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publishing business

Romance and Fantasy

My panel last weekend at the Nebula conference was about romance and science fiction/fantasy. As usual, I thought of all the good things to say in the middle of the night days after the panel, so I’ll discuss the topic here.

I’ll admit that I have mixed feelings about being put on the romance and sf panel every year, at just about every convention. I don’t mind so much at the Nebulas, since I probably do have more expertise in that area than most people at that conference, having actually written romance novels, and that conference is aimed at writers. But I also feel like I’m getting “typecast” by the industry in general, both at conventions and by publishers, and the fact that I keep ending up on the romance or paranormal romance panels may perpetuate that typecasting.

The thing is, I last wrote romance more than 20 years ago. I haven’t been involved with Romance Writers of America for about a decade. The books I write now could not be shelved as romance and wouldn’t even be considered by a romance publisher. The Enchanted, Inc. books got shelved as general fiction because they were published as “chick lit,” which is not romance, and that publisher keeps doing Book Bub ads (which is good) for them as paranormal romance, which they aren’t (which is not so good). When you look at that book, the heroine has bad dates with multiple guys, and just has a bit of attraction to the guy who ends up being the romantic interest for the series. There’s not even a kiss until book two. I said on the panel that I write “shipper bait” because the romantic content is more about readers wanting my characters to get together than it is about actual romance on the page. People consider my books romantic, but I think that’s mostly because they make readers feel romantic. It’s not because there’s that much romance in the books.

When it comes to readers, I don’t care how they consider the books, as long as they’re reading them. The problem I have is when it comes to publishers, because they persist in seeing me as a romance writer. As I mentioned, the publisher for Enchanted, Inc. promotes it as paranormal romance. If someone is really looking for paranormal romance, they’d be disappointed in this book, in which the only real romantic content is a general sense that you like this guy the heroine has no romantic relationship with and you want them to get together. Some readers are cool with that. I’m sure others are disappointed, and then there are all the readers who might like it because they aren’t looking for romance, but they aren’t being promoted to so they don’t find it or know about it. Then the fact that it’s promoted as paranormal romance means that the people who buy it also buy paranormal romances, and that triggers the bookselling algorithms, so it’s recommended to people who also bought paranormal romances, who are less likely to actually like it, and it’s not being promoted to people who might like it.

Then there’s the way publishers see other things I write. A Fairy Tale was rejected by multiple fantasy publishers, most of them with the comment that it was “too romancey.” This is a book without a single romantic relationship in it. There’s a little sexual tension between a couple of secondary characters, but the most that happens between the two main characters is that they both have moments in which they each admit to themselves that they find the other somewhat intriguing. There’s not even a kiss in the book. I’m not sure what’s “too romancey” about that. I suspect they read the first few chapters, saw that a man and a woman met, and assumed it was a romance because I have written romance and because they see Enchanted, Inc. as romantic. In at least once case, I’m pretty sure it’s because the editor “shipped” Owen and Katie, so she saw Enchanted, Inc. as romantic and classed me as a romance writer. Maybe there were other issues with that book that made them decide against it, but the reason they gave was that it was “too romancey” to be published as fantasy. The same thing happened with Rebel Mechanics. It was initially submitted to fantasy publishers, and at least one suggested I submit it to a romance publisher instead. Never mind that, again, the only real romantic content relating to the love interest is an awareness of attraction and the other relationship is strictly related to the non-romantic plot. A book that doesn’t even have a kiss between the hero and heroine wouldn’t sell to any romance publisher. I was eventually able to sell it to a young adult publisher.

And that’s an issue for a lot of authors. Women authors are more likely to get shoved into YA with their sf/fantasy books, even if they aren’t really YA stories. If the main character is young and female, it’s more likely to end up published as YA. Not that this is entirely a bad thing, since YA sells very well and there are a lot of adult readers who choose to read YA, but there’s also the problem that because so many books that really could or should be adult fantasy/sf are being published as YA, there’s less real YA being published. Librarians and teachers are complaining about not being able to find books for the 6th-8th grade readers.

It’s not entirely sexism, as I’ve certainly read books with far more romance than I write that are written by female authors and published as adult sf/f. In some cases, it seems like a female author who establishes herself in fantasy with a male main character and with little to no romantic content can then go on to write something that’s a lot more romantic. But then I know of at least one book by a female first-time author that was published by a fantasy publisher in spite of it being something that could just as easily have been published as paranormal romance. I don’t know what the difference is, why the same editor who said Rebel Mechanics was too romancey and should be submitted to a romance publisher would have had no problems publishing a book that had kissing and sexy sparring between the hero and heroine in chapter two.

I’ve been reading an Old School epic fantasy saga, and the way romance is handled in it does make you wonder. In book one, the young male hero is joined on part of his journey by a girl. There’s maybe 50 pages of them traveling together in a 700-page book. After they reach their destination in the last third of the book, they split off into separate journeys, and he spends the rest of the book and the next two books pining over her and longing for her, thinking of the time they spent together, as though they’d established a deep, meaningful romance. I had to flip back through to look at the part they spent together because I’d missed it entirely. He didn’t show signs of admiring her in any way. There was very little awareness of her. He did do a little posturing, but it came across to me more as him competing with her in trying to impress others with them than trying to impress her. They are actually around each other in the last book, which is described as being “a romantic journey,” but I can’t tell why these characters like each other, aside from him being the main character and her being the only girl his age in the series. If those 50 pages of being around each other without really thinking about each other are supposed to establish an epic romance, then I can see where editors used to that sort of thing might be like, “Whew, better send this to a romance publisher,” when there are characters who actually show signs of attraction.

The nice thing about publishing for myself is that I can classify my books however I want, but I still have to try to find readers who might have trouble discovering my earlier works. I’ve started turning down romance-related panels at most conventions (not that there are a lot of in-person conventions right now). I’ll keep doing the romance panel at the Nebulas because we get into this sort of issue. I’m not opposed to romance. It’s just that I don’t really write it, and being classified that way has hurt my career.

publishing business

More on Categories

Since I’ve been talking about book categories, I thought I should explain how that works and why it’s important. There’s a system of code categories that booksellers and publisher use to sort books. Some of the categories are pretty general, but then some areas get sliced and diced into pretty specific categories. For instance, there’s a code for firefighter romance. Strangely, although there’s a specific code for cozy mysteries involving crafts, there’s no code for paranormal mysteries. You can find the list of fiction categories here.

For traditional bookstores, the fine parsing doesn’t make much difference, since books are generally shelved in general fiction, romance, mystery, or science fiction and fantasy (some stores may break out horror into its own section, and some stores give all Christian fiction its own section). The codes are used more for databases and possibly for internal tracking (maybe to keep an eye on what’s selling).

But for online bookselling, they become more important. Instead of having to just go to the mystery section in a store and then scan the covers to see which ones you want, you can search a specific category. Each book can be put in more than one category if it fits multiple places. That can be both good and bad. If your book is a perfect fit for a category, that makes it easy to find. If it’s not such a good fit, your book can fall between the cracks. Since there’s no paranormal mystery category, I’m going to have to choose between maybe cozy, general and either amateur sleuths or women sleuths. I don’t know what the people looking for my sort of thing will be looking for.

Amazon also has some of its own categories, and I’m not sure how you get put in them or how they decide. I’m not even entirely sure how you find them. When I was digging through the bestseller lists for the potentially relevant categories, I tried clicking on an individual title, then found in its listing where they showed its rank in various categories, some of which weren’t listed as a category for browsing or bestseller lists. So, I was looking through general cozy mysteries, found a book that looked along the lines of what I’m writing, and found that there was a separate category for ghost mysteries, but it wasn’t listed for browsing, and there isn’t a code for it. But you can bring up a list of those books by clicking on that category in that listing. It may come from key words you can put in a book listing, possibly from algorithms that show what sorts of things people buy, like those “people who bought this also bought” lists. If a lot of people who generally buy ghost mysteries buy a book, it might get classified as a ghost mystery. Sometimes this is hilariously inaccurate. Recently, Enchanted, Inc. has been listed in “plays and drama,” which is just bizarre. I wonder if a lot of drama students who buy books of plays have been buying it.

This is what I’m talking about when I talk about trying to classify my books. Where are the people who are looking for the kind of book I write most likely to look for that kind of book? Once you know that, you can have a better idea of how to handle that book, like what to mention in the book description, what the cover should look like, etc.

You can call your books whatever you want to, whether it’s “light fantasy, “fun fantasy,” or “cozy fantasy,” but none of those are established categories, so you still have to find the right code to put on it. That’s the hard part.

publishing business

Finding a Category

I’m running behind schedule today because I ended up having to do a massive brain dump to get a bunch of stuff out of my head and on paper so it wouldn’t end up swirling around in my head and distracting me. I have a lot of thoughts about how books are marketed and sold that have maybe led me to realize what some of my problems have been, and they filled about four sheets of paper once I started writing. I’m not sure I prevented the distraction, though, because those realizations have spurred more thoughts.

One thing that’s frustrated me about publishers is that they only seem to know how to sell a book if there’s already something like it in the market. Something new and entirely different is a scary unknown, and they don’t know how to put it in their spreadsheets. Most of my books come from a place of writing the thing I want to read but can’t find, which means they’re really hard to sell. It would have to be something the publisher is utterly passionate about so that they’d put in the work it takes to create a new category.

I thought that independent publishing would get me out of that problem because I could publish what I want, without needing to look at comparable titles. However, there’s still that problem of knowing how to package and market something new. Readers usually discover a book by seeing it, and the cover tells you pretty quickly what kind of book it is. Categories are even more important online for discoverability. It’s not like going into a physical bookstore and going to the science fiction and fantasy section. You can slice and dice it into sub categories, which is good when there are zillions of books available and you want to focus on just what you want, but it’s bad when what you want (or what you’re writing) doesn’t neatly fit into any category.

I seem to write stuff that’s potentially commercial but not marketable. I came up with the idea for the Enchanted, Inc. series because I liked the Harry Potter books and wanted something like that for adults — quirky and whimsical and dealing some with the clash between the magical world and the real world. I had a corporation instead of a school and dealt with workplace issues instead of school issues, but there was still the struggle of personal life vs. fighting magical evil while trying to keep the magical world a secret. It seemed like a no-brainer to me, given the massive numbers of adult Harry Potter fans and the younger fans who’d grown up. There had to be a huge potential readership. But I can see how marketing it was a challenge. The Harry Potter books may have been popular for adults, but they were packaged as children’s books (there were “adult” editions in the UK — I have two of them — but they had arty black-and-white photography covers that I like but that wouldn’t have sold the books if they hadn’t already been wildly popular in other forms). They couldn’t really package my books like that and hit the right audience. They were contemporary fantasy set in a city, but they weren’t urban fantasy as was being published around that time. There was no established way to package those books that would signal what they were to the audience that would like them, so they threw them into the chick lit category, where there was a defined look, and did some marketing to fantasy readers and paranormal romance readers. But then when the chick lit market tanked, it took these books with it, even though by then they weren’t really chick lit. There was still no good fantasy category for them.

I’ve been considering trying some advertising for these books, but I can’t think of what audiences I would use to build a campaign. Adult fans of Harry Potter would be too broad (and expensive) a category. The closest comparison in adult fantasy I can think of might be the Dresden Files books, but those are a lot darker. There probably is some audience overlap, but I’d guess that most Dresden Files readers would see my books and be instantly turned off (I’ve had some amusing conversations about the similarities and differences between our books with Jim Butcher). Some paranormal romance readers like my books, but that category tends to go really sexy, and my books aren’t truly romances. Really marketing my books would require either a huge investment or a big stroke of luck. I think a publisher could have done it, but for whatever reason they were turned off by the idea of any comparison to Harry Potter, even the idea of pitching it as Harry Potter for adults. Publishers hate using major bestsellers that are a category unto themselves as comparable titles, and they really don’t like going to another category. In their mind, those were children’s books and mine was in the adult category, and never the twain shall meet. The next Harry Potter could only be a children’s book.

I think the solution to my issue may be going after a more defined category with an established readership, building a name and audience there, and seeing if I can drag them into other things I want to write. So this mystery thing may be a clever strategy.

publishing business

More Market Research

I continued my market research yesterday, and it was rather eye-opening. It turns out that the books I had in mind were classified as “fantasy romance,” and that bestseller list was almost identical to the “romantic fantasy” bestseller list. That category is all over the map. There were things like The Princess Bride in it, along with some fairly traditional fantasy by a Mormon author who’s a big champion of “clean fantasy.” And then there were books that looked like what I have in mind, those with covers that feature a woman in a fairy tale-like gown, usually in a forest or near a castle, with a kind of filigree frame around the cover.

Half of those were classified as young adult (so I don’t know why they were on an adult fantasy bestseller list). And half of them turned out to be what’s apparently the big trope right now, “reverse harem” (and, oh dear, the interesting spam I’m probably going to get on this post thanks to that term). That seems to be about a woman who has a whole team of men serving her in multiple ways (if you know what I mean). Some of them were pretty up-front about it, with that term in the subtitle or series description, but some were more subtle. I didn’t pick up on it from the book description, but then all the reader reviews were swooning over how hot the book was with all those men in the heroine’s harem. There seem to be some code words or phrases in the description that make it clear to those who know. I just thought the mention of four men meant it was setting up a romance-like series where there would be a team of guys who would each get to be the hero of his own book, with one of them ending up with the heroine of book one, and a new heroine for another member of the team in book two, etc. But it seems this heroine is greedy and keeping them all to herself. This would definitely fall into the category of “not to my taste.” Heck, with just one man I’d have to send him off on the occasional quest. I’d feel really crowded with four or five. And I’m probably going to get all kinds of bizarre Amazon recommendations now that I’ve looked at those book pages.

No wonder it’s hard to find things to read if you find “clean” Mormon-written books, YA, and that all in the same category, and they all have fairly similar covers. That also doesn’t make marketing easy. I don’t know if there’s an underserved market of people who want the kind of thing I have in mind and haven’t been able to find much of it or if there isn’t much of it because people don’t want it and it doesn’t sell well.

One thing that’s very difficult about product marketing is that there’s no way to measure unserved pent-up demand. Back in my PR days, I had a client that did supply-chain management, and that included the ability to measure what was selling so that stores could get more of what was selling better and less of what wasn’t selling. I once stumped them in a meeting when I asked how they could really measure that, since they couldn’t count the people who came into a store looking for something and walked out empty-handed because it wasn’t there. I have a problem finding my size in clothes because most stores only get in one or two items in my size, and they sell right away. Maybe that would trigger some systems to then order more if they sold that quickly, but generally it just shows that only two sold in that size, so that’s all they order in the future, and they have no way of knowing how many people didn’t buy anything at all because it wasn’t there in their size.

I think there’s a lot of that going on with books. You can only measure demand by looking at what’s selling, but if something doesn’t exist and people want it, you can’t know. Publishers decide what to publish based on how well the things that are already being published are selling. They don’t know how many people go to bookstores and walk away empty-handed because they don’t find what they want. The rise of independent publishing has shown that there were some underserved categories, usually at either end of the spectrum. “Clean” romances have done very well, since they’d stopped publishing books without graphic love scenes, but then the racier ones that go beyond what publishers were willing to do have also done really well.

It may be a leap of faith to see if there’s a readership for tamer character-driven fantasy. I can’t be the only one who doesn’t want grimdark or harems of any kind.

publishing business

Market Research

I’ve been doing some studying about how to make a living publishing your own books and treat it like a business, since I came to the realization that it would be difficult for me to get a real job, so I have to make this work. I haven’t been very businesslike about it. I’ve just written what I feel like writing and thrown it out into the world. I’ve griped about how the traditional publishers have never done all that much for me, just throwing my books out there with little to no marketing support, but I’m doing the same thing. I’m trying to be more focused and strategic and learn what I can do to make this work as a business.

One thing I’ve never done much of is market research. At best, after I’ve written something I’ll look around for other things kind of like it to get cover ideas. I’ve never really been all that systematic about it. The guide I was reading suggested looking at the Amazon bestseller list that best reflects your subgenre and looking at whether you could imagine your book fitting in there. Then look at the sales rank for the #1, #5, #20 and #50 books. If they’re all really high in the overall rankings, that means there’s a good market for what you’re writing, but it also means it’s a competitive category.

The mystery series I’m working on fits perfectly in a couple of categories, and I could see those kinds of covers fitting it. It’s a moderately strong category, with the top-selling books really high in overall rankings, but once you’re down around #50, they’re fairly high but in a range I’ve hit with some of my previous books. So, that’s good. I seem to be on target there.

Then I tried looking up things that might fit the fantasy series I have in mind. I could swear that I’ve seen books that fit my general category and that have the sorts of covers I envision, but I only saw one or two of these on any of the category bestseller lists I tried. I’d been thinking they’d fit into romantic fantasy, but it looked like most of those books were really dark and sexy, and more contemporary than a traditional historical fantasy setting. Although these wouldn’t be actual fairy tale-based stories, I do think they’d have a fairy tale feel and I’m drawing on some tropes from fairy tales, so I tried the fairy tale fantasy chart, and it fit a little better there. But that seems to be a really competitive category. Everything in the top 50 was way up the overall charts. There was also no real consistency so that you could look at a book and know it was that kind of book. I may need to look up the books I know of and see how they’re categorized, then work backward from there.

I suspect in that area I may have the problem I’ve had with a lot of my other books, which is that they don’t fit neatly into any one category and there isn’t a lot like them on the market. That’s made it difficult for me to sell to the major publishers, since they want comp titles and are leery of something that doesn’t readily compare to something else that’s selling well. And I’m afraid it’s making it harder for me to sell these books independently. It turns out that writing what I want to read but that I can’t find isn’t a great business strategy. Go figure.

I’ll still write these books because I want to and I think there are readers. I may write one series more for money and the other more for love, and I’ll have to be strategic about marketing.

The other thing I’m seeing in everything I read about the business is that you really need to have a mailing list and newsletter. I’ve resisted because I hate them and I feel like everyone is totally bombarded by them, but if absolutely every book on publishing says this is the #1 thing you need to do, it may just be possible that they’re right. So I guess I need to find a mailing service and figure out how to add a link to my web site, and then I need to come up with content.

publishing business

A Surprise Boost

I got a bit of a surprise yesterday when it turned out that Enchanted, Inc. was a Kindle Daily Deal. My publisher forgot to let me know about that in advance, so I only learned when I got tagged in a tweet about that day’s book deals. So that turned out to be a bit of a distraction as I tried to promote it as well as I could and as I watched my Amazon ranking soar.

But the whole thing emphasized what I’m up against. I could really push myself to tweet, blog, post on Instagram, etc., and not see noticeable results. The publisher does one thing (that I can’t do on my own), and the results are huge.

That’s why I’m iffy on trying to continue doing much independent publishing. I just can’t seem to get the word out there in a big enough way to get results. I can sort of reach my existing readers, but I don’t seem to be able to get beyond that without publisher support. It’s cool that the publisher is pushing this book still after 14 years (though it makes me wonder what might have happened if they’d supported it this much when it was first published), but I have zero control or influence over it. Most of the time, they don’t even remember to tell me it’s happening.

But it was a nice surprise, and it did seem to boost sales of my other books. Hopefully, that will linger as people who bought the book end up reading the rest of the series and maybe spreading word of mouth about it.

Was this enough of a “sign” to keep me going? I don’t know. It means I’ll have some money coming in this summer, but I’m not sure how much. My independently published earnings on Amazon went up by about $40 yesterday, so while it looked like a huge spike on the chart, it may not make that big a difference in my income unless the boost continues and people read the rest of the series.

publishing business

Authors Behaving Badly

The writing world has been buzzing in the past few days about yet another plagiarism case. This one opened up a whole seamy underbelly of publishing and what people are doing to get ahead.

Alert readers notified authors that they’d spotted bits of their books in a “new” book they were reading, and it turned out that the book in question was a mosaic of pieces from other books (and an article or two) pasted together, with the character names and a few words changed and a little bit of transition to more or less smooth over the gaps between the stolen bits. The “author” in question claimed to be shocked at these allegations and blamed it on a ghostwriter she’d hired to write the book.

But then that opened a can of worms in revealing that this “author” wasn’t actually writing her books. She was more of a publisher, a content mill, hiring people to churn out books for her to publish. One of her ghostwriters has said that the “author” was actually the one who handed over a manuscript and asked the writer to smooth it out for her, essentially doing a heavy edit, and what was handed over turned out to have been a bunch of chunks taken from other books.

A lot of this comes down to attempts to game the Amazon algorithm, especially for Kindle Unlimited, where authors are paid by the number of pages read. To stay near the top so that your books are more visible, you have to keep a steady flow of new content going, and to do that, some authors are resorting to tricks of various degrees of shadiness. There’s ghostwriting—cheaply hiring freelancers to churn out books for you to publish. There’s book stuffing, in which a “book” is actually a collection of previously released other books, with one new book at the end, so the author gets credit for thousands of pages read when the reader skips to the last book (Amazon tried to crack down on this by changing the rules about what counts as a “book”). There are schemes for click farms, in which people are hired just to click through books so the authors get credit for pages read and so that the books move up in the rankings, so they’re more visible and are more likely to be read. Some of the scammers post fake reviews for competitors’ books, then allege to Amazon that the competitor paid for the reviews, so those books get taken down.

The result is that Amazon is now so full of shady stuff that it’s hard for real books to get noticed. I know my sales have slumped a lot, and that’s one reason I’m trying to find a publisher. I’m afraid the whole independent publishing thing is going to collapse under its own weight. Kindle Unlimited has really just encouraged some of the more toxic behavior. These schemes wouldn’t be so lucrative without that, if each book had to be purchased and had to stand on its own merits. The problem is that Amazon doesn’t care because they’re not losing money. They make the same whether it’s a stuffed plagiarized book or a well-written original book, and the scammer may be even more likely to buy ads from them.

All this to say that legitimate authors need readers’ support more than ever. It’s harder for our books to be discovered amid all the noise, so reviews and word of mouth are essential.