Monday, August 17, 2009

The long body

We've all heard of the 'Long Tail' concept, and what that means for writers (something trip over while you blunder from keyboard to coffee, right? A new breed of uplifted elephant shrew in a sequel to the Rats books...?) Well... a book that goes on selling. And selling. And selling as the word of mouth slowly keeps it spreading. Of course that's ideal for the author, and actually pretty good for the publisher too, as the origination costs are covered long ago, and it's just a nice little dividend - except they have pay warehousing and the dreaded Thor Powertools ruling led to the tax on stock. Of course to retail it makes no real difference, and (especially those who practice 'churn') they mitigate very hard against it with once-off orders and shorter and shorter shelf exposure. Web bookstores have been a boon in that sense.

But the point is the tail - outside of web-bookstores (and e-books) has been getting shorter steadily for newbies and midlisters. Bookstores either don't carry the book (oh it didn't sell - he must be an unpopular author) or they put 1 or 2 copies on the shelf -- and don't reorder, even if they sell out in a day (Oh he's not very popular, only sold 2 copies, Fred Promoted-and-re-ordered sold 10!) or given a bit of delay in unboxing and haste in stripping have a book on the shelf for a few weeks, not enough time with zero promotion for it to gather any momentum, be it ever so good. It's hard to fight back and never a week passes without the latest 'work of genius' coming out of large box retail (BUY INDEPENDENTS!) which makes things worse for anyone who is not a bestseller or wanting to only read bestsellers. It's a game ruled by name recognition - and that is very hard to achieve when your exposure is brief, in small numbers, spine out and with negligible promo.

Unless you have either a private fortune to spend on promotion, or have an exceptional talent for self-promotion, or are one the few authors that a publisher decides to throw the entire gravy boat over (You're a newbie and got an advance of more than 50K? relax. You're one of them... otherwise...) the answer is the strategy I call the long body. Two things here: the publishing process is generally a SLOW thing. From selling a proposal to the book coming out can be years. It's never going to be less than a year unless there is a rush-rush reason. And secondly the long body requires that in that lag phase you get as much into the system as possible. And the bad news is if you stop feeding that system -YOU DISAPPEAR. At least from the shelves for months or years at a time, which makes name recognition near impossible.

At the moment for eg, I have a good long body going if you count the shorts

I had a story in WITCH WAY TO THE MALL - May

I've got another in STRIP MAULED - September

Then DRAGON'S RING in October


Then the paperback SLOWTRAIN TO ARCTURUS in March

And another short in a collection probably somewhere in between.

That's good eh? Well, no it isn't entirely. For one, shorts are not stocked under your name. And for a second of course most of mine are collaborations, and although in reality I am the principal author, they don't file them under who did most of the work ;-). It's a lot better than a kick in the head, but I'm still lucky to get straight unadulterated 'Dave Freer' on shelf once a year. But if I didn't keep feeding into the sausage machine with proposals and writing there won't be much the next year and the year after.
There is no resting your laurels, or even going on trying to sell the same old story. You have to do that, but you have to work at writing more and feeding the machine for 2-3 years into the future. It's a treadmill down here in the trenches. Add to that doing the art for JBU, trying to emigrate, trying to sell our house, trying to have a family life, stay fit, organise the Furry Freer rescue project, and um, occasionally sleep. And then they want you to promote yourself as well ;-)

Well, here is my inept go at it - helped by some far better writers than myself:

Now you can make me feel better about it by telling me it looks great and telling a few friends! Or you can have fun telling me what a slack bludger I am and how you envy my life of Riley ;-).


Rowena Cory Daniells said...

Oh, Dave. I feel your pain.

How do any books sell, when so much is against them?

I think word of mouth is most important. I go into Independent books stores and ask the people who work there, what is interesting and obscure. I want to read writers who are pushing the boundaries.

I ask people on the e-lists what they've read that's good and I order those books from Indy Bookstores, because I believe in supporting those stores.

I donate the books I've read for awards, to the local library so they get read again.

When I run workshops, I wave books around in front of the aspiring writers, recommending them. And sometimes I give away books.

I loved the original Witches of Karres stories, so I'll order your new witches book!

Dave Freer said...

Got to keep swimming up the undertow. We might not gain ground, but it's better than losing it. If we stop we're going to drown. But heck, it would be nice for a few minutes ;-)

Amanda Green said...

Dave, that short swim -- which I fear will end with a trip over the waterfall for me -- is what is so frustrating. Especially when you add in the fact that so many agents and publishers want to know, up front when you first submit to them, what you are going to do to promote your book. How the hell do I know what I'm going to do? I don't know at that point when the book is coming out, what format it will be in, how many copies will be run, where it will be released, etc. So, is it okay if I grab onto the end of the tail of the new breed of uplifted elephant shrew and have it drag me to the coffee so I can keep writing? ;-p

As for your question, the cover looks wonderful. The quotes are great and just be prepared for the fact that when -- not it, I'm being positive here -- I finally get to the point of having a novel cover, I'm coming to you for help. Now quit looking for a rock to hide under, I promise I'll only ask a hundred times or so and then I'll leave you alone. [VBG]

Dave Freer said...

Amanda: It will be my very great pleasure to read a draft for you and give you a quote, at least. I wish I could promise you a great piece of cover art.

Amanda Green said...

Dave, you're a real sweetie. As long as I don't get saddled with the worst cover ever -- and yes, you know the one I mean as do Sarah and Kate -- I'll be a very happy camper.

Sarah A. Hoyt said...

Back when I was trying to break into short stories, I had a problem with my ... rhythms, for lack of a better word. I noticed, when I looked back on my write/send records, that I had intense periods of marketing and intense periods of writing. Never at the same time. Marketing then being just mailing things out, of course.

Part of my problem now, is that I don't market -- i.e. publicize -- at all, other than a few half-hearted bookmarks and the like. There are several reasons, mostly lack of time, but also lack of enjoyment and having no clue how to break the stranglehold. So, instead I write.

And the treadmill -- yeah. I'm feeding the beast very hard just now. Feeling guilty over almost twenty days of not writing, save a bit on the plane there. (not back, because I got an ear infection, which slowed everything down.)

Ori Pomerantz said...

Getting a book published has gotten a lot easier. However, that only makes the competition for readers more intense.

I suspect the future is in eBooks and print on demand, and with well known authors selling directly to the reader, bypassing the publisher. As much as I like Baen, the real brands I'm looking for are "Tom Kratman", "Dave Freer", etc.

For new authors, I suspect a lot of marketing will be collaborations between known and new. I don't know how new authors will convince the Eric Flints of the world they are worth collaborating with, but something will come up.

Amanda Green said...

Ori, I guess it depends on your definition of published. Sure, with self-publishing and POD, it is easier to get "published". However, trying to get a foot in the door with a respected publishing house, be they a traditional publisher or e-publisher, is getting harder and harder.

The problem with thinking it's easier to be published these days is that it doesn't differentiate between, for lack of a better phrase, mainstream publishers and the self-published and PODs. Yes, there are more choices out there, if you know where to look for them, but the quality of the vast majority of those books coming from the self-published and PODs is well below that coming from the traditional publishers. IMO, that can lead not to an increased number of readers but more and more readers turned off by bad writing and storytelling.

All of which makes it even more important that those authors who do have a quality project find a way to get the word out there to the readers. Word of mouth, commercial promotion, whatever it takes. It is but one thing that can be done to rise above the dreck and make it onto the shelves and out the store.

Mike said...

Hum... how does wikipedia (Dave, you're a humor writer? That's what seems to suggest?) and ISFDB tie into this? For that matter, Amazon seems to be busily trying to invite authors to do something on their site?

We've almost got too many routes now? Remember the pushme-pullya from Dr. Dolittle? I always thought it wouldn't go anywhere...

Ori Pomerantz said...

Amanda: All of which makes it even more important that those authors who do have a quality project find a way to get the word out there to the readers.

Ori: Exactly. There are more options, and most of them are junk - so you need to differentiate yourself. Getting the impremateur of a publishing house helps, but by itself it's not enough.

That's the reason I believe the future lies in collaborations. If Baen's marketing dept. tells me a book is great, I may give it a try. But I'd trust Eric Flint's judgment a lot more.

Amanda Green said...

Ori, the problem is there aren't that many collaborations out there, not in the great scheme of things. More than that, too many readers -- like me -- have been burned by collaborations that really weren't. They happen to be books that may be envisioned by the "name" author but written by another. Think of it in terms of some of Quentin Tarrantino's movies (and I know I muffed the spelling of his name but I'm too tired to look it up right now.) People went to see the movie because it said,"Quentin Tarrantino presents" or "a Quentin Tarrantino movie". Well, it was in that he bought the rights to the foreign film, but it wasn't one of HIS movies. The viewers came away feeling cheated.

A lot of readers feel that way about collaborations as well. They buy the book based on the "name" author, only to find it doesn't live up to their expectations. The result, it hurts not only the no-name author but the "name" as well.

But there's something else to look at. It is hard to collaborate with another writer. We all work at different paces and in different ways. If you don't trust your partner, a number of very serious problems can occur, problems that can torpedo the project.

Also, other than Baen, how many legitimate publishers actually put out collaborations? There are some, but I think you'd be surprised to find out how many collaborations aren't marketed as such. The authors choose a single name to "write" under. So the collaboration does little to enhance either of their reputations with the public.

Finally, readers' tastes tend to change over time, just as authors' styles may change. The result is, if you quit reading the "name" and you come across something by a collaborating author, you might walk away from it because of that association with author you no longer read. It is just another possible pitfall of collaboration.

I'm not saying collaborations are wrong or bad. Honestly, there are several authors I'd give my right arm to collaborate with. I just don't think that is the ultimate answer. Now, Dave's idea about similar authors forming sites together to promote and sell their work is something I think we're going to see more and more of. THAT sort of collaboration has the real possibility of long term success

Chris McMahon said...

Looks fantastic Dave.

I don't think anyone can dispute how hard you work! Nice to see so much coming out. I am guilty of not feeding the 'long body' - certainly in terms of shorts. I have been so engrossed in writing and re-drafting novels I havn't written an short for well over six months.

As for my consistency in sending things out - ahem. Not so good.

The idea is inspiring though - I must pay more attention to getting things out regularly.

Dave Freer said...

Sarah, I suspect that a good author has to be monomaniacle in their focus, and I too can't switch easily. Feed the beast!

Dave Freer said...

Ori - Easier to publish (electronically) but harder to sort from the chaff. Every day the web becomes more full of stuff you don't have any interest in. The idea of a publisher as a gatekeeper still makes sense - as does an author's Co-operative. Co-authorship may work, but only if they're put together with care.

Dave Freer said...

Amanda, exactly. a bad collaboration does no-one any good.

Dave Freer said...

Mike I have had nothing to do with either so I have no idea. I need to figure out how to edit them. They're a bit dated. Oh just a little more work.

I do think some authors can get so caught up in publicity they forget to write. Trying to avoid that one ;-).

Dave Freer said...

Chris - I wish I was more effective. I should be. I could be. You've also reminded me I forgot about the ASIM story, and the two kids ones that I don't as yet have definite dates on.

But my point in this article seems to have been diluted a bit: you got it. You have to feed the beast, now, so you can start seeing results in severl years time. Even if you're doing fine now, you can't stop knocking.