Nathan Bransford, Author

Thursday, May 31, 2012

There's Always More You Can Do

One of the hardest things about an endless task like writing and promoting a book is that there is always more you can do.

You can always edit some more. You can always try to find more Twitter followers. Or write another blog post. Or reach out to another writer. Or give another interview. Or answer another e-mail. Or go back and edit. Or try to write two novels a year instead of one.

When you're a hard worker with a big dream it's hard to know where and when to stop. How do you decide when enough is enough?

I'm not sure I have the answer. When presented with an insurmountable task I just start digging in and try to tunnel through. By the time I look up I'm usually exhausted. 

But there's still that nagging voice that says I should be working more and dreaming of the things I might be able to accomplish if I started digging harder.

At some point you have to quiet that voice and be content with your efforts, and try to find balance. There's only so much you can do. But drawing that line can be difficult.

What about you? How do you handle an infinite task?

Art: Knieende Bäuerin mit Sichel - Theodor von Hörmann

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Traditional vs. Self-publishing is a False Dichotomy

Us vs. them is fun. It gets people's blood boiling. It instills fear. It's thrilling to be on a team, especially when you feel like your team is winning.

These days it seems like traditional and self-publishing are increasingly pitted against each other on blogs and forums, as if one side or the other is the bastion of all that is good and pure in the world and the other side is the bastion of all that is horrible and evil.

This is insane.

There is no "us" vs. "them." Traditional vs. self-publishing is a false dichotomy. It's an illusion created by people who either have let their frustrations get the best of them or are trying to sell you something. We're all writers trying to figure out the best way to get our books to readers. We're all on the same team.

No, the traditional publishing industry is not a hive of retrograde monsters out to steal and eat your newborn children. No, self-publishing is not a gang of unwashed crap artists trying to poison the literary well forever.

Publishing is a spectrum of choice, from traditional publishers who pay you, will handle most things for you and assume all risk in exchange for certain rights to your book, to self-publishing where you handle everything yourself, pay your own way, and adopt your own risk. And there's a whole lot more choice in between those two poles.

What's the right way? There is no right way.

Some authors want to let the publishers handle things for them. Some authors want to go for print glory because that's where the bulk of readers are right now (yes, still). Some authors want the freedom of control of self-publishing. Some authors want to experiment with pricing.

And guess what: Some authors do both, and they always have. Even before e-publishing, many prominent authors got their start self-publishing. And many authors who used to be traditionally published moved to self-publishing. Some authors use hybrid models that combine elements of traditional and self-publishing.

There is no hundred foot wall between self-publishing and traditional publishing. Choosing one does not preclude the other, even if you feel like you're currently on the outs with traditional publishing. Or did you miss the recent seven figure book deal for the self-published nutritionist?

Sure. It's fun to join up sides and start flinging mud. It's exciting to think that your team alone has the holy grail.

But I see a lot of authors out there getting taken for a ride by both sides. People are preying on writers' fears and frustrations.

The only way you'll be able to decide what's best for you is if you ignore the pied pipers, set aside your emotions, and think only about what's the right for your book.

Art: La Riña - Francisco de Goya

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Where Did You Hear About the Book You're Reading?

The way we discover books is ever-changing. It sure seems like we're far more likely to discover books through a tweet, Goodreads recommendation, Facebook post, or online search than we are through methods that existed before the Internet.

Where did you hear about the book you're reading?

I'm reading A Wrinkle in Time at the moment, which I could have sworn I read growing up, but now realize I picked up and put down a million times when I was a kid. So, uh, I heard about it when I was a kid.

What about you?

Art: Conversation - Camille Pissarro

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

On Self-Publishing and Having a Chip on One's Shoulder

There is an affliction sweeping the nation that until recently has mainly only been whispered about in private quarters, but which agent Sarah LaPolla and author Chuck Wendig touched on this week:

Some (some!) vocal self-published authors have a rather substantial chip on their shoulders.

Before we start get into name calling, let me state the following:

I love self-publishing! I think it's fantastic. I wouldn't by any means rule out partaking in this wondrous process someday and have been pro-self-publishing since the beginning of time, or at least since the mid-2000s. I think it's awesome that authors can find their readers without needing a traditional publisher.

And I don't blame people for being frustrated with the traditional publishing process. Yes, some people in traditional publishing are jerks and treat people accordingly. Yes, traditional publishing may well have overlooked your book. Yes, the query process is used as a torture device in some countries.

It's frustrating. But frustration is to publishing what carbon dioxide is to breathing: a poisonous but inevitable byproduct. (What many self-published authors don't yet realize is that this is true of self-publishing too.)

Also, when I say some self-published authors have a chip on their shoulder, this isn't about me complaining. These chips implanted in those shoulders certainly make for entertaining if slightly horrifying flame wars. People are welcome to say whatever they want, which is why the Internet exists in the first place.

I just don't think the chippy authors are doing themselves any favors. Here's why:

1) Your attitude could alienate people you might want to work with in the future

Publishing, whether self- or traditional, is a means to an end. It's about getting your words to readers.

And guess what: love them or hate them, traditional publishers happen to be pretty awesome at getting books to readers, especially when they're very motivated. You may want to use one of them someday.

Now, the idea of a publishing industry blacklist is approximately 110% myth. You're not going to end your publishing career by shooting your mouth off. But all things being equal, people don't want to work with a jerk.

Rejection isn't personal. There's nothing to exact revenge over.

2) You're turning off potential readers

Most readers, by and large, don't care a whit who publishes you. They haven't heard of 90% of the imprints out there anyway. They're not going to read you because you wear your self-publishing badge with excessive pride. They just want to know if your book is good.

Most readers would also prefer that the authors they read are good humans too. So that helps.

3) Your attitude reinforces the idea that self-publishing equates authors who were rejected everywhere else

Chuck Wendig puts this one better than I could:
Every time you yell about traditional publishing it just looks like a dumptruck full of sour grapes. Which leads us all to what is likely the correct conclusion: you self-publish because you were rejected and your peen is in a twist about it, not because you have a great story you want people to read, not because you want the control that self-publishing affords you.
4) If you are self-publishing out of frustration with traditional publication you're doing it for the wrong reasons

You should be self-publishing because it is the best career move for you, not because you grew impatient with traditional publication or arrived at self-publishing with a desire to stick it to publishers.

Are you sure you want to self-publish? Check out this checklist.

By and large self-published authors are awesome, entrepreneurial, creative individuals. Some loud ones are not. It's temping to join the loud crowd, but better in the long run to let your work speak for you rather than your frustrations.

Art: The Torment of St. Anthony - Michelangelo

Monday, May 21, 2012

Social Media is an Imperfect Sales Tool. Use it Anyway.

I somehow missed this post the first time around, but Red Pen of Doom wrote a post at the end of last year that, while extremely complimentary of my physical appearance (blushing, RPofD!), pointed out that my social media following has not resulted in the same number book sales as, say, Snooki. Who, yes, has a book out.

The title of the blog post: The Twitter: it is NOT for selling books.

And you know what? I (mostly) agree with this post.

Social media is an imperfect sales tool. Even if you have a following of hundreds of thousands of people, a small percentage of those will see your posts about your work, a smaller percentage of those will click through, and a smaller percentage than those will actually buy.

Social media alone is not going to make a book a bestseller, which I hope is an eye-opener for publishers who are relying on an author's social media efforts alone to sell books. The list of megabestsellers who haven't so much as sniffed at Twitter are legion.

But that still doesn't mean you should abandon social media. Here are three main reasons why:

1) It's not perfect, but it works

Social media hasn't made my novel Jacob Wonderbar a bestseller, but I do know I've sold way more books than I would have without it. How do I know? I recognize the names of a lot of the people who are reviewing my books on Amazon and Goodreads.

I wasn't one of those authors who was the recipient of a major marketing campaign. Jacob Wonderbar was released relatively quietly. And I'm happy with the sales after a year, especially under those circumstances.

Social media sells books. It's likely an overrated sales tool, but it does work.

2) Social media is one of the only free marketing tools available to authors

One of the conclusions RPofD reaches is that in order to sell thousands you have to reach millions. Mass media is the only way to really propel something into the stratosphere. This is absolutely true. But most authors don't have access to mass media.

You do have access to social media. And what's more: it's free.

There's a reason social media has become overrated - it's the first time there has been an actual tool at authors' disposal that can help sell books. Now authors can actually try and move the needle themselves, without access to a media platform. That's very exciting, even if we need to keep expectations in line.

3) There are benefits to using social media beyond sales

If you're only using social media to sell books you are absolutely using it wrong.

Yes, it can sell books. But the sales benefits are far down on the list of benefits that you will accrue using social media the right way.

More likely: You are making friends, you are learning about what else is out there, you are exchanging knowledge, you are discovering, you are communicating, and opportunities will come your way as a result.

So, yes. Social media does not a bestseller make. It's never going to match the effectiveness of a national media campaign. It's never going to match the efforts of a dedicated publisher's marketing efforts.

But publicity is all about giving a book a boost, and social media will help. And there's no better time to start than now.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Do We Have a Failure to Communicate?

I've had several different conversations with friends lately wondering about whether our ability to communicate is being eroded in the texting/e-mail/Facebook messaging/G-chat/Skype/direct messages/can on a string era.

We have more tools for communication than ever. Social media makes it possible to instantly know what our friends are up to and even see when they're nearby. We share books and articles and TV shows and ideas faster than ever before.

But it's also just as easy to let the absence of communication take the place of an actual conversation. Instead of having to let someone down easy over the phone, now we just don't return their e-mail. Instead of having difficult conversations, we exchange some texts and leave it at that.

The idea that technology is eroding our communication skills isn't new, and the introduction of the telephone and television were accompanied by similar hand-wringing. But what are we losing?

One of my friends believes that social media strengthens weak connections but weakens strong connections. My mom believes social media insulates people from having difficult conversations and everyone is getting worse at them. I believe I may just be getting old.

What do you think? Is social media eroding or strengthening our ability to communicate?

Art: Junge Frau am Telefon - Max Schüler

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Last Few Weeks in Books 5/14/12

Apologies for being inconsistent with the link roundups lately, I've been quite busy finishing up the last few changes for Jacob Wonderbar and the Interstellar Time Warp.

The good news is that I've been saving links like a hyperactive squirrel stores acorns. Here we go! Rapid fire style.

First, I was recently interviewed for a San Jose Mercury News article on Facebook's cultural impact, in which I touch on the way social media enforces transparency and honesty, something The Next Web tackled recently as well.

Author Matt Myklusch is starting a new podcast, which I hope to guest appear on in the new few weeks.

Mathew Ingram wrote an interesting article for GigaOM in which he summarized Clay Shirky's argument that Publishing is No Longer a Job or an Industry, It's a Button. Like Ingram, I think Shirky was being a bit cheeky here -- distribution is becoming a button, but there's a lot more that goes into making a book than distribution. Someone's got to take care of those other pesky tasks, and publishers are still pretty good at most of them. Shirky argues that publishers have to find a way to add value to the equation.

And speaking of adding value, J.A. Konrath kicked off a good debate by featuring a post by a veteran Harlequin author, who opted to self-publish because of the paltry royalties Harlequin pays.

If you think your critique partner is rude, check out this letter Jack London wrote to an aspiring writer. London: "Honestly and frankly, I did not enjoy [your story] for its literary charm or value. In the first place, it has little literary value and practically no literary charm." (via JES)

Mike Shatzkin has a typically erudite and insidery take on where the publishing industry stands vis a vis Amazon, in an article called Amazon's Growth and Its Lengthening Shadow. Meanwhile, summarized the juicy bits from an interview with the head of Amazon's publishing imprint, Larry Kirshbaum.

Oh, and Amazon will be publishing the James Bond backlist. Shaken, surely, not stirred.

In case you're curious about where we go from here in the wake of the DOJ lawsuit, my colleague and fellow author David Carnoy has an awesome article on the future of e-book pricing.

So the golden era of reading is in the past and no one reads anymore, right? Um. Not so fast. Seriously, check out this chart.

Children's and YA book sales are surging! They're up 72%. A quiet sleeper called The Hunger Games might have something to do with that.

Need to procrastinate? The Rejectionist has some ideas on things you can do instead of writing.

McSweeny's has a funny guide to writing better than you normally do. (via Holly Burns)

And my wonderful company CNET has an awesome ode to NASA's first astrochimp.

Comment! of! the! last! few! weeks! A few weeks back I had a post on what the book world would look like after the DOJ lawsuit, and Doug had some more specific details on where things could go:

The transition period could be a mess. E-book stores can't sell e-books without a contract. If those three publishers have to cancel their contracts with all of the e-book stores, it's going to be mid-2010 all over again, when only a few sellers had Agency titles, most of them didn't have all of the publishers, and it took even Amazon six months to get a Penguin contract in place.

Random House wasn't sued, and their Agency Model will continue on as before. The DoJ wasn't concerned about the Agency Model but rather how it came about.

The settling publishers are permitted to continue using Agency Model, but for two years they can't control retail prices other than having a contract clause forbidding sustained sales below cost. (And no Most Favored Nation clause for five years.)

The "no sustained sales below cost" clause could be bad news for mid-list authors. It says that the total discounts offered by the seller on the publisher's titles over the course of a year cannot exceed the seller's commissions on that publisher's titles over the course of the same year. So if Amazon chooses to lose $2 on each of the bazillion e-book copies of JK Rowling's A Casual Vacancy that they sell, they're going to have to make up that $2 bazillion with increased prices on Hachette's other e-book titles. And I can pretty much guarantee you that it won't be on other front-list titles.
And finally, my friend Rakesh Satyal, author of the fantastic novel Blue Boy, was one of the many illustrious contributors to the Scholastic anthology The Letter Q: Queer Writers' Notes to Their Younger Selves. Here's the book trailer:

Have a great weekend!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Biggest Challenges in the New Era of Publishing

As you may have noticed from my gazillions of posts about the wonders of e-books and the future of publishing, I'm a rather relentless techno-optimist. I think the future is going to be better than the past, and I believe having more books out there in the market is a decidedly good thing. I'm counting down the days until there's an invention that allows us to read five books at once.

At the same time, along with technological change comes major disruptions, and change is never even. There will inevitably be institutions and ways of life and old habits and jobs that will go by the wayside to make room for what's to come. Even if things are better on the whole (and I really do think they will be), there are going to be good things that are lost as well.

So I thought I'd devote a post to what I personally think are some of the biggest challenges for publishers, agents, authors, readers, and bookstores.

Publishers: Relevancy

In the old era, only major publishers had the infrastructure to get books to readers. You had to go through them to reach readers in large numbers.

In the e-book era, that necessity is no longer going to be there, and the distribution advantage that publishers have enjoyed for a couple of centuries will be severely, if not completely, eroded. All of a sudden authors, big and small, are going to have the option of going it alone if they want to, and the value proposition that publishers provide is not as clear-cut.

I don't think publishers are going to disappear entirely, and the package of services they bring to bear to produce a book is still unmatched. But if bestselling authors begin setting off on their own with regularity, it's going to have major ramifications for publishers' size and profitability.

Agents: Standardization

I don't think agents are going away. You know that phrase about how a combative person could start a fight in an empty room? Well, agents could start a negotiation in an empty room.

I personally think the biggest threat to agents isn't a decline of publishers - as I say whenever I'm asked, agents will negotiate with whomever is still around. As long as there are authors and readers, there will be someone getting the books to the readers, and authors will need agents to negotiate with those someones. And even in an era where agents aren't the gatekeepers to the literary world, they'll still have a role.

So what's the biggest threat to agents? I think it's standardization of terms.

Apple's iTunes and App stores have been revolutionary in many respects, but perhaps the most revolutionary is the one-size-fits all 70/30 revenue split for all apps. Big, small, it's 70/30. That 70/30 split is so powerful it even caused major publishers to adopt the model across the board for e-books.

If, hypothetically, advances largely go by the wayside and authors of the future are simply offered the same revenue split as everyone else and there's no room for negotiation, agents may be necessary for only the biggest authors.

Bookstores: Survival

When bookstores are already struggling and facing a looming mass conversion to e-books, it doesn't take a genius to see the challenges that bookstores will face. If you love bookstores: support them with your dollars please!

And my unsolicited advice for bookstores: you have a brand that people trust, and people will always need recommendations. Move that brand online as soon as possible, don't hide from the e-book era and give people a reason to keep coming back.

Authors: Attention

I actually think authors have a good situation in the new era, because everyone will have a chance to be heard. But, unfortunately, not all chances are going to be created equal. There will still be a big difference between a book launched with a major publicity campaign and a book anonymously and quietly uploaded to Amazon.

In any situation where there is a great deal of choice people tend to retreat to trusted brands, and I think that's going to be true of the new era. Megabestsellers and celebrities will continue to sell more, and everyone else may find it difficult to stand out.

But as Double Rainbow guy goes to show, hits can come out of nowhere. All it takes is a few people raving for a book to go viral and start spreading. And in the new era, word spreads faster than ever.

Readers: Confusion

I think some of the fears about a deluge of poorly written books are overblown. No one is going to have to go sifting through a huge pile of bad self-published books to find the good stuff. Besides, the era of the deluge is already here. There are millions of books out there and we are still able to find the good ones.

But there are going to be some challenges for readers. While I think anyone who wants a print book will be able to buy one for the foreseeable future, as bookstores close readers are going to have to find new ways of locating books, there could be format confusion and DRM frustrations, and territorial issues and glitches.

But ultimately I think readers will benefit the most from the new era. The more books there are to choose from the more likely it will be that the perfect ones for you are out there.

What do you think the challenges will be? What's scariest about the new era?

Art: Illustration from "Bilderbuch für Kinder" (picture-book for children), edited by Friedrich Johann Justin Bertuch

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

How to Keep Writing When the S*** Hits the Fan

I wrote the latter part of Jacob Wonderbar for President of the Universe and nearly all of Jacob Wonderbar and the Interstellar Time Warp while going through one of the hardest stretches of my life, and I felt very acutely how writing during hard times can be both a great blessing as well as a serious stressor.

It can be cathartic to block out everything going on in your life and lose yourself in your fictional world for a while, but stress can also make it extremely hard to focus.

Having made it to the other side, here are some things I learned about how to keep writing when life throws you a major curveball.

Take care of yourself first - You first, writing second. Get the help you need, take the time off you need, and don't let your desire to write add to your stress. Life comes before writing every single time. Do what you need to do.

Don't keep your situation a secret - You may feel like you don't want to burden your writing/critique partners or your agent and editor with your personal life, but that's not the right instinct when things are serious. Keep them in the loop and don't be afraid to ask them for more time if you need it. Chances are they're going to be awesome and tell you to take care of yourself, which will give you the breathing room you need to focus. I did just that with my agent and editor, and they were wonderfully supportive, which relieved a huge amount of stress.

Force yourself to get going - That very normal hump that you have to get over to force yourself to sit down and start writing when you don't want to can feel like Mount Everest when you're stressed out. So start climbing. Open up the computer, make yourself get started. Follow the steps for getting back to writing after a break, and once you really get going you'll be amazed how nice it feels to lose yourself in your writing again.

Don't be afraid to cut back - Even if you do power through and keep writing during a stressful time, chances are you're not going to be as productive as you are normally. That's just the nature of being distracted. Plan ahead for this and don't put extra pressure on yourself to maintain the same pace.

Channel your emotion into your writing - Even though I was writing wacky children's books, I still found a way to channel the things I was feeling into the stories. In Jacob Wonderbar for President of the Universe, Jacob starts wondering if he really even wants to win, and Jacob Wonderbar and the Interstellar Time Warp hinges on whether Jacob should change the past. Now, Jacob doesn't get all cynical and depressed, but he does feel some of the things I was feeling in the past few years.

Let writing be a bright spot - At some point we're all confronted with difficult stretches in life. But let your writing remind you of how great your future can be. You're going to keep getting better, you're going to keep writing books, and no one can take writing away from you. Savor it and enjoy that it's yours.

Have you tried to write during a difficult time? How did you do it?

Art: Incendio de Troya - Francisco Collantes

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Is it Ethical to Watch Football?

Longtime blog readers know that I'm a big sports fan, and for most of my life that has heavily involved football. Some of my earliest memories are of rooting for Joe Montana and Jerry Rice and the 49ers dynasty of the 80s, which extended to Steve Young and Jerry Rice in the 90s and beyond.

When I was in college I went to Pasadena to watch Stanford's Rose Bowl appearance on January 1, 2000, and have since cheered on legends Toby Gerhart and Andrew Luck. Now the 49ers have returned to excellence and I was as excited as anyone.

But over the years it's gotten a lot harder to watch.

It all started for me later in 2000 when I was standing on the field across from the line of scrimmage when Washington safety Curtis Williams was injured on a running play. I heard the incredible hit and watched the paramedics rush onto the field and then rush back to the ambulance in a panic, saying, "Holy s***, they're bagging him." Williams was revived on the field, left paralyzed from the neck down, and eventually died at age 24.

But while that may be chalked up to a freak accident, a huge amount of information has since come to light about the effects football has on players' brains. The first serious dawning came from Malcolm Gladwell's influential 2009 article that compared football to dogfighting, which shined a spotlight on the horrific effects football had on former players.

Since then I've been grappling with how ethical it really is to watch football. Yes, the players are there willingly. Yes, they're well-compensated (at least the pros). Yes, the NFL has taken steps to punish helmet to helmet hits, which mollified me some. But should we really be supporting a system that incentivizes people to destroy their brains for our pleasure?

Now comes news that one of the greatest linebackers in history, Junior Seau, was found dead due to an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound to the chest.

While of course we shouldn't jump to conclusions until the facts are in and it's uncertain whether this has anything to do with football, it's impossible not to draw parallels to the circumstances of another troubled former player, star safety Dave Duerson, who also shot himself in the chest, leaving a note that he wanted his brain donated for study. It was later confirmed that Duerson suffered from a neurodegenerative disease linked to concussions.

Is it really ethical to watch a sport that by its very nature has such a horrific effect on its players?  Writer Ta-Nehisi Coates has blogged eloquently about this topic. He now says he's out.

This past season I cringed as Stanford's talented wide receiver Chris Owusu endured concussion after horrifying concussion, and now he's going to give it a go with the 49ers. It's admirable that he wants to keep playing the sport he loves, and of course these are my two favorite teams.

I just don't know if I can watch.

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