August 12, 2021

The Great Migration

A week or so back on Twitter I was asked to comment on a question that needed a little more response than 280 characters allowed. I tried to give a quick, simple answer, but it gnawed at me for a bit, ‘cause I’ve seen this question many times before (from several angles), and it always feels like the answers it gets are very simplified. So a few days later I added it to my list of topics for here.

“Anyone know whether publishers will pick up a book that’s
already been self-published for a new edition?”

Like so many things in this industry, this is one of those questions that sounds really simple, but there’s actually a lot more to it. I think this is really a few questions that’ve been Voltroned together and then demanding a single, comprehensive answer. Which is why the answers it gets tend to always feel a bit over-simplified and off. To me, anyway.

For example, even if we’re just asking how many self-pubbed books get picked up by traditional presses, this is a loaded question. Because most people don’t consider smaller traditional presses in that—they’re really just interested in the big ones. And small presses are, generally speaking, more open to picking up a formerly self-pubbed book. So viewing things this way already skews my answer.

Plus, it depends on just how we’re phrasing things—slightly different questions can get very different answers. If I’m asking how many Big Five books started off a self published works… the odds aren’t horrible. I mean, just personally, I know enough people it’s happened to, and I have a good enough sense of how many books get published, so I feel comfortable saying yeah, there’s passable odds it can happen. It’s not exactly common, but I’d be willing to bet out of the thousands of books the big presses put out each year, more than a couple were previously self-published. And, as I just said, the odds get even better if we bring in smaller presses.

However… if my question is what are the odds of a self published book getting picked up by a big traditional press… well, those numbers plummet. Because now we’re talking about hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of self published books each year and (as I said above) maaaaybe a dozen of them get picked up. So I can end up with a very different picture of things depending on what I ask. And, to be honest, how people want to answer. There’s a lot of wiggle room here to make the answers fit what somebody wants to believe. Or wants you to believe.

All that in mind… why don’t we try to break this Voltron-question down into its three (or maybe four) component lion-questions and answer each of those.

First off is the big one. Is my book something a traditional publisher would even want? Let’s be honest—anything can be self-published. Absolutely anything. The most illiterate, nonsensical garbage can be self-published. So right off the bat, I need to have actually written a good book. Something a publisher might’ve picked up if they’d originally seen it. Something with a very solid structure, good characters, and strong dialogue. In this aspect, it’s just like any other book they’d be looking at, and they’re probably going to have much higher standards than… well KDP.

Not only that, but odds are they’re going to be looking at my actual self-published book. I mean, I’m now a small press trying to convince a big press to take on one of my titles, so is it shocking to think they might look at it? Is it edited and copyedited? Does it have a nice layout? Awful as it sounds, does it have a halfway decent cover? They’re not going to judge on any one of these things, but they’re all going to have a degree of influence. I’m asking them to pick up this book, and if it looks like a crap book… well, they’re going to notice that.

Second is the money side of things. Is it worth it for a traditional publisher to pick up my book and republish it? Again, one aspect of this is going to be like any other book—is this the kind of thing the publisher usually sells? Not a lot of historical romances coming out of Tor, and Ballantine isn’t picking up a ton of splatterpunk. And even if I’ve written a straight sci-fi book, is it so sub-sub-niche that Tor might only sell a few hundred copies altogether?

That’s actually a good place to bring up a sort of second-and-a-half point. There’s also some math at work here. See, if my self-published book’s only sold sixty or seventy copies, it means it’s not getting any interest or word of mouth… which means it’s probably not worth it for a big press to republish it. But if the book’s sold too many copies, that means I’ve actually eaten into the potential audience. Every book realistically is only going to sell so many copies, so if all the market research says my book might appeal to an audience of ten thousand and I’m telling them it’s already sold eight thousand self published… that also means it’s probably not worth it to them to pick it up.

Also (what are we up to, my second and three-quarters point?) right now, as I’m writing this and you’re reading it—okay, maybe not as you’re reading it, depending—publishers are actually having meetings about what’s going to be on sale for Christmas 2022 and even talking a bit about spring of 2023. Seriously. They’re working that far ahead. Which means, on a lot of levels, they’re not as interested in what’s going on right now. So I might think this is a fantastic time for my book to go big, but as far as they’re concerned… that time was fifteen months ago.

Third is what am I expecting to get out of this? Mass distribution? Book signing tours? A futon stuffed with twenty dollar bills?  Welllll… remember that math I mentioned above? How much they think they can make off my republished book is going to affect how much they’re going to pay me. I can’t expect to get a huge advance off something that’s been out there selling copies for a year or two now, so if I’m demanding a six or seven figure check out of this… get used to disappointment.

And them paying less money means they need to make less of an effort to recoup that money. So no book tours. Not on their dime, anyway. I’m probably still going to be pushing this a lot myself. It’ll be more available, and it’ll have a little more weight behind it, but I’ll still probably be doing the same level of self-promotion I was doing when it was self-pubbed.

Also worth noting that the days of piecemeal rights deals are pretty much long over. I can’t be thinking I’ll ask the traditional publisher to take over just print and audio rights, but I’ll still get to put out the ebook. Doesn’t matter if it’s my choice or because things are locked up in some previous deal. It’s extremelyunlikely someone’s going to accept very limited rights for the book, especially a big publisher. I might be able to make it happen with a smaller press, but even they’re going to be a bit leery about it.

And all that’s kind of a broader answer to “will traditional publishers pick up a book that’s been self published.” There’s lots of ifsand buts in there, and I need to figure out where my book (and where I ) sit with all of them to get a real sense of an answer. And again, that’s just to get us to whether or not it’ll happen. Y’see Timmy, ultimately—like any other publishing venture—my journey of getting a self-published book picked up is going to be different than your journey, and odds are neither of us are going to get a deal like she did.

So… very long answer to a deceptively short question.

Next time, I want to talk about cake.

Until then… go write.

April 8, 2021 / 2 Comments

…In The Trunk

A few weeks back (over on Twitter) I tossed out a general question to any writer who wanted to answer—“Do you have a trunk novel that you wouldn’trelease right now?” And I wasn’t really surprised to see a fair number of folks respond affirmatively. One or two were almost enthusiastically affirmative. In fact, only one person said no, and even their no was couched in the acknowledgement said novel would need to be rewritten.

And, okay, maybe I’m skipping ahead a bit. Does everyone here know what a trunk novel is? Let’s start there.

Really short version, a trunk novel is a finished (or maybe close-to-finished) novel that I’ve decided to put aside for a while. Usually a long while. It gets its name from ye olden times, when authors had to write everything on crushed papyrus. And if you had something that didn’t work out (for one reason or another) you either had to throw out that physical copy or, y’know, put it away somewhere so it wasn’t taking up desk space. Like, say, in a trunk. Because everyone had steamer trunks back then.

Nowadays we don’t have the space problem (yay, electromagnetic memory bubbles), but a lot of us still end up with stuff we can’t find homes for right now. And that’s what I wanted to talk about. Why things get put away and what happens when we pick them back up.

Right off the bat, there’s nothing wrong with needing to put something aside. It doesn’t mean I’ve failed or wasted time. If anything, I think it can be kind of mature and healthy when someone sets things aside. From a writer-ly point of view, it means I’ve realized this isn’t going to work, for one reason or another. Maybe I’ve admitted I don’t have the skill yet to make this particular story work the way I want it to. Perhaps I’ve determined the market’s not good for my story right now. Hell, it could be that I’ve realized the story just doesn’t work. It seemed clever at first but now that I’ve cleaned it up and expanded it… yeah, that is a massive, gaping hole there in the middle of it. Like, highway-swallowing-sinkhole massive.

So, yeah. Absolutely nothing wrong with taking something I spent a lot of time on and just wrapping it up in a blanket to sleep while I move on to other things.

Because after a point there are choices to be made. I can just keep plugging away at this again and again and again until I get it right. Or I can keep hunting for a market to take it, until I’ve been hunting so long I can circle around to those first submissions again and say “well, how about now?”  But this is a tricky balance. Because there is a point that I’m spending so much time on this thing—trying to make it perfect, trying to get it sold—that I haven’t done anything else. And the months and years I spend doing that are months and years I could’ve spent writing something new. That’s a tipping point we all need to find for ourselves, when “not giving up” becomes “putting off doing anything else.” It’s the polar opposite of the shiny new idea.

And, yeah… I’m speaking from experience here. A lot of you have heard of my trunk novel, The Suffering Map. I worked on it on and off for years. Maybe three years of solid work altogether, spread out across almost four times that. I rewrote it again and again. I showed it to agents and editors. I rewrote it some more. And finally I realized, like I just said, that I’d been working on this thing for over a decade. I was in my thirties and I’d been working on it pretty much since I got out of college.

So after my latest round of rejections, I put it away and called it good. And went on to start writing a book about a government teleportation projectwhich, oddly enough, I set aside when I got a really good opening from a publisher to deliver a zombies vs. superheroes book.

Which means putting The Suffering Map aside and moving on was a really good decision on my part.

But let’s look at the second half of this. What about picking it up again? I mean, trunking a novel isn’t like shooting it into a black hole. Or being like Robert Louis Stevenson and burning a whole manuscript because he felt it was just way too disturbing for the current market (no, seriously, he did). We can pull it back out, rework it, and maybe find a home for it.

Let’s really consider this, though. Because we can’t just leap back into something from five or ten years ago (or more) and expect it to work just like it did then. For a couple of reasons.

F’r example… hopefully we’ve grown as writers. I think most of us realize the stuff we did when we were fifteen might not hold up as well as the stuff we did at twenty-five or thirty-five. I’m not the person I was then, and I hope you’ve matured too. As a person and as a writer. We’ve (hopefully) grown our vocabularies a bit, learned some new structure tricks, maybe gotten a bit better with subtlety and nuance. We may realize, wow, that whole thing I did there was a bit pretentious, wasn’t it? And maybe that other bit was…

Okay, look, we can just cut all of that bit. Nobody’ll ever even know it was there. Plausible deniability. It’ll be fine.

But the world’s also going to change. Yeah, even in just a couple of years. I mean, go back just five years—April 2016. Obama was still the USPresident. There were two people vying for the Democratic ticket, but three fighting for the GOP nod. The majority of people went around without masks. Technology was different. Entertainment was different (we were all still waiting to see this latest Spider-Man in Captain America: Civil War, due out that summer). Society was different. Hell, 2020 was a horrible year in so many ways, but it also opened a lot of eyes to the injustice and social issues millions of people deal with on a daily basis.

And that’s all stuff that should be reflected in my writing.

F’r example… let’s look at The Suffering Map again.

As I’ve mentioned here once or thrice, I can look back at the things I did with this book and see flaws that weren’t apparent to me then. Problems with the dialogue, the structure, and some of the characterizations. There’s a lot of stuff in there I’m very proud of, but there’s also a lot of stuff that makes me very glad nobody outside of a small circle ever saw it. And I absolutely understand why the agents who liked my pitch and read some of it ultimately rejected it.

One of the big issues with it, which I’ve mentioned before, is that I had the wrong character as my protagonist. In retrospect, I stuck with Rob for eight drafts because Rob was, well, the most like me. The easiest to write. And I might not have consciously realized it, but I knew I didn’t have the skill at that point (or the confidence) to write a female character who didn’t feel kinda like… well, kind of a cliché.  A bunch of clichés, honestly. So it was easier then to make Sondra a supporting character, even though I realize now her arc is way more interesting than Rob’s. If I ever decided to pick it up again, no question I’d rewrite the whole thing to make her the protagonist.

Plus, let’s look at the world between when I started writing The Suffering Map and now. Answering machines were still a thing then. Same with Walkmans. Cell phones have become much more common than they were then, and they’ve become smartphones. All this means major changes for four or five chapters in the book (plus fallout from those changes), and even some structural changes because smartphones have completely changed how we interact with each other and the world. I mean, I had a scene where Rob gets a call at work, and two others where he uses a Thomas Guide. Anyone remember those?

Politically/socially we were in the height of the Clintonyears. Roaring economy. Big business being taxed. Budget deficits shrinking. Small businesses are a large part of the book, and they couldn’t really be presented now the way they were then (although one side hustle aspect of Rob’s life would seem more believable).  No 9/11 yet, either, and that really showed in a lot of places. And there’s at least one chapter that’d play out really differently because of this.

Here’s another thing. In early drafts of The Suffering Map, Sondra was a woman who’d worked in adult films, and as a dancer in later revisions. It was a “young and needed the money” thing. But truth be told, the sex industry has changed quite a bit in the past twenty-five years, and so has many folks’ views of it. It’s still rarely seen as a great thing, but it doesn’t have quite the massive stigma it used to. Which makes it worth mentioning—when you add in the cell phone/internet issue—if I did want to keep something like this hidden, it’s a lot harder these days. Also, a lot of these jobs doesn’t pay as well as they used to (that damned internet again).

So this is a whole character element that would need major revision—if I even decided to keep it and not just have her be an Uber driver or something.

Any of this make sense? I know I’m babbling a bit because this is kind of a big, sprawling thing and I’m trying to cover a lot of it and give some examples.

The two big things to remember are this. There’s nothing wrong with setting something aside, for whatever reason I decide to do it, because I can always pick it back up again. I just need to remember the world is going to change. And if I’ve been doing things correctly. Hopefully I’ve changed too.


Next time, I want to talk to you about a very important saxophonist.

Until then, go write.

February 5, 2021 / 2 Comments

Let’s Talk Terms

I had a conversation with an acquaintance of mine just after the New Year. They’d been offered a contract for their manuscript but were getting some iffy vibes from the  publisher. I talked with them about it for a bit and pointed out, yeah, there were a few good reasons for those iffy vibes.

What surprised me is that this acquaintance is a smart person, and I’ve talked with them a few times about writing and publishing. But combining the excitement of getting accepted with some potentially confusing terminology and, well… I can see where it’d be easy to get caught up in things. And maybe a little confused.

So I figured, hey, let’s take a minute or three and just talk publishing terms. These are things you may have heard or seen tossed about, but nobody ever explained them in any sort of depth. And they’re good things to understand if I want writing to be some level of career. Especially a full-time one.

Also, before anyone rushes to make angry points below, this is about definitions, not “which one is better.” If you want to have that argument, I’m sure there’s someone else out there who’d be pleased to go at it with you, no matter what view you take.

Let’s start with the basics. Traditional publishing is when somebody offers me money for certain rights to my story, often for a set period of time. By rights we generally mean the print rights, ebook right, and nowadays audiobook rights are very common, too. Anything more than that may be getting a bit sketchy (why does a book publisher need movie rights?). Again, publisher’s getting certain rights, and the author’s getting money for those rights—that’s textbook traditional publishing right there.

Because they’re getting these rights, the publisher’s taking on all the responsibilities. They’re going to take care of editing, copyediting, layouts, cover art, the actual production and distribution, marketing, publicity, and so on. A good publisher is probably going to involve me in all this, but it is theirs at this point (they paid for it) and it’s ultimately all up to them. We could talk for hours about different people’s experiences—good and bad—past that, but I think for now that’s a good basic way to look at it.

Let’s talk about that payment. This is something I think some people get confused about a lot, and there are some folks who take advantage of that confusion. For the purposes of this discussion, all the money I make off a traditional publishing deal is going to be in the form of royalties. They’re a percentage of the money the book makes. Usually not a very large percentage, true, but as I just mentioned, I have no responsibility here. Someone else is doing all the work and paying for everything. So don’t be shocked or angry when you hear that percentage is usually going to be a single-digit number.

Some quick math. Let’s say I’m getting a 5% royalty rate. My book sells for $20. The publisher sells 5000 copies to bookstores and other retailers across the country. That’s 5000 x $20 = $100,000, and my cut of that would be $5000. Make sense?

”But hang on,” says Wakko, “I thought they bought the rights. Where’s that money? Where’s my advance?”

Now… here’s where it might get a bit confusing.

If you’ve ever worked for a small company, you may have been able to ask your boss for an advance on your paycheck. Give me a hundred bucks now, take it out of my check then. When we talk about an advance in publishing, it’s the same thing. The publisher’s giving me some of my royalties before the book’s actually sold any copies. It’s kind of a show of faith—they think the book will sell XXX copies, so they’re giving me X right up front.

To build off the above example, let’s say the publisher gave me an $8000 dollar advance. When that first wave of royalties come around, I’d get nothing—but only because they already gave it to me. I got that $5000 in the advance (plus another $3000). When the book’s made me that full $8000, we say it’s earned out its advance, and from this point on the royalty checks will go straight to me.

Also, no matter what you may have heard… publishers don’t demand the advance back if my book doesn’t earn out. Seriously, it’s a non issue. If we dug into the very, very rare cases where this happened, we’d find something else had happened to make the publisher ask for their money back. The contract had been broken somehow or something had happened to make publishing the book a business/ethics problem. So it’s not so much asking for the advance back as it is canceling the whole deal.

One other thing worth keeping in mind. I’ve seen a few publishers be a bit… let’s politely say disingenuous by suggesting not giving advances is better for me, the author, because I’ll start getting royalties immediately! But here’s the thing to remember—advances are royalties. They’re royalties I’m getting before the book earns any money. How could anything be more immediate than that? If I gave you the choice of eating cake now or waiting until we decide to bake a cake… what’s the quickest way for you to get cake?

Wow, said a lot more there than I planned to. Anyway, moving on…

The next thing you’ve probably heard of is self-publishing. Sometimes this gets referred to as independent/ indie publishing, but I’ve got to admit that always feels like a bit of sleight of hand to me. Usually when people talk about indie publishing, they’re talking about smaller publishing houses that aren’t connected to the Big Five (I think it’s still the Big Five for a few more weeks, yes?). So when people lean into this… I mean, they’re technically correct, but it feels like they’re just trying to avoid saying they’re self-published.

As the name implies, self-publishing means I’m doing everything myself. I’m writing the book, but I’m also editing and copyediting the text. And I’m in charge of layouts, cover design, cover art, distribution, marketing, publicity, all of it. Because, well, I’m the publisher. This also means I’m sinking more time and money into the publishing side, since I either need to learn how to do all these things or pay somebody to do them. Also means no advances because, y’know, who’d pay them? But it does mean a more sizable chunk of the profits, and successful self-pubbers can make some serious cash. If they’re successful.

Now, this brings me to a slightly newer term (relatively speaking). Over the past few years you may have heard of hybrid authors. This is when an author has some books that are traditionally published and other books that are self-published. Doing both things = hybrid. Get it?

The idea of a hybrid author was pretty much unheard of for ages. You were solidly one or the other and that was it. But times have changed, openings and opportunities have appeared, and lots of authors do this now. Some do it with new material. Some (like me) do it with older works that have reverted back to them. Yes, I too am one of these hybrids we’re speaking of.

Please note this doesn’t change anything I’ve mentioned above. The hybrid author tag is cool, but that’s all it is—a cool label. I’m still traditionally publishing just as it’s described above, and I’m also self publishing just as it’s described above.

Okay, two more things I want to mention…

First is a vanity press. You may have heard this one before. A vanity press isn’t so much a publisher as a printer that overpromises. Or, y’know, a scam that takes advantage of aspiring authors. They offer “publication,” but the author pays for the editing, copyediting, layout, cover design, cover art. distribution, marketing… hey, this list sounds familiar, doesn’t it? It’s all that stuff I’d have to pay for if I was self-publishing. But by going through a vanity press I get to… share the money with them? So, I pay for everything and they still take a cut of the profits. Sometimes as their percentage of the royalties, sometimes as payment for actually producing the book… which, again, I’m paying for. So sure, you can have a hardcover edition—they’re only $11.23 apiece and we need you to make a minimum order of 500 copies.

Here’s a much better deal. Self-publish your book and just send me a cut of the profits. I mean, if you’re going to give money to somebody for no reason, why not? I promise to spend it all on rum and toy robots. See? Don’t you feel better about that already?


One giveaway is that vanity presses will take pretty much any manuscript they get. Sci-fi romance? Accepted. Historical fantasy? Accepted. Deranged conspiracy theories written in crayon on a placemat? So accepted! They’re not making any actual investment, so there’s no risk for them. If my book fails, it fails. Nothing to them. They already got paid. Again… by me.

Now, I thought those last two were worth mentioning because my acquaintance up above told me they’d recently heard the term hybrid publisher, which was new to me. And after they explained the contract to me, I did a little more digging and educated myself a bit. Which is tough, though, since hybrid publishing doesn’t really have any set yardsticks. And this is where it gets a bit tricky…

One thing most accounts agree on is that hybrid publishers charge the author. Depending on which press I’m looking at, they might charge for editing, copyediting, layout, cover design, cover art, distribution, marketing, and HEY! This is that same list of publishing requirements. Again. So again, I have to ask why am I paying someone else to do this if I’m not getting all the profits? If I’m paying, I’m the publisher, right?

Now, a defense I saw of a few hybrid presses is that they’re different from a vanity press in that they don’t take everyone. They curate their list just like a traditional publisher would. And I think that’s cool and generally good business, but… well, I mean, if you think about it, vanity presses don’t accept a lot of people. My dad’s never been accepted by a vanity press. Neither has my niece. A vanity press only takes advantage of the people it accepts, so if my main defense is that I don’t accept everyone… I mean, isn’t that like saying there are lots of people the Golden State Killer didn’t murder?

To be clear, I’m not saying that all hybrid publishers are a scam. I can’t because, as I mentioned, there’s no yardsticks. They all have different practices and guidelines. But I get very leery any time a publisher starts asking for money. Because the minute I’m paying for things or I’m doing a large share of the work, that sounds a lot like self publishing to me. And if I’m self publishing… why is someone else getting a cut?

Unless of course, it’s me. And you’re sending me money for rum and toy robots. 

So anyway… there’s some terms for you. Some of you may have known a lot of this already, but if you’re somebody who didn’t I hope this might help a bit next time you’re making decisions. Or just considering things.

Next time… I think we really need to talk about Cloverfield. Specifically, about this journal I was keeping while the monster attacked the city.

Until then, go write.

November 10, 2020

The A2Q Master List

Hey, since I’ve been asked about this a few times now…

When I did the A2Q how-to-write-a-novel thing at the start of the year, it was every other week, and then every week, and trying to find those posts now, in reverse order, can make it a bit troublesome. So here’s a master list of more or less the whole thing. Now I can just point folks here, or you can just save the one bookmark. Y’know, if you felt this was bookmark-worthy.

Part One—The Idea

Part Two—The Plot

Part Three—The Characters

Part Four—The Story

Part Five—The Setting

Part Six—The Theme

Part Seven—The Outline

Part Eight—The First Draft

Part Nine—The Editing

Part Ten—The Criticism

Part Eleven—The Revisions

Part Twelve—The End
For the record, there were some other posts I slapped the A2Q tag on—the supplemental material, if you will—but I didn’t include them here. They’re useful, but most of them were afterthoughts and they’d feel a little jammed in, I think, if I tried to work them in here where they should be. When I someday bind all this into an ebook, I’ll make sure they’re all incorporated from the start.

Next up, rocks. And right after that, I’d like to do one holiday tradition a little early.

Now go write.