A Departure

This will be the last blog post I link to on Facebook, at least for the foreseeable future. If you’re coming here to find out when I’ve posted*, I recommend you use the link on the blog itself to be notified by email whenever I post. You can also–at least for now–follow me on Twitter (@CaseyKarp).

* As part of your other Facebook usage, of course; I’m not quite egotistical enough to think following me is the only reason you’re on Facebook. On the other hand, if you are, drop me a note: I could use the positive reinforcement.

In addition, I will no longer be reading Facebook posts. No more likes, no more birthday greetings, and no more comments (though I will look for and respond to comments on this post for a few days).

Believe me, it’s got nothing to do with you, singularly or collectively. No, this is all about me. Because, as several people who know me will tell you, everything is all about me.

Okay, Facebook itself has a lot to do with my decision. And if you really want to spread the blame around, toss a bit at Phil Plait, the Bad Astronomer, who recently summed up much of what I’ve been thinking about Facebook.

I’m not going to follow his lead and delete my account, at least not yet. I’ll come back to that shortly.

Spoiler: my decision has little to do with the annoyance of having to link posts manually, except to the extent that the inability to link posts automatically is a symptom of the larger problem.

The bottom line here is literally that: Facebook is so focused on the bottom line that they’re incapable of admitting a mistake. Worse, even if they were to try to fix something, they’ve gotten so big and unwieldy they can’t possibly do it quickly or well. (Yes, the old oil tanker problem: if every course change costs you time and money, you had better get the course right the first time.) Facebook can’t change course on a dime. Hell, they’d be doing well to change course on a billion dimes.

I’ve made no secret of the fact that my Facebook account is, and has always been, in support of my writing. We’ve reached the point where at least as many people go to Facebook to look for someone as who go to Google or Bing, LinkedIn or Instagram, or any other search or interpersonal networking site, so if a writer wants to be found by his readers, he needs to be on Facebook.

Nor is it any secret that Facebook makes its money by selling information to advertisers. Not just who you follow, but which posts you read, what you Like or Hate, who you comment on, how long you spend on the site, and even how long it takes you to read a post.

And yes, Facebook limits what posts you see by how much the poster is willing to pay to get the posts in front of you.

Which is why the ability to automatically link blog posts went away. Facebook doesn’t want you leaving their site to come to mine, so they’re limiting my ability to lure you away, unless I pay them for the privilege.

Sure, there are ways to get around that, ways to see everything a particular person posts, but they’re clumsy, and not everyone knows about them.

Not only is this kind of silo not what the social internet* was created for, but if we can believe any of Facebook’s public history, it’s not what Facebook was created for either.

* The part of the internet used by the entire world to talk to each other, as opposed to the original, original internet intended to link military computers. (Gross oversimplification, I know. It’s a side-issue. Deal.)

I’ve decided that I’m not interested in being part of Facebook’s walled garden any more. I don’t want them making money by selling people advertising because they’ve chosen to follow me–or because I’ve chosen to follow them.

As I said, I’m not going to delete my account. If people are going to come to Facebook looking for me, I’m mercenary enough to want to be here to be found. But only to the extent necessary to direct them elsewhere.

Over the next few days, I’ll be unfollowing and unfriending everyone on Facebook. Don’t be offended: as I said, it’s not you, it’s me. And Facebook. If you want to do the same to me, please go ahead. Or if you would rather leave things as they are in the hope I’ll come back someday–and it could happen, although I agree with Dr. Plait that it’s unlikely–feel free. Your relationship with Facebook is your own business.

Hope to see you somewhere else.

Cheery News

I said on Tuesday that I wanted to save today for some cheerier news. That news is that I’ve finished the revisions to Like Herding Cats.

Actually, to be totally honest, I haven’t quite finished. I’ve got one chapter to go, so–barring a total computer meltdown*–I will finish today.

* I really, really hope I didn’t just jinx myself…But what are the odds of four different computers dropping dead at the same time? No, don’t answer that; I’m happier not knowing.

Finishing the book doesn’t mean you’ll be able to read it soon, unfortunately. As I’ve said before, publishing is a glacially-slow business. Let me run through the next steps for anyone who’s curious.

I’m still not interested in self-publishing. That means I’m looking for a so-called “traditional publisher”.

Some of you may be wondering “What about Poisoned Pen?” Well, see, PPP is a mystery publisher. LHC isn’t a mystery. So, even if PPP wanted to publish everything I wrote, they wouldn’t be a good fit in this case. Publishing isn’t just about printing the physical book and formatting the ebook. Just to give one example, publicity and marketing (two different things, though there is some overlap) require genre-specific knowledge, and PPP doesn’t have that knowledge for the sort of fantasy I write.

While some publishers, especially smaller presses, will accept submissions directly from authors, many require–or at least strongly prefer–agented submissions.

So I need an agent.

Finding an agent is like getting an acting job. You have to audition. A lot. Agents get literally hundreds of applications (“queries”) every week. How many are they likely to accept? Depends who you ask, but I’d be surprised if the average was as high as a dozen a year.

Why so few? It’s not because they’re looking for a surefire bestseller. There isn’t such a critter. They’re looking for a book they think they can sell. Or, in many cases, they’re looking for an author they think they can sell. Because they don’t want to just sell one book, they want to sell lots of books. A good author/agent relationship lasts a lifetime.

Which means agents are justifiably picky. And authors have to sell their books multiple times. First with a query letter that introduces the book and the author. It needs to make the book sound appealing enough for the agent to look at the first few pages. Those first few pages need to be interesting enough for the agent to ask the writer for more–sometimes the whole book, sometimes just a larger sample.

This is not a speedy process. A good agent is going to prioritize their current clients over prospective ones, so their query reading time is limited. Most agents need a month or more to respond, and then, if they’ve requested more of the book, they’ll need more months to read that.

That’s grossly undersimplified, but you get the idea. In the best of all possible worlds, LHC might take six months to find me an agent*. In a not-so-good world, it could be a year to eighteen months.

* In the worst of all possible worlds, it won’t find an agent at all. Splat Squad didn’t, and neither did Lord Peter. If one of them had, I wouldn’t be sending LHC out looking.

But let’s be optimistic. I find an agent, and then I can look forward to LHC hitting the shelves, right?

Nope. First, the agent is probably going to recommend another revision. No book is perfect, just like no software is free of bugs. The agent will want me to tweak LHC to make it better (which includes, but isn’t limited to, making it more salable.)

And then the agent has to sell the book to a publisher. You probably won’t be surprised to hear that process takes time. After all, it’s very much like querying an agent.

Let’s be optimistic here as well, and figure it takes six months. Might be more–or never–but it probably won’t be less (there are plenty of stories of agents not selling the book that convinced them to sign an author until years after they’ve established a successful career with other books.)

So now we’re a year out–end of 2019–but we’ve got a book deal. Surprise! We’re still not close to publication. The publisher is going to want a round of revisions. No book is perfect, right? Right. And the publication process takes time as well.

Contracts are being signed right now for books to be published in late 2020.

Sure, PPP did it a lot faster with TRTT. There were reasons to accelerate the process, reasons that wouldn’t apply to LHC.

Bottom line, if everything breaks perfectly, you’ll be getting a copy of LHC for Christmas in 2021. And by that time, I should have three or more additional books going through the sell/revise/publish process.

Someone out there is undoubtedly reading this and saying “How is this cheery news?”

The old saying is “You can’t win if you don’t play the game.” I’m playing the game. Finishing the book and sending it out on query is a win. Small, perhaps, but any victory is cheery.

Don’t Go There

Troubles and tribulations. Death and destruction. And that’s only the content of the story!

But first, a commercial message. Feel free to hit the “Skip ahead 30 seconds” button on your remote.

Hard as it may be to believe, this blog isn’t here just for your entertainment. It’s also here to sell books. Which is, admittedly, also for your entertainment, but at one remove.

Anyway, consider this your occasional reminder that The RagTime Traveler is still for sale at all the usual venues. It still makes a great Christmas present.

And on a related note, I’m planning to be at the West Coast Ragtime Festival on November 16 and 17. I’m not doing a formal signing, but there will be copies of TRTT for sale, and I’ll be happy to sign them if you catch me in the halls.

Onward.

Perhaps you’re familiar with the movie The Thing. I won’t go into detail; there’s a more than adequate write-up on Wikipedia.

The key facts are that the movie was based on a 1938 novella by John W. Campbell, Jr., the novella is considered a classic piece of science fiction, and the author is better known as the editor of Astounding Science Fiction (later renamed Analog Science Fiction and Fact) from 1937 to 1971.

Why do I bring this up?

It turns out that “Who Goes There?” (the novella in question) was not the original form of Mr. Campbell’s story. Science fiction historian Alec Nevala-Lee recently uncovered the manuscript of a novel, Frozen Hell, which–surprise!–turns out to be an earlier version of the story published as “Who Goes There?”

The novel was found in a collection of manuscripts Campbell donated to Harvard, where it had been ignored for decades. (This happens more often than librarians like to admit. Old collections of author’s manuscripts are rarely at the front of the line for cataloging–and as for publicity, they’re usually not even in the line.)

Speaking as a science fiction fan, this is extremely cool news.

But. (You knew that was coming, right?)

Wildside Press is currently raising funds via Kickstarter to publish Frozen Hell in ebook, paperback, and hardback formats. This is, IMNSHO, a bad idea.

Not that there’s anything illegal or immoral about the plan. Wildside is a legitimate small press, and the publication is being done with the full permission of Campbell’s heirs.

My objection is authorly. Frozen Hell is not the version of the story that Campbell wanted the world to see.

Don’t forget, Campbell was the editor of Astounding when the story ran. He bought his own story–which was common practice; editors often wrote and published their own works, often under pseudonyms. He could have run the longer version of the story*, but chose not to, and in the process, sacrificed a significant chunk of his potential income. (Then, as now, stories published in magazines were paid for by the word.)

* It was also common practice at the time for novels to be serialized in the magazines. Campbell wouldn’t have been doing anything unheard of by running Frozen Hell instead of “Who Goes There?”

Nor is there any evidence Campbell tried to publish the longer version as a standalone novel at any point over the next thirty-some years, even though that was the time when science fiction novels became popular.

In short, Campbell made the editorial decision that the novella was a better story. The novel should be considered a rejected draft.

Would Mr. Nevala-Lee want someone to publish a draft of his latest book–perhaps a draft that doesn’t even mention the discovery of Frozen Hell? I doubt it.

Shouldn’t Campbell’s wishes receive the same consideration?

Check It Out

I was going to call this a minor note, but I know several of you will consider it more important than the main post.

Agent Extraordinaire Janet Reid is taking a vacation. Unlike me, she makes sure to leave some content for her blog readers. And so, today’s hiatus post features the very handsome Rufus. Drop by and say hello.

(And if you have any interest in the business side of writing novels–or long-form non-fiction–you really should be reading her blog.)

Plug over. (But if you don’t care about the business of writing, you may want to skip the rest of this post.)

Tor Books–one of the big name publishers in Science Fiction and Fantasy is taking a lot of heat in the publishing world over what they’re calling an experiment.

According to their press release, Tor–or possibly their parent company, Macmillan–believes making e-books available through public libraries lowers retail sales. Consequently, they’ve decided to hold all e-books out of libraries until four months after publication.

They’ve released no specific information to back up their claim, so it’s impossible to know what they’re thinking. Are they of the opinion that libraries are a bigger source of piracy than booksellers? Do they think libraries are buying one copy and lending it to multiple clients at once? We don’t know, and we may never know. But either way, it’s a pretty nonsensical call.

I don’t know about the library vendor who handles Tor’s e-books, but the ones I’m familiar with have interfaces to the libraries’ circulation system and only allow simultaneous check-outs up to the number of copies the library has purchased. My local library, for example, outsources their e-books to Overdrive, and I’ve had to wait for check-outs often enough to be sure they don’t lend more simultaneous copies than the library bought.

And libraries as a source of pirate copies? It is to laugh. As I’ve noted in the past, pirate copies often show up the day books are released, sometimes even before. In order to do that through a library, your hypothetical pirate would have to be first on the reserve list, not just for one book, but for every title they intend to steal. To get, say, six books on release day, User OX* would probably have to check several out, remove the copy protection, and check them back in before he could grab the next batch. Because most library e-book vendors limit the number of books users can check out simultaneously.

* That’s supposed to be a skull and cross-bones. Thus we see the limits of my ASCII art skills.

Maybe OX’s library won’t notice he has a habit of checking multiple books out for five minutes, but you better believe the vendors are watching for that sort of pattern.

So what’s Tor thinking?

Several articles suggest they may be hoping to beef up their First Day sales numbers, potentially helping their position on various best-seller lists. Which is, I suppose, a possibility, but it strikes me as unlikely.

Or maybe Phase Two is introducing a higher cost to libraries, “for expedited access”. Remember, we have no data to support Tor’s claims. If they come back in a few months and say, “Hey, sales did go up, so if libraries want books on Launch Day, they can damn well pay us for the income we’ll lose,” nobody can contradict them.

In any case, the embargo began with Tor’s July titles. It’ll be interesting to see what happens come December, when those titles are due to reach libraries. Will libraries bother to buy them, four months after their clients have presumably either bought the e-books themselves or borrowed the paper editions?

And, let’s not forget that libraries make their buying decisions when books are reviewed in library-oriented journals. That can be six months or more before publication. For well-known authors, the decision may even be made when the book is announced, and that can be a year or more before publication. So we may not see the effect on library purchases until late 2019.

Interesting times we live in, folks.

Losing Face

More proof, as if anybody needed it, that Facebook didn’t get where they are today–a dominant force on the Internet, with a bankroll large enough to slide them through public relations disasters that would kill any lesser company–by playing nice.

Not with its users, and certainly not with the outside world.

You’ve probably seen the recent news stories about their detection of several accounts, possibly linked to Russia, that Facebook believes were attempting to sow confusion and create conflict leading up to the November elections.

In brief, these accounts were promoting protests, specifically counter-protests against pro-Nazi–pardon me, Alt-Right–events.

My cynical side wonders whether Facebook would have taken action if the accounts in question had been promoting the original rally rather than the counter-protest, but since there’s no way to know, that’s something of an irrelevant point.

The bottom line here–and Facebook is, of course, focused directly on the bottom line–is they have to be seen to be doing something about Russian interference with American elections.

Not only have they closed the accounts in question, but they’ve taken the additional step of notifying people who expressed interest in the counter-protest that it might be a Russian operation.

Needless to say, this has not been a popular move with the event’s other organizers, who have had to spend the past couple of days proving to Facebook that they’re not fronts for Russian spies, while simultaneously reassuring people that the counter-protest is real.

Naturally, Facebook doesn’t see a problem. They’ve Taken Action! They’ve Caught Spies! They’ve Made Facebook Great Again!

And it’s not like the protest groups are major advertisers, paying Facebook large sums of money to promote their event.

Facebook’s other recent move is to make it harder for their users to see what’s happening outside of Facebook. Until yesterday, it was possible for bloggers to automatically link their blog posts on Facebook. No longer. (It’s not just blogs that are affected by this move, either. Auto-posting of tweets to Facebook won’t be possible anymore, nor will it cross-linking be possible from any other service.)

Sure, you can still manually link a post. Log into Facebook and copy/paste the relevant text or URL. Takes two minutes. Except, of course, if you’re a prolific tweeter, blogger, or what-have-you-er, those two minutes per post are going to add up quickly.

What really stings about this move, though, is that it only affects posting to Profiles, not to Pages.

Grossly oversimplified: Profiles are intended for users–consumers, in other words. Pages are intended for groups or businesses–or, as Facebook would prefer to call them, revenue generators.

Pages get less visibility than Profiles. Unless, of course, the owner of the Page pays Facebook to advertise it.

I did mention that Facebook’s eyes are on the bottom line, right?

So where does this leave me? I make no secret of the fact that I’m on Facebook–with a Profile, not a Page–purely because it’s considered to be a major part of an author’s platform. “How are people–readers!–going to find you if you’re not on Facebook?”

Right or wrong (and I’m well aware of the counter-examples, thanks), that’s the reality we live in right now. Nothing has changed in that regard since the Cambridge Analytica revelations. So leaving Facebook still isn’t an option.

If I want my posts to keep showing up on Facebook, I’ve really only got two choices: post manually, or convert my Profile into a Page (and then pay Facebook to promote it).

Converting wouldn’t stop them from selling my personal information to other advertisers, and I really hate the idea of paying them to sell my information. And I’m not crazy about having to post everything twice (and thank you, Twitter for not setting up a similar block).

This post will get a manual link. Future posts will too, at least for the time being–but I’m not about to link to the Friday cat posts at midnight. My loyal Facebook followers will have to wait until I get to my desk Friday morning.

And we’ll see how it goes. I will undoubtedly forget from time to time. No question that I’ll botch the copy/paste periodically. If the whole thing gets to be too big a hassle, I will give up on Facebook, regardless of the “necessity” of being there.

Because, no matter what Facebook thinks–or, more precisely, wants its users to think–Facebook isn’t the Internet.

Impossible

Let’s talk about “impossible” for a moment.

Have you seen any of the dozens of articles and videos making the rounds under some variant of the headline “This boat is impossible to capsize”? If you haven’t, there’s a good example at Popular Mechanics.

It’s immediately obvious reading the article that the boat can be capsized; the real brilliance here is that it’s designed to flip itself back over automatically.

With a caveat or two. The article above cites three design factors that contribute to the self-righting capability. All are subject to failure modes: “the cabin itself is watertight” (provided no hatches are left open) and “it has a very low center of gravity” and “the cabin is built to be extremely buoyant” (assuming all cargo is stowed properly and nothing heavy is mounted on the upper deck).

This boat was designed for law enforcement, the Navy, and what PM calls “other groups who sail in high-pressure situations”. How many of those organizations are going to want hull-mounted weapons of some sort? Sure, you could counterbalance the guns by stowing their ammunition at the bottom of the hull–but then, are you going to jettison the guns when you run out of bullets?

“Programming today is a race between software engineers striving to build bigger and better idiot-proof programs, and the Universe trying to produce bigger and better idiots. So far, the Universe is winning.” (Rick Cook, The Wizardry Compiled)

It’s not just programming, and the Universe is winning in all fields of endeavor–as I’ve noted before, you can verify this any day on the freeway. All it takes is one person who doesn’t read the directions to undo even the best design.

And that assumes the designers haven’t overlooked anything. Lest we forget, the original “unsinkable” ship, the Titanic, failed to live up to the hype in part because of a design flaw*.

* Accounts differ, but most note that the bulkheads intended to isolate compartments and confine water coming in to a limited area did not extend to the full height of the ship. When enough water had entered the sealed compartments, it began to flow over the top of the bulkheads and fill adjoining compartments.

But I’m not here to denigrate the boat’s designers. Realistically, headline writers are indulging in a bit of click-baitish hyperbole.

I’m on record as accepting the contradictory usages of the word “literally”. But I’m drawing a line here. “Impossible” does not mean “can”. Not even “can, but reversible”.

We need a word to mean “can not under any circumstances”, if only to save writers’ fingers when discussing the likelihood of finding compassion among the Republican’s party leaders.

Don’t sink the Titanic, don’t capsize the Thunder Child, and don’t erode the utility of “impossible”.

The Group W Bench

The latest twist in the publishing industry–and the latest hot topic of discussion among authors, agents, editors, and other industry types–is the morality clause. Rachel Deahl’s write-up in Publishers Weekly is a good overview.

The TL;DR is that, in reaction to the #MeToo movement and high profile cases such as Milo Yiannopoulos, publishers are demanding the ability to drop an author if he or she says or does something the publisher believes will affect their ability to sell the author’s books.

I’ve got mixed feelings about this. They range from “I don’t like it” to “I loathe it.”

I’d be less bothered–not okay with it, but less concerned–if such clauses were very narrowly drawn, citing specific causes for termination. Unfortunately, by all reports, current boilerplate contracts are very vaguely worded, giving the publisher free rein to decide what constitutes moral turpitude. As one agent notes in Ms. Deahl’s article, there’s nothing to prevent a publisher from using a morality clause to get out of a multi-book deal that isn’t earning enough.

There’s definitely an Alice’s Restaurant vibe here. Publishers want to know if we’re moral enough to “join the army, burn women, kids, houses and villages” (or whatever else it was we wrote about that the publisher liked enough to offer a contract) “after bein’ a litterbug.” Except, of course, they want to make sure we don’t turn to littering after we’ve served our stint as pyromaniacs.

Full disclosure: The contract for The RagTime Traveler does not include a morality clause. I’m free to say and do what I want, hindered only by my recognition of the law, societal standards, and my ability to get a contract for the next book.

Realistically, even under the best, most author-friendly contracts, publishers have plenty of ways to free themselves from an author they’ve had second thoughts about. Ms. Deahl notes the typical clause giving the publisher the sole right to determine if the manuscript is suitable for publication. There are other such clauses, and there are semi- or non-contractural options, including failing to publicize the book or allowing it to go out of print.

But by adding a morality clause, publishers are giving themselves a Get Out of Jail Free card. It’s good to see agents objecting to morality clauses. But publishers still have the final say on whether they’ll modify or drop the clause if the writer and agent object. They already have nearly all of the power in the relationship–only a few of the highest-profile writers have the option of declining a contract over a clause the publisher refuses to drop or modify, nor is self-publishing always an option.

Despite publishers’ claims that morality clauses are solely for self protection and won’t be used for censorship or financial reasons, the bottom line is that the contract is the contract.

One piece of advice writers hear over and over at the beginning of their careers is “Don’t accept a publisher’s assurance that [specific term of a contract] is never enforced. Publishing is a business, and that clause is there for a reason. It will be enforced.”

As always, interesting times are ahead.


One housekeeping note: Google I/O begins on Tuesday. As usual, I’ll be writing up my thoughts on the keynote announcements. Since I can’t do that until after the keynote, Tuesday’s post will be later than usual. Don’t panic if you don’t see anything from me in the morning. I haven’t forgotten you.

Another Brilliant Notion

Before I get to today’s main topic, a little bit of housekeeping, loosely following Tuesday’s post.

I will be attending the Scott Joplin International Ragtime Festival again this year. There’s still time to make your own plans to attend. What better way is there to spend a weekend than listening to great music performed well? In addition to the music, there will be dancing; symposia on ragtime, it’s precursors, and successors; and tours of Sedalia.

And yes, there will be copies of TRTT for sale. I’m not currently planning on a formal signing–though I’m certainly open to the possibility–but I’ll be happy to sign your copy*. I recognize most of you have been resistant to the idea of distributing copies to friends and relatives, so how about an alternative plan? Get ’em for people you don’t know–the possibilities are endless:

  • Send one to Donald Trump. He won’t read it, but maybe dealing with thousands of copies will distract him from tweeting for a few minutes.
  • Slip one to the opposing pitcher before the next ballgame you go to. Who knows, it might distract him enough to give your team a chance.
  • Give them to Scott Pruitt. He needs something cheerful in his life right now. And if he gets enough copies, he can use them to build himself a privacy booth at least as good as the one he made with the sofa cushions when he was a kid.

I’ll be happy to sign any “Strangers and Enemies” copies too. And I’ll add a personal message of your choice!

* I’m still unsure how to sign ebooks. Suggestions welcome!

Admittedly, the weather in Missouri in June is a bit on the hot and muggy side, but for those of you east of the Rockies, it’ll be a nice change from the snow you’re still getting. And better June than September, right?

So I hope to see a few of you at the Liberty Center and around Sedalia between May 30 and June 2.

Commercial over, moving on.

By now many of you have probably heard that the amazingly ill-thought-out Amazon Key program is expanding. If you don’t want Amazon unlocking your house and putting your packages inside–and who would?–they’re now going to offer an alternative: they’ll unlock your car and put your package in the trunk.

Which is, at least by comparison with the original offering, not a bad idea.

Despite San Francisco’s well-publicized problem with smash-and-grab auto robberies, your chances of having your car broken into are probably no higher than of having your house robbed. Assuming, of course, that nobody is following Amazon delivery peons around their routes and texting car delivery locations to a confederate.

Anyway, the service will be offered in conjunction with GM and Volvo initially, and then expand to other makes later. Trunk delivery will also require a recent model with online connectivity, i.e. OnStar.

Which brings us to my major complaint about this iteration of Amazon Key: it’s a reminder that we don’t really own our cars anymore. Ownership should mean control, but a modern, connected car sacrifices control. The manufacturer–and potentially dealers, repair shops, police, and others–can unlock your car, disable features, and display advertisements at will.

Yes, I’m talking capability rather than practice, but policies can change. Once the hardware is in place to, for example, show ads on your navigation screen, you’re never more than one manufacturer-controlled software update from not being able to turn the ads off.

Or one bug–or hack–away from the car failing to recognize the remote relock signal.

That’s true whether you use Amazon Key or not, of course.

Writers’ Pay

Yes, writers really do get paid. Unless they fall for the “exposure” scam that’s reaching epidemic levels in the arts. But that’s a different post.

The Rule of Three applies here, as it does in so many areas.

First, there are writers who are on a salary. Technical writers, advertising copy writers, newspaper staff reporters, and anyone else who draws a regular paycheck. Not exactly exciting, is it?

Second, are the freelancers. They get paid by the piece, typically a set amount per word or per article. Malcolm Harris has an interesting piece in Medium on the economics of freelancing. The TL;DR is that the price per word paid to writers has not increased at the same rate as inflation. That’s certainly true in the genre fiction space. In science fiction’s golden age–roughly, the late thirties and early forties–the magazines paid between one and two cents a word. Today, rates are basically between five and ten cents a word, not the twenty-five cents (give or take) inflation would call for.

I’d also include ghostwriters in this group; my understanding is that most often ghosts receive a flat fee per book, regardless of how well it does.

One doesn’t get rich writing short stories, or even non-fiction for glossy, comparatively well-paying magazines. Famous–or at least well-known in your field, perhaps, but not rich.

The amounts are less than many non-writers would guess, but the payscale is simple.

Finally, we have books. This is the group most people are thinking about when they ask what writers make, and it’s the most interesting.

Bottom line, writers of books–fiction or non-fiction–get paid by the number of copies sold. How much? Well, that depends on the writer’s negotiation skills. But let’s use The RagTime Traveler as a reasonably typical example.

If you bought TRTT in paperback*, I got 9% of the list price. Yes, even if you bought it at a discount, my percentage is based on the full price. So each copy sold brings me about a buck forty.

* And my very sincere thanks to those of you who did!

Well, right now it does. But it’s more complicated than that.

There’s an elevator clause. Once y’all have bought 3,500 copies–that’s all of you, not each of you–my rate goes up to 12%. Even better, after 6,000 copies, I’ll get 15%.

Not complicated enough? How about the ebook? I get 40% on ebooks, up to 10,000 copies. That sounds really nice. 40% of $15.95 is $6.38. But wait!

My share on ebooks isn’t based on the cost of a paperback. It’s a percentage of what the publisher receives after the seller takes their cut. Amazon’s cut, for example, varies between negligible and outrageous, depending on the list price of the book. (Other sellers work along the same lines, but the exact percentages vary.)

But let’s run with it. As I write this, the Kindle edition of TRTT is selling for $9.99. Amazon will keep 30% of that–call it three bucks. Of the remaining $6.99, I get $2.80. Not quite as good as that mythical $6.38, but a bit better than the paperback rate.

Of course, if the publisher decides to run a sale to encourage people to pick up a copy, my cut drops in proportion. At a sale price of $4.99, I’ll only get $1.40. If they really get aggressive and run a limited-time promotion at $0.99, Amazon takes a much larger cut. As a result, my share would be fourteen cents.

Great fun, huh?

But wait! It gets even more complicated.

See, there’s this thing called an “advance*”. This is (generally) the publisher’s best guess for how much the author’s share of the money will be over the course of the book’s lifetime.

* Historically, this was money paid to the author before the book was finished. The theory was that he could live on the advance while writing the book. Needless to say, this was one case where theory and reality quickly diverged.

There are a number of reasons why it makes sense for the publisher to pay the author up front, though “tradition” certainly ranks high on the list. And, it should be noted, not all publishers pay advances at all, or pay a fixed amount, regardless of how well they expect the book to do.

But in any case, if the writer gets an advance, she doesn’t get any more money until the publisher recoups the advance from the writer’s share of the book’s proceeds.

I got a thousand dollar advance for TRTT. That means I don’t get anything more until it sells about 700 copies. (I’m ignoring the ebook here, as the majority of the sales have been paperbacks.)

Selling enough copies to “earn out” is something of a big deal. Not because you’re getting rich, obviously, but because publishers will look at how well a writer’s previous books did when deciding whether to buy the next one. Earning out is a convenient flagpole: it shows the book did about as well as the publisher expected, and that’s a positive indication for future works.

I’ve simplified this discussion. When you throw in “actual returns,” “reasonable reserve against future returns,” “remainder sales,” “reuse,” and all of the other contract clauses about money, it gets really messy.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this little peek into the darkness. I’ll leave you with a couple of simple questions:

Have you bought The RagTime Traveler?

Wouldn’t you like to have it in electronic form?

Oh, Right

Post? What? Oh, yeah, it is Thursday, isn’t it?

Sorry. I’m about to send the main character of my current Work in Progress–let’s call them “Peeby”–off on a quest straight out of their least favorite fairy tales.

After I finish screwing up their life again, just as they thought they was getting it under control*.

* No, I’m still not happy about “they/them” as a singular pronoun, but Peeby insisted. Darn uppity characters.

Because that’s what writers do. See, there’s a school of writing that says when you don’t know what happens next, ask yourself “What’s the worst thing that could happen?” and then do it. I don’t usually follow that advice literally, but this time I am. It’s amazingly cathartic, but I suspect it’s taking me down several paths that’ll get cut in the next draft.

But I digress.

Anyway, Peeby’s about to go on a quest. Literally. One of those “Find these things, and I’ll make you ruler of the world,” deals. Of course, they is all “I don’t care what that damned song says, I don’t want to rule the world.” But they doesn’t have a choice because, hey, “worst thing,” right?

The problem with quests, though, is they need an object. Or, in this case, a set of objects. Three to be precise.

Why three? Well, as I’ve said before, I generally subscribe to the “Rule of Three” in my work. And in this case, it makes sense in the context of the story because–well, I’ll save that for another time.

I’ve got three targets for Peeby, but at the moment it’s a Three Bears’ Porridge set of objects. One is just right, but one is more video game than fairy tale, and one is clichéd and boring.

I can work with the video game one. In context, it even makes some sense.

But boring is death and cliché is eternal damnation.

The destination shapes the journey–very literally in the case of a fairy tale quest. I can’t send poor Peeby off on a quest for something that’s going to get written out of the book before they finds it. I need a replacement before they sets out, and so I’ve been on an extended ramble around the Web in search of a quest object.

Yes, I’m fully aware of how meta that is. Questing for a quest. Ha ha.

And that’s why I’d forgotten it was Thursday, and thus had to subject you to my ramblings on the creative process.

It’s all Peeby’s fault for not wanting to rule the world.