Archive | July, 2012

How Much Should You Pay To Publish Your Novel?

So you’ve finished writing your novel and now you want to get it published. How much should you pay a publisher?

Joan posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Hi Randy.
I am a first time writer who has just finished a novel. I am not sure where I go from here. A couple of publishers have contacted me but They are asking to much to Edit the novel. Can I edit this item myself. I always check your notes, but I am at aloss. Regards Joan.

Randy sez: Joan, you have several options, none of them good. The only consolation I have for you is that you aren’t alone here. You’re in the same boat as every other writer on the planet.

First, let me list the options for getting your novel published. Then I’ll write a paragraph or two on each one:

  1. Sell your book to a traditional publisher
  2. “Self-publish” your book with a custom publisher
  3. “Self-publish” your book with a vanity publisher
  4. Self-publish your book by acting as your own publisher
  5. Self-publish your book as an e-book only through online retailers

There is a lot to be said about all of these options. I’ll say only a little here, trying to give you the main pluses and the main minuses. There are whole books written on some of these options and whole web sites devoted to warning you about others. I will be much briefer than that.

Option 1: Sell your book to a traditional publisher. Most professional novelists choose this route. Typically, you find an agent and the agent sends a proposal to various acquisition editors at publishing houses. If an acquisition editor likes the proposal, she’ll ask for the full manuscript. If she likes that, she’ll take the proposal to her publishing committee and try to persuade them to buy the rights to your book. If the committee agrees, the editor will negotiate a deal with you via your agent. You then sell the exclusive rights to publish the book in exchange for royalties. Almost always, you get an upfront advance on those royalties. Your agent only gets paid when you get paid–15% of whatever you earn.

The pros are that this is a good deal when you can get it. You pay nothing for editing, cover design, marketing, printing, warehousing, and distribution. You get paid up front. If the book doesn’t earn its advance, then you don’t have to pay back any losses. The publisher takes most of the risk (and most of the reward). What’s not to like about this deal?

The cons are that you give over quite a lot of control to the publishing house. They require you to make revisions and if your revisions aren’t up to snuff, then you’ll be in breach of contract. They design the cover and if you don’t like it, you may have very little voice. The publisher typically takes at least a year and often much longer to get the book into stores. If they screw up the marketing, you get the blame. Yes, really. If the book doesn’t sell, everybody will think it’s your fault, even if the publisher blundered. Finally, there’s no guarantee that you’ll ever find a publisher (or even an agent). You might slave for years on your novel and never sell it. That’s hard. That’s horrible. That’s reality.

Option 2: “Self-publish” your book with a custom publisher. I use the term “self-publish” in quotes here because the custom publisher is doing a lot of the work. They will generally provide editing, marketing, cover design, printing, warehousing, and distribution, just like with a traditional publisher. However, they aren’t paying for that work. You are.

The pros of self-pubbing with a custom publisher are that you are in control of the process. You don’t have to persuade an editor and committee to buy your book (because nobody is buying the rights from you.) You decide what services the custom publisher will provide you. You decide when the editing and cover design are done. You typically provide more of the marketing. You typically get paid a bigger cut of the pie (because you took more of the risk).

The cons are that you have to do more work and the onus is really on you to make the key decisions. No editor will tell you, “Sorry this is really a lousy book that will never sell.” If it’s a lousy book, that’s your problem. If it doesn’t sell, you eat the costs. If you don’t know how to market the book, then it dies.

Option 3: “Self-publish” your book with a vanity publisher. This generally looks exactly like Option 2 above, except that vanity publishers are crooks. They sell you services they aren’t competent to provide and they generally overcharge you.

The pros of this are . . . hmmm, can’t think of any. Don’t publish with a vanity publisher.

The cons are numerous. The final product will be inferior. You’ll spend a lot of money and probably will lose most of it. Worst of all, nobody will buy your book.

How do you spot a vanity publisher? You can ask professionals in the business and they’ll generally know the main offenders, but there are zillions of publishers. Many very small publishers are legit. Some big publishers aren’t. The web site Preditors & Editors is a well-known web site that can help you separate the sheep from the goats. It gives information on a large number of publishers, telling you which are recommended, which are not recommended, and which ones to avoid like fire ant infested underwear.

Option 4: Self-publish your book by acting as your own publisher. This option means that you hire your own freelance editor (or do the editing yourself). You hire your own freelance proofreader (or do it yourself). You hire the cover designer, the typesetter, the printer, the warehouse, the distribution system, the marketing (or you do them yourself). You take all the risks. You get all the glory.

The pros of this are that you are completely in control and stand to earn huge amounts of money if your book does enormously well. If you are knowledgable about publishing and have the skills to do most of the work and the ability to hire smart people to do what you can’t do, and if you can market yourself effectively, then this can be a very good option and you can do Xtremely well financially.

The cons are that you are completely in control. All the decisions are on you. All the financial risks are on you. And (for paper editions of books) the upfront costs can be quite a lot. If you work with a print-on-demand printer, then your production costs go down quite a bit. But you still need to pay for editing, cover design, marketing, shipping, and all that. It may be more headache and more cost than you can stomach. Go into this with your eyes open.

Option 5: Self-publish your book as an e-book-only edition through online retailers. This is a lot like Option 4. Again, you are responsible to hire or do the editing, proofreading, cover design, conversion to e-book formats, and marketing. You then upload the e-book directly to any online retailers you like (Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Apple iBookStore, etc.) and/or to e-book distributors (like Smashwords, which can optionally get you into most of the online retailers for a share of the profits).

The pros of this are numerous, which is why many professional novelists are using this to republish their out-of-print novels they wrote years ago for traditional publishers. You’re in complete control of the process. If you’re republishing an out-of-print novel, it has already been edited and proofread, so you don’t have to pay for that again. You do still need to pay for a cover design, but that can be had fairly cheaply. Conversion to e-book formats is not hard, and it’s fairly cheap to hire out the process. The online retailers make it super simple to upload your e-book and it costs you nothing. You’re in control of your marketing. Your royalties can be amazingly high–65%, 70%, or even 85% of the retail price go to you.

The cons are that quality is on you. If your book is horrible, nobody will tell you that. If your cover is bad, nobody will tell you. If you have no marketing skills, that’s your problem. The costs may be fairly low–often a few hundred dollars–but they’re still on you.

Joan, you’re probably thinking right now, “Gack! Too many choices! Just tell me what to do!”

I wish I could tell you for sure what to do, but there is no best answer.

Until recently, the right answer was usually Option 1: sell to a traditional publisher. Most wannabe writers never sold a thing. But those who did sell their books got affirmation, got an advance, and had a chance at the gold ring.

For authors with a very strong marketing platform, Options 2 and 4 (legitimate self-publishing with or without a custom publisher) have been pretty good over the last couple of decades. The only problem is that most authors are terrible at marketing. (This is proof that the universe is unfair, because artists of all people need marketing the most desperately, but they’re the ones least likely to be able to market effectively.) But for those few artists who have great platforms, this is a strong ticket to the money.

Virtually everybody will tell you that Option 3 (vanity publishing) is horrible. The only people who disagree are the vanity publishers. Draw your own conclusions.

Option 5 is the new kid in town, and it’s become absolutely huge for professional writers. Authors with a large out-of-print backlist have put them back into print as e-books for little cost. Some of them have made huge money, hundreds of thousands of dollars. Many of them are earning tens of thousands of dollars per year. I would guess that most of them have at least paid back their initial investment.

HOWEVER, Option 5 is not necessarily that great of a plan for novice writers. A badly written book is not going to sell. Most books by authors at the Freshman or Sophomore level are not going to sell. (See my article Freshman, Sophomore, Junior, Author! for definitions of these terms.) A Junior or Senior level writer might do well. Then again, they might not. A lot depends on how good the cover is and how good the marketing copy is.

So Joan, back to you. Those are the options. None of them are drenched in gold. Every one of them has some potential hazards, (and Option 3 is the poison pill from hell). What’s a writer to do?

I have given this advice many times, but it’s worth saying again. Learn your craft. Master your craft. You do that by studying from the experts, writing your tail off, getting critiqued by somebody who knows how fiction works. And then do it again, over and over for the rest of your life. That’s how I got published. Stephen King did it the exact same way.

That’s how you’ll do it if you succeed. I wish you good luck, and I hope that the information you find on this site will move you a little closer to your dreams. Have fun!

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

Defining the Category of Your Novel in the New Age of Publishing

How do you know the category or genre of that pesky novel you’re writing? Is there some infallible way to know your category?

Lisa posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Randy reading the question today about target audience got me thinking of another area I am having difficulty narrowing down. Genre/category.

It seems so simple on the surface, but in reality there are so many parts of a novel that it is difficult. I have even seem some authors call there book one thing while agents and editors call it another.

To make it even more difficult bookstores here have three sections Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Romance, and Fiction. So how is an aspiring author to learn where their book belongs if they never see categories on the book store shelves.

I think I am writing literary suspense (maybe action) because my book is character driven with a plot based around family relationships (so literary) but it is also driven by external events that put the characters in danger (so suspense/action) I think..but there are supernatural elements that could put it in fantasy as well so how is a writer to know?

I am yet to see a list of criteria for telling what genre is what but perhaps I am not looking in the right places please help!

Randy sez: Category is complicated. I discovered this when I was writing my book Writing Fiction for Dummies and got to Chapter 3, on “Finding Your Audience and Category.” I thought this chapter would be a breeze to write, but the more I thought about it, the more subtleties I saw.

I had to talk to a number of author, editor, and agent friends to get it all untangled in my mind. Uber-agent Chip MacGregor was probably the most helpful at getting it all sorted out. Chip was the acquisition editor of my first novel; later on he became my second agent; later on, he spent a couple of years as Publisher at Time-Warner. Now, he’s back to the agenting business and he’s one of my most-respected go-to guys when it comes to questions about the publishing world.

The main thing I realized after talking to Chip is that the primary category of a novel is sometimes defined by its content and sometimes by its target audience.

There are several categories that are defined by the target audience:

  • Children’s Fiction
  • Young Adult Fiction
  • Christian Fiction

If your book falls in one of these categories, then that is its primary category and your book will be shelved in that section of the bookstore.

I have a number of friends who write Christian fiction, and this drives them nuts. If they write mystery, they want it shelved with the other mysteries, not in the Christian section where they’ll be jumbled up with the Amish fiction, the sweet romances, the suspense novels, and what not.

Fact is, you’re not going to change the system by complaining about it. This is the way bookstores do it and they believe they can run their business without any help from the authors. So if you write in any of the above categories, that’s your primary category.

Most fiction will be categorized by its content, however. Here are some of the usual categories:

  • Romance
  • Thriller (or suspense)
  • Mystery/crime
  • Science Fiction & Fantasy
  • Horror
  • Literary
  • General

These are not fixed in stone. Different bookstores may break out Mystery from Crime, or Science Fiction from Fantasy.

You may also see a Women’s Fiction section, which is like the Children’s, Young Adult, and Christian categories in the sense that it is defined by its target audience. However, it’s unlike them because it generally has no subcategories.

Note that Literary fiction is not defined by its content but by its voice. In Literary fiction, style and theme often play a large role, and language is considered an artistic medium, rather than just a tool to get the job done.

If you really want to get confused, check out Amazon, where the classification scheme can go really deep, with a given category having numerous subcategories, each of which can have subcategories, and often subsubcategories. The paper book store is organized a bit differently from the e-book store. Barnes & Noble is organized differently, and Smashwords is different yet.

Lisa, you describe your book as literary suspense, with possible fantasy elements in it.

It’s not clear to me that the term “literary” applies. I’d need to read a bit to get a feel for your voice and use of language. Having a plot based on family relationships is not what would make it a literary novel (although plenty of literary novels do that). It might actually be women’s fiction, or general fiction. I can’t tell without more information. One thing an agent would do for you is to help you nail down whether the term “literary” applies to your fiction.

Also, it’s not entirely obvious whether the category “suspense” applies to your work. Many novels have an element of danger, but they are suspense novels only when the suspense is the primary aspect of the novel. (In the same way, many novels have a romance thread, but they are romance novels only when the romance is the main story.)

Finally, having supernatural elements doesn’t automatically make the book a fantasy novel, unless those are the primary driver for the story.

Ask yourself what’s the main thing that makes the story go? It sounds to me like it’s the family relationships. To me, that would make it either women’s fiction or general (or some people might use the term “mainstream”).

If you’re working with a traditional publisher, then you really need to nail down the primary category and be very sure that’s what it is. The reason is because the publisher will want to sell your book into bookstores, and the bookstore people really insist that they know what section of the store to shelve the book.

Things have become incredibly murky in this new age of publishing in which authors work directly with the online retailers to publish their fiction. There is no shelf in an online store. An e-book on Amazon can be listed under two categories, and they might be completely different. Barnes & Noble lets you define up to FIVE categories.

I spent quite a lot of time thinking about categories when I released the second editions of my novels OXYGEN and THE FIFTH MAN as e-books. Both of them are apparently science fiction novels (about the first manned mission to Mars).

But I’m a suspense writer, and the only reason I ever agreed to work with my coauthor John Olson on these books was because of the very high suspense content.

John particularly likes fiction with a strong romantic storyline and he absolutely loves fantasy.

Since there were no particular requirements to define only one main category, John and I finally decided to give the book the following categories (with subcategories in parentheses) on Amazon:

  • Science Fiction (Adventure)
  • Romance (Fantasy&Futuristic)

We assigned similar categories and subcategories on the other online retailers. It’s hard to know what to call a book, sometimes. The new world of online publishing makes it a lot easier to mix categories and have the best of several different worlds.

Lisa, I hope that answered your question. The bottom line is that assigning a category can be HARD. It’s often very confusing and sometimes can get messy.

Ultimately, the main thing that matters is that your readers know why they like your fiction and know what they get out of it.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

Defining the Target Audience for Your Novel

How do you define the target audience for your novel? After all, you want everybody to read your book, right?

Rory posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Hey Randy,

I’m currently reading your “Writing Fiction for Dummies” book, and I’ve come across something which I’m having trouble dealing with.

I’m trying to find out who my ideal reader is, and I just don’t know. I try and relate it to what I like to write, for instance: I want to write a story in an action/adventure genre, with deep characters and an exciting and twisted plot, with a fantastical and/or sci-fi storyworld (Or at least elements of them added to our own world).

The problem is, I don’t know what my target audience is, I mean of course they’ll enjoy what I’ve mentioned above, but actually defining that group of people is what I’m finding hard.

Would they be like me? My interests, my view on life and the world, my kind of lifestyle and personality etc. Or would they be completely different?

Also as a side note, will your target audience and what you want to write stay the same for every novel and story you write or will that change? I have a few different ideas for novels which I really want to write, but as they may focus on the same idea as mentioned above, they do change in how involved the storyworld is and the theme etc.

If you could help me out I’d really appreciate it.

Randy sez: Let’s tackle the easy question first, which is whether your target audience will be different for different books. The answer is “Yes, but hopefully not very much.”

I like to distinguish between the General Target Audience (people who would be interested in your fiction as a whole) and your Specific Target Audience for each book (people who would be interested in that particular book).

You should expect that there is a lot of overlap between these two target audiences, but they generally aren’t identical.

As an example, the General Target Audience for this web site is “anyone who wants to write a novel”. My wildly popular Snowflake method page on this site has a smaller Specific Target Audience, “anyone who wants to plan their novel before they write it.”

Snowflakers are a subset of the people who want to write a novel. They’re a large subset, but there are plenty of novelists who prefer a seat-of-the-pants approach to writing their first draft (or an edit-as-you-go approach, or a detailed synopsis, or some other system).

Many novelists can define their General Target Audience in terms of the category and voice that their target readers prefer. Stephen King’s General Target Audience likes horror written with strong characters but without the stylistic trappings of a literary novel. This is a pretty big audience, but it obviously doesn’t include everyone. No book will appeal to everyone.

Sometimes, it’s relevant to narrow a target audience down further with demographic information, such as age, gender, income levels, or viewpoints on religion or politics.

Romance writers typically target women readers and often specialize to a particular age group (“twenty-somethings” or “empty-nesters” or whatever).

Literary novelists presumably target readers with quite a lot of education and sophistication.

Authors of Amish fiction target conservative Christians who yearn for a simpler, more wholesome way of life.

Ayn Rand targeted readers with a strong libertarian bent.

None of these ways of defining a target reader is always right or always wrong. They make sense when they make sense.

I recently got the cover art for a forthcoming e-book that I’m bringing back into print. (It was published years ago and went out of print). I love this cover. I think it’s my best cover ever. It makes me want to tweak the book just a wee bit so it fully lives up to the promise of the cover. I showed it to some friends of mine. One of them told me that she likes it, but she wanted to know who the target audience is.

I said, “The target audience is people who like this cover.”

Sometimes that’s all you need.

Rory, in your case, it probably makes sense to define your target audience in terms of the category and style of writing they like. I would assume you are part of your own target audience, so it’ll make sense if they look a bit like you. But you probably don’t need to define your target audience in demographic terms. I’d guess that there are some people of all ages and some people from most of the common genders who’ll like your book. But there will be plenty of people who don’t care for your book at all, even though they outwardly look exactly like someone in your target audience.

So in your case, you might want to pick five or six authors who do particular things in the same way you’re trying to do them. For example, you might say, “My target audience is composed of people who loved Orson Scott Card’s book ENDER’S GAME because of the intense action scenes. They are people who loved the epic storyworld of Frank Herbert’s DUNE. They are people who…”

You want to be cautious when you define a target audience this way. The fact is that you aren’t Orson Scott Card or Frank Herbert. If you define your target audience in a book proposal, you need to make it clear that you are targeting readers who like a particular type of fiction, without giving the impression that you imagine yourself to be in the same league as the authors who write that fiction.

Agents and editors see too many proposals that say, “I write like John Grisham (or J.K. Rowling, or Nora Roberts, or whoever), only I’m way better.” A proposal like that almost guarantees a rejection. It’s a sign of an amateur. Don’t act like an amateur.

Always be aware that there are people who will hate your book. No writer on the planet ever wrote a book that appealed to everybody. J.K. Rowling and James Patterson and Stephen King have all sold boatloads of books, but there are readers out there who have looked at the work of each of these authors and said, “Not for me.”

The important thing is that you know what it is your target reader is looking for. Then you can write a book especially for that target reader. It doesn’t matter if your book offends everybody else. As long as it delights your target reader, you will always have a market for your novel.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.

What Author Name Should You Put On Your Cover?

When you’re writing a novel, how do you decide what author name to use on the cover?

Jessica posted this question on my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page:

Hi Randy, I love both your blog and e-zine!

My question is whether I should publish under a pseudonym or not. Unfortunately my name (Jessica Smith) is an incredibly common name and so I share it with at least one already published author, although she writes in a different genre to me and uses her middle name too. Does this mean I should publish under a pseudonym instead? Thank you for taking the time to answer my question!

Randy sez: This is a good question and it’s going to affect you for the rest of your publishing career, so it’s worth thinking about carefully.

When I started writing, I though you were “supposed to” use your legal name. So my first several books were all published under the name “Randall Ingermanson.” But NOBODY on the planet calls me “Randall” except telemarketers. Everybody calls me “Randy.” Furthermore, my name is long enough that it causes problems on the cover.

So I’ve recently switched to using the author name “Randy Ingermanson” which feels less formal and more right. Plus it saves two letters on the cover. This has caused me some hassle to make sure that online retailers know that “Randall” and “Randy” are the same person. In the long run, I think it’ll pay off.

It would have been smarter if I’d started off using the right name from the beginning.

Jessica, you have several options, each with advantages and disadvantages, and only you have enough information to decide which is right for you. I don’t know your middle name, so I made one up for you in the examples that follow:

  • Use your name: Jessica Smith
  • Use your full name: Jessica Gretchen Smith
  • Use your initials: J.G. Smith
  • Use a pseudonym

The advantage of using “Jessica Smith” is that it’s the name everybody already knows you by. When your friends and family search for you, they’ll find you easily. The disadvantage is that there’ll be a bit of confusion with that other Jessica Smith. However, she’s done you the favor of using her middle name, which leaves you free to not use yours.

The advantage of using “Jessica Gretchen Smith” is that it mostly removes the confusion with that other Jessica. Mostly, but not completely. However, this solution is less confusing than using “Jessica Smith” so it might be a good bet if your middle name isn’t too long. You do need your name to fit on the cover in a readable size font. That would be the main disadvantage I can see–if it makes your name too long.

The advantage of “J.G. Smith” is that you remove the ambiguity with the other Jessica. However, there might be another “J.G. Smith” out there, so this might just trade one ambiguity for another. Plenty of authors use initials. J.K. Rowling and J.D. Robb seem to have done OK that way. For sure, your name will be short enough so your publisher can put your name in giant letters on the cover. But you’ll always have to remind your family and friends to look for “J.G.” instead of “Jessica”.

The advantage of a pseudonym is that you have almost infinite freedom to choose a name that’s unique, cool, memorable, and short. The disadvantage of a pseudonym is that you have almost infinite freedom to choose a name that’s unique, cool, memorable, and short. Plus you have to constantly explain to people why you don’t use your real name. Plus, if you ever make it big, all those jerks who ignored you in high school will never know and won’t beat themselves up for being awful to you.

None of the above is a really bad option. If your middle name is short enough, then that option might be the best. But it’s up to you.

The really critical question is this: How important is it to avoid the ambiguity?

For example, if you were writing sweet Amish romances and the other Jessica were writing naughty erotica, then it would be Xtremely important and you should try as hard as possible to differentiate your name from hers.

However, if you were writing police procedural mysteries and she were writing category romances, it would probably be not much of a problem and you wouldn’t need to work quite so hard.

If you’ve got a question you’d like me to answer in public on this blog, hop on over to my “Ask A Question For My Blog” page and submit your question. I’ll answer them in the order they come in.