Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Crisis versus opportunity

One man’s crisis is another man’s opportunity.

Joe Konrath or somebody predicted that the big publishing crisis would occur in mid-2011.

In some ways he was right. Borders disappeared, taking about 650 brick-and-mortar bookstores with it.

In Canada, a major distributor, who handled pretty much all the traffic between publishers and bookstores, also bit the dust, when H.B. Fenn filed. The month before, their own imprint Key Porter shut down after laying off two-thirds of staff.

Yet other sources predicted the big crisis would come in 2012, without specifying any particular scenario. Presently there is much talk of Barnes & Noble either suffering falling share prices based on uniform doom and gloom across the industry, (plus their own challenges,) ultimately disappearing from the landscape, or in another scenario, taking on the new giant on the block, Amazon, who launched a number of their own imprints in the last year. Barnes & Noble’s Nook reader may or may not be enough to save the company.

At time of writing, e-book sales are quoted at about 17 % of market share, presumably in developed markets. Yet in undeveloped markets, the share might soon be much higher, this in a kind of bypass-effect. People who could never afford a personal library of hard-covers and paperbacks, could very well buy into e-readers, some of which are as little as $30, and slam them full of free and $0.99 e-books, without ever in their lives purchasing a new book from a bookstore. I have seen a $30 e-reader, but is this where the market is headed? On the high end, e-readers and manufacturers are looking for more interactive features. There is a case for utter simplicity in developing markets. People may be more dependent on the local library, where they might plug in and borrow a book rather than purchase by wireless or internet hook-up. It’s also a cheap device to make, especially if you’re not subsidizing customer purchases like some of the really big makers.

Then there’s Apple, with a whole new take on text books. Their new product is hypertext translated from esoteric multi-stream fiction, its previous realm, into a kind of multi-media teaching method. My brother Chico and I discussed this, his point being that textbooks are traditionally expensive—because of small print runs, and a captive market. If you knock out the price of ink, paper, distribution and major labour costs, the price comes down significantly. Imagine what happens once there is sufficient market saturation in a country like India or Bangladesh for cheap e-readers. Throw in sound, colour and movement, and you really have something.

Education has always been the poor man’s wealth, and poor people are going to figure that out in vast numbers. For that reason, there will be an explosion of non-fiction in any market you care to name.

In an anonymous article a putative industry insider claimed that ‘Amazon is killing us.’

(On another level, cheap literacy is a threat to established orders, and as far as this writer is concerned, it’s about time.)

What happens when the markets for short fiction dry up? There is a kind of trend where people are self-publishing a lot of short stories in places like Smashwords, and simply taking their chances. This is understandable in a world of $5 and $10 fiction markets, with many magazines start-ups in their own right, ‘fledglings.’ There are two factors, one, the print magazines are facing the same sort of cost/distribution structures as book publishers, and two, this self-publishing of short works by the author is a whole new market of unknown potential. No one knows what is going to happen there. Rather than buy one magazine, a customer may well browse a site much like Smashwords.

If it’s free, you can always delete it and try another one. It’s just that simple.

While it is true that established authors have an advantage to begin with, (not exactly a new thing,) because of name recognition and the cachet of having been published by a major imprint, independent authors sense a real opportunity to carve out a niche of their own. It’s a matter of foresight and patience. At some point, there won’t be anyone with name recognition left. Simple human and corporate mortality will take care of the old paradigm.

Like the dinosaurs, the vitals of the industry will be gnawed away by hordes of cheerful little varmints, who can move faster, adapt faster, and have bigger brains in proportion to body size, which as everyone knows, have to be fed with real resources.

If the industry goes the way I predict, big publishing will find it increasingly difficult to prop up share prices, service existing debt, pay out $25 million dollar yearly executive bonuses, or live on an ever-squeezening margin. Remember, they also have to produce new books as well. At some point mergers and acquisitions will happen. There will be takeovers, friendly and otherwise.

If you have a big pile of cash laying around, you might want to consider this: once you fire all the people, sell off the buildings and the trucks, and send the printing press to the scrap-yard, what you are left with is a treasure trove of intellectual properties including some of the brightest lights in the galaxy, in all formats and all media, in perpetuity. The downside is that conversion is labour intensive. On the upside, whenever you want some more money, you simply release a few more exclusive titles.

A relatively small staff, a good website, and you’re back in business—selling e-books—just as you should have been all along. Industry execs know that in the future, reading will be 95 % digital.

The future has caught up with them. If nothing else, major publishers are and should be putting out e-books on a priority basis, both as to urgency and content/title selection. They must go for the other 17 % of market share that they will miss without e-books, and forget about desperately trying to justify continued investment in traditional ink and paper products.


Friday, January 27, 2012

Support independent artists

Photo by Louis.

Thank you for supporting independent artists, musicians, sculptors, painters, and authors.

All great writing starts out as 'fan fiction.' How far it goes depends on effort and circumstance.

People who have a dream must also have courage, and faith in something. Almost anything will do, really. Here at Shalako Publishing, we have faith in readers, for reading is a very special thing.

Without you, the reader, all of this would not be possible.


Thursday, January 26, 2012

In the Pursuit of Happiness

Suncor Nature Corridor, Sarnia, Ont. Photo by Louis.

Louis Shalako

Years ago, I knew this guy. One time I asked him a pretty simple question and he couldn't anwer it.

"If you won the lottery, if you could do anything you wanted to do, anything at all, what would it be? What is your dream?"

He had no answer. I tried to rephrase it.

"You would never have to work again. You've got bags of cash laying around, you drive a nice car, and you live in a big fat house. What is your dream? What do you want to do now? What do you want to do next?"

He still had no answer. I found that very disturbing indeed, not because I thought it was a dark and dirty secret, or that he was just fooling around, not because I thought he was stupid, but because it was true.

The gentleman did not have a dream.

The dream is what sustains me as a writer. Sometimes it is the only thing that sustains me, not just as a writer, but as a person struggling in the great river of life. Sometimes that dream is the only thing that keeps me going, and sometimes I really am, 'taking it one day at a time.'

How much of a price tag would you want to put on that dream?

I wouldn't swap places with that man for a million bucks--I wouldn't swap places with him for a billion dollars.

Guys like that just piss me off.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Themes: 'Carrie.'

c2012 (S)

I had the devil of a time sleeping last night, and there is a time just before dawn when everything looks so bleak.

On my way to get a coffee, for some reason I found myself thinking about Stephen King's 'Carrie.' I was just trying to figure out what the themes were.

What was so bad about Carrie? What made her so different, that justified the torment of her peers? She wasn't imagining it, it was real.

She was a bit off, I suppose, but people like that also survive and enjoy pretty normal lives much of the time. They have friendships, they get married, they have babies. Ignoring the fact that she had certain powers, telekinesis, or whatever, would she have gone off 'inevitably' at some other point in her life, maybe at work, if the appropriate provocation did not happen at the high school prom?

Was that simply her fate, and it could not be altered?

Would Carrie have gone postal at work, even if she did not have supernatural powers to deal out death and destruction?

Didn't she sort of lack a sense of humour about herself? Was it really her mom's fault? Surely the prank with the pig's blood was what triggered her, but it had been building up inside her for a while. Right?

People make a big thing out of symbolic rite-of-passage rituals, and the prom is a high point in many young women's lives. But then so is their wedding, their first-born, the day the eldest one goes to college.

In real life, lots of things go wrong, and plenty of nice things get ruined. Sometimes things get ruined maliciously by other people who ought to know better. Again ignoring the supernatural element in the story, any rational person would have held back and kept that power a secret, knowing full well the consequences, both legal and moral. A rational person would have understood that they really didn't have the right. Maybe Carrie had just had enough.

Maybe there is the potential for violence and or evil in each and every one of us.

Is that one of the lessons? Aging pseudo-scholars can debate that for thousands of years, now that all of our great literary works are in cloud-based storage units...

Today, it seems as if I am in an Ornery Mood. But, I have some sense. For example, I have never submitted my story, '101 Ways to Kill Stephen King,' and I may never do it. It's just a fun little thing, but I don't want to do hard time. I have always drawn back from the edge, when standing on the brink of an abyss.

Life isn't that bad.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Sweat Equity and Self-Investment

c2012 (S)

After having book proposals rejected numerous times, and then getting some contracts offered and some interest in my books, I did something you’ll often see in the context of a western novel.

In purely symbolic terms, I went out into the wilderness with my trusty steed and my six-gun, ribs taped up and lips swollen from a pretty good beating, and learned the craft all over again. That is to say, the author put a few bottles up on a stump and blazed away until the wounds healed and the speed and accuracy were what they should have been all along. Then I went back into town, loaded for bear and looking for trouble!

A little background is essential for the reader to understand what I am talking about. I got three contracts with a publisher, and it was only later that I started to think, when that publisher started to have some problems, right in the beginning of the big publishing crisis. At about the same time I concluded that it was a form of vanity publishing. Without offering a whole lot of disrespect to that company, I became aware of certain problems with my writing, and I had to ask myself just how much time they were going to invest in making ‘a better book.’ Why even give me a contract at all? Suffice it to say that I managed to get fired, something not too difficult for the student of human nature.

I also realized that the work represented some monetary value to somebody somewhere. A far more prestigious publisher asked for a ‘partial,’ that’s where you send in the next three chapters, i.e. chapters four to six. That book was eventually rejected, and then somebody briefly considered another novel as an e-book. I didn’t know much about e-books at the time, and I won’t say I was insulted by the possibility. This was also a well-known, reputable publisher.

That one just didn’t happen, for reasons that fall squarely on my own shoulders, and yes I have regrets.

I had some insecurities, about the work, and about myself as a writer. What if I couldn’t do as they asked? What if they wanted me to do something with the book that I wasn’t capable of, or was uncomfortable with? Maybe I wasn’t the right guy for the job.

I published my first two e-books in October 2010 or thereabouts. Just before Christmas 2010, I got another contract offer in the e-mail. I couldn’t sign it. First of all, I didn’t know who they were, and that’s important. Without an advance, it sure looked like a vanity publisher, and due to a reluctance or inability on their part to answer questions, there was just no way.

So. At this point in my alleged career, what I am looking for is a story development editor, and a good one. They must have a minimum of fifteen years experience in acquisitions and ‘writer development.’

They have to be accessible. I can’t stress that enough, if people had answered their e-mails I would be published now with a very good house. That’s besides the point.

Skills like that don’t come cheap, and due to being on a relatively low fixed income, I can’t afford to buy such expertise.

Here’s the deal. I’m willing to sign with a legacy publisher because I need what they have to offer: professional editing, promotion, marketing, exposure and distribution, sales and translations of foreign rights, the whole mix. I’m not willing to sign with a vanity publisher, or a predator, or any sort of flim-flam operation.

This is where all those hours where I didn’t get paid for my time come into play. It’s called ‘sweat equity,’ and it’s another way of looking at investment without using any of my own cash. It’s going to cost you something. Money talks and bullshit walks. Actions speak louder than words.

You get what you can pay for.

I guess the western analogy runs dry at some point, but if it comes to a shootout at the O.K. Corral, I would prefer not to go in there alone. And, if I have to kick in my friend’s doors, they’re not really friends at all, are they?

In no position to offer advice to any other writer, all I can say is this is where I'm at right now.

Thursday, January 12, 2012


c2012 (S)

Feedback is essential to any creative process. Over the course of the last two or three years, I have made about 670 short story submissions. Less than three percent have been placed, and probably less than one percent paid any money. That is a kind of feedback.

On Blogger, there are stats. You can see how many page hits a given story might receive. If one story gets a lot of page hits, and another story, of different subject matter, gets a few, then obviously the savvy writer will write more stories on the more popular subject matter.

On my Smashwords dashboard, there is a 'stats' button. It takes me to a separate page. If I put out a link on Twitter, and an hour later see that I have received 'x' page-hits, then all I have to do is put out ten links to achieve ten times 'x' page hits, and after a while, I can figure out exactly how many page-hits it takes to sell a book. This can be compared to how many page hits I get without any promotion at all.

The difference is pretty obvious.

Now, if I put out a link for Smashwords and get fifty page hits, then it's a pretty good bet that if I put out a link leading to a product on Amazon, or Barnes & Noble, or Kobo, or Sony, then I will get the same number of pages hits, approximately. At this point the relative market share of the retailer comes into play, and this skews the numers, but feedback is still essential. In purely physical terms, try doing anything without feedback. Try walking without eyes and a sense of balance, and no feeling in your feet.

For many short story rejections, all the editor says is, "Not quite what we are looking for."

That's too bad, as I had this one story with a real bad error of fact in it. No one told me! And of course I kept on submitting it around. It was only later that I discovered the error. Mentally reviewing just how many places I submitted the story, I sure wish someone had told me about that.

A little bit of feedback would save everyone a bit of time in the long run, put it down to 'species altruism' or whatever. That's because one editor's effort might benefit another editor's publication in the short term. However, in the long term, it would come back to the editor's benefit, as I would be less likely to submit a bad story, over and over again.

I'm always glad to receive feedback or criticism, as in the long run I am better off! That's called, 'enlightened self-interest,' and I never take it too personal.

I just figure the editor was having a bad day, and my story wasn't helping any.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Perfect Product

c2012 (S)

The e-book is the perfect product. Under the previous paradigm, at least ten percent of all production was wasted at an enormous cost in labour, raw materials, environmental degradation, shipping, fuel, storage, insurance, and other liabilities.

Other liabilities might include benefits for employees, or the cost of rezoning in order to locate an industrial plant and administration.

The e-book eliminates all of that, by a factor of well over ninety-nine percent.

It does not require paper, it does not require ink, or a printing press or trucks going down the road.

Online retail operations require far fewer employees, and they can be centralized rather than dispersed, subject to countless local pressures and multiple independent retailer agreements.

The only thing required to produce an e-book is knowledge, some talent of a creative nature, and time. It takes a relatively simple computer, and an internet connection

Where else could I have found a business where I could invest the fruits of my labour, that is to say e-books, at $0.99 each and give them away, at no cost to myself, thereby building up a clientele?

How would I have learned the shameless art of self-promotion, a shy guy like me with nothing to sell?

That's why I give so many books away for free. Each one represents about a dollar in promotion, or advertising, or however we choose to describe it.

The experience is priceless. You can't bottle it and sell it or I would.

It's a paper transaction, where I give up a dollar to get a customer! Yet I still have positive cash flow, when normally, four out of five businesses fail within the first two years due to lack of sufficient capitalization. Of the survivors, most of them bleed money for the first two years before ever turning a profit.

So why then, would I polish up a manuscript and submit it to a major publisher?

Why not? It's not like I haven't learned a lot about writing and the business. It's not like I haven't heard the criticisms or sensed the jealousy.

But more than anything, it represents a bigger game--one that's more exciting and so much more challenging.

I don't believe in miracles, and I never rely on luck.

We'll see how it goes.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Manuscript and Submission Preparation.

Photo by Louis. .75 U.S. stamp required on SASE. Other forms visible are for exemption from U.S. withoholding tax of 30 % as well as reporting to the ODSP, (Canada.)

c2012 (S)

So far I've spent two weeks preparing a novel-length manuscript submission. It invloved copy editing/rewriting the book from end to end twice, as well as formatting it in the SFWA's 'Standard Manuscript Format.' Note that short story and novel formats differ chiefly in that a short story doesn't require a cover page.

This morning I copied and pasted the first three chapters into a fresh document, and went through it converting to U.S. style.

This involves removing the letter 'u' from a lot of words like neighbour, labour, honour, vigour, etc. It also requires changing 'metre' to 'meter,' and 'kilometre' becomes 'kilometer.'

This requires attention to detail and careful reading rather than any great technical knowledge.

Now I need a big fat envelope to take about fifty pages, and I need a good cover letter. They probably require a longer synopsis. My two-page synopsis is okay, but it might get longer. The letter will have all the contact data, word count, title, the usual thing. My submission letters aren't exactly chatty--the KISS principle applies when in doubt. Next thing is to print it out, make up the SASE, and write a cover letter. I'll probably do that tomorrow.

I've set myself a deadline for actually mailing the thing. That way I can move on to the next challenge. Also, I searched around and found some U.S. stamps so that they can send me a rejection slip. You can't use Canadian stamps in a U.S. post office. Lucky for me, I'm fairly well organized. I might just jot down a little checklist so I don't forget anything, and of course the whole thing will cost eight or ten bucks for postage. Then we wait.


My new mystery novel, 'Redemption: an Inspector Gilles Maintenon mystery,' actually has two different marketing images. That's because, according to Smashwords, 'Some retailers are cracking down on even illustrative nudity.'

What this means is that you get one image on Amazon, and another image in domestic U.S. booksellers. It's all the same to me. I don't have any objections to illustrative nudity, and both covers look good.