Is it Vanity to be Indie?

The leaves were changing, the barbecue was spicy, the air was nippy. It was the perfect October day for an outdoor literary festival up in the mountains. Whenever I attend or present at a writers conference or book festival, I always leave with a smile on my face at having met so many awesome writers and readers (the gas that makes us go!) This particular weekend was no different. But what was different, was the fact that I met no less than twenty authors talking, unhappily, about their publishers. What was different about it, was that almost all of these disgruntled writers were referring to their indie publishers.

Okay, most of us Indies know the drill of publishing to Amazon or Smashwords. It can be a pain in the ass and often takes forever to get it perfect, but it is NOT, as I’m always reading all over the net and can personally attest to, rocket science. So when I heard author after author complain about their publishers saying it took three and four months to put their books up on Amazon, I was astonished. Furthermore, every one of these authors was giving 50% or more of their e-book royalties to their publishers—their indie publishers. What the heck was going on? Did the slimy agents and trad publishers shimmy out of their traditional publisher’s costumes and come to the ball dressed as Indie? Is it just irresistible the idea of taking advantage of the clueless author? Again?

Additionally, every one of these Indie authors was selling copies of their print-on-demand books for well over $15. For a paperback!! When I gave a wandering bookstore owner at the festival a few copies of my book, Toujours Dead, to sell on consignment, she couldn’t believe I was selling them at the literary festival for $7 a piece. I shrugged. “I make a profit on them,” I said.   How? Easy. My Indie publisher (who happens to be ME) does not charge me $10 a book after paying for full production on a print-on-demand book. Before Createspace, Amazon’s print-on-demand arm, made it easier to make a profit on the per-book cost of producing a title, I always produced my print-on-demand books through Lightning Source (LSI). It involved a more expensive setup and skillset, but I come from a marketing/production background, so that was no problem. I decided to ALSO publish my books with Createspace  because Amazon had made Lightning Source books harder to access through them (with ridiculously long shipping times) and I wanted to remove as many barriers as possible for those readers interested in my books. But I also needed to be able to buy cheap copies for myself to sell (which I could  do better thru LSI).  With the new changes implemented at Createspace earlier this year, the per-book cost to produce these titles in print-on-demand is now cheaper than using Lightning Source so I probably will just continue with Createspace.  Toujours Dead, for example, cost me 4.27 through LSI for every copy I bought. If I was selling my books from a booth at a conference, $7 was a nice retail price for me, and I could even go cheaper if I wanted to and still make a profit. Now that the same book cost virtually the same to produce thru Createspace ($4.45) and without the $70 setup fee (plus every change I make after the proof is another $35), I’ll likely never go back to LSI. Note: A few of the authors who had discovered Createspace were happy with the quality and the cost of their books, but one admitted he got a little over his head and said he had to “upgrade” to get the help he needed. When he did, the price shot up like the Titan 1 booster rocket on a clear day.

Okay, but back to our poor, hapless authors, the ones who were totally enjoying their day until they met up with me. They had shelled out over $1,000, some of them, to get a print-on-demand book made—and that didn’t even include the cover design! (Except for one or two, the covers were generally awful, about what you’d expect from a writer who’s an expert at writing but less so with the whole design thing. Unfortunately, these covers had all been created by their so-called publishers.) Then the authors bought copies of their own book at prices that made it prohibitive to re-sell them!

In more than a couple cases, I was told by happy authors (at least they were happy until they talked to me) that putting their books up on any of the online distributor sites like Smashwords or Amazon cost extra! I told at least five writers that it was free to publish a book on Amazon. One of them actually blurted out: “You lie!”

Bottom line: be careful out there! It’s not just the agents and the trad publishers who want a piece of you…sometimes it’s the indie publisher. If you’re going to make this work as a business model, you need to be savvy, snug with your money, and know upfront exactly what you want. To that end, I met a sweet old guy at the festival with cute but, in my mind, largely unmarketable stories about talking hedgehogs and sheepdogs. His publisher, who had a booth near mine, referred to her business as a “hybrid publishing” model, NOT a vanity press, she stressed to me (three times.) This old fellow had paid his “hybrid” publisher $1,200 and received 50% royalties, on his print and e-books.  Am I being too cynical? Is there such a thing as a hybrid publisher? Or is this really a subsidy press by another name? In any case, I can’t remember seeing a happier soul. He spent a beautiful autumn day sitting in front of a sign that said “Author Will Sign” talking to people and chatting with “his publisher,” a pretty young woman who fussed over him as if he were Stephen King. That’s why I say, it depends on what you want out of the experience. Personally, I believe that gentleman was enjoying every penny of his experience. And good for him!

Love to hear what you think or some of your experiences on the conference/festival trail!

The Top 3 Reasons Why Book Trailers are Worthless

I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty sure book trailers have been done before. And they weren’t successful then either. We all remember the thirty-second television ads that you’d see from time to time for a book. There was always a disconnect—watching a visual medium trying to excite you about a nonvisual medium. First, books are SO personal and the images we create in our heads of the stories and settings of books are so unique to our own personal world construct, that it’s hard to see what would work in a mass media presentation. Has a video ever succeeded in selling a book? Ever? It’s one thing to see a movie of a book you’ve already read. Most of us can switch gears pretty quickly to align our vision of what Hogwarts looked like with that of Director Chris Columbus’. And ever after that, of course, it’s his vision we see in our heads as we read the rest of the series.

I was watching a BBC time travel show last winter called “The Outcasts,” (really good BTW but cancelled after one season) and at one point the camera focused on the main character’s face as she opened up a chest that held an alien creature germane to the survival of the colony. The camera hesitated a tad too long on the woman’s face and I found myself thinking: “If you do a cut away to the next scene without showing us what it looked like (presumably to save on the production cost of creating the alien thing), I’m going to be pissed. If I wanted to use my imagination, I’d read a book.”

The point is, we have certain expectations from each of our mediums. Trying to pretend that a book is a movie and that we are excited and teased by it in the same way as a movie is silly. For one thing, our experience with a book will typically be more invested than with a movie. A movie may cost the same but it’s only about 90 minutes of your time. A book will likely go with you on your daily round and fall asleep with you at night. You will access the book on your own schedule, and dip into it or read it straight through based on your mood and timing—not your neighborhood Cineplex’s. It’s a relationship. Whatever actress or animation you see in the book trailer is not who you would have created in your own mind. The book trailer actually succeeds in making the world created in the book less real.

Top three reasons not to waste your time producing a book trailer:

  1. If the production is decent, you—as the author—will come off looking a little smarmy and slick. And not-so-deep down we all know it just means you spent money for a professional video editor. It has nothing to do with the promise of the quality of the book.
  2. If the production is lame, and indie book trailers often are with their sappy music, indecipherable text fonts, and amateurish slides, most people—used to very sophisticated video productions—will run like hell from you and your book.
  3. Finally, not only is the medium of video inadequate to sell the complex, detailed world expected from a book, but so is the time allotment. Sixty seconds—the recommended length for a book trailer—just isn’t long enough to do the job. Wrong medium, wrong message. Books aren’t movies. They can’t be advertised like movies.

Also, my brief visit to Wikipedia today informed me that book trailers were originally created to get nonreaders interested in picking up a book. That makes sense. If someone doesn’t read, he likely gets his stories from TV or movies, so a movie would be a good way to try to reach him.  But, unless you’re trying to talk your audience into reading, rather than specifically reading your book, it’s probably a better use of your time to let the indie filmmakers keep their trailers and you do other things to promote your book!

Having said that, I’ve got a book trailer for my book Toujours Dead that was loads of fun to do, (I’m an amateur film editor) though I won’t be repeating the experience anytime soon. Anyone else have a feeling one way or the other about the benefits of book trailers? Or proof of how a book trailer helped to sell books? Love to hear from you!