KoS wasn't the last thing I wrote. I've written three complete novel-length manuscripts since then (and abandoned several other long projects that for some reason or another just didn't work). In future posts I will discuss these in more detail, but for now here's a quick run-down.
My second completed novel is a book called Scratch (the one that began it's life as a Guardians short story). It's a modern fantasy/horror novel set in the same world as King of Summer. None of the characters from KoS appear, but there is an overlap in the setting. It's a little darker in tone.
My third complete novel is called This Creature Fair. Set in the Pittsburgh music scene, the title comes from the lyrics to David Bowie's Lady Stardust, from the Ziggy Stardust album. It's another modern fantasy/horror novel. Several characters from King of Summer show up in this one, most notably Chris and Wren, now college age.
I thought I was done with my Arthurian obsession and after KoS would never need to revisit it. I was wrong. I never intended to write my own take on the classic legends, but somewhere along the line I came up with an approach I haven't seen before and before I knew it I was sucked into writing a novel. Bedivere: The King's Right Hand is the first of a trilogy (at least the way I currently have it outlined). This by far the biggest and most complex project I have yet attempted. The second book is in progress.
Though I'm pretty sure PublishAmerica would have published a second novel from me I felt like I wanted to move up the publishing ladder, so I never sent another one to them. I have submitted Scratch to several publishers and agents. I pitched it in person to an agent from the Virginia Kidd Agency at a writers conference I attended. Based on my pitch she asked me to send the complete proposal to her. She rejected it. So have a number of other publishers and agents. In each case I received a real letter, not a form rejection, telling me that while they really liked my writing style (the agent I met described my writing as “lyrical”), they weren't sure how to market the book. It doesn't fit comfortably in a pre-established genre-specific market.
I've heard a number of agents admit that they are all somewhat schizophrenic when it comes to what they agree to represent. Each one of them claims to be looking for that brand new thing that will set the publishing world on fire. Each one of them is likely to continue to represent safe, genre-specific, easily defined and marketable products. I can't even bitch too much about this. I understand that they make their living from books that sell and the truth of it is, formulaic Harlequin romances outsell experimental literary fiction by a huge margin (not that my work qualifies as either).
So my writing is at a professional level, but since it's not something easily categorized it was passed on.(okay, to be fair and self-aware here... it could be that the book simply doesn't live up to their editorial standards. But the tone of their letters seem to indicate otherwise). Anyway, long story short, it gets really tiring submitting manuscripts and then waiting for months on end for a response. That experience is compounded by most publishers having a “no simultaneous submissions” policy. What this means is if I've submitted to one company I have to wait until I get a response before I can submit it elsewhere. A person can get very old going through this process too many times.
Now, add to that the ongoing loss of brick and mortar bookstores. The big chains moved into towns and put the independent bookstore out of business, and now the big chains are going bankrupt. Online book sellers took a huge chunk out of the bookstore market. There are less and less bookshelf inches of display space every day and as a result the big publishers are becoming even more conservative with what they choose to stock. Proven sellers like Stephen King and Nora Roberts will continue to dominate those shelves, while new writers will have an increasingly difficult time being represented at all.
It has been a weird few years because of conflicting dynamics. Because of print-on-demand technologies, new small press publishers, ala' PublishAmerica, have cropped up all over the internet. Since 2002 I have visited a number of writer's resource sites on a regular basis. Some of these maintain an ongoing market update, listing publishers who are currently accepting submissions and how to contact them. I have seen dozens of small press, print-on-demand companies come and go in that time, some without ever publishing a book. Those who do survive, like PublishAmerica, make your book available through online sales and all of the major book distributors, but have very little success actually getting their books into the stores. When KoS was in print you could walk into any Borders or Barnes and Noble and have an employee look it up in their system and order a copy. Your chances of actually ever finding it on display were nil.
The only copy I ever saw in a bookstore was at the Washington Crowne Center Mall (or the Franklin Mall, as I'll always think of it), at the Walden Books where I had bought most of my reading material growing up. I didn't know anyone who worked there and I hadn't contacted them to order my book. Either someone I knew ordered one and told them about it, or they saw the article about my novel in the local paper and took chance on a local boy done good.
So, what's a writer with aspirations of actually being read to do? The answer, currently (and I realize I may lose some librarian friends over this), seems to be epublishing.
I have a lot of mixed feelings and thoughts on this, and I plan on elaborating here, so this may be a good place to bail.
I knew that ereaders were out there, the Kindle and the Nook specifically, and I kind of knew that there was a self-publishing option available through them, but I had never really investigated this option until a friend pointed it out to me (Thanks Lori!). Turns out, the benefits to the author are really pretty good ones. There are downsides of course, but it looks to me there's very little personal risk involved and the potential for significant rewards.
Pretty much for forever now the concept of self-publishing, deemed the “Vanity Press,” has been looked down on by the “legitimate” publishing business. There are reasons for that. In the past, anyone with the financial resources could publish their book without any editing or polishing. The overall quality of most of these books was questionable at best. There were those that transcended that; Walden by Thoreau is the one most often referenced. Even at the time when I first started looking at how to submit, Vanity Presses were something of a no-no. If your book came out from one of these, no matter what the quality was, it seemed you were likely to be blacklisted from major, royalty-paying publishers. This was their goal as businesses and as gatekeepers. The major publishers want to make money from their product and anything published outside their rubric is a threat. They determine what sees print, what gets distributed and seen in bookstores. The upside to this is that they do have a long history of professionalism and editorial decisions. The downside is anyone new trying to join their ranks has a very difficult time. It is possible, of coarse, but I believe a lot of good writing gets overlooked (it has become a cliché to point out that the first Harry Potter book was rejected, I believe, 37 times before someone took a chance on it, because no one believed an audience existed for that kind of book).
If you've been reading this blog, or know me, you know that I come from a comic book background. The self-publishing revolution began there in the 1970's and has been a respected form ever since. Books like Cerebus, Elfquest, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Bone and countless others have proven that quality work will find an audience even if the major publishers (in this case Marvel and DC), don't believe in it initially. Each of these books were critically praised and profitable, seeing reprints and new product over a period of years. Of course, there are dozens if not hundreds of self-published comics at this point that have failed for any number of reasons, lack of quality among them. The point is, in the comics industry the concept of the creator of a book owning the rights and publishing something and making the bulk of the profits for themselves has been a long, ongoing successful practice. The concept of a vanity press simply doesn't exist there. You put out the work, promote it yourself, and succeed or fail on your own merits. It's a much more democratic process and I have a lot of belief that if the creators do the work then quality will find an audience.
This idea is just now hitting book authors, and the technology to make it happen has exploded.
So, I did some research. Here's the deal...
The positives are very simple. I write something. I'm responsible for the quality, meaning I need to give my manuscript to trusted readers and editors to tell me where I suck. But bottom line, I own my work, and I'm responsible for it. I can upload it to Amazon Kindle and a minute later upload it to Barnes and Noble's Nook, and a minute after that upload to SmashWords who make it available to multi-platform ereaders of all kinds. I have an account with each of these (and there are others), and they will make my work available for digital download worldwide and make no claims on my copyright or ownership. At any point I can choose to remove my work from their sites and cancel my account. They will continue to offer my work pretty much forever (or until the next big technological change). The term being used is “Perpetual Bookshelf.” If you are lucky enough to be published by a major and get your book in an actual bookstore your shelf life is pretty limited. You have a few months to make an impact and find an audience and if you don't your book goes into the remaindered bins. Your sales are also limited by your print run. If they print 5000 copies and you're lucky enough to sell them all you then have to wait for a second print run to get your book out there. With digital downloads your potential sales are infinite.
You do not have to invest in a Kindle or a Nook to read any of these books. There are free App downloads available for Ipods, Ipads, cell phones and computer screens. Smashwords makes books available for downloads in PDF and RTF files so you can simply read them on your computer.
The royalties are amazingly better than with traditional publishers. When King of Summer was published my royalty on the ridiculously overpriced cover price of $21.95 was around 2 bucks. My royalty on a $2.99 ebook? Around 2 bucks. Now call me crazy but it seems like I'm much more likely, as an unknown author, to sell more copies of a novel at $2.99 than at $21.99 (plus shipping and handling). My cut of the profits goes from about 10% to about 70%. Since the book and the work that went into it is mine, that seems much more fair.
I don't plan on getting rich overnight, if ever. I'm very realistic about my chances here. My books will be among thousands available, and the chances of enough people finding them and being interested are slim (you know, just like in a real bookstore). There have been some Ebook writers who have been incredibly successful and have reaped tremendous financial rewards. But people like Amanda Hocking and John Locke and Joe Konrath are the exceptions. Many people publish and sell very little.
The responsibility for marketing is mine. I won't have the backing of a major publisher to put ads in the trade mags or promote it in any way. That was pretty much my experience with PublishAmerica anyway. They made it available online and expected me to promote it. Now I can do the same thing and keep a higher percentage of the profits. With social networking sites this is a much easier task than it was when my novel first came out. One status update on Facebook reaches out to my 500-plus friends. That alone is probably more than heard of my book in 2002. If even a small percentage of them repost it, or mention it, or blog about it or review it somewhere my potential customer base expands dramatically.
And trust me, Facebook friends... I'm going to be hitting you up to help me promote this stuff.
I am also responsible for creating the covers. Luckily, not only do I have some artistic design skill, I know a lot of very talented artists.
Now for the downsides. These mostly fall in the category of what epublishing is doing to the book market. I love books. Actual, square-bound books with lots of pages. I like they way they feel in my hand. The way they smell. The way they sit on my bookshelves, silent but filled with words and knowledge, entire worlds folded up between two covers. A librarian friend of mine said to me recently that physical books sing to her. I hear that song. Books have been constant companions to me since before I could read. I love bookstores and libraries. I love browsing through the stacks. They are the churches of the secular soul. Browsing online bookstores will never be the same.
Epublishing, as well as the economy, and the price of books are conspiring to kill the bookstore, and by joining this revolution the bloody ink will be on my hands as well. There is something about this I find very sad.
I don't see print going the way of the dinosaur entirely for awhile yet. As long as there are bibliophiles out there print books will survive. But it will be different. This is the same resistant feeling I had years ago to digital music and the Ipod I, and now I can't imagine living without one. The technologies have changed and there is no going back. The Ebook is a reality and the question is how do each of us choose to interact with this new technology. I recently read my first book on a Kindle, and while it was a different experience, it was still reading. The content of the book I read was the same no matter what physical form it took. I'm about to start a second one. I don't see this as replacing physical books for me for some time, but it is another format. One of the upsides of this revolution is that the price of Ebooks are significantly lower. Hopefully this will lead to people actually buying and reading more than they currently do ($21.95 for my book my ass!).
One of the compromises being offered is that through a program called Create Space, once a book is made available through Amazon Kindle they give you the option of making physical copies of your book available through print-on-demand. I'm not at that stage of the process yet, so I have no idea what kind of price point there will be on these hard copies, but I know I'm going to want a couple for my own bookshelf. Anyone who wants an actual copy of one of my books will be able to order one.
So, the end result of all this is my announcement that within the next few days I will be jumping head first into the role of Epublisher. Each of the three books listed above will be available at the same time. A new, digital edition of King of Summer will follow eventually, as well as as-yet-unwritten projects. I will post ordering information, as well as links to the Apps at that time. Each of my novels will have its own page here on the blog. Check out the banner at the top of the page for that.
So... That's that. Wish me luck.