Monday, 23 February 2015

Quiet time

I'm currently fairly quiet - mostly I've been busy with some projects. For example, I've done some work for CritShop, which I've been planning together with Anyta Sunday. I've worked with groups before, but I'm much better now, so that should be a really cool experience. We do have a couple places left, so if you feel so inclined, check it out!

Then I've been working on edits for the Bird Book, which are coming along. I should get it ready for copy-edits by the end of the month. We're currently doing developmental edits, which is when the structure and all the "big picture" elements are checked. I'm also pleased to announce that it has been signed by Riptide. (In summary, I didn't think the book would be commercial or romantic enough so I was ready to self-publish it.) We're looking at a release date towards early October (to get a shot at mainstream reviews.)

Then I've been readying Deliverance for publication. Cover by the very talented Garrett Leigh.





This short story has a long history--first published with Noble Romance in 2009, I reclaimed my rights a couple years ago (read: bought them back), re-edited and expanded it and then donated rights to Another Place In Time, a charity anthology of historical short fiction that has raised several thousand dollars for AllOut.org, so a very worthy cause indeed. That said, the exclusivity clause ends on 1 April 2015, and I've decided to put the short story out there for everybody who wants it by itself or as an exercise in completion.

It's a short story (not a novel) and my first commercial solo m/m effort. I'd write it a bit differently these days, but I also wanted to keep it as-is. I can't run around and keep rewriting "old" stories. So here it is. If you've read it it in Noble's anthology, this one is improved an expanded. If you've read the version in Another Place In Time, this is the same version. It can now be pre-ordered. And after the feedback I got about Return on Investment, Deliverance is up on Amazon AND B&N and iTunes and several others. (Also, I've expanded distribution of Return on Investment, so you can buy it at the major retailers now too - that's my strategy now going forward anyway.)

The  blurb is:

Once a renowned tournament fighter known as the "Lion of Kent," William Raven joined the Templars in the Holy Land to escape his past and the political machinations of his enemies. Called to protect travelling pilgrims bound for Jerusalem, William comes face to face with Guy de Metz, his lover from the past. But Guy is no longer the foppish young noble William knew.

Guy de Metz once tamed the famous Lion, but failed to hold onto the man. Rumours and intrigue tore them apart, and William left seemingly without a thought. Now as they meet again, William claims he has sworn himself to God and God alone, but Guy believes that somewhere inside William’s chest, the proud, fierce man he used to love is still alive, and he will prove it.



Then I've been studying hard towards an NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) qualification. It feels like about 50% hypnosis, and you guys know how much I love trance, so it's been fun and mind-bending so far, and that's just the at-home pre-studies. The idea was originally to be a better coach (people ask me for advice all the time, so I wanted to be better at giving it), but my fascination is running deeper now--I just really enjoy the whole model and the possibilities are stunning. There's three things I could do all day without ever getting tired of it: writing, trancework and talking about writing, so I'm playing with ways to combine those.

With studying hard and thinking in those models, I struggle a bit to focus on creative writing per se--I'm more in an editing mindset at the moment--but the idea is still to wrap Dark Heart by end-March. Suckerpunch hopefully by end-April.

Lastly, I bought a webcam yesterday and will sort out insurance so I can start practicing as a therapist/hypnotist. Currently I'm mostly gathering experience, but generally, I'll be available for face-to-face coaching/therapy from today. (I have a few clients lined up, so that's brilliant. I know my stuff, and nothing beats practice.)

Right, I better get back to my studies. The actual course starts on Saturday and is from 10am to 8pm until 6 March. Considering I have to commute there, I don't expect to do more than fall into bed afterwards. It'll be great.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Why my books don't cost 99 cents

I was recently asked why my books are so expensive. Surely, the reasoning goes, if my books would cost 99 cents, I'd have more sales and make more money, and besides, it would curb piracy.


No. At 99 cents, I couldn't live off writing, simple as that. I most definitely wouldn't even have attempted becoming a full-time writer. In fact, I wouldn't have walked out of my day job, and would very likely now be doing some (read: any) job out there, leading to less time to write and possibly giving up.

Let's walk through the facts and numbers:

Amazon sets the price bracket

The common price points for books are heavily engineered by Amazon based on the payout. Amazon pays out 70% on books priced between $2.99 and $9.99, and only 30% on books priced below $2.99 or over $9.99.

In other words, a self-published writer makes about $0.30 for a 99-cents book, but about $2 for a $2.99 book.

And why is Amazon important? Because Amazon is 80-90% of everybody's ebook sales.


Cost of producing a book

Producing a novel-length book properly (edits, edits again, decent cover, formatting, conversion, etc) easily costs between $1,500 (that's low-balling, because I've cut deals with some people) and $2,000 - all of this is money you have to invest before the money is starting to roll in. There are people who don't invest in an editor, because an editor is by far the most expensive part of production, but a good editor makes all the difference. There are people who cut corners on editing and claim nobody notices. Well, I notice, and I want to publish books that are worthwhile, which means investing enough money to make sure I'm proud of what I'm putting out.

Now, if you self-publish, you need to sell nearly 6,700 copies to make your money back at $.30 royalties per copy. And this is where the kicker is - speaking from my own personal experience, I haven't written even one book that has sold that many copies. Even if I do manage by some miracle to sell 6,700 copies - at that point, I haven't even been paid for my work.

Conversely, let's assume you have a really, really good contract and a publisher would pay you 50% of earnings per copy (publishers pay closer to 25-40%), a publisher would have to sell twice those 6,700 (= 13,400) copies for the author to make $2,000 for a novel. The publisher has to pay for its own expenses, aka marketing, staff, possibly offices, conferences, IT support, corporation tax (that's after footing the bill for production costs of the actual book).


Investment in training/man-hours

I haven't crunched the actual numbers, but let's assume a novel is about 100-300 hours of work (I'm pretty sure that a historical novel, with all the research and fact-checking is a lot more than that) and you do manage to sell those 6,700 copies and do make $2,000 for a book. If you average the production time (200 hours), that would be a theoretical $10/hour (before tax, before cost like internet connection, heating, research books). That's about £6/hour. Minimum wage in the UK is £6.50/hr, while London "living wage" (how much you need to cover living costs in London) is £7.85/hr.

Now, I've made more making sandwiches at gas stations (EUR 9/hr), which required about a 30-minute training. Yes, everybody can write, but to write something other people want to read takes tens of thousands of hours of practice, which isn't paid and incurs quite a bit of cost as well. I'd estimate if you're working very hard and have access to mentoring and how-to books, it will still take 3-7 years to train yourself to become a writer who can write a decent story. I've been writing and learning for 20+ years.

And we often forget all the other hours an author spends on supporting their books and being available to readers: answering reader emails, blogging, paying out of pocket for print books for giveaways, swag, attending conferences, postage and admin for sending signed print books around the world, responding and being present on social media, responding to thousands of messages and questions overall. All those are hours not spent writing or doing a day job. I believe they have value.


Depth of market

I don't have access to actual hard sales data apart from my own and some data from friends and colleagues, but I do have a decent idea about the size of the m/m market specifically. In m/m, I'm considered a "mid-lister", which is a polite way of placing my sales somewhere in between "doesn't sell enough to make money" and "bestseller". I'm in that nebulous area where I'm making some money but still can't afford to travel to GRL on my writing income alone and where a month of bad sales means I'm fretting about whether this whole thing was a crap idea and whether I shouldn't just go back to a day job because every year out of the day job means I'm getting less employable.

I have steady sales on some books (thank you, Dark Soul and Market Garden), but even so, only very few of my books have sold more than 3,000 copies - and those that did were co-written (in other words, I only make half the money on those). I don't think any of them have sold more than 6,700 copies.

Now, obviously there are best-sellers in m/m who sell 20,000 and 30,000 copies of a book, so there's some depth in the market, and you could argue that the high prices keep people from buying the other books. Let's test that theory: I've experimented with freebies (Bookbub/giveaways), and the best performance of those was another 2,000 copies given away for free for a book that had sold 2,000 copies thereabouts.

If that number had been 20,000 copies, that would have meant there's 20,000 people I'm not reaching because of the high prices. But there aren't. Even assuming the "freebie downloaders" would be willing to pay 99 cents for a book, I'd only reach 4,000 people with my average book if I priced it at 99 cents. Still way short of the 6,700 I need to earn the initial $2,000 investment let alone make even a dollar of profit.


Alternatives

Short of becoming a bestseller, who reliably sells 20,000 copies of everything (which isn't really in my control), there are obviously ways to make the numbers work. Considering that 70-80% of those $2,000 production costs are editing costs, there are authors out there who simply don't pay a professional editor. I've tried that: I've had Return on Investment checked by a lot of friends and I gutted it myself, and I'm a decent self-editor, but I know Return on Investment would have been a better book if I'd paid a professional editor. At that point in time, I just couldn't afford it and so I did the best I could. I don't regret it, but I wish I'd had had the money. But then, I expected it to sell maybe 100-200 copies in total.

Thankfully, there's so many free books out there that people who don't want to pay for their reading don't have to. There's tons of fanfiction and free fiction on the internet, and a lot of it is very good. The Kindle Free list is huge and gets more books added every day. Of my own works, there's Special Forces, which is 1,000,000 words (roughly equivalent to 10-15 novels, which would cost people normally $75-100 to buy if we assume an e-book price of $6.99 per novel).


Other authors are doing it

Some authors are making the 99-cent model work for them. Mostly, these books are very short (flash fiction, short stories) or aren't edited (the "throw unedited crap onto the market" model), and then readers complain about how the book was too short or the novel was so bad it wasn't even worth those 99 cents. However, this is not what I want to be known for - I like to take pride in my work and do the best I can, which does mean some investment in a good team. (And yes, I charge more than 99 cents even for short stories, because they still cost money to produce properly.)

But there are some authors that do edit their stuff and still put it out for 99 cents. These are usually first books in a series, or cheap tasters, and the bet is that the reader will enjoy the book so much they'll pay more for the next installments in the series, at which point, everybody wins and the author earns money from the other books (another version of this is the "permafree" series starter, where the first book is free). A 99-cent book is like getting offered a piece of cheese at the cheese counter - it's always to entice the customer to then buy more of the cheese they liked.

There are also bundle deals - I recently bought two 99-cents bundles. One was a bundle of ten epic fantasy novels, the other a bundle of ten hetero historical romances. These bundles are usually an attempt to break a bestseller list (like the New York Times Bestseller List), so the participants can adorn their names with the very coveted "New York Times Bestseller" bit. I bought those because I was quite ready to discover new-to-me authors in a genre I love (epic fantasy) or do market research in a genre related to my own (hetero historical romance). If I find an author I like, I'll buy their full-priced backlist.

And I think in some genres, the 99-cent model can work. But these tend to be BIG genres, like hetero romance or thriller/mystery. M/M in my view is too small to support the same kind of numbers. I'm hopeful this might change over time, but we're not there yet.


What if writing doesn't pay

If writers can't earn a living from writing, the obvious solution is that somebody else has to pay for them to live. I have writer friends who're on social security (nothing shameful about it - it's never really a choice), or have wealthy spouses (personally, I prefer the power balance in a relationship to be more equal). Others have several day jobs and run the risk of burning themselves out. I can't count the writers who have severe mental and physical health issues because of stress or massive self-exploitation to somehow make this thing work.

Obviously, nobody owes a writer a living. I'm not entitled to sales, but I am entitled to profit off my copyright (I wrote it, I get to sell it by law, so yes, I object to piracy). At the moment, my writing is my only source of income, and it's not enough to make pension contributions or rack up savings (and I'm 39 years old, so I need to plan for retirement, as I won't inherit any money).

At the moment I get by on less than UK minimum wage. I still need to make a profit, because my only alternative is to return to full-time work and that means more stress, less writing, fewer releases. I would even have returned to a day job, if I could have found a job in my field. EVEN so I'm acquiring qualifications to earn money from a career unrelated to writing - I like a Plan A, B and C.

But in the meantime, I need to charge more than 99 cents for my work.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Let's talk productivity and limiting beliefs

I've been exposed to NLP for a while - I was taught by people who're also qualified in NLP, or Neuro-Linguistic Programming - basically a model that tries to explain how we think and how to fix problems that arise from how we think of things... it's become clearer when I apply some of the model further down.

Mind you, I'm not qualified myself yet, though I'm hoping to find the money in 2015 to change that. It just appeals to me.

Let's see if it makes sense to look at a writer's productivity from that model.

NLP was created to "model" success - examine how highly-skilled people achieve success - their habits, their attitude, their thinking, everything. You want to get into their skin/head and, the thinking goes, you'll be able to do what they're doing or at the very least vastly improve your own performance as you use the elements that are working for you and discard the ones that don't.

Say, you want to model highly productive people - you study how they work, when they work, what's going on in their heads as they work or just before. How their life and habits support being productive. You might be able to study them "in the wild" or get as close as possible by other means. I believe this is why writers, for example, love books on writing, and writers' biographies. We're on a quest to find "the secret". At the very least, we hope to learn from people who've walked the walk.

I've devoted a bit of time to this, and talked to/watched both very productive writers and less productive ones, and the most productive writers have very little "negative self-talk" going on, while I'm at my most unproductive when my inner voice has me convinced that I can't write my way out of a wet paper bag. I don't write a word when I listen to that. A productive writer is usually able to switch the voice off.

Conversely, I'm at my most productive when I'm having fun - it's no longer "work" or "serious", but play. Nobody gets graded/evaluated/paid for "having fun". Except I often get paid when I'm just having fun. That's kinda awesome and mindboggling.

NLP works at identifying "limiting beliefs" - in short, convictions that we all hold that are counterproductive to achieving our best. If you look at the paragraph above, there's a limiting belief right there - one that a lot of writers have: Having fun and getting paid for it is a conflict. It's strange to get paid for "having fun". It's kinda cool, but it's not what work is ABOUT, right?

Right?

Actually, it's bollocks. I've made a LOT of money from stories where I was just playing. But somewhere inside lives a little voice that firmly believes that "work has to be hard", "and hard work means getting paid well". Presumably the harder the work, the more money I get paid for it.

Now that we've isolated that belief, we can see how it's "limiting". It might, for example, mean I'm not doing stuff that's fun - I might prioritise the tough work, the constant battle and simply not even start on projects that are "easy" or "fun". And my quality of life takes a nosedive as I act to verify that inner belief.

There are a LOT of limiting beliefs around productivity:

- If you write fast, it has to be crap.
- Fast writers are just churning stuff out.
- Fast writers aren't artists. They don't care about quality.
- I can't possibly write 3,000-5,000 or even 10,000 words per day. Some hacks might be able to do it, but I want quality.
- If you write that fast, you can really only write the same story over and over.
- Nobody has enough good ideas to write more than a novel a year.
- Only sell-outs and bad writers write more than a novel a year.
- Writing so much is such hard work! How can anybody do that?
- Fast writers are less deserving of money/praise, because their books are nothing special.

And so on. If you're a writer wrestling with productivity, make your own list. Really. Look at your beliefs. See what's going on in your own head. Write down as many of them as you can.

NLP believes that every behaviour we have is based in these beliefs and all of them try to achieve a good end - for example, you might write less than you could because you really want to seen as an artist. The good end is "respect". You might write less than you could because you feel guilty for spending so much time away from your family/partner - not writing is a way to show your love and care for those closest to you. You might make the sacrifice to prove your love.

These limiting beliefs get extremely powerful when fed in from the outside. If people keep telling you that "fast writers are always crap", and they're your friends/family or have credibility with you, you will slow down because a) you believe the same, and b) you try to conform to their expectations/want their respect/love/acceptance, and c) believe you have your best interest at heart, because they're your family/friends, right?

Personally, I might have my own limiting beliefs mostly under control (they can pop up every now and then), but I still encounter that negative belief from the outside. Sometimes, people are aware what they're doing, and they phrase it as, "All fast writers are crap, though of course not you."

It's important to reject those limiting beliefs - your own and those from the outside.

First, find proof that they're wrong.

It gave me a lot of heart to learn that William Faulkner, my own favourite author, wrote some of his books in a matter of a week or two (can't remember the title, but he went into frantic bouts of productivity during which he literally locked himself away and wasn't seen anywhere.) And I ignore the little voice that says, "Yes, but you're not William Faulkner". (No, I'm not, but I don't have to be. He's been taken.)

I've co-written a full historical novel in 3.5 days. It's possible to do 10k days. They're tough (yes, they are), but it's doable. It's actually pretty easy, if intense, if you're having fun. The big thing is to make sure I'm having fun and actually care passionately about the story.

Make a list why those beliefs are wrong. ("There's no limit of good ideas. I had two good ones on the bus today alone! If I could write faster, I'd be able to write those stories, because the ideas were actually pretty cool!")

Make a list why productivity is a good thing:

- I don't have to choose my favourite idea to work on - I CAN WRITE THEM ALL.
- People are desperate for a sequel of [book]. If I'm more productive, I can make them happy/give them what they want.
- Not every book might be a hit, but every book I write has the potential to sell a lot of copies. Nobody knows what's going to sell, so finishing another book is like buying another lottery ticket.
- More books = more income = more freedom.
- If I write that book, that idea/character will stop haunting me.
- It's not really work if you're having fun.

Do those beliefs feel a little bit different? Maybe lighter? Like a couple doors opening in your head?

Do that with every belief that holds you back (example: "I'm not good enough to work with [publisher]", "Self-publishing is too hard/nobody will respect me if I self-publish", "nobody can live off writing", "these are terrible times to be a writer", "why do I even bother? I'll never amount to anything.")

Very often, these beliefs have no basis in fact. Weakening or knocking them out can make a world of difference.

Another thing that's very important is to manage who you're exposing yourself to. I tend to not hang out with people who believe and say that productivity is an awful thing.

Productivity means I get to eat and pay my mortgage - for me it's not only a good thing, but absolutely vital - and I won't allow anybody to mess with that conviction. This conviction means I am able to write several books per year.

Many of us already do this - many people have the good sense to shut out negativity - we know instinctively when somebody else's negative beliefs are messing with us. For example, I'm simply not associating with people who think that all authors are greedy and heartless and cynical, or people who believe that authors shouldn't get paid. I've cut off a friend years ago who told me that "all content wants to be free" and told me I was robbing society by insisting I have copyright and want to get paid for my work. I've cut off another friend who kept telling me what an awful writer I am. If I'd believed her, I'd have stopped writing circa 2005. Fighting her over it was pointless - there was no way I could have changed her attitude.

So, yes, creating and guarding that "positive space" is about managing your own beliefs and those of people you're surrounding yourself with. If all your closest friends believe that productivity is a natural thing, that writers write, that success is definitely possible, and meanwhile that writing and creating is awesome, very often fun and a worthwhile way to spend your time - you're surrounded in a kind of energy that will have a beautiful impact on your ability to believe and create.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Why authors aren't employees and need to cover themselves

Triggered by a post here by the awesome Angel Martinez, I'm just going to babble on a bit about how and why authors are neither freelancer/contractors nor employees.

I'm aware I'm talking about employment as practiced in the more enlightened parts of Europe, namely the ones with strong unions or work force protection laws. I'm aware that the case as outlined further down doesn't apply everywhere in Europe. For example, the UK has the infamous "zero-hour" contracts, Germany has or had unpaid internships, and I'm definitely speaking about benefits I received in decidedly white-collar professions in a sector flush with money. Outside of it, different rules apply, but the gist remains intact.


Some authors think of themselves as the employees of publishers. Some seasoned authors consider themselves "a [publishing house] author". I see relative or total newbies take pride in defining themselves that way. Defining ourselves gives us a sense of security, of "that's it, decision made, no more anxiety". I see the point, but I think people are deluding themselves if they go so far as consider themselves "employees".

In my neck of the woods, an employee gets a guaranteed salary (you might get a basic and a bonus/commission), and a lot of them get some kind of benefits: The UK has now auto-enrolled workers into a pension scheme (at 3% it's puny, but it's there); employees, more often than not, work at employers' premises (telecommuting is either a benefit or for temps/contractors). Employees get paid time off. Many/most employees get company-sponsored life/health insurance, pension, sick days. None of that for authors.

Authors also don't get a minimum wage – considering the payout of my books, I’ve made anywhere between $1.50/hour to $400/hour (yes, the latter shocked me too and is an aberration, though a nice one). I’d never take a real-life job where I’m not guaranteed a minimum wage on an hourly or project basis. If I get paid on a project basis (done it as a student), I know exactly how many hours it'll take me. Books I can't possibly project that way. Some are a few hundred, others a few thousand hours, depending on research. (Also, shorts and novellas are faster.)

So, authors most definitely aren't employees, and we're not even freelancers or contractors – a freelancer negotiates their fees beforehand. I’ve seen novels worked on for years pay out basically zero – they’re DOA. The only time I’ve seen contractor-like terms was when I wrote roleplaying novels pretty much “for hire”, meaning I got an advance/one-time payment and gave away all my rights for practically ever. They never earned out and I walked away with maybe EUR 5/hour payout - I'd have made more making sandwiches at a gas station or working security in a concert/event hall (EUR 7 and EUR 11 per hour, respectively).

So, yes, our position is far worse than that of any contractor/employee. In addition, a lapse in productivity (writers’ block, health issues, computer crash) means you might end up not eating/paying rent/mortgage. At least at a day job, you get medical leave or therapy/support. Several placed I worked for had therapy hotlines for stuff like burnout and a support network in place. (Yes, that was financial services - you don't want a suicidal/burned-out trader going crazy on the markets.)

These very restrictions of the "author job" obviously mean that we need to stay nimble and smart. It absolutely means to protect yourself like a lion/ess, especially your rights. Getting a working knowledge of contracts (“What’s life of copyright and why is it the worst thing I can sign?”, “Are they paying royalties based on net or gross?”, “What does the Right of First Refusal mean?” etc) is vital. It’s not fun, but I’ve signed every awful contract somebody offered me and these days I negotiate ALWAYS. My work is my only source of income at the moment. I need to get paid fairly or can't sustain my position.

In the new landscape, the hybrid model is absolutely doable. I'm doing it. It's an accepted way to get books to market, as most readers seem to buy books by author or genre/subject (“gay dragons”, “romantic suspense”) rather than by any other criterion, though the problem is financial. Editing/cover/proofing is expensive, so in my case, I’m going hybrid on works that don’t fit into narrow little genre boxes (Return on Investment was rejected by every publisher I sent it to, but I believed in the book and took a punt on it, and it worked out fine). I consider myself more an entrepreneur than and employee/contractor - the risk is really pretty much all mine. If a book I write bombs, that's my risk - I put in the hours, and I'm paying an "opportunity cost", which means the money I've lost by now working on stuff that does sell/pay out. Going with a publisher means you spread the risk - the publisher can lose its investment in bringing the book to market, and the author might not get paid. As a self-publisher, you take that whole risk on yourself.

Personally, I’m planning to self-publish books in the future that don’t have romances, and I’m possibly opening up “straight” fiction or fiction without any sex or queer content, because I have those bunnies, too, and these days, I can write those books without having to lock them away in a drawer because "my publisher/s won't buy them."

At the very least, we've been released from the “little boxes”, which I personally consider the biggest boon of the new paradigm. You can write “weird” books that likely won’t be bestsellers, but will still find their couple hundred readers, which makes releasing them financially viable. And who knows, you might be wrong, and people end up buying the weird book in larger quantities than you'd have expected. Publishing is full of surprises.

What's absolutely important for self-publishers is to look at distribution. By looking at my sales numbers for Return on Investment, I worked out that Kindle’s exclusivity is actually a bad deal for me. Come February, I’m going wide with distribution via Draft2Digital.

I was all right with Kindle Unlimited when the payout was closer to $2 per borrowed copy, but by now it’s dropped to $1.36 – on a book where I make $4.11 per sold copy. (Getting into Oyster/Scribd means I get paid full whack when people choose to borrow my book). the KU borrows cannibalise my sales. As long as Amazon doesn’t pay me full royalty like other players do, I’m not staying exclusive with them – there’s something fundamentally wrong about learning a month later how much you’ll get paid, and that number getting smaller every month. That's much worse than contracting, it feels like begging for whatever scraps Bezos is throwing your way.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Let's make 2015 the year of the T

I'm sensing a seriously different atmosphere in this part of my world - we've had a case of gender-bending catfishing, and so far, the pitchforks aren't out to go hunting trans* people. Just three years ago, they would have. (I can't speak for the Goodreads M/M Romance moderators, who used to love a little bit of trans* baiting, like upper-class twits keep hunting foxes for fun. But in my world, I'm not seeing a trans*-directed witch hunt because somebody did something stupid/thoughtless/callous by pretending to be a different gender).


Thoughts on suicide

Leelah - fuck, I' still unable to make sense of it all. I've said elsewhere that these suicides hit trans* people hard because I literally don't know a single trans* person who hasn't considered and/or attempted suicide. On and off through my teens, I was suicidal enough that my best friend would freak out if I was late for school - she really thought I'd offed myself and I'd never come to school again. Gods, the shit I put that poor girl through.

My twenties weren't as awful, but throughout my life until relatively recently, I used to call it "hitting the reincarnation re-set button" - I'm a believer in reincarnation, and so, killing myself I saw as a "new start". Hopefully a better one - proper body and genitals, and sorting out that wrenching, horrible inner conflict between the Outer and the Inner World/Reality.

The reason I'm still around? My stories. Silvio talked me through this. At age 27, I met "the Dude", who is remarkably mature when it comes to gender concepts. We've been together ever since. When he taught me how to tie a tie, I fucking cried.

When it got bad, I clung to my writing. See, hitting the "reset button" would have killed the stories. I'd have been OK with the new start (never liked that fleshy form I've taken, it's too far removed from the one I wanted, so handing it back seemed completely sane to me), but I didn't want to kill my inner worlds, the whispering voices, the utter beauty of creating something that has you slack-jawed with awe because it's amazing. And it can make somebody's day. What I couldn't express very well on the outside, I could pour into my books. It's all there, very, very thinly veiled.

So, yeah. All of this is a *tad* personal. I've only reached a place of inner peace maybe 3-4 years ago. I like it there. I'm glad I didn't kill myself. For me, it did get better, as the saying goes.

Trans* issues still haunt me. The news about Leelah rendered me unable to form a thought. Seeing her instrumentalised by trans* baiting trans* phobes to score some points in a running, long-standing battle between Trolls and decent Humanity made me lose my cool yesterday all over Twitter.


Moving forward

Anyway. I still think we're moving forward. I'm optimistic like that, and I've been around social media since the early noughties, and in publishing about the same amount of time, plus some, and since 2009 I've played the game of the commercial author - getting questioned and panty-policed by some trans* phobes and damn near run out of the genre - but all the talking we're doing does help. People are realising that deliberate mis-use of pronouns is nasty business. Trans* and genderfluid authors are more often given the benefit of the doubt.

As we remove legitimacy from people who try to police our genitals, our hormone status, and call people "straight cis women" who are often queers who keep a low profile or haven't come out, we are creating and contributing to a safe space where people can come out as queer (whichever flavour) and don't get subjected to humiliating cross-examination about how and with whom we get our rocks off in bed.

Three years ago, I saw detractors of all kinds. Gay men who were positively offended that I count myself as male - I felt they thought I wanted them to be attracted to me and that I was entitled to that attention. (No, I have a partner, I'm monogamous, and lots of those guys really, really aren't my type, anyway. Especially if I know they call me "tranny" behind my back. Really? That's the best you guys can do? What about criticising how the first chapter of my latest book chapter is a bit slow? That would hit me a LOT harder - kidding.)

I enraged feminists - I was "taking male privilege" rather than stand with my sisters. I was "wanting to be a man" to "climb up the ladder of social status." To be trans* makes you a gender traitor. And funny, just yesterday a troll who styles herself a feminist but hates everybody pretty much equally, said I was one of those men who "silence women". Look, I've arrived - I've become the oppressor. All my dreams have become true.

/sarcasm


Evolution

But there are less of those people. And MORE, MUCH MORE, who stand up and get it. People who educate themselves about trans* issues. People who clearly make an enormous effort when they meet me in person to get the pronouns right - and they sometimes slip. My best friend slips up at times. There are people who see what I'd call "the physical reality" and call me "sir" or "Mr Voinov", and I can't express how awesome that feels. Slipping up is fine. I'm not offended at the "she". It's a honest mistake and not an insult - trust me, I can tell the difference.

Being accepted like that makes me more comfortable to be among people, and it makes me a hell of a lot more comfortable in my own skin. It's taking stress off - so much so that I've fairly recently started telling relative strangers about the gender thing - it' a slow journey, but those people are increasingly getting it. Several years ago, I told my gay uncle about the gender thing, and his advice was to "lose that extra weight, and all your body image issues will go away." Thank you, uncle. I love you, but that was fucking awful of you.

So yes, I damn near cried when one part of a gay couple just nodded after my somewhat emotional explanation and said, "Well, I totally get it. You're so much more butch than [partner]." So yeah, I'm apparently beating a big, burly, gruff Australian in the masculinity stakes. I laughed, but my eyes were tearing up. That was a couple months ago.

People are getting it. Some still sneer. There's a huge amount of gender politics involved. Status, privilege, etc. It's less a matter for me of privilege, and more a way to be able to live and write and thrive with what I've been given. It's not ideal. But not everybody gets handed a perfect 10 at birth. I can try to be aware of my privilege and call out sexist/misogynistic assholes where I see them. I can support my Rainbow people.

It's nowhere near as awful as it was three years ago.


No rainbow flags for bigots

We still have a ways to go. We need to challenge people who wrap themselves in rainbow flags while being misogynistic, bi-phobic, trans*phobic. We need to tackle the derision and hatred for women in this genre. We have a whole lot of work to do there. But I'm seeing more f/f being written and published, I see people write bisexuals, and sometimes they even have sex and sometimes they don't turn into woman-haters once they've found the "one". There are even bisexual women - I know, shocker.

I see more genderfluid characters, more trans* people in books who are not victims/saints/psychopaths. I see trans* people with agenda. I see trans*/genderfluid authors getting accepted and feeling safer than we were three years ago when the fox-hunting, panty-policing witchhunters were running around trying to blackmail publishers by trying to organize boycotts against those who wouldn't disclose the gender of their authors. Yes, they tried that.

Let's call out people who wrap themselves in rainbow flags but don't actually include the whole rainbow or act in bi-/trans*phobic/misogynistic ways. (There are people who mistake getting off on "two pretty cis men fucking" as activism/allyship, when it's really a sexual fantasy/a kink. I get kink. I have kinks. Everybody is entitled to their sexual fantasies and getting off on whatever. But call it a kink and not activism/human rights if the rainbow only has one colour for them.)

Let's audibly clear our throats whenever that kind of fetishism happens and ask, "What about the other colours?" Let's ask this question A LOT.

From what I'm observing, f/f is making strides, and I see more bi fiction. That's brilliant.

What's lagging is the T.


Trans* stereotypes that need to go away

Give us more supporting AND main trans* characters who aren't defined by depression, suicidal thoughts, or by having been raped and/or murdered. You don't get brownie points for including ALL of them. It's not edgy, it's not cool. We stopped killing gays because they're gay, let's stop killing trans* people. Besides, the dead trans* character is so Boys Don't Cry, and that film's pretty old. Let's evolve.

Don't turn trans* people into the equivalent of the "magical negro". If I never see cis writers write a saint-like, angel-winged trans* person with no other role but to validate/support a cis person in fiction again, it'll be too soon. Trans* people do actually have other plans in life than to support gay men in  their choices. (Yes, really. Especially considering that there are still lots of gay cis males who think we're "impostors" and try to push our yucky bodies on them - write about that.) I don't lie awake at night trying to fix my cis friends' lives. Really, I don't.

And the "evil tranny" - well, done to death since roughly Silence of the Lambs. Pathologising is one way to express the fear and disgust in "legitimate" ways. Another way to render us unthreatening is to kill us. Dead tranny = harmless tranny. Poor tranny. Crocodile tear. Let's perv some more over pretty boys who're born with penises.

Let's just move forward. We're capable of it. We can do this shit. We can create and sustain a safe space for every human being, trans* or not. We might just be able to safe a life in the process.

Friday, 2 January 2015

Emotional strip-mining

I think it was William Faulkner who said that writer are like spiders - both make their living from their guts.

I'm just about 100% convinced that writers use their emotions to create something. It's a magical process, in every sense of the word. I've been doing some research into Western (ritual) magick and witchcraft and the principles are eerily similar to writing books. (Yes, all that research will come to fruition in 2017, when I'll do some urban fantasy.)

The "Bird Book" finished on 26th December, and then I got ill for three days, and now I'm returning to Suckerpunch, which I temporarily abandoned in May 2014. I'm not quite sure what happened there, I think I just got mired in doubt and self-confidence issues - also, March to May was an awful, anxious period in my life. In June, I was writing something with Lori when she came over - so I kind of just drifted away.

Instead of finishing that and a couple others I'd planned, I went back to the Bird Book, and I got some momentum going on that one, and then I largely stuck with it, as I was worried that I abandon it again, I'd lose it forever. July I got a job and lasted just over two months, during which I was too depressed and exhausted to write a single word. September I used to get back on my feet emotionally. October, November, December, I finished the Bird Book, basically locking everything else out - it was pretty much "do or die". There was also a four-week break/working break in there as I went to Seattle to visit Lori.

I'm not yet back to normal post-Bird Book. Writing it, picking it back up, fretting over it, from the research to the unforeseen tangents it went down, and then the length made it quite the experience emotionally. It does feel like I poured my guts out into that one. I'm quite glad that the very first feedback seems to indicate that the question it asks is compelling and compellingly answered. It's a question I've been working through for nearly four years - the question that can't help but come up when we're looking at WWII - What would I have done? It's very hard to pass judgement on our forebears... if we've never been "tested" in the same way.

Anyway. It's four years of emotional energy. A huge build-up, and a massive release. I'm still feeling emotionally "flat" and am trying to recover emotionally - yes, doing everything to fill the well, so I'm reading and cleaning my work space and eating good food. I've also rewarded myself with some things I've wanted for a while. It's a general re-set and clean-up.

After writing at that level of intensity, going book to books that are less intense, take less out of me is strange. It's like going from Olympic-level bob-sledding to a sleigh ride with the kids. Technically  similar - using compacted snow/ice to move - but I'm not even sure those two kinds of working are anywhere near the same galaxy. It seems almost too easy, too simple. Like it's not serious - maybe it's too much fun, compared to bleeding all over the page. In any case, the contrast boggles my mind.

I'll be back in the game very shortly. I've re-read the 18K I had of Suckerpunch, and while those chapters need a serious clean-up and some cutting/trimming, they're pretty solid and I was surprised that I paused where I did. The press conference seemed like a good scene - no idea why I broke off in the middle.

Well. If I assume that Suckerpunch will have 60-80K in total, it can be done in January, maybe beginning of February. By that time the BirdBook should come back from edits, and I have a strong start into 2015. All I have to do at this point is write the words and build up that energy again for the next very difficult book (which will like be Franco's novel). 

Monday, 29 December 2014

Why I don't, as a rule, do anthologies anymore (aka, the death of the anthology)

Since my last post, I got food poisoning, so this is the first day I feel mostly clear, though my stomach is still delicate (read: I'm clutching inoffensive teas like peppermint and other herbal stuff). I'm hoping to venture out today to post some paper contracts and pick up a parcel from the post office.

Elsewhere, somebody asked why there were fewer anthology calls. And yeah, some of the most prolific/inventive anthology callers among publishers have closed their doors, gone inactive or stopped doing them. I think it's a good question, and shows the effect of several changes in the current market.

(First of all, nothing I say in this post is official policy at Riptide - this is my personal experience and goes back 10+ years).


Publishing in the age of tighter budgets

Personally, I think many publishers have realised that you can't make a decent profit from an anthology. All anthologies I was involved in sold abysmally (exception is Another Place In Time, which is a charity anthology and arguably an "all-stars line-up" and "invitation-only" - more about those further down). But generally, the economics just don't work out.

To produce an anthology costs at least as much as producing a full-sized novel, but sales are usually much lower. So many publishers used to offset that with lowering their costs - say, authors don't get paid at all and only receive contributor copies. I never got paid for my contribution to "Illustrated Men", for example, and we only got actual paper copies after personal intervention of the artist. That experience told me that I'm never again working for free.


Mind you, some publishers pay a token amount rather than royalties (because doing, say, 12 royalty payments for one book is work intensive and generally a pain), so may will pay something like $25 or so for a short story.


In this market, short stories are valuable

Now, paying token amounts used to work, because it was common knowledge that short stories "have no market" or "have no value." In a world of easy self-publishing and the overall resurgence of the short form (novellas and shorts do sell, if less than novels), this is no longer the case. Authors quickly realised that you can now make a LOT more than $25 off a short story. (Even my weakest shorts have made me $250 a piece - and I've had short stories that made me much, much more than that over a couple years.) 

Against that background, the established authors tend to no longer sub to anthology calls - it makes no financial sense. Therefore, you tend to end up with a) authors who can't sell their work on their own, b) complete newbies, or c) authors who haven't crunched the numbers. The first two won't do anything to up sales, and the third group is thankfully getting rare.


All work, no gain

As somebody who's compiled multiple anthologies over the last 15 years or so, if you do an open call, you get maybe 2 good stories, 2 mediocre ones, and 2 shitty ones you can polish up enough to be publishable. This is out of up to 200 submissions, which all need reading, email confirmation, email rejection, etc. Of course, getting 200 submissions is a brilliant success - in about half the times I was involved in anthologies behind the scenes, you don't get any submissions, so you start begging your friends and family and run with whatever they give you. With all the drumming up of interest and just dealing with submissions/acceptances/rejections, I'd estimate an anthology is roughly 5-10 times the work you'd have to put into processing a novel or novella submission. And it'll likely make less money.


Considering how reality is stacked against anthologies, why are they still happening?


A way to try out a publisher

If you do submit a short story to an anthology call, negotiate either a royalty payment (no token payment!) or non-exclusive rights. By which I mean standard royalty (split among authors) or the right to keep using the story and self-publish it. (Some anthology publishers will accept only signing "rights as a part of a compilation", which leaves you single-release ebooks, for example. Many out there accept "print-only" rights, which is cool, too. I've recently done an exclusive deal, but it's only exclusive for 6 months, after which it turns non-exclusive. The very day that exclusivity period ends, that short story it hitting the market on its own. 

Always negotiate your rights. It's good practice with a short story - it'll help you so much when you negotiate terms for a novel. 

DO NOT submit anything to unpaid anthologies. You might be giving away hundreds, possibly thousands of dollars over the lifetime of that story. I was in a position once where I was desperate for exposure, so I gave publishers short work for basically free, and I've signed some shitty contracts. In hindsight, those did nothing for my career, and I've regretted practically all of them. Do get paid for your work. Always.


Trying to find new talent

Many publishers try to find new talent via anthologies. It's a time-honored way of especially smaller publishers that may or may not struggle to attract longer submissions (which is where the money is). Sometimes they can be hobby horses of an editor at a house, who'd really like to see "more X", and hence write up a call for "more X". The idea is simply - attract new authors, find talent, get to know them (always better to see how an author behaves in edits when it's just a short story), hopefully build a relationship, publish something longer that makes more money for all sides. It can be a win.


The problem: reader "meh"


From a reader's point of view, anthologies are unattractive. Very often, they know and like maybe one or two authors, but the rest are unknowns. Still, they are asked to pay the price of a novel for those one or two shorts. Why not buy a novel from the same author? It's a LOT more bang for your buck. I've had readers approach me and tell me that they'd really like to read my short story in anthology X, but weren't willing to pay $6 for it, as they didn't care for the other stories.

Reviews bear this out. There's one cliche phrase in reviews for anthologies - that it was "a mixed bag", which is a polite way of saying, "I enjoyed 1-2, found most kinda meh and several shorts were WFT". Going back over the anthologies I've read to completion (most I simply give up on or end up skim-reading), that's exactly my experience.


Solutions?

I don't do anthologies anymore unless I have a very, very good reasons. Even getting paid royalties isn't very attractive because overall sales are lower, and I might get paid only pennies per sold copy, with a lot less copies sold than I would hope/expect to sell on my own.

If I do do them, the reasons have to be compelling. I'd be happy to do single-author anthologies (which really count like normal releases, just bundling a number of shorts or novellas so readers get a better deal). A variation on that is bundling with 1-2 other authors who have very similar readerships/themes.

Charity is a big reason for me. Readers are fundamentally generous and if you raise money for a worthy cause (ideally one that's tied to the theme of the anthology in some way), readers will consider buying the anthology essentially a donation - getting one or two good stories out of it is a bonus, but the satisfaction for the reader is in "helping". Getting the book is just like the free pen you get when you donate blood - it's no longer really the point of the transaction, but it makes everybody feel better.

I've donated a story to the Another Place In Time anthology, and all proceeds go to AllOut.org, which organizes global campaigns to support GLBTQ rights. I've wanted to donate to them for a long time, but by donating a story, we raised several thousand dollars - which is vastly more than I could have raised, pro rata, on my own. I'd do charity anthologies again, and hope to donate more money next year to GLBTQ homeless charities.

Another way to overcome "reader meh" is the all-stars anthology - in other words, ensure that all stories are good and/or by established names. All of those anthologies are internal affairs, often driven inside a publishing house or a circle of writer friends. It eliminates the need to drum up submissions, deal with entries that are not up to par, and about 90% of the total workload. If it's invite-only, you can judge much better what you're getting.

But obviously those won't help you find talent, and new authors might struggle to get in there unless they know people or have somebody vouch for them.

It does look a lot like new authors getting screwed - there used to be plentiful calls and at least they got exposure, some argue, and many were hoping to get into an anthology with a "big name" or "headliner" who'd sell it, and maybe their readers will discover the new writer and turn into a fan that way. 

I think that's possibly still true, but has moved from anthologies to boxed sets, which means bundling full novels and novellas rather than short stories, and these are often priced so cheaply (read: free or $0.99 for the whole lot) that tens of thousand of copies would get sold. I'm not sure how efficient they are - financially, they were more or less a bust, but they still used to be done to get every participant the coveted "New York Times Bestseller" bit before their names. But then the NYT changed its rules, so even selling a huge amount of copies doesn't guarantee anybody bestseller status these days.

I'd argue that the authors who could "headline" anthologies don't anymore, and in general, releasing a short story on its own makes more sense. I strongly doubt anybody can build or has ever built a career out of low- or non-paying anthologies, and exposure tends to happen over time, with more stories out.

There are many better ways to piggyback on established authors (network, people!) and make a bit of money from writing.

I do hope to blog about those at some point, but generally, I'd argue that the standard open-call, commercial "mixed-bag" anthology is dead and hasn't served any real purpose for authors in years.

Discuss.