Wednesday, March 28, 2012

How Indie Publishing Has Changed My Thinking by Susan Kaye Quinn, author of Open Minds

Kathryn Rusch has a brilliant article where she uses a scarcity vs. abundance analogy to describe the publishing industry: most every writer, publisher, agent, editor, reviewer was raised in a scarcity model, where book shelf space was limited, publishing contracts few, and rarity was equated to quality. But in today's reality, (virtual) book shelf space is unlimited, anyone can publish, and we are operating in an abundance model where there is an unlimited supply of books. This infinite capacity combined with increasingly powerful search engine capabilities have trained consumers (readers) to adapt to this abundance model, but producers (writers, publishers, etc.) are (often) still stuck in the scarcity way of thinking:

"All those questions writers ask about how to get noticed in this new world? Those questions come from someone raised in scarcity. Being noticed was important because your moment on that shelf was - by definition - short-lived. Writers who understand the long tail know that the way to get more readers is to have more available product. Abundance works, even for the single entrepreneur."
Did I mention it's brilliant? (Go read the whole thing.)

This - literally - changes everything.

I thought I was forward thinking before self-publishing, but the act of going indie, of being up-close-and-personal in the indie trenches, has really changed my thinking about my writing and my author career.

There's a tension in the Indie world about needing to publish quickly, needing to get works out there, because that is what successful self-publishers in the recent past (1-2 years) have done. There's a drive to seek out the best way to promote books, to get on the Top 100 lists, to find the magic key to "discoverability" that will bring more book sales. The connection to book sales is visceral - you can track your rankings and sales by the hour, and those numbers mean something. They are the income that's going directly into your bank account, the funds that make it possible to keep publishing (by paying back your investment) or justify spending your time writing (by providing actual income). So there are huge, tidal-sized forces that drive indie publishers to put out books quickly and promote them heavily in order to connect their books to readers.

The potential to make money in Indie publishing is very real. The days when even "successful" authors had a tough time living off their writing wages is starting to change. As Rachelle Gardner noted in a recent blog post, the typical advance for a first-time traditionally published author is $5,000-$15,000 per book, and most of those first-time authors do not sell through their advance, so that is all the money they will ever get from that book (and if you don't sell through in the first 12 mos, the publisher may not be so excited about buying another book from you). Comparing this to Indie publishing, I know several authors (many, many authors, including myself) who have already earned more than $5k per book, often well before the first 12 months after publication. Of course, many indie authors also struggle to earn back what they've invested in their books, and everyone's experience is going to be unique with this.

But here's the thing: concentrating on what a book earns in the first 12 months is scarcity thinking, a left-over from limited-time-on-shelf. Because if a book didn't hit in the first 3 or 6 or 12 months, it wasn't going to pay back its investment ... because it would become literally unavailable on the shelf.   Books used to go out of print. Now, there is no reason for that to happen.

Abundance thinking says: this book is going to be on the shelves forever. FOREVER. That is a very long time, my friends.

Cue the visuals:

I picked random numbers for this, so you can scale it up or down - thousands of sales instead of hundreds, or whatever. And this stops the race after 5 years, not FOREVER, as noted above. The point being, of course, that slow-n-steady wins the race (the tortoise out-earns the rabbit at about 3.5 years). This isn't just a trad-pub vs. indie-pub comparison; the same lesson applies to two indie books, where one is focused on scarcity thinking (I must have a hit right away; if not, I've failed) and one is focused on abundance thinking (I need to write more, because more books=success). 

The abundance thinker is going to focus on getting another tortoise out; the scarcity thinker is focused on promoting the rabbit. 

When you start figuring out how to build a herd of tortoises, rather than promoting your rabbit, you're starting to think in the abundance reality of today's publishing. Again, this changes everything.

My take(s):
  • Writing. Writing is the most important thing. Must spend more time writing. I already knew this, but this framework gives even more heft to that idea. 
  • My work is FOREVER. (If this doesn't evoke an existential paralysis, I'm not sure what will.) While the temptation is great to pump out a warren of rabbits (or the herd of tortoises), since my work is going to be out there FOREVER, I want it to be the best that I can produce at the time. In other words, I'm not rushing to write a bunch of books quickly because I know they'll be around to taunt me for a long time. (Also: I love this take that the highest earning self-publishers take 24% more time per word, and write 31% more words per day)  
  • Rankings aren't everything. I also already knew this, but having lived through surges in rankings and sales, I can tell you that emotionally it is awesome, fun, and sort of like the sugar rush after eating cotton candy at the carnival. Which almost always makes me want to throw up. Slow and steady sales not only win the race, they're good for my psyche.
  • I need to focus on the herd of tortoises. Promotion is still important, and I'm not going to go completely into my writer's cave, just because it's damp there and my friends are here. I enjoy social media too much. But the writing is definitely taking precedence. And I'm thinking not just about this trilogy, but the next, and the one after that. I want my turtles to all play nice in the sandbox together. 
  • I still think in scarcity ways sometimes. And that's okay. It takes time for the world to change, and for individual ways of thinking to change. And hearts. Those take the longest time of all. I still believe in creating pre-release buzz - I think it does sell books, even if it's a scarcity way of thinking. I think consumers have been trained by abundance thinking to believe they should be able to find any book they want, but they still look to bestseller lists and other scarcity markers to guide some of their purchasing. That's okay. Our world is in transition. Things will continue to change. But I still strongly believe that the most forward-thinking will be the winners in this new era.
This post is EPIC in length, so I'll stop here. But tell me: are you an abundance thinker or a scarcity thinker? And - whether you're traditional or indie bound - have the changes in the industry affected the way that you think?

Susan Kaye Quinn is a former rocket scientist, but she writes young adult novels because she loves writing even more than shiny tech gadgets. While her most recent novel Open Minds has been gathering up fans of paranormal science fiction, she’s been busy working on the sequel, Closed Hearts. You can find her on her blog, Twitter or Facebook.
Open Minds (Book One of the Mindjack Trilogy) is available in e-book and print (Amazon, Barnes & Noble).
OpenMinds_cover_100.jpgWhen everyone reads minds, a secret is a dangerous thing to keep.
Sixteen-year-old Kira Moore is a zero, someone who can’t read thoughts or be read by others. Zeros are outcasts who can’t be trusted, leaving her no chance with Raf, a regular mindreader and the best friend she secretly loves. When she accidentally controls Raf’s mind and nearly kills him, Kira tries to hide her frightening new ability from her family and an increasingly suspicious Raf. But lies tangle around her, and she’s dragged deep into a hidden world of mindjackers, where having to mind control everyone she loves is just the beginning of the deadly choices before her.

Friday, March 9, 2012

How to Lose a Reader in Ten Pages or Less by Teresa Kennedy

    Few writers really understand just how important the beginning of a novel can be. Sure, they’ll read all that stuff about a grabber opening line, the pros and cons of prologues, how NOT to begin chapter one with dialogue, or background, or from somewhere inside your protagonist’s head, but almost inevitably, every unpublished writer commits any or all of those mistakes in the first ten pages of their book.

    As valid as those rules of thumb might be, each is only partially true. A good prologue can work just fine if it draws the reader into the world of the story. So can dialogue, if it’s bright and engaging, and while excess background doesn’t belong in that first paragraph, it’s equally important to set the scene and include what’s relevant as the story opens. By the same token, many great novels begin inside the protagonist’s mind, but it only works when it’s a truly compelling character.

    So why are so many novels doomed to the slush heap because prospective readers, editors or agents don’t read past your sample? Because most writers fail to understand one simple truth: You don’t understand anything about how to begin your novel until you’ve written the end of it. Instead, writers tend to begin a story with a head full of questions and keep on writing until they discover how to answer them. As a result, I’ve seen literally hundreds of manuscripts where it’s all too obvious just how many pages in they were before the story really began.

    Only but the most dedicated and savvy authors among us actually go back and gut renovate their opening pages from the perspective of one who knows how the book ends. Fact is, though, there’s no one better equipped to create a truly compelling opening. And once you know the end of the tale, your task is to go back to that beginning and use it to plant some relevant questions in the reader’s mind—“Why does every woman in the world fall for this guy except her?” “What does he mean—nobody wants to be born in Pennsylvania?” Or even,  “Why do vampires have to go to high school, anyway?”

    Whether your opening evokes obvious or subtle questions in your reader’s mind, they serve as the principle means of getting us engaged in the story you have to tell. Questions keep us reading, and when we stop reading, chances are it’s because you’re telling us too much about all sorts of things that are essentially irrelevant. Nobody needs to know how old your character is, or talk about the weather or suddenly learn that Biff has hated Brussels sprouts since that time at Grandma’s and drives a Lexus if those things don’t have any bearing on what’s going on in the moment. Great novel openings keep to the essentials; they establish your authority to tell the story and do it in such a way that they raise questions and spark a reader’s curiosity. If your opening doesn’t do those things, it’s time to give it another look.

    It is true that opening lines in novels are just as important as they are anywhere else, but even the best opening line isn’t going to mean much if the paragraphs that follow don’t flow naturally from it, or worse, revert to the dull or non-essential. So let’s consider some of the approaches to a great opening by category.

   The importance of IT. Usually presented as “It is” or It was…”, the all important It gives a writer a certain amount of authority combined with some flexibility. You can follow through with a scene or setting, a summary or even more abstract imagery that allows you to establish some questions in the reader’s mind. “It was a bright cold day in April and the clocks were striking thirteen.” Orwell’s "1984" does both handily. The danger of It lies only in the temptation to cliché—“ It was a dark and stormy whatever…”

    The Omniscient View. The omniscient approach is wonderfully useful because it provides the reader with an instant frame of reference.Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”  Novels that begin with blanket statements like we find in Tolstoy’s "Anna Karenina," also establish the narrator’s authority, and pique the reader’s curiosity with a subtler series of questions—what does he mean by that? Who is unhappy? How? End result? We keep reading.

    Beginning in the Middle. With this approach, you begin in the middle—of the action anyhow, and if well done, it serves to draw the reader in quite directly. Frequently, this approach challenges the reader, sometimes through the use of direct address, as in "The Color Purple": “You better not never tell nobody but God.”

    Dialogue. Is very similar to beginning in the middle, because it also draws the reader immediately into the action, only this time, the action is in the form of dialogue. The key to its effectiveness as an opening however, is whether or not your dialogue ( and any attributions thereto) is actually interesting enough to keep us reading in addition to raising those questions. “Take my camel, dear,” said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.” Rose McCauley, "The Towers of Trebizon."

    Meet and Greet. Character introductions can serve a novel’s opening both in a third or in a first person narration, but they’re not going to really be compelling enough to keep us reading unless you’re somehow deft enough to be able to fully establish a character and raise questions about that character at the same time. Consider C.S. Lewis’ "The Dawn Treader": “ There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb, and he almost deserved it.” Or, from a first person perspective, John Barth’s:In a sense, I am Jacob Horner.”
Whatever your approach to what you thought was a great opening when you first sat down to write, chances are it’s not going to look as good by the time the novel is finished, so take a good long look, get another pair of eyes if need be and don’t be afraid to begin again—at the beginning, of course.

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