Archive | October, 2012

Liars and Outliers In The Publishing World

“There are three kinds of lies: Lies, damned lies, and statistics.”

Mark Twain made this saying famous in the US and he attributed it to Disraeli, but it’s not clear who said it first.

And why should we novelists care about statistics? That’s simple. Because the publishing world thrives on statistics. Print runs. Sell-in. Sell-through. Amazon ranks. Dollars earned. Royalty rates.

Last weekend I was at the Novelists Inc. (Ninc) conference in White Plains, New York and had a great time meeting a number of authors, editors, and agents.

One of the words I heard most was this one: “outlier”.

Bella Andre, a self-published romance novelist who has hit the New York Times bestseller list is said to be an “outlier.” (Bella recently sold the rights to the paper editions of her novels to Harlequin MIRA, while retaining the e-book rights.)

Barbara Freethy, who has sold over 2.7 million e-books of her self-published titles is said to be another “outlier.”

Julie Ortolon, who is selling boatloads of self-published e-books, is supposed to be yet another “outlier.”

These authors join a cast of other “outliers” who’ve sold massive numbers of e-books in the last couple of years: Amanda Hocking, John Locke, and Bob Mayer all come to mind.

What is an outlier and why are there so many of them lately?

Malcolm Gladwell popularized the term “outlier” with his book, Outliers: The Story of Success,” published in 2008. As Gladwell explains on his web site:

“Outlier” is a scientific term to describe things or phenomena that lie outside normal experience. In the summer, in Paris, we expect most days to be somewhere between warm and very hot. But imagine if you had a day in the middle of August where the temperature fell below freezing. That day would be outlier. In this book I’m interested in people who are outliers—in men and women who, for one reason or another, are so accomplished and so extraordinary and so outside of ordinary experience that they are as puzzling to the rest of us as a cold day in August.

Let me put on my physicist hat for a minute. In science, an “outlier” is anything that is so improbable that it demands an explanation. Some examples:

  • A basketball player’s height is listed as 68 feet. This is in fact impossible. No human could be 68 feet tall. The most likely explanation is that the player’s height is 6’8″ and somebody made a typo when recording it. This kind of outlier is a simple mistake.
  • In 1610, Galileo pointed his telescope at Jupiter and noticed four moons circling it. The current theory of astronomers then was that all the heavenly bodies — the sun, the moon, the planets, the stars — circled the earth. By this theory, it was impossible for moons to be orbiting Jupiter. But there they were. It took a few decades, but eventually it became clear that the existing theory was wrong. This began a revolution in science that continues to this day. This kind of outlier is a sign of a wrong theory.
  • In 1982, an experiment at Stanford University detected an event which appeared to match the signature of a magnetic monopole. According to current physics theories, magnetic monopoles can possibly exist, but none had ever been seen before. None has ever been seen since, although a number of experiments have searched for more monopoles. There is no obvious interpretation for the event. This kind of outlier has to be classified as an unsolved mystery. It could be a mistake. It could be a Nobel-prize-worthy discovery awaiting confirmation. Nobody knows.
  • Every so often, one of the major lotteries has a jackpot that goes up into the hundreds of millions of dollars. Eventually somebody wins it. The odds against winning are fantastically high, and the winner appears to be an “outlier”. However, the explanation for these “outliers” is simple: Somebody has to win the lottery. If you continue running the lottery long enough, somebody always does. It’s a statistical certainty.

So now back to the many so-called “outliers” in the publishing world. What’s going on here? Are they simply mistakes? Harbingers of a faulty theory? Unsolved mysteries? Or statistical certainties?

I think it’s obvious that these authors aren’t simply mistakes. Nobody added a couple of extra zeroes to these people’s sales numbers. The top self-published authors really are selling millions of copies.

There has been a lot of talk about the “e-book revolution” and some people believe that this means that the world is changing to one in which all authors will be rich. I believe there may be some truth to this, but it’s exaggerated. I believe that MORE authors will be rich in the future (because more money will be going direct to authors and less will be going to large corporations and to agents). But I don’t think that all authors will ever be rich. There will always be bad books that don’t sell. Always.

Are the new “outlier authors” unsolved mysteries that can be ignored because they’re not repeatable? This seems to be the view of some agents and editors I’ve talked to. In my view, they’re wrong. There are just too many authors selling millions of copies of self-published e-books. There needs to be a simple explanation. And there is . . .

Are these best-selling self-published authors merely statistical certainties? Are they like the lottery winners — somebody has to win, but whoever does is just plain lucky? The answer, I believe, is “partly yes and partly no.”

Yes, it’s a statistical certainty that there will be a few big winners among self-published authors.

No, they aren’t “just lucky.”

Here’s what’s going on, and in my view, it’s pretty exciting:

People often assume that there is some sort of “bell-shaped curve” that tells you how much authors are going to earn. According to this notion, there ought to be a few big winners, a few authors who earn almost nothing, and most of the authors are “in the middle” and earning a moderate amount.

That idea is completely wrong. That has never been true in publishing. There have always been a tiny number of gigantic-earning authors, a few high-earning authors, a fair number of moderate-earning authors, and a very large number of poorly-earning authors. That’s not a bell-shaped curve. It’s the 80-20 rule. 20% of the authors earn 80% of the money. Mathematicians call this a “Pareto distribution.” It’s not fair, but it’s the way things have always been in traditional publishing.

Exactly the same thing is happening in the new class of self-published authors. There are a tiny number of gigantic winners. A few big winners. A fair number of moderate-earning authors. And a huge number of authors who earn very little. And let’s be clear, the big winners aren’t merely “lucky.” They’re reaping the rewards of talent plus hard work.

Only a couple of things have changed, but they’re highly significant.

First, with traditional publishing, most of the money paid to the publisher didn’t go to the author. Some of the money went to the printer, some to the truck driver, some to the warehouse guy, some to the editorial staff, some to the sales team, some to the marketing people, some to the publicity people, some to the janitor, and some to the stockholders. By dribs and drabs, a lot of money leaked out, and the author ended up with 5% or 10% or possibly as much as 15%.

Second, with self-publishing, authors tend to price their e-books lower than the trad-publishers and those low prices tend to earn much more money.

In a nutshell, a self-pubbed author prices e-books smarter and gets all the money. These two facts make a huge difference.

A novice author who might have not sold at all to a trad publisher now earns a few bucks or a few hundred by self-publishing. Not much, but enough to get on the board.

A good debut author who might have earned $3k to $5k from a trad publisher now earns that much or more by self-publishing. Still not much, but the remarkable thing is that it’s sometimes a whole lot more than they’d have earned with a trad publisher.

A more seasoned author who might have earned $20k to $50k from a trad publisher now earns (in some cases) six figures.

An author with a strong brand and a good following who might have earned $100k from a trad publisher now earns (in some cases) seven figures.

Let’s be clear that there are no guarantees here. I know trad-published authors who’ve tried self-pubbing and have hardly earned anything. But I’ve also heard from a lot of formerly trad-published authors who are now doing MUCH better by self-publishing.

Something is going on here, and it’s lame to call successful self-pubbers “outliers”. Once an outlier is explained, it’s no longer an outlier. And I’ve given the explanation above.

Just to summarize it all, the explanation is in three parts:

  • The Pareto distribution guarantees that there will be some big winners, a fair number of moderate winners, and a large number of low-earners. Just like with trad-publishing.
  • With digital self-publishing, more of the money goes to authors than with trad-publishing.
  • Self-pubbers tend to price their e-books smarter than trad publishers.

Given all this, does it make sense for authors to still have agents and to still work with trad-publishers?

Of course it does. Trad-publishers do paper books at a scale that beats what an individual author can do. This is why superstar Bella Andre sold the paper rights to her books to Harlequin MIRA. But she kept the e-rights. Why? Because she believed she could market her e-books better than any publisher. A lot of authors I’ve talked to believe they can do this better.

This week, Penguin and Random House announced plans to merge. The obvious reason is that a merger will let them get more efficient at producing and selling paper books. It’s not clear that a merger will make them a dime’s worth more efficient at producing and selling e-books. Paper books need scale. E-books don’t.

One last thing that I should be clear on: Some authors are not entrepreneurs and will do better by trad-publishing. The self-pubbed authors who do best appear to me to all have a strong entrepreneurial spirit. There is no reason for trad-published authors and self-pubbers to look down on each other. Many authors choose a hybrid model, where they trad-publish some of their books and self-publish others. Whatever works is fine.

But let’s have no more dismissing the most successful self-pubbers as “outliers.” An outlier ceases to be an outlier when you know the explanation.

And now you do.

My #1 Tip For Teen Novelists

At least a couple of times per week, I hear from young novelists. They all have the same two basic concerns:

  • “I’m only 12 years old [or 15 or 17 or whatever]. Will anyone take me seriously?”
  • “Do you have any tips for me?”

Randy sez: Since these two questions seem to be universal with writers under the age of 20, I’ll deal with them today.

First, is it possible for a 12 year old fiction writer to be taken seriously?

Yes, of course. IF the writing is good. The same is true if you’re 22, 42, or 102. Age doesn’t matter. What matters is quality. If you have great writing, you’ll be taken seriously. If your writing is really lame, then you won’t. Simple as that.

Now the problem is that the average amount of time it takes to become a good writer is five to ten years. One of my friends took 26 years to get published. I took 11. I have some friends who got their very first book published within a couple of years of starting writing. (Grrrrrr!)

Quality takes time. If you’re only 12 years old, then the odds are pretty high that you just haven’t put in enough time yet to become a good writer. (The usual estimate is that it takes an average of 2000 hours of writing time to get good enough to be published. Of course, some super-talented writers take fewer hours, and some writers just plain don’t have the talent and will never get published no matter how many hours they put in.)

If you’re 12 now and start writing consistently, you’ll probably get published at a much earlier age than the guy who starts writing seriously at age 29 (which is the age I started). A head start is a head start.

There’s one other issue with young writers, of course, which is that a 12 year old just doesn’t have as much of that pesky “life experience” as someone in their thirties or forties. And life experience is one of the main ingredients that go into fiction writing.

Bottom line, if you’re 12 years old, go ahead and write fiction with the expectation that you have a chance at getting published someday. The key word here is “someday.” Probably won’t happen this year. Or next year. Probably won’t happen before you graduate from high school. Could happen sometime during your college years (and how cool would that be, to be already published when you graduate from college?)

There’s just no reason to put off learning to write fiction. The sooner the better. Start today. If you have talent, never give up. If you don’t have talent, then that’ll become clear eventually and you’ll naturally turn to something else for which you do have talent.

Now on to that second question, about “tips” for writers. I’m not sure why, but this request seems to come only from teens. I can’t remember an adult ever asking for “tips” on fiction writing. I won’t speculate on the reasons for that — it’s just my observation.

And the simple answer is, “No.”

Writing fiction is a complex task that nobody ever fully masters. It’s like being a chess grandmaster or a brain surgeon or a fighter pilot. A few tips just aren’t going to cut it. You’ll never do brain surgery with a couple of tips on slicing open a head. You just won’t.

Tips won’t make you a novelist. Here are the four things that will:

  • Talent.
  • Training.
  • Practice.
  • Critiques.

Talent is what you’re born with. If you have talent, then be grateful to God or your parents or the blind shuffling of DNA, whichever you think most appropriate to thank. Talent is required, but it’s also overrated, in my opinion. Lots of people have talent. Most of them don’t do much with it.

Training is what you get from teachers like me, from web sites like this one, and from books. Training massively speeds up your learning process, because it gives you a thousand rules of thumb for what usually works and what usually doesn’t. There is no substitute for training. The day I discovered Dwight Swain’s classic book TECHNIQUES OF THE SELLING WRITER was the day I started making real progress. Part of the reason I wrote my book WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES was as payback to the writing community for the years of training I got.

Practice is the hard work you put in, day after day, year after year. Millions of writers have talent. Hundreds of thousands of them get training. But only tens of thousands of them ever put in the practice time that it takes to become a publishable novelist. If you want to be a writer, then write. A million words is usually enough.

Critiques are the feedback you get from other writers and from editors. Getting critiqued is painful. So is running hills, but hills make you strong. Getting critiqued makes you strong. You need to be careful about who you get critiques from. You have to find somebody who knows what they’re talking about and who also gets your writing. You may find a critique group with several other writers. You may find a critique buddy. You may find a professional freelance editor. Every writer is different, so the group or buddy or editor that works for other people may not work for you.

So that’s my tip on fiction writing — there are no tips. There are no easy roads to glory. If there were, everybody would be a bestselling author earning a fabulous living while lounging around the pool.

I don’t know the exact number, but I would guess there are maybe a thousand authors in the US who earn a full-time living writing fiction. There are tens of thousands more who earn a part-time living.

But just about all published authors have plenty of talent and work their tails off. Most of them, early in their careers, got the training they needed and found a critique group or critique buddy or freelance editor who really got them.

If a teen writer has talent, there is no reason he or she can’t someday get published. Not right away, but someday. Just add training, practice, and critiques.

And by the way, NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) is coming up in November. If you want to have some fun and get a bit of group discipline to write a 50,000+ word novel, there may be no better way than by doing NaNoWriMo.

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.

Should You Self-publish Your Novel?

Writers these days have two roads to fame and glory — self-publish or go with a traditional publisher. How do you decide which road to take? Will self-publishing ruin your reputation? Will traditional publishers cheat you out of your hard-earned money?

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

I need help and advise.

I was planning to self publish, hoping to evaluate the performance of the book in terms of sales and readership before trying to use the traditional publishers. then while i was doing my research, i realised that you have traveled both routes – published by traditional publishers – Zondervan and also by Bookbaby (self-publishing.) I would like to be advised on the best route for a beginner like me.

I would be happy to be assisted please.

Thank you and God bless you and your team

Randy sez: You’ve put your finger on the question that many writers are asking these days, Despan.

I should clarify one point, however. I’ve published with several traditional publishers, but my self-publishing has been with Amazon/Barnes&Noble/Smashwords/Apple, rather than with Book Baby. I have nothing against Book Baby, but I haven’t worked with them. The two books that I’ve self-published have been second editions of books that were originally published with traditional publishers.

A large number of my published author friends have done exactly what I’ve done with their out-of-print novels — they’ve edited them, paid a graphic designer to create cover art, packaged it up as an e-book, and posted it for sale on the major online retailers.

Some of my author friends report no luck with these ventures. Some of them report very good results. I’d classify my results so far as fairly good. I think that as I release more e-books, they’ll all do better. One of the best ways to promote an e-book is with another e-book (since all your books should list all the others).

In the case of out-of-print novels, it’s a no-brainer to self-publish it. The cost is pretty minimal. The potential revenue is huge. Few traditional publishers are willing to republish your out-of-print novel, so that’s rarely an option.

But what if you’ve got a novel that has not yet been published? Should you self-publish it or go with a traditional publisher?

I suppose the answer to that depends on your goals.

If the main thing you want is to see your name on the cover of a book and you really don’t care if it earns any money, then your quickest way to get there is to self-publish it.

If the main thing you want is to get the ego boost that comes from being validated by a traditional publisher, then you can rule out self-publishing. You have to go with a traditional publisher.

Being a selfish guy, my main priority is to earn the most money for each book.

Let’s all remember, of course, that publishing a book is a very low-probability way to earn a lot of money. So let’s be clear on this — I didn’t decide to become a writer for the money. I became a writer because writing is in my blood and I can’t help myself. Having made that decision to become a writer, I want to maximize the money that I’ll earn. It just seems dumb to make decisions that would minimize my earnings.

I hope we’re clear on that, but just in case we’re not, I’ll repeat it. Writing will probably not make you rich. But if you know that and still want to be a writer, you should at least try to earn the most you can from it.

Here is my #1 piece of advice on self-publishing: Never self-publish a book unless you believe that it’s good enough that you could sell it to a traditional publisher.

Why? Because if your book is so bad that you couldn’t ever hope to sell it to any traditional publisher on the planet, that probably means that readers are going to hate it. Yes, there are a few rare exceptions to this, but mostly it’s true. Would you read a book that every traditional publisher thought was terrible? I didn’t think so. Treat readers the way you want to be treated.

So let’s assume that you’ve got a manuscript and you’re pretty sure it’s good enough to sell to a traditional publisher. How do you proceed?

That leads to my #2 piece of advice on self-publishing: Never self-publish a book unless you believe that you could market it at least 20% as well as a traditional publisher.

The reason for that rule is simple. Traditional publishers typically pay royalty rates of 25% of net revenues on e-books. Your agent will take 15% of that 25%, leaving you with about 21% of net revenues. I rounded that 21% down to 20% for simplicity. So if your publisher can sell 10,000 copies of your novel, then you only need to sell about 2,100 self-published copies at that same price point to generate the same amount of revenue. Of course, you might lower the price and then you’d need to move more copies, but you get the picture.

What if you know you’re horrible at marketing? I’d say in that case you’ve got no choice but to go with a traditional publisher. Of course, most traditional publishers these days expect their authors to do the lion’s share of the marketing. So being horrible at marketing is a bad idea these days. Don’t be horrible at marketing. Learn how to be an effective marketer.

What if you know your book could never sell to a traditional publisher? I’d say in that case you should work on your craft. Writing a novel is easy. Writing a good novel is hard. Give yourself the time and training to become excellent. You wouldn’t try to become a brain surgeon with 50 hours of training. Nor a fighter pilot. Nor a chess grandmaster.

Learning to write fiction well takes hundreds or thousands of hours of work. That may sound like bad news, but the flip side is that it’s also bad news for all those other wannabes you’re competing with. If you put in the time and they don’t, then who’s going to win?

I have a few other bits of advice if you want to self-publish your novel:

  • Get your novel edited by a professional freelance editor. I believe that no novelist on the planet should be his own editor. You need an objective hard-eyed critique of your fiction. I don’t do freelance editing, by the way, so please nobody ask me what my rates are because I’m not available at any price. And yes, I follow this advice myself. I always hire talented editors to critique my work.
  • Pay a graphic designer to create the cover art for your book. Very few authors have graphic design skills. Find somebody who does.
  • Don’t spend massive amounts of time and money trying to do social marketing. This is merely my opinion. I’m aware that the vast majority of writers believe that social media will take us all to nirvana. Being a numbers guy, I’m skeptical. But I don’t have time to elaborate here. I often teach marketing at conferences, and it takes a few hours to lay out my vision of how to do marketing right. Social media is a small sliver of that, and should not suck huge amounts of time out of your life.

Well, Despan, I hope that helps. I talk to editors and agents all the time, and if I can distill what they tell me down to one thing, it’s this: “Be a brilliant writer.”

Easy to say. Horribly hard to do. But if you become a brilliant writer, you have a lot better chance of succeeding in the wild and crazy world of publishing. There is no certainty, ever. But brilliant writers have the odds in their favor.

Good luck!

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 If You’re Writing A Novel But Don’t Have A Story?

So you want to write a novel, but you don’t have a story yet. Everything you think of has been done before. What do you do?

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

Hi Randy

I’m halfway through reading your ‘writing fiction for dummies’ book and I felt the urge to contact you for advice on what I hope is a common issue for many aspiring writers.

I say ‘hope’ because I hope you have the answer :)

Essentially I want to write a novel, but I have no storyline. Anytime I concoct a storyline in my head it feels stereotypical / not unique. On my computer I have Snoflake Pro open and an MS word document open. Both empty but for a blinking cursor.

I suspect i am suffering from having not discovered my creative paradigm as you describe. I purchased your Snowflake Pro with the belief it underpinned the logical approach I take to nearly everything I do. I seem to be drawing a blank though.

It may be an impossible question to answer, but do you have any tips or methods to share in terms of how does one decide on what story they want to tell.

Not unreasonably, your book and software probably assumes the reader has a storyline, so the more I progress through the book the more I feel I am not ready to progress. Sometimes I feel there are concepts in the book where it would be infinitaley easier had I nailed my storyline already.

I guess the one-liner here is “you know you want to write, but you don’t know what to write about”. Is there a method to even narrow it down?

The genres that interest me are Spy, Thriller, Military, Private Eye stuff. I feel this where I belong based on my own interests and fairly average military background.

The story-world time period also seems to present a challenge. Modern day stuff feels so saturated and unless you are Tom Clancy probably difficult to research. World War II era would be easier to research and I already have alot of foundation knowledge in that area, but I am bit skeptical on the market demand for WWII Fiction. My childhood fantasy world consisted of a private eye scenario with a dingy office and a hot assistant, and whilst I get a surge of creativity down this line, it feels so overdone. In some ways it is all a bit intimidating. Perhaps it is just a state of mind I need to get into whereby it doesn’t matter?

I don’t know, is the answer that ‘overdone’ is OK? There is always a market for the overdone as long as you can do it well? If I went down this path is it recommended to at least identify and implement a differentiator or variation?

In any event, I hope these questions are not inappropriately soliciting free consulting but I have grown to view your book as my early mentor and as a result felt comfortable enough to pose the question. Ironically, writing this email has helped me somewhat but I would truly value your insight.

Thanks and Best Regards.

Randy sez: Wow, that’s a long question, Gavin. Actually, at least two questions, if I’m not mistaken. Fortunately, both of them have short answers.

The first question has to do with originality. What if the story you want to write has been done before? The answer to that is, welcome to reality. Every story idea has been done before at some level. Your problem is to find a way to do a story that’s been done before in a way that hasn’t been done before. That’s the problem every author has every time they sit down to write a new novel.

I wouldn’t worry about this too much. Even if it’s been done before, take it and run with it and see what you come up with. An old story can seem very different if it’s got a fresh new character or a different storyworld or some new spark that makes it unique. Sometimes, that new spark only comes as you write. This is especially true for seat-of-the-pants writers, but I think it’s true for all of us. Most of my ideas come to me while I’m actually writing the first draft. Yes, even when I’ve got the high-level plan for the book mapped out. That’s not a bad thing, it’s a good thing.

The second question is this one, which I quote: “you know you want to write, but you don’t know what to write about”. Gavin, I think the solution to this is to read more. You know in general the sort of story you want to write, but you don’t know exactly what yet. You have no story burning a hole in your brain begging to get out.

So go read a bunch more books. Nothing inspires me like reading a new author or a new genre. If writing fiction is in your blood, then at some point you’ll find a book or an author and you’ll say, “Man, I’d like to write a story kind of like that, only way different.” And then you’ve got something you can run with.

But what if that never happens? What if you never get obsessed with an idea for a story? In that case, my guess is that writing fiction is not in your blood, and it might be best to try something else. There are many other ways to be happy in life than by writing fiction.

At some point while I was in graduate school working on my Ph.D. in physics, I realized that I’d never be really happy unless I gave myself the chance to write one particular story. It’s a long story that has so far spanned several novels and still isn’t complete, but it will be someday.

If that never happens to you, Gavin, it doesn’t mean you’re a bad person. But it might mean that you aren’t cut out to be a fiction writer. If that’s the case, then there’s some other thing you can do with your life that you’ll love far more than writing fiction.

If you’re a novelist, the one thing you can’t do without is passion for your story. Without passion, nothing you write will be good. With it, you won’t be able to keep yourself from writing.

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.