Archive for category Publishing

Why Care about Copyright Theft

Originally this article was going to be entitled “Why Care About eBook Piracy”, but that’s the wrong term. Piracy is what happens off the coast of Somalia, or in the South China Seas when armed men board your craft, kill your crew, and steal your cargo. Unfortunately the term also has a certain glamour borrowed from high adventure stories.

We should stop calling Copyright Theft, Piracy for the same reason that the police stopped using the term Joyriding and now use the term, Taking Without Consent. Joyriding makes it sound fun and cool, whereas it is actually reckless and destructive. Equally, there are no pirates boarding eBooks. It’s just people exploiting the hard work of others for their own benefit.

Let’s be clear, distributing copyright material without the consent of the copyright holder is illegal. It’s also extremely easy to do. In fact it’s so easy, many people have done it without realising. We also need to be conscious of the degree of illegality taking place, and of the harm caused. In this country we don’t generally prosecute people for exceeding the legal speed limit by 5% on the motorway because it’s within the margin for error and the harm done is minimal. Similarly, should we prosecute someone for sharing their favourite eBooks with their friends?

Consider these scenarios:

Bill reads an eBook and likes it so much he emails a copy to Jane with a note saying,”read this, you’ll love it.” – This is illegal, but it’s also a personal recommendation that most authors and publishers would value hugely. The scale of the illegality is tiny, and the harm done is negligible, right?

Bill takes his entire eBook Library of 200 eBooks and copies it to Jane’s PC, so that she can read his books if she wants to. Actually Jane’s taste differs hugely from Bill’s, but she takes them anyway because it’s easier than sorting through them. – The scale here is slightly larger, but the harm done is still small. Jane may only read one or two of Bill’s books and it may result in her discovering a ‘new’ author. To an extent Jane has simply mitigated the risk of spending money on a book she wouldn’t normally buy.

One million people do what Bill did and copy their eBook Library to their friend’s PC. Now the scale of the problem is much larger. Even if they only read 1% of the books, we are talking about 2,000,000 copies (200 books x 1M people x 1%) – ask any author or publisher whether they can afford to lose even 10,000 sales and your answer will be clear. The trouble is that it’s not 10,000 sales – those people would not have bought that book. They only read it because it was there. They would have bought something, though. There was a sale lost somewhere.

Now take Bob, no relation to Bill or Jane, who sets up a website hosting uploads from his clients. Bob has 100,000 clients who pay $5 a month to access his ‘Premium Content” which is 70% material for which he is not the copyright holder. Bob doesn’t upload the material – please note – his client’s do, and as there are 100,000 of them he can’t possibly keep up with what they are doing. Nevertheless, Bob is hosting well over 100,000 eBooks (and videos and music) and he’s receiving half a million dollars a month to run a website.  With revenues of $6M a year, Bob is thinking of retiring, but actually his business takes so little time and effort, why bother.

Those of you old enough to remember the eighties in the days before MP3 players will recall the Sony Walkman, a portable player which used cassette tape. You will also remember the campaign, Home Taping is Killing Music – People would record their favorite tracks from the radio onto tape and play them while they were out and about. This was, of course, illegal but a lot of people did it, so it became acceptable behaviour. The Home Taping campaign was about raising awareness that this was affecting record sales. It was a drop in the ocean compared to what MP3 and home broadband did to record sales a few years later. By the end of the century the music business was in serious trouble. It’s interesting to note that most successful bands now make money from touring, not from selling records.

If we roll that example forward to the world of eBooks, we can see that it won’t be long before book publishers will be forced to change or disappear. You might see that as a good thing, venting your frustrations on media giants like News Corp (owner of HarperCollins) or Bertelsmann (owner of Random House) but those businesses are diversified and if there’s no money in books they will find something else. Most often, it’s the smaller enterprises that suffer most. If you’re a publisher with a staff of 500 you can make cuts. If you’re a publisher with a staff of two, that’s a lot harder.

By copying their eBook Libraries, Bill and Jane are undermining the system they rely on for new material. If you don’t think that’s true, look at how the earnings of mid-list authors have fallen over the past ten years. Look at how booksellers have been forced to focus on the sales of material with TV tie-ins or cross-media promotion – they simply can’t afford to market books for their own sake.

It used to be the case that publishers could only afford to pick winners, simply because the costs of publication meant that if your books didn’t sell you had to absorb the costs of editing, production, printing, marketing and distribution – most of which were incurred before you’d sold a single copy. Nowadays it’s possible to launch a book with minimal production costs – to test the market before you commit to print. That means that publishers don’t have to be as discriminating, and equally they can afford to take more risks. The flip-side is that selling 5,000 copies of a book becomes economic for the publisher who can simply move on to the next book. Unfortunately, 5,000 copies isn’t economic for the author, unless it’s a hobby and they’re not expecting to make any kind of living from it.

And with 10,000 ‘new authors’ for every existing author waiting in the wings for their chance at publication, expect to see a boom in the number of new books being published and a crash in the author’s earnings from their work. That’s without self-publishing, where it really is about publishing the maximum number of people possible, at their own expense.

I hate to be pessimistic, but this game hasn’t played out yet. It’s likely to get much worse before it gets better.

Bob’s not worried about that though. There are plenty of people willing to upload their own material. He doesn’t need the publishers; all he needs is an endless supply of new writers who want to be ‘published’ and will therefore upload their own material for free in order to achieve their fifteen minutes of fame. And the best bit is, because they are the copyright holders – it isn’t even illegal.

Happy Bob.


Agent and Publisher Submissions

We have reached the final episode in my series, The Twelve Rules of Writing, with this post addressing the subject of submitting to agents and publishers.

To remind you of what Rule 12 is all about, here it is:~

12. When’s the best time to submit my work to an agent or publisher?

Straight away! Agents and publishers are notoriously slow in responding and generally spend their time having lunch or reading books that are already published.  By submitting your work before it’s finished you get ahead of the queue and don’t waste time waiting for a response.

Make sure you include critique from your Mum – no-one knows you better – and don’t worry about those pesky submission guidelines. They’re only there for the clueless and you don’t want to be one of those, do you?

All too often, writers finish a piece of work, do a run-through edit looking for spelling mistakes and grammar issues, and then get carried away by the excitement of reaching the end and send it off to an agent in the hope that it will be picked up and published. In 90% of cases this work is not ready for submission. If you do this and then read back through what you’ve sent, you will almost certainly find areas where you could have improved your submission. This is a wasted opportunity.

There is no single method that will bring you success with an agent or publisher, though great writing is a prerequisite, but there are plenty of things that you should and shouldn’t do. Bear in mind that submitting requires a different set of skills to writing, where you have already spent many hundreds of hours honing your skills. This is a new skill-set, and you will need to spend time developing these skills, practicing and improving, before you send in your submission.

The following may help you along the way:

Finish your work before submitting

A publisher or agent will want to see that you can not only start a story, but finish one as well. They are not interested in part-completed projects or work-in-progress. If it’s not finished, it’s not ready for submission. This applies to all fiction – non-fiction is different and can work from an outline or proposal. Finish your work before even considering submission.

Polish your work

A publisher or agent will look at a piece of work once. If you submit it before it is ready then you are having them look at work that is not your best, which is a wasted opportunity. Only re-submit the same work to the same agent or publisher if they have asked you to look at some issues and re-send. Resubmitting multiple versions of the same piece just emphasises that you were not ready the first time and makes you look premature and unprofessional.

Have your work objectively critiqued before submission

There will be mistakes in your work that you cannot see because they are your mistakes. We are blind to our own weaknesses. Get someone independent and objective (not a family member or best friend who may tell you what you want to hear) to review your work and give you critical feedback. When they offer you honest feedback that criticises your work, accept it graciously – they are doing you a huge favour. You do not need to pay for this – join a free critique group.

Take a break from your work

Having finished your work you are naturally impatient to see if it will be successful, but time is your friend. If you leave it alone for at least a couple of weeks you will return to it with an objective eye and will almost certainly be able to improve it.

Research agents and publishers

In the meantime you can research agents and publishers. They are not homogenous, they like different things and accept submissions based on different criteria. Be clear on where your work is positioned in market terms and then find agents that accept submissions based on that market. The best agents are the ones who already represent authors who write what you write – likewise publishers. If the agent’s listing or website says “No fantasy” and you’re a fantasy author then eliminate them from your list – no always means no, and you are wasting everyone’s time if you submit.

Check Predators and Editors

Once you have a lits of candidate agents and publishers, ordered by how suitable they are for your work and whether they are open for submissions, you will need to check that they are legitimate. Remember the simple rule – in publishing money flows to the author, not the other way. If there are expenses then these should be deducted from your income. If there are up-front charges, reading fees, assessment charges or deposits then this is a RED FLAG.

Predators and Editors is a website that tracks unscrupulous members of the publishing business. They also have a wealth of resources on submissions – read and digest before submitting. They are also seeking donations to defend against a court case at present, so please consider donating some money towards this. They are a fantastic resource for writers that deserve our support.

Spend time on your query letter and synopsis

If you spend three years writing a novel and then three hours writing a query letter and synopsis then you are doing yourself a disservice. An agent or publisher will read your query letter and synopsis not just for factual information but to get a feel for your writing style and your ability to communicate. It is a showcase for your skills and a sample of your abilities. It should be professional, courteous and clear. It should be short, but give all the information needed to take your query forward. In general it should:

  • Be addressed to the named agent you have selected, using the correct form of address
  • Include your contact details: name, email address, physical address and phone number
  • State the genre and word-count of your work
  • Give a brief one-page summary of the main plot, characters and setting
  • List any paid publishing credits relevant to this work
  • Mention if you are submitting to anyone else (no more than one or two others)

It also needs to include your unique voice and the things that makes your work so special that it will stand out from the rest of the slush-pile. Query letters are hard to write, so be prepared to go through many revisions and to work at getting it just right. You will also need to write a synopsis that summarises the main plot, explains what’s at stake, and tells the reader why they should care. You are distilling 100,000 words down into a page, so make every word count. Have both your query letter and synopsis critiqued objectively by someone independent.

Be Selective

Prioritise your list of agents and publishing according to how well they fit your work. Find a couple that are absolutely right for you and research them in more detail. Read their blog, website & Facebook page if they have one. Read books published by their clients, get to know what they like and don’t like but stop short of actual stalking. Agents and publishers show you what they like by publishing it – you owe it to yourself to find out what that is and see if they’re likely to buy what you’ve produced. If it doesn’t look right, it probably isn’t. Put them on your reserve list and find someone else.

In your query you will mention whether you are submitting to anyone else. This is where submitting to a maximum of three agents or publishers wins because you show that (a) you have done your research and (b) that you think they are right for you. Don’t be tempted to lie about this or anything else. If this works out then you are starting a relationship of trust, which you wan to be based on honesty and integrity. Publishers and agents all talk to each other and you have a strong chance of being found out.

Follow Submission Guidelines

If this wasn’t in bold already, I would put it in bold. Follow the guidelines. Agents and publishers are trying to help you by telling you what they would like to see. If they say five pages then send five pages, if it says 1,000 words, then send 1,000 words. If they say no attachments then don’t, for heaven’s sake, send them an attachment. Thousands of authors get rejected every year because they don’t read and follow the guidelines – don’t be one of them.

Check everything three times

Once you have submitted your query and synopsis you cannot get it back. If you have done your research well, then these are very likely the best agents in the world for you, and you won’t want to mess up your one chance with them. Check, check and check again. Check grammar, spelling, format – re-read the guidelines and get someone else to check for you. Ensure you have the right email address, postal address, subject line and anything else.

Stop, go back and re-read your synopsis. Is your query letter perfect? Absolutely perfect? Does it meet the guidelines?

Then when you are absolutely sure, you can send it.

Wait by working

You are going to have to wait for a response. A busy agent or publisher (and most of them are very busy indeed) will prioritise for the existing clients and business first. They will have other work that has to be done and they will fit reading queries into their day where and when they can. They may be reading your query on an overnight flight at 4am, tired and restless, which is why it has to be electric. Yours may be the 60th query they read that day, which is why it has to stand out. In any case, you will have to wait.

Use the time to work on your next project. Don’t be tempted to revise your query letter or synopsis yet as it will just depress you. You will find the mistake you missed, or realise you have left something essential out, almost certainly. Let it go, it’s done. You need to wait as long as the guidelines say for a response before doing anything. If you haven’t heard by the response time, or after three months if there is no guideline, check the agent or publisher’s website and blog – they could be on holiday, sick, have had a bereavement or a host of other things which have prevented them from reading your query. Remember to check that you used the right email address.

If there’s no obvious reason for a delay you can send a polite reminder, stating what you sent and when, asking if they can confirm that your query was received, and requesting an estimate of when you might hear back. That’s all. Occasionally agents and publishers fall into a black hole. This is unfortunate but is often outside anyone’s control. All you can do is move on and try again somewhere else.

Be ready for the response

I worked out at one point that approximately one query in ten thousand, maybe fewer, gets a positive response, but this is not a lottery and not everyone’s chances are equal. If you have done your research, followed the guidelines, polished your work and written something wonderful, then your chances are significantly better than that. Nevertheless, it may be that your chosen agent’s list is full or that your favoured publisher doesn’t have room for you. It may also be that you’re not ready.

If you get: Not for us or No thanks – that means your query has been read and rejected. That may be because it doesn’t fit with the list (back to research) or because your writing isn’t good enough yet (back to writing). Whatever you do, don’t argue or respond – just chalk it up to experience and get better.

If you get comments, such as “I liked this but we don’t have any room on our list right now” or even better, “This would be better if….” then you are favoured. An agent or publisher has taken time to give you feedback and that doesn’t happen often, so you are doing something right. Take it as encouragement, take the comments to heart, and move on. Don’t re-submit unless you are asked to.

If you get: More Please – normally you will be asked for a partial, often the first 50 or 100 pages, as a sample of your work. If this happens then you have attracted interest and the agent or publisher wants to see whether you can develop a story. Spend time going over what you will send them in exactly the way you did with your query and synopsis – remember, you only get one shot at this.

If you get: Please send full MS – Either after a partial or straight away, this means strong interest in your work and at the very least you are probably going to get feedback from a publishing professional. You are going to have to wait again, as reading a full MS takes a lot of time, so when you send it ask them to confirm receipt and give you a date that you can check back with them. Celebrate, then get back to working on your new project in the knowledge that you’re getting somewhere that may or may not lead to a publishing deal.

These are the normal outcomes from a submission, but there may be others – a phone call, questions in an email – some may ask if you can give them exclusive time to read the submission, in which case you need to agree a reasonable time limit before you take your work elsewhere. Adopt a polite, sensible and professional approach and you should be fine.

If you have reached the stage that you are ready to submit to an agent or publisher, then you have reached a milestone. There are many people who never complete a full story, indeed many who want to write but never do. If you have done that then you have achieved something rare.

It is likely that you will receive at least some rejections. When you do, remember that it is your work that was rejected, not you, and that your work can get better. Polish, research, develop – hard work is what pays off. Take every rejection as a spur to learning and you will achieve your goal.

Completing any substantial piece of writing is a beginning, not an end, and only a road to further beginnings.



Genre and Taxonomy

I’ve been thinking about genre lately. It came up as a panel topic at PCon and there was a lively discussion about what constituted genre and how that affected books. Cheryl Morgan came up with an erudite and academic-sounding definition. I wish I’d written it down.

One of the conclusions of the panel was that there are two types of genre, marketing genre and category genre. The purpose of marketing genre is pretty obvious. If bookshops had to read every book before they could stick it on the shelves then they would never sell any books. By allowing the marketing department of the publishers to categorise the books for them, they can appropriately shelve the books so that people can find and purchase them. Marketing genre allows readers to enter bookshops and limit their browsing to a part of the bookshop, saving time and making it more likely that they will purchase a book. At least that’s the theory.

Category genre is harder to pin down. I think we can all agree that Robert Ludlum’s Bourne series are thrillers, whereas Jane Austin is classic literature. The problems come when the boundaries blur. I’ve previously posted a recommendation for Phil Rickman’s – Merrily Watkins books, which are crime/mystery with horror elements. Another strong recommendation is for Janet Evanovich’s – Stephanie Plum novels, starting with One for the Money. I can’t tell you whether it’s a crime/mystery, thriller or comedy. All I can say is that while reading it on the train, the person sitting opposite tapped me on the wrist and asked me what the book was, I’d been laughing so much. At the same time, some of the later books in the same series are genuinely creepy.

The concept of marketing genre leads us to create a hierarchy where there are major categories like Crime, Romance, SFF and then Fantasy breaks down into High/Epic Fantasy, Urban Fantasy, Dark Fantasy, Paranormal Romance, etc. but as with the books mentioned above, the hierarchy degrades where the genres blur. You can end up with Thomas Harris: The Silence of the Lambs (Crime or Horror?) next to Carl Hiaasen: Hoot (Mystery/Comedy) – two very different books.

I’ve already said that the purpose of marketing genre is to sell books. If you like a book then you are likely to purchase another work by that author or by another writer in a similar vein. Some authors even change names when writing in different genres. I found out why they do this when I picked up a Janet Evanovich novel on the strength of her Stephanie Plum books and found it was a fairly lightweight romance. Let’s just say it wasn’t what I expected.

Some suggest that genre should be broadened out. I’ve heard people say that SF and Fantasy should be under Speculative Fiction, but it’s a writer’s job to speculate. The one question authors continually ask is: What happens if?  There is as much speculation in John Le Carré: The Honourable Schoolboy as there is in Arthur C Clarke’s Rendezvous With Rama, so where does that leave us?

Category genre is misleading. It invites us to divide books using an taxonomy – comedy, suspense, horror, romance, fantasy – but these are not genres, they are the the tools of writing and a good story may use all of them, forging them into new alloys of meaning and understanding.

Readers, though, want to be able to find books that they will enjoy, and marketing genre allows us to support this to a limited extent. Category genre, on the other hand, serves to perpetuate a reading habit that continually narrows into sub-genres. Readers are encouraged through category genre to read everything in a narrow field until it is exhausted. This can lead ultimately to a sense of dissatisfaction, since by limiting choice to a narrow field the books become formulaic and repetitive. This is especially true where a sub-genre, or a sub-sub-genre becomes highly fashionable as in the case of kick-ass girls in leather pants with vampires, which can be traced through Urban Fantasy to Contemporary Fantasy to SF & F in the genre hierarchy.

When I went into Foyles in London recently, a very well-respected bookshop, I was shocked to discover an entire wall of Young Adult Teen Vampire novels. I was also surprised to discover that Waterstones seems to have re-branded Horror into Dark Fantasy. This is great for the teen vampire lovers but leaves some excellent Horror writers without a natural home. Incidentally, it did amuse me to see Joe Hill’s – Heart Shaped Box among the Paranormal Romance.  Someone is in for a nasty surprise.

I am guessing that the wall of YA vampire books will be a temporary affair. Once the rush to be the next twilight dies down, the shelf will vanish like a vampire in a tanning booth, but the re-branding of Horror to Dark Fantasy may persist, and though it will be greeted by some with trepidation (What, no Horror?) it may not be a bad thing in the long term. The books from the Horror shelves will be re-shelved elsewhere, perhaps next to a Carl Hiaasen or a John Le Carré and some readers will see them for the first time, and maybe pick them up and give them a try, breathing new life in to the readership.

Can we contemplate a world of books without genre? If you want to try this for yourself, go along to Daunt Books in Marylebone High Street in London. Apart from the charming architecture, it is worth visiting because it is not organised into genre, but by geography. In the section on Italy you will find books on Tuscan Cooking alongside Lindsey Davies’ – Falco Mysteries. In the books on the United States you are likely to find Raymond Chandler’s – The Big Sleep, next to Jim Butcher’s – Harry Dresden novels. It’s a refreshing experience.

For myself, I try not to be limited or constrained by genre, while respecting genre boundaries and delivering on my readers expectations. It makes my books difficult to file, but hopefully interesting to read.

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