if you're indie pubbing. The learning is going to take time, so plan that into your schedule. Protect the writing, but make learning something that'll help your business a strong second priority.

You need at least 15-20 titles up, per pseudonym, before it's worthwhile to do any marketing. (Yes, there's a pattern here.)

Whew. That's just hilights from what I wrote down in a notes file. There was a lot more, and I absolutely got my money's worth. I felt the same last year when I only sold one story, and the year before when I sold none. This is an awesome workshop, and Dean is taking sign-ups for next year right now. The workshops on the coast are invitation only, but you can write to Dean and ask for an invitation. Explain your experience and your goals, and why you want to attend. I had no pro-level sales when I wrote and asked for an invite, and I got into the anthology workshop that year. It's doable, and it's absolutely worthwhile.

Angie, getting back into the groove

[1] A reader cookie is something you just love to see in a piece of fiction. If you're really into Cthulu stories, then that's a reader cookie for you. If you love stories about soldiers, or cyberpunk, or grumpy protagonists, those are reader cookies. Something you seriously dislike, bad enough that it might prevent you from enjoying a story, might even prevent you from reading the story, is an anti-cookie. If you really hate stories with a child protag, or a lot of car-mechanic-jargon-babble, or spiders, then that's an anti-cookie. Sending an editor a story full of that individual's anti-cookies means the story will probably be rejected, no matter how good it might otherwise be. Unless it's absolutely stupendously fabulous in every other way.


Meryl said...

Great post! Lots of info to mull over here. Well done on your sales, and good luck with the possible job opportunity!

Angie said...

Meryl -- thanks, and I'm glad you found it useful. :)


Charles Gramlich said...

Good stuff. Enough information here for four or five blog posts. I'm going to come back and reread at some point. You touch on and reinforce a lot of things I was thinking, but it sure helps to keep these things front and center, and to have my own thinking backed up. Sounds like you've been very productive over a sustained time as well so congrats on that!

Angie said...

Charles -- yes, I thought about splitting it up, but just getting it all down took a few hours, going through my notes and getting it written up. If I'd had to further sort things out thematically, so each post would make sense and hold together, it would've taken longer. That didn't pass the WIBBOW test.

Besides, now it's all in one place where folks can bookmark it, or just do one big copy/paste to grab a copy. :)

I agree that it's good to see that other people are thinking along the same lines you are. [nod] Functions as a sanity check, which is helpful.



P.D. Singer said...

Thanks for sharing this. I need to gear up for speed so I can do that anthology workshop some year.

And I feel vindicated about my cleaning lady now.

Angie said...

Pam -- it'd be awesome to do it with you some time. :D

LOL! about the cleaning lady, but yes, it's definitely a good investment. And not only for writers, but for anyone in a business where more time spent translates to more income, so long as you're making more than the cleaning lady.


Suzan Harden said...

I have to add--build time in your schedule for possible emergencies. If no emergency happens, there's extra writing time. (Speaking from four plumbing problems in six months. LOL)

Suzan Harden said...

P.S. Congratulations on the sales! I hope your super-secret project comes to fruition soon!

Angie said...

Suzan -- oh, lordy, don't talk to me about plumbing. :P But yes, definitely. [nod] I think it's Colleen Doran who always says to plan long-term projects so you'll be done at least a month or two before you need to turn it in, so if you get hit by a bus or something, you still have a chance of making your deadline. I'm not that good at scheduling ahead, but I try, and it's a great idea.

And thanks. :) I'll post covers as soon as they're available, but that probably won't be for a while.


Lauren said...

Wow! Sounds like you've been busy. Also, lots of great information here. I completely agree with what you say about visibility being about volume. I've also heard that the best marketing plan is a solid back-list.

Congrats on selling the stories!

Angie said...

Lauren -- thanks!

the best marketing plan is a solid back-list

Absolutely. [nod] Or IOW, the best way to market your latest book is to write the next one. Same idea.