An Argument in Favor of Using a Distributor to Publish Books to Retailers

It seems that lately the same question has been popping up: should authors use a distributor (like Smashwords or Draft 2 Digital) OR should they upload directly to as many retailers as they can. Today, I’m going to give my two cents on the issue. I think using a distributor is the best long-term strategy.

one way leading to many
ID 81599191 © Arkadi Bojaršinov | Dreamstime.com

For the record, I do go direct to Amazon and Google Play. For one, I was with Amazon before I was with Smashwords. So I already had an account there. Also, Amazon and Smashwords don’t have the best relationship, which means you pretty much have to publish on Amazon if you’re with Smashwords. As for Google Play, Smashwords doesn’t have an agreement to distribute to them.  So no, I’m 100% with a distributor. There are situations where you need to go direct. For my pen name, I’m using Draft 2 Digital (D2D), and I do use it to distribute everywhere, except Google Play since D2D doesn’t have an agreement with them, either.

I say all of the above for this reason: I’m not against the idea of uploading directly to each and every retailer out there. I just think it makes a lot more sense to use a distributor because it helps to simplify your life. Below, I’m going to explain why I’ve come to this conclusion.

1. The more books you have, the harder it is to juggle the updates you might want to make.

I currently have 80 books up on Smashwords. A couple of those are pre-orders. I have been going through and systematically updating interior files and covers to make them more modern. Back in 2009-2012, you could get away with substandard ebook covers and poor formatting. I think part of this was due to the fact that indie publishing was still new. We didn’t have the services there are available today for the indie author. Most of us starting out had to figure out how to do this stuff on our own. And, because of that, things weren’t as professional looking as is the norm today.

Since I have 80 books, it would be a nightmare to have to go to B&N, Kobo, and iBooks and upload new files and covers to keep things up-to-date. I already have to do this at Amazon. Fortunately, I just got into Google Play this year, so everything will already be polished up. Using Smashwords to send out these improvements to as many retailers as I can is a huge time saver. I made a post on how to format books that will get you approved for premium distribution in Smashwords.

So if you’re looking to simplify your life so you can have more time to write, I highly recommend using as distributor.

And this brings me to an argument I often hear: “You make more money per sale if you distribute to each place yourself. Smashwords and D2D will take a percentage of the royalty.” To which, I answer…

2. Your best money-making opportunity is in writing the next book.

I don’t earn any more sales on a book because I change a cover or update my interior formatting. I might get a small boost in a cover change, but it’s not lasting. Likewise, any ads I run are short-term boosts as well. Social media probably helps to a point, but nothing beats a new book. The only thing I’ve been able to do over the long-term that has kept me afloat in this ever-changing publishing landscape is to consistently get new books out. That means my time is best spent writing the next book.

Someone might say, “You can hire an author assistant to manage the multiple retailers for you.” But how is that going to save me money? I thought the whole point of uploading directly to B&N, Kobo, and iBooks is that you get to make more money per book sold. If I’m paying someone to handle individual retailers for me, I’m not making more money per book. I’m probably going to break even or even lose money. So from a financial standpoint, it’s worth paying Smashwords or D2D a portion of my royalties to handle that aspect of publishing for me.

For authors who are making a ton of money, I can see using an assistant to upload directly to each retailer. I, however, don’t make the kind of money that would make hiring an assistant worth it.

And at this point, someone is probably thinking, “Well, I don’t have 80 books. I only have a couple. So what’s the harm in managing those on individual retailers?”

And this makes me ask…

3. What are your long-term goals?

If you write slowly or don’t plan to publish many books, then I agree uploading to each retailer and maintaining the books on them is fine. The less books you have, the easier it is to manage them.

The opposite argument, however, is also true. The more books you have, the harder it is to manage them all. There are only so many hours in the day. I have uploaded books directly to B&N and Kobo. (I’ve always used Smashwords for the other retailers.) Yes, Kobo is very user-friendly and easy. B&N isn’t too bad, either. But taking the time to make changes to each and every version that’s on a different retailer is time-consuming. Since I didn’t ever put all of my books on B&N or Kobo directly, I even forgot which books were direct and which were through Smashwords. It was hard to juggle new writing projects while trying to keep updates on all of the retailers.  My stress level went significantly down once I let Smashwords handle all B&N and Kobo books for me.

If you don’t plan on having a lot of books out AND you have the time to handle things on each retailer, then it makes sense to do that. If, however, your goal is to end up with a big backlist, then you might want to think about what a pain it would be to manage price changes, book description changes, cover changes, and interior file changes on all of those retailers. Sometimes authors go back and update an entire series. (I’ve done this.) That alone takes out a large chunk of your time. I gave up and delisted all of my books on B&N and Kobo. Then I went to Smashwords and let them distribute to B&N and Kobo for me. I made the mistake of not thinking longterm with my backlist.

Another possible argument is this: “If you go direct to a retailer, you can take advantage of special promotions a distributor won’t give you.”

My answer…

4. Sometimes distributors offer special promotions, too.

Yes, you can take advantage of special promotional opportunities if you go direct to places like Kobo and iBooks. I won’t argue this because it’s a valid point. However, Smashwords has offered me and other authors special promotional opportunities, and these opportunities have included Kobo and iBooks.

How do we land these deals with Smashwords? I think a large part of it has to do with a track record of staying wide (meaning no KU) and having all of your books (or at least most of them) with Smashwords. I think part of it also has to do with running pre-orders and using the marketing ideas Mark Coker talks about in his podcast and in his book. I think there are a cumulation of different things authors probably need to do to get Smashwords’ attention.

I’m not familiar with D2D and how they work, so I can’t say how they run things. I’ve only been with them since late last year with my pen name. But I’ve been with Smashwords since 2009.

Now, do these promotions means tons of money? Not necessarily. I’ve seen small boosts, but it hasn’t been anything to skyrocket my sales longterm. But I have yet to hear of an author whose sales skyrocketed for the longterm because they ran a special promotion directly on Kobo or iBooks. Even with Amazon ads, authors are told they need to keep running them. I think this is just the nature of the business. Ads and special promotions are good for short-term boosts, but you can’t run one ad or promotion and expect results forever and ever.

I truly believe the best way to keep making money longterm is to write more books. Even if you had a breakout year, if you’re not writing more books, eventually, sales will go down. This is the nature of publishing. There is not a single book ever written that has been #1 forever. Some books will rise higher in the tide than others and continue selling, but you can’t keep a book at #1 indefinitely. There will be another book to take its place.

New stuff is going to be more attractive than older stuff. That doesn’t mean the backlist isn’t important. It is. Let’s say you have 10 books that haven’t moved much in terms of sales. Then suddenly you put out Book 11, and for some reason, this is the one that takes off. Those fans of Book 11 are going to look for your other books. The problem is that no author can predict which book is going to sell better than another. If I knew which of my books would sell better, I’d only write those. But I don’t. So I write and publish and hope something sticks.

Keeping things realistic.

I know this is hard to accept in the age when we’re surrounded by success stories of authors making $50K a month in KU, but the truth is, most authors aren’t banking in that kind of money. I don’t. Even at my peak, I never did, but then I never went into KU. I stayed wide the entire time. I have earned a living, and for that I’m grateful. Money doesn’t always go up. Sometimes it goes down. Sometimes it goes back up. This whole business is a rollercoaster ride. There are so many variables involved in this whole thing that it’s impossible to point to one or two strategies and say that’s the magic formula.

At the end of the day, the best question is, “How do you want to spend your time?” As I pointed out above, I can see situations where going to each retailer makes sense, but there are also times when it doesn’t. Only you can decide the best course for your business.

How Much Does it Cost to Publish a Book?

Derek Murphy did a good job of addressing this as You Tube. I’m putting his video in this post so you can watch it if you want.

I have a lot of respect and admiration for Derek. I’ve never met him, but he has a lot of good advice and better yet, he’s a likable person. There might be something he says that will resonate better with you than what I have to say. Also, if anyone has any tips that neither of us thought of, feel free to share in the comments below.

Okay, so here’s my two cents on how much it costs to publish a book.

In a nutshell, it doesn’t have to cost much at all, especially if you’re willing to do the work yourself. I’ve done my own covers, formatting, bartered for edits, gotten beta readers’ input, done my own book description, and uploaded the book myself in the past. I’ve also hired out for covers, formatting, editing, and book description. In the beginning, I did more stuff myself because back in 2008-2009, very few people were offering any services in self-publishing. From 2002-2008, I was using vanity presses, and those got expensive and sold very few books. I would not recommend using a vanity press under any circumstance.

I completely agree with Derek when he says you want to make more than you spend. That’s the goal. I’m not even talking about making a living at writing. I’m talking about earning more money than you spend in publishing. So if you aren’t selling much, I would do as much on my own as possible. Since I’m losing income, I’ve gone back to doing more myself.

Let me break down my expenses on one book if I did most of the stuff myself.

Covers

I have a program called GIMP that I make covers in. It takes time to learn it. Once you get the hang out of it, it’s a slick and easy program. You Tube tutorials are great for this. Plus Joleene Naylor made these this post on it, and she made a post on Six Facebook Cover Creators,. GIMP was free when I got it way back in the day. I think it still is. Thanks to Joleene for telling me about it!

So then I buy a stock photo or two off of a site like Dreamstime.com or Shutterstock.com. There are others, but I use these the most. Make sure you do “royalty free” photos. Usually, the cost is about $15-$20 for me. I like to use two images (one for upfront and one in the background), but I have done one photo.

Sometimes finding good time period images for romance novels that is hard on the sites I listed above. They’re getting better, though. But I will go to Period Images or Hot Damn Stock. (Those are my personal favorites.) These images are usually between $20-$75, depending on what you get.

So total cost is about $90, and that’s on the high end.

Formatting

I can format ebooks and paperbacks myself, so it’s $0.

I made a pdf document years ago on how to format a paperback. Here’s how to format for CreateSpace. It’ll work for KDP paperback, too. 

There are word programs that will make the ebook format for you, too, but I’ve never used them so I’m not going to recommend any. I use the Word program that is compatible with Mac. I have a blog post with a detailed step-by-step process on how I format my ebooks.

Editing

If you barter services, this can be $0.

Find someone who is really good at proofreading if you want a quick proofread. If you want something where a person looks at the overall book (pacing, characterization, etc), then pick someone who is an avid reader in your genre and ask them to read it. But give these people something in return for their time. Maybe you can offer to do their cover or format their book. An avid reader might love having a signed paperback version of the book when it’s published. Get creative.

Book Description 

This can be $0.

Not sure how to make a good book description? This can be very difficult. I struggle with this area the most. Here’s a You Tube video via The Creative Penn and Bryan Cohen on this topic.

You can also get feedback on your book description from your beta readers, other writers, family/friends. But in my opinion, the very best person to know if your description hooks your ideal audience is to pitch the book description to an avid reader of your genre.

Publishing the Book

I do this myself so it’s $0.

If you follow the instructions on KDP Amazon, Nook Press (Barnes & Noble), Kobo, iBooks (Apple), Smashwords, or Draft 2 Digital, you should be fine. It’s easy to do. I like to upload to KDP Amazon and Smashwords. I let Smashwords distribute to the other channels for me. (When I do the post on formatting an ebook, I’ll do it according to Smashwords’ guidelines. After battling with that format for years, I finally figured out he easy way to get everything approved for premium distribution on the first try.)

Total cost when I do everything myself and/or barter services for editing is $90.

So for under $100, you can publish a book. (I recommend having someone proof your book, but it doesn’t have to cost anything if you offer them a proof in return, do their cover, etc.) Like I said, get creative.

But let’s say you don’t want to do everything yourself or barter services. Then how much are we looking at?

I’m going to go on the high end in this example.

Covers

You might want to buy the images yourself so you own them, but you can get a good cover artist for an ebook can range from anywhere from $95-$300. This may or may not include the paperback. That’s what I usually pay. For the sake of this discussion, let’s say I pay $300 for a ebook and paperback cover combo, and we’ll add the cover artist bought the stock photos to use on the cover.

You can find pre-made covers here. I found two very awesome cover artists through this site. One is Yellow Prelude Design. The other is Love Books Daily. Also, we have a list of cover artists and other services on this blog post.

Formatting

This can cost anywhere from $50-$300 depending on who you get. For the sake of discussion let’s say $200 for paperback and ebook.

Editing

This varies, too. I don’t personally recommend a developmental editor. I think an avid reader (aka beta reader) in your genre is the best person to say whether or not your book is going to “wow” our target audience, but I know people who’ll argue with me. So take my input with a grain of salt.

I do, however, highly recommend a proofreader. That will vary depending on how long your book is. I’d say budget anywhere about $100-$500 for this. This will also depend on how much work the proofreader needs to do. The cleaner your manuscript, the cheaper it should be. If the proofreader ends up

I go with Lauralynn Elliott for this, and she know the grammar rules very well, and she’s good with picking out typos.  Plus, she’s super nice. I also have her do my paperback formatting for me, so I pay more than you see on her rates.

For the sake of this discussion, let’s say this costs $300 for a 60,000 word book.

Book Description

I have used Bryan Cohen’s service for this in the past, and he does a wonderful job. His prices range from $297 for about a month to $479 for 2 weeks. These prices are current as of June 13, 2018.

Publishing Book

I always do this myself, and it’s really not that difficult, so I’m still going to say this is $0.

The total then comes to about $1000-$1500. So if you go all out and get “the works”, that’s what you might be looking at in expenses. Some people pay more than that, but, personally, I don’t see the need to pay more than $1500.

I just thought of author assitants. I don’t have one, but I hear a good one can cost anywhere from $15-$25 an hour. So I suppose that’s another expense you could factor in if you hired an assistant to help you publish a book. If you had an assistant do all of this for you, including uploading, I have no idea how much that would be. It depends on how many hours the assitant needs to get everything done.

***

This doesn’t factor into any marketing expenses that happen after the book is out. It also doesn’t factor in taxes you might owe on the money you make from selling your books. My advice (for what it’s worth) is to do as much yourself as possible or to barter as much as possible if you’re struggling to get sales. If you make enough money to cover your expenses and have a nice profit, then outsourcing these things to get a book ready for publication makes sense since it’ll free you up to write more. You’ll have to take a look at your own income and expenses and figure out what works best for you.

 

Writers Shouldn’t Have to Fear the Future

Edited May 9, 2018: Author Kevin Kneupper has a legal background, and he explains the details of this situation which sums things up much better than I ever could.

This post is inspired by a very unfortunate situation that has developed recently in the indie author community. An author took a commonly used word and trademarked it. I won’t go into specifics, but suffice it to say now this author wants other indie authors (as far as I know she’s only gone after indies) to remove this specific word from the titles of their books.

I’m not affected by this because I’ve never used this word in a title of one of my books. However, it does make me concerned about the future of indie publishing. Are we to expect more of this stuff to happen in the future from other authors? Will we wake up one morning to an email sitting in our inbox from the author or Amazon telling us we’re in violation of a trademarked word because we used it in a title?

That scares me. I’ve been doing this since 2009, and I have never come across anything that’s scares me like this, which is why I feel like I need to write a blog post addressing this topic.

A title change Is NOT simple.

This would be a nightmare if someone asked me to change one of my titles, and I only have ebook and paperbacks. So we’ll forget how much authors spend on making audiobook versions for a moment.  Let’s just think about how much other work and money would go into changing a title.

You have to redo the ebook and paperback covers. Then you have to fix the interior files (the actual book itself). You’d have to update the title page, the copyright page, and any headers with the title in it. Then (this is where it really gets time consuming and scary), you’d have to change the back matter in all of your other books, including the one you just changed the title on.

I currently have sixty-nine romances published. Some will have the book with the title I need to change in the back matter. I’d have to search through them to find out where they are, change them all, and republish them. While D2D updates back matter for you, Amazon and Smashwords don’t. I don’t know if Kobo, iBooks, or Barnes & Noble do since I rely on Smashwords to go wide.

Then you have to update your blog and/or your website to reflect this change. You’d also have to update all of your swag material such as bookmarks and pens. Then, as if that isn’t enough, you’ll have explain to anyone who asks you, what happened and why the title is now different.

This is time consuming and can get expensive.

Also, since I have registered my copyright to all of my books with the US Copyright Office, what happens to the copyright?  Will that copyright still hold up? I’m not a lawyer, so I don’t know.

I’m just a writer who publishes my own books. I don’t have a lot of money. In fact, I’m losing money overall. I could seek out an IP lawyer and get a consultation, but how would things shake out? Is this a slam dunk win for me since I never set out to copy another author by taking a commonly used word and putting it into my title? Or would this result in tons of money being spent in court–money I don’t have in order to prove my innocence?

Do you see why this kind of thing could be a nightmare for authors if this becomes a trend? Every single author could be vulnerable. That’s why I’m addressing it.

The nature of indie publishing

I’ve been publishing on Amazon and Smashwords since 2009. And I’ve noticed some things along the way.

Similar (or even the same) titles get used a lot. Stock photo images from places like Dreamstime.com and Shutterstock.com get used a lot. Same/similar character names get used a lot. Certain fonts get used a lot. Plot ideas (such as a hero and heroine who are forced into marriage or “the beauty and the beast” scenario) get used a lot. Aliens attacking earth, a hero going on some kind of quest in a fantasy, or vampires falling in love with mortal women get used a lot. These types of things are broad. There’s lots of room to move within these basic plot ideas. The authors then take the basic premise and spins a unique story from it. As long as the story is spun in their own way, everything is fine.

Now, here’s when red flags should be going up. If someone plagiarizes your book or if someone outright steals it, then yes, you have a problem. If someone takes your exact cover and uses EVERYTHING in it the EXACT same way you did, yes, that would be problematic. If someone uses your actual series name word for word, you have a problem. If someone uses all of your characters’ names (the first and last) in their books, you might have a problem. (I would be super worried if the other author took multiple characters that were in one of my books. Just one or two with the same first name would not bother me.) If someone takes your author name and uses it as their own author name, you could have a problem. (You have to really look into this one.) You’d have to see if this person’s name is legally theirs, too. There are people who have the same first and last name out there. My suggestion is to either have a unique name (one that isn’t common) or use your middle name to help make you distinct. Ruth Nordin is very common. So I put in Ruth Ann Nordin. The chances of you and this other person have the exact first, middle, AND last name would be suspect.

My personal experience

In the past, I have gotten emails from a few readers who thought someone stole my book because there was a similar cover. The cover was a bride holding flowers. It wasn’t my exact cover, but it was something I could have picked. Keep in mind, there were A LOT of romance books with brides holding flowers back in 2010-2012 when I was getting my feet wet in indie publishing. Now, it’s mostly the hero and heroine in some kind of embrace. And often, the same models are used in these covers today. This is very common. And it is acceptable because the license for that stock photo allows other authors to use those photos. If you want to make sure no one uses that exact picture, then you’d need to get exclusive rights to it. But even then, you might end up with other authors using the same models in other poses.

Anyway, I think it’s only been about five people (a low number) over the course of my indie publishing career that thought another author was stealing my work and putting it under a similar cover. I went to check the books out to see if the readers caught another person stealing my books. Most of the time, the author name’s was different, the actual cover was different from mine (though it was “similar” or had the same model(s), and the title wasn’t one I had used. Fortunately, most these weren’t my books. It had the same “look” but a lot of covers in romance have the same “look”, esp. when you narrow down the sub-genres. It’s just the nature of the romance market in general. Upon looking inside these books, I saw the stories were totally different from mine. So no, these were not a violation of my copyright.

However, I actually have had a couple of cases where my books have actually been plagiarized or stolen. It does happen on occasion (unfortunately). So it’s smart to investigate these cases. Sometimes readers catch something we need to know about.

Also, I’ve have other authors who used my name in a keyword so their books come up when someone searches for my books. This happened early on in my writing career. (Like back in 2011 and 2012 when I hit the radar of the indie community. Since then I’ve pretty much faded into oblivion, so this doesn’t happen anymore.) I’ve heard marketing gurus tell new writers to mention popular authors in their genre order to attract their target audience. So I’m not surprised a new author would put a popular author into their keywords in the meta data for the book or in an ad they’re running. This is common practice. Some authors will even put, “If you like POPULAR AUTHOR A or POPULAR AUTHOR B, then you’ll love my book” in their book description. Usually, they put in traditionally published authors like JK Rowling. Sometimes, they’ll put the popular author’s book title or series instead of the author’s name. So it would read, “If you like Twilight or The Hunger Games, you’ll like my book, too.”  As long as the authors aren’t copying your actual book, I wouldn’t worry about it.

Bottom line:

I don’t know what the future of indie publishing is going to look like. Will trademarking a popular book series, which will then be used as an excuse to tell other authors to change their titles, become a trend in the future? I hope not. But I don’t have control over what another author does. I can only control what I do. I’d like to say this isn’t going to happen again, but I can’t.

The main thing comes down to support. If indie authors supported and cared about each other, it would be a nicer place. I think understanding that readers have a lot of authors they love to read is important to keep in mind. There’s no reason why a reader can’t enjoy Author X’s AND Author Y’s books. There are more readers than there is a single author who can write books for them all. This is especially true in romance. As soon as I publish a book, a reader finishes it within a day or two. What is that reader supposed to do while they wait for my next book? They read other authors’ books. This is why I don’t think we are in competition with each other. There’s enough room for everyone. Sure, some authors will pick up more fans than others. I write more for a niche within romance anyway, so I don’t appeal to the largest fanbase.

My advice (for what it’s worth) is to focus on your own books. Concentrate on writing the best stories you can. Don’t worry about what another author is doing with their titles. Your fans will find you. They will stay with you. The world is big enough for all indie authors.

Update on the “Handbook for Mortals” Controversy

Recently I wrote a post on “Handbook for Mortals,” which covered the controversy about a first-time author and former band manager whose YA novel made it to the top of the New York Times Bestseller List, and how the Twitter YA community uncovered that the author got there by making bulk orders from bookstores. All in order to apparently get a movie deal with the author as the main character. Yeah, that happened.

Well on Monday the author of that very book, Lani Sarem, wrote an article for the Huffington Post defending herself. She pointed out that the publishing industry has changed dramatically over the past couple of years, and that she ordered the books for conventions and book signings, going through the bookstores rather than her distributor so that sales counted towards the NYT Bestseller List. She also said that plenty of people had bought books at these signings/conventions, and that she’d already locked down the rights for the movie so she could have more control over the five movies (seriously? Five?) based off the series she was writing, and to star in the film.

I’ve seen a lot of back and forth in the wake of this article. Some is sympathetic, and others not so much. And Sarem does make some points. The publishing industry has changed dramatically over the years, authors do order in bulk for events like conventions and book signings. And authors do show up in adaptations of their works from time to time. Could all the media coverage of this book and its author, including the coverage from two weeks ago, have actually been detrimental to something positive?* Did one Twitter community accomplish something that another failed to do with the Ghostbusters reboot?

Well, I did some research, and slept on it, and I thought about it. And while there are some interesting points, there’s still some stuff with this situation that doesn’t ring right. Not least that movie thing (five? Seriously? SERIOUSLY?! Let’s get to even one and see how that goes! And you as the lead? Really? I don’t know if that’s a sign of a control freak or a narcissist or both).

First off, the buying in bulk thing. Yeah, authors do buy in bulk for events. However, most of the time they buy through their distributors, as it comes with a discount, and it still counts as sales. It’s also considered more honest than what Sarem did. She literally says in her defense she bought through bookstores simply to get on the NYT Bestseller List, which would get her the movie deal. And while she’s technically right that there are no “rules” against doing something like this, there’s a subversiveness about it that doesn’t feel right. Not to mention that, as I mentioned in the previous article, behavior like this got her fired from a band she managed. Heck, tactics like this was used in an episode of Lucifer, and it felt just as subversive there as it does here. It actually reminds me of the time I played an online game and used a cheat code to get to maximize my stats just so I didn’t have to do the hard work of building them in the first place.

And that’s the major problem here: Sarem was looking for ways to immediately reach the top and get her movie deal, rather than get their through hard work and talent. Even if she wasn’t doing technically anything “wrong,” it was still dishonest and meant to be a shortcut to fame and success. That’s why people are upset, and made such a big deal about this. Sarem used a cheat code, all for a film deal, and it got exposed. That’s why she was taken off the NYT Bestseller List.

Because in the end, there is no defense for trying to skip hard work and make things easy. Especially when it comes to literature.

So while Sarem may have a good defense, there’s plenty here that just doesn’t sit right. And if you think about it long enough, you’ll realize there are ways to get a great novel on top of NYT Bestseller Lists, and this isn’t one of them.

Also, Sarem’s cover art may have been stolen from another artist. I’m not kidding you, the cover of the book apparently bears a striking resemblance to an art print called The Knife Thrower by Australian artist Gill Del Mace. And if you look at them, they’re very similar (can’t post it here because of possible copyright issues, but here’s a link to the creator’s website if you want to check it out). Where does it end?

But what do you guys think? This seems like it  might become an ongoing issue or story, one I may revisit on this site in the future, so I’d love to hear your thoughts on it. Was Sarem being dishonest or innovative? Did Twitter go insane again, or was it a cross between Spotlight-style reporting and grassroots activism? Let’s discuss in the comments below.

*As for the quality of the book, I’ve looked at reviews from both before and after the initial wave of articles about Sarem’s unique methods. Some like it, but a lot more find it a mess that seems to have been written by a junior high schooler. Of those who’ve written reviews after the controversy broke, they admit they know of the controversy, but they try to focus on the book itself, which I’ve done myself with different movies and films. If they’re definitely trying to stay unbiased, then the reviews don’t bode well for Sarem regardless of the efficacy of her tactics.

Handbook for Mortals: How One Author Scammed the NYT Bestseller List, and How a Twitter Community Exposed It

This isn’t directly about self-publishing, but it is related to what we work hard to do, so I’m posting about it.

Over this past weekend, a friend of mine posted an article from The Daily Dot on Facebook about how an author had scammed the New York Times bestseller list. Obviously, I got curious, so I checked it out.  According to the article, the YA community on Twitter had noticed something weird about the NYT YA bestseller list. A new novel that nobody had heard of, Handbook for Mortals by Lani Sarem, had appeared out of nowhere and knocked The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. The novel follows a girl with magical abilities who goes to Vegas, works in a magic show, and has a love triangle (that old chestnut. That old I’m-going-to-waste-my-natural-talents-while-doing-one-of-the-biggest-romance-cliches-ever chestnut). Lani Sarem, the author, is described as an actress and former band manager.

Like I said, nobody in the community had heard of the novel, and they got very suspicious when they heard that the book was published by GeekNation, a movie and pop-culture website that just got into publishing last month! And in that time, they put out a book that hit the top of the YA bestseller list? Obviously, some were confused by this, and the community, led by writers and YA enthusiasts Phil Stamper (@stampepk) and Jeremy West (@JeremyWest), started investigating. What they uncovered is mind-boggling.

Turns out, there’s practically no physical copies of Handbook for Mortals.  None.  It was listed as “Out of Stock” on Amazon, and no Barnes & Noble seemed to carry any physical copies. No one from the YA Twitter community came forward with a copy. And yet the book was already a bestseller, with the author herself planning on starring as the lead character in a movie version of the novel! How exactly does that happen?

Turns out, the author and her publisher were placing bulk orders for “events” like conventions or author signings at various booksellers across the country. When ranking its bestseller lists, the NYT relies not on the actual number of books sold, but number of reported orders and sales from booksellers. So they see that this one book in the YA category is getting a ton of orders in bulk, and without any indicators to present something fishy, there’s a new entry on the bestseller list.

That’s actually kind of clever. Horrible, as all cons are, but still kind of clever. Now if there were actual copies of the novel, it might have worked.

It only got crazier from there. Remember when I said Sarem was a band manager? Well, one of her former bands was Blues Traveler, and they admitted through Twitter that Sarem had done similar stuff when she was their manager, and they fired her for it (they later took down that tweet, but it’s already out there, so…). So we’ve got an author and her publisher, one of whom has done bulk orders to boost visibility of a product/group, using bulk orders to send a book up the NYT Bestseller list.

Well, Twitter’s YA community wasn’t happy about it. Stamper and West started encouraging bookstore employees through DMs to come forward about this. As it became more apparent that there was something fishy going on, the NYT finally took notice and saw what the YA Twitter community had uncovered. They later released an updated list, with The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas back on top, and Handbook for Mortals nowhere in sight.

It later came out that Sarem’s whole goal was to star in the movie version, but she needed buzz, so she got the book onto the bestseller list. If she could get it on the list, she’d be able to get funding for a movie. God, that’s horrible.

So what can we take from this story? Obviously, if you notice something suspicious, you’re perfectly capable of doing Spotlight-style sleuthing and discover  conspiracy. But it just goes to show what happens when you try to skimp on hard work and still make it to the top.

There’s no substitute for hard work. And the majority of authors, no matter if it’s their first or sixtieth book, work as hard as possible. We write, edit, edit several more times, try to get good covers, and do our best at marketing our stories. This applies whether you’re a traditionally or independently published author. Sometimes we’re successful, sometimes we don’t. Still, we try our hardest. But when someone tries to game the system and build hype by being fake, there’s always going to be people who notice.

And sometimes, when they notice, they can bring down an entire scam and keep someone unworthy from getting a literary and acting career.

So You Want To Publish a Book (Post 3): How Should You Publish Your Book?

So you’ve taken the time to make sure your book is well-edited.  Now you have to make a tough decision.  Do you find an agent, submit directly to a publisher, or self-publish?  I’m not here to tell you what to do.  That’s not my job.  But what I am going to do is give you some guidance.  Below I provide some main points to help lead you in the right direction to you.

paths in publishing

The most important thing you can do is follow your dream.

I’m dead serious when I say this.  Too many times we let other people live our lives for us.  If you follow your own dream, you are much less likely to have regrets in the long run.  If your dream is to find an agent who might find a big publisher who can get your book into bookstores, Walmart, the grocery store, etc, then pursue it.  Try to find the agent.  If your dream is to find a small publisher who will take the burden of having to upload your book yourself, design the cover, provide editing services, etc, then submit to a small publisher.  If your dream is to self-publish because you want full control, then self-publish.

Early on (2009) when I got serious about self-publishing, I had a lot of people who argued with me over my decision.  This ranged from family to friends to strangers who sent me emails.  So I know what it’s like to feel the pressure when other people don’t agree with your choice.  But in the end, I wanted full control.  I didn’t want some publisher telling me what I could or could not include in my book.  I wanted to write my story my way.

Sometimes I see authors on forums arguing with a new author who tells them he wants to go with a traditional publisher.  So it’s not just those who want to self-publish that deal with the negativity.  This comes from all sides.  Be prepared to have to disappoint someone, whether they are close or someone who happens to email you out of the blue.

If you want to seek advice, ask questions from others.  Gather as much information as you can.  Do your homework.  Then make the decision that is best for you.  I know it takes courage to go against the tide and to do your own thing, but I also think the rewards are so much better if you pursue your dreams.   Things we often regret are the chances we didn’t take.

This doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed to be successful.  You might not be.  But isn’t it better to take the risk and find out than to never know?

Rules of Thumb If You Choose To Look for an Agent or Publisher

This is not an exhaustive list, but they are guidelines to help you get on the right path

1. Money flows to the author.  If an agent or publisher wants money in order to represent you or publish you, run away.

2. Do your homework on the agent and/or publisher.  What other authors do they represent?  What is the quality of those books?  Do those books seem to sell well on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, iBooks, Kobo, etc?  What marketing does the publisher do for the authors?  Does the publisher pay the author on time?  Feel free to email the authors the agent or publisher represents.  They might not respond to your email, but it never hurts to send a message.  Asking questions is how I came to learn most traditionally published authors aren’t earning a living at writing.  (The average self-published author isn’t making a living either, by the way.  From what I’ve researched, it’s still not the norm.)

3. Realize small publishers might not be able to do as much marketing for you as large publishers will.  Regardless of the agent or publisher you get, prepare to market your own books.  Don’t expect someone to hold your hand through everything.

Rules of Thumb if You Choose to Self-Publish

1. Be willing to invest time and money into your product.  Tell a compelling story.  Get a good quality editor.  Get a good cover artist (unless you have the skill for this already).  Take time to learn how to format a clean manuscript or pay someone to do it.  I know it’s a huge pain to put the money into the book, but you are competing with a lot of high quality, low-priced books.  I’m surprised at how many authors skimp on this area.  Why should a reader invest in your book if you aren’t willing to?

2.  This is not a golden ticket to the easy life.  You’ve probably heard the stories about a few authors who self-published and made a killing in sales.  Keep in mind, these are outliers, not the experience of the average self-published author.  Can you make money?  Yes.  How much?  You won’t know until you put books out there.  But I promise you sales are up and down and often unpredictable.  Your mileage will vary depending on your genre, what the market wants, and other forces outside your control.  So embrace the fact that your journey is a huge question mark when you start it.  (The same is true for traditional publishing, by the way.)

3.  Do it because you love writing.  If you think sales is going to make you happy, you’re wrong.  Money, sales rank, and recognition are an illusion of happiness.  They might provide a temporary high, but the high doesn’t last.  There’s always someone more successful than you.  There’s always someone who hates your work, and they might even hate you because you had the nerve to write it.  Sales don’t always go up.  There’s a point when they go down.  Someone might steal your book and try to make money off your hard work, and Amazon isn’t always willing to remove the stolen book.

There are a ton of reasons why this is a hard path.  Lasting happiness comes from doing what you love most and focusing on it.  When I stopped worrying about all the external factors, I got my joy back.  Now, regardless of highs or lows in sales, I’m happy.  The reason I’m happy is because I’m enjoying the process of writing.  So my last piece of guidance is to focus on what you can control and let go of the things you can’t.  It’s not easy, but it makes a world of difference in how your emotional health.

“Hey, That’s My Idea!”: When Works of Fiction are so Similar You Want to Sue

This morning an interesting story showed up on my Facebook feed: Joss Whedon, creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and director of the Avengers movies, was hit by a lawsuit over alleged copyright infringement. In the lawsuit, an author by the name of Peter Gallagher (not the actor) alleges that Joss Whedon and the film company Lionsgate, among others, stole the idea for the 2012 movie Cabin in the Woods from his own self-published novel The Little White Trip: A Night in the Pines, which he first put out in 2006. Apparently both the book and the movie have similar premises (spoiler alert!): a bunch of teens go hang out for the weekend in an old cabin, they’re attacked by monsters, and they find out they’re subjects in a horror-film scenario run by a strange organization or group. Gallagher also says that several of the characters in both works have similar names and personalities. No word yet on what the defendants in the case say or whether the lawsuit will actually go through or be thrown out of court (for the full story, click here).

Strangely enough, something similar happened to me last year. I was on Facebook and I saw on my news feed that a movie company that produces really interesting horror movies was getting ready to release a new film and had just uploaded its first trailer online. When I read the synopsis of the movie and saw the trailer, I was instantly reminded of a short story I wrote back in June 2013, one with an eerily similar premise and which I plan to expand into a novel when I get a chance. I will admit, the thought to sue did cross my mind.

But I didn’t. This was partly because I’d never published the short story. I’d sent it to a friend who recommended I expand it and I did speak of it one or two times on my blog, but beyond that it’s been languishing on the shelf until I feel it’s time to start expanding it. It’s a little too much to suppose that they somehow found a single post on my blog back in 2013 or maybe even hacked my flash drive and used that material to create their movie. That sounds more like a conspiracy theory or something.

Not only that, but I felt that what I was going for with my story set it apart enough from the movie in question that I didn’t need a lawsuit. And finally, I’m just finishing up my undergraduate degree. I have no time and none of the expenses for such a lawsuit, even if I was inclined for one.

But just because I didn’t feel that copyright infringement had happened here doesn’t mean it never happens. There are quite a few cases where judges have found that movie producers or book writers or TV showrunners have owed someone money over a possible infringement. Some ways to prevent yourself from being caught in either the plaintiff’s or defendant’s side include, of course, to seek out every copyright protection you can get. For example, with every book I publish I make sure to send it to the US Copyright Office first. I know, technically publication or sending it to myself in the mail is considered copyright enough, but it helps to have federal protection.

Another thing to do is, if you suspect that someone’s infringed on your copyright, that you do as much research as possible. See if you actually have something to worry about. Also remember that there are plenty of stories that have similarities (like Olympus Has Fallen and White House Down have similarities, for example), so keep that in mind while you research. It could turn out your work and the work you’re researching only has a few similarities, and the ones there are just the kind anyone could come up with.

But if there’s enough resemblance that you can’t pass it off as just a few coincidences, then perhaps you might want to see if a few more people see the resemblances. If they see them too, then maybe you should consider consulting a lawyer.

Of course, I am no lawyer and I’ve never had to worry about this. If anyone has experience with this subject, please let us know your story and tell us what happened. We’d love your feedback.

In the meantime, I’ll keep an eye on this Whedon-Gallagher story and see how it turns out. Because this could be our story. Anyone of us could go through this, as any one of us could have a copyright infringement lodged against our own properties simply to con us or someone could steal our works and sell them for their own profit. And we need to watch so we know how to fight it and keep it from happening to us.

Where to Publish (For New Writers Who Are Looking to Self-Publish)

Below is a video Janet Syas Nitsick and I did on publishing, specifically self-publishing.  The question came in, “What places can an author publish his book?” In this video, we answer this, but I’ll include the highlights below so you can read it instead if you wish.

There are two main options you have when you self-publish.  

1.  KDP Select (which means you can only publish through Amazon).

Amazon has a program called KDP Select which is exclusive.  It means you can’t publish anywhere else.  (You can, however, publish your paperback in several places.)  This exclusivity applies to the ebook.  And you must be exclusive with Amazon for three months.  After that, you can upload your book to other sites.

When you enter Amazon Select, your book will be automatically put into Kindle Unlimited (KU), which is a subscription service that allows people who pay for it to borrow KU books.  If someone reads 10% of the book, that counts as a borrow.  Each borrow doesn’t earn the same as a sale.  For example, if your book is $2.99, you will make 70% off that sale.  When your book is borrowed, you get a portion of whatever Amazon has decided to put into the pot for the month.  So if Amazon decided the pot is going to be $3 million, it will divide up that $3 million with all the borrows that were made on Amazon that month.

There are pros and cons to the Select approach.

Pros include: Amazon gives preference to these books.  For example, the book will come up more easily in searches.  Borrows count toward sales ranking, which can also help toward better exposure.  It is only three months, so you don’t have to be locked in for a long time.

Cons: While some books do well in Select, not all of them do.  It’s not a guaranteed ticket to instant sales/exposure.  In my opinion, this is not a good long-term plan.  The best strategy for a career as a self-published author is to be diversified.

You have to decide which is best for you.

2.  You publish on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, iBooks, Smashwords, D2D, etc…

You can upload directly to Amazon (via KDP), Barnes & Noble (via Nook Press), Kobo (via Writing Life), and iBooks.  I believe you can publish directly to Scribd, too.

What I do is use Smashwords to publish my books onto the channels they offer.  I don’t use them for Amazon, but I do use them for Barnes & Noble, Kobo, iBooks, Baker & Taylor, Library Direct, Page Foundry, Overdrive, Flipkart, and Scribd.   Now, I have published some books directly to Barnes & Noble and Kobo.

You can also use D2D (Draft 2 Digital) to publish to various sites, but I haven’t used them and have no experience with them.  What I do know is that unlike Smashwords, you can’t sell on D2D.  Smash words will allow you to sell books (and yes, it’s not a whole lot you’ll sell there).  But D2D is pretty much a middleman to get your books from your computer to the other retailers.

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No matter what option you choose, something to keep in mind is that the average author is not going to have instant success.  I understand it’s easy to think there’s some magic formula you can use and make a living right away.  But the truth is, for most writers it will take hard work and persistence to pay off.  You will need to improve your storytelling ability while you’re also improving your promotional techniques.

The self-published author wears many hats.  You’re not only writing a book, but you also have to take care of the cover, format it for ebook and/or paperback, publish it, and then promote it.  If you need help with formatting or covers, here’s a link at Smashwords to help you find people who can help you with these things.

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Are there any questions you have or experiences you want to share with publishing?  The more input we have, the better we can all learn.  There might be something I missed. 🙂

Following Up on Submissions

The last time I posted an article, I wrote about submitting a short story to a magazine. And as promised, I’m following it up…with an article on following up on those submissions when a lot of time has passed.

Most magazines promise on their websites that they’ll get back to you on your submission in 2-6 months. What they don’t tell you is that work and submissions tend to pile up, especially when the magazine may be an operation run by only a few or even just one person. And imagine getting several submissions at the very least every month for short stories, articles, art pieces, and just about everything else under the sun. Your submission could be lost underneath all that.

So if you find a magazine has been taking its time getting to your submission, it can be helpful to send them an email and ask politely if your story has been looked at yet. Here’s what I normally put down in an email when I’m following up on a submission:

Dear [Insert magazine name here],

I am writing to follow up on my submission [insert story name here] which I sent in [insert how long ago or date you sent it in] to see if it is still being considered for publication. If you could please get back to me when it is convenient for you, that would be great, and thank you for your time and consideration.

Hoping you are well,

[Insert name, pen name if applicable, and contact information]

It’s also a good idea to attach your short story to the email in case it got lost somewhere among the submissions.

Normally a magazine will get back to you pretty quickly after this sort of email is sent. Even then though, it may take some time for the magazine editors to get back to you on your short story. If that’s the case, it may work in your favor to send an email every month or so inquiring about the status of your short story. That way it’ll stay in the forefront of the editors’ minds.

Also, remember to always be courteous and polite in your emails. They could just send you a form rejection letter right away, so the fact that they are taking the time to actually look at your story, no matter how long that time is, to possibly publish it is worth staying on the magazine’s good side. And when the magazine finally does take a look at your short story, no matter what the result is, be courteous and thank them for the time they took to read the story you sent them. That way, if you send them something in the future, they’ll be inclined to work with you and show you the same kindness and understanding you showed them.

Do you have any tips on following up on submissions?

Submitting Short Stories to Magazines

Have you ever written a short story and tried to get it published in a magazine? Chances are you have. Many authors, both traditional and indie, write short stories and try to get them published in print magazines, on e-mags, or in anthologies. I’ve been published in a couple of magazines and I’m hoping for more in the future (though with my writing schedule these days, it’s hard to make time for short stories). And there are benefits to doing so, including:

  • Short stories are a whole different beast to tame than novels, so writing and sending out short stories lets you know what works and what people look for in a good short story. Sometimes magazines will even give you feedback if they decide to reject your story, so you get an idea on how to improve it.
  • At the very least, you’ll get some exposure from having your work published in a magazine. At the very most, they’ll pay you some money for a nice dinner out.
  • For those critics who accuse indie authors of trying to skirt around hard work and just put any old book out, this is a way of saying “Hey, we can do it your way too.”

If you haven’t ever sent a short story out to magazine, this might give you some help in going about it. If you’ve already done it before, then maybe this’ll be a useful reminder. And like I said, you should try it. You never know what’ll happen if you do.

1. Find a publication. Once you’ve written a short story and edited it to the utmost perfection, it’s time to find a magazine. Publications like Writer’s Digest’s Short Story & Novel Writer’s Market contain may useful listing of magazines in all genres, as well as contests and agencies and conferences. You can also get info from friends or family members who write. Another blogger told me about a magazine she published a short story in, and I think that I might have a short story I could submit to them, I just have to make sure it’s ready before I send it out.

Also, it’s helpful sometimes to read the short stories they publish. This generally gives you some idea of what they tend to publish, so you’ll have a better idea of what might be accepted.

2. Read over the rules. Every magazine has its own set of rules about submitting to them and the terms you’ll get should you be accepted. They may want the short story sent in a particular attachment, or they may prefer the story in the body of the message. There may be restrictions on length, subject matter, or a hundred other things. And being published by them might mean signing over all rights to the story to the magazine, or only first North American publishing rights. So know what you’re getting into when you decide, “I’ll send it to this publication.”

3. Write that query letter. A query letter is a letter stating who you are, what you’re sending, and why you’re sending it. Once you’ve done your research, write up a query letter and send it along to the magazine with your short story. Here’s an example of me sending a query letter to a fictional magazine:

Dear Darkness Abounds magazine,

I am submitting my manuscript “Hands” (5,732 words) to your publication for your consideration. I decided to submit to your magazine because your website said you were into “dark, creepy fiction with an interesting twist on old stories” and I thought my short story matched your description.

I am a self-published novelist with two novels and a collection of short stories published, as well as short stories published in Mobius Magazine, The Writing Disorder, and the Winter 2011 issue of TEA, A Magazine (now The Daily Tea). I also write for two blogs, Rami Ungar the Writer and Self-Published Authors Helping Other Authors. I am also a senior at The Ohio State University double majoring in English and History and expected to graduate in May 2015.

I look forward to hearing from you and would like to thank you for your time and consideration.

Hoping you are well,

Rami Ungar
[contact information, including address, phone number, and e-mail address]

Make sure to include the word count of your story (that’s an important factor in many publications), why you’re selecting the magazine, and any relevant publications. Also, don’t make your biography too long. Just keep the relevant stuff and don’t give them your life story. You can save that for your memoirs.

4. Wait. Every magazine has its own quoted turn-around time, so you might as well be patient. However, it’s not uncommon for a magazine to let work pile up and miss your short story entirely, so if you find two or three weeks have gone by and you haven’t heard anything, it might be helpful to send an email asking politely if you are still being considered for publication (I’ll write a post about that another time).

5. How to handle the reply. Assuming the magazine didn’t lose your work in the pile of submissions they get and you get a reply, the important thing is to be grateful one way or another for their reply. If you’re accepted, that’s wonderful. Talk terms with them and then decide if you want them to publish you. If you get rejected, possibly look at getting published somewhere else, and take into account any feedback you might receive on your short story as a possible way to improve the story.

What tips do you have for submitting to magazines your short stories?