Thursday, October 30, 2008

Building My Publishing Harem, One Book At A Time

(image from Crafts from India)

Sales of Traveling Blind : Life Lessons from Unlikely Teachers were way down in the third quarter. During those three months we only sold 69 books, down from 108 copies sold in the second quarter and 142 sold in the first quarter. When the book launched, we sold 141 copies in the first month.

Although this is part of the normal sales cycle and should be expected, especially in the book industry, this is also the time publishers start to panic. Everyone sells more books in the few weeks after a book's launch, especially if you created a strong marketing campaign to garner enough attention. But then, after everyone who heard about the book has bought a copy, which includes the author's family and friends, sales decline, sometimes rapidly. What's a publisher to do?

Should you dump the book and move on to the next project, or give the book time to regain some sales? I say, stand by your book.

It's like when you first get married and everything is new and wonderful and you're so high on each other you can't stop kissing. But after a year the glow wears off and you stop feeling tingly when you gaze into your spouse's eyes. Does it mean the love is gone? Of course not, it just means you've transitioned into a new phase of your marriage, a time when your love is more constant and certain.

When you publish a book, you've made a commitment to that book. If the honeymoon appears to be over, it doesn't mean you should dump the book in search of a new, fresher manuscript. I'm in it for the long haul, which means when sales start to slide, I look for ways to develop that constant and steady part of the relationship. A press's backlist, those titles that were released years ago and keep selling, is the press's strength. Devote energy to every title and those titles will return the favor with profit, year after year.

Some publishers prefer a monogomous book relationship, especially if they are self-publishers. They publish only one book, but devote every bit of their talent and resources to promote sales and revising the single book when new information is available. Other publishers enjoy serial monogomy. They publish a book, give it lots of attention, get everything they can from it, and then when sales start to decline they move on to the next project without a backwards glance.

I take a more polygamous approach, as if I'm building a book harem. When I sign the contract with my author I'm agreeing to support that book as long as it remains in print (what staying in print exactly means is something you agree upon with your author), through the good times (sales) and bad.

Traveling Blind: Life Lessons from Unlikely Teachers is still a strong seller, especially when you consider most books from small presses only sell about 100 copies total. Traveling Blind has sold over 630 in less than one year.

I think we will have a wonderful relationship for many years to come.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Where to Find Work as a Freelance Writer

The economic downtown has hit freelancers of all types very hard. (I love how they call it that. A downturn sounds like the bus broke down and we're standing on the side of the road waiting for someone to fix it. This feels more like an economic pirate attack, complete with sacking of our investments and pillaging of our retirement funds. But I digress...) Everyone from writers to construction workers to data base developers are having a difficult time finding enough work to pay their bills. Even freelance writers with lots of publishing experience are being cut from magazines and presses.

To help so many unemployed writers find work, there is The Career Rut Crusher, posted on Journerdism, "A news and commentary website for journalists and nerds to kick it and discuss the craft (of) journalism, multimedia storytelling, web 2.0 development, web and print design, social content and all things nerdy online." (from their f.a.q.) Follow the link to find resources and ideas to help you find writing gigs, as well as help with negotiations, contracts, salaries, and inspiration.

This is what I love about writers. Yes, we're all hungry for work and will fight like mad for any scrap of print we can get. But we also tend to help and encourage each other, share ideas, and cheer one anothers publishing victories (while hiding our seething jealousy). There are a few pricks out there who steal ideas and stab fellow writers in the back, but the majority of writers, editors, and publishers are genuinely good people. Journedism is one tiny bit of proof.

Don't let the stock market and banker pirates scare you so bad you give up writing. Keep the creative fires burning. So we're all poorer today than we were last week; we're writers! We're used to poverty. And if you really want to go broke, start a publishing company.

Friday, October 24, 2008

If the book isn't ready, DO NOT LAUNCH

Over and over I have cautioned new, independent publishers and self-publishers not to launch a book if it isn't absolutely, 100% perfect and ready to be shared with the rest of the world. It is better to wait and revise your book then send it out to readers before it's ready.

Today, I had to take my own advice and postpone the release of my book. Why? Because I got the notes back from Jane and saw that my book still needs a lot of work.

When your copy editor returns your manuscript covered with red marked notes and comments, you know it's time to postpone book launch.

When you start reading the manuscript and see places where you should have added more information, or you start rearranging the words in more than one sentence per page, you know it's time to postpone book launch.

When your designer says he can't wait another week and you'd better send the manuscript to him today or there's no way he'll get the interior designed before Nov. 5th, it's time to postpone book launch.

And when you look at the calendar and see that somehow book launch day is only three weeks away and the book isn't even finished, it is definitely time to postpone launching the book.

When I launched Laura Fogg's book, we had a very important reason to launch the book on a specific date; it was the Orientation and Mobility Conference on Nov. 1 and the people at that conference were our target market. So all four of us (Laura, Jane, Rick and I) worked feverishly to make that deadline. But there is no conference date to meet or event to plan for the launch of "What You Need To Know To Be A Pro." So we'll wait. Besides, starting the New Year with a new book about starting a new business sounds like a good date to me.

I have to admit though, I'm getting sick of this project. You know when you've been working on one manuscript for six months and can't stand to even think about it anymore? I'm there. I don't care what it takes to be a pro anymore! I want to focus on the Punk Rock Anthology now (which I love working on!). I'm tired of writing about numbers and licenses and contracts, I want to write about Punk shows and DIY revolutionaries.


Sometimes being a professional, responsible, publisher kind of sucks.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Which Path are You Following? The "Young Genius" Path or The "Honing Your Craft" Path?

I tried the young genius writer path but that didn't really work out (supposedly, once you turn 40 you are no longer "young"), so now I'm trying the honing my craft path. I have two book length manuscripts and over 80 rejection letters to prove my worth, so I should be well on my way to glorious author success! Right?

Anyway, I found this article in New Yorker magazine that made me laugh while giving me a strong dose of inspiration to keep going, even if neither of those books are published for another ten years (too bad they're fiction. I don't publish fiction. Now that's what you call ironic!).

From the article:

Ben Fountain’s rise sounds like a familiar story: the young man from the provinces suddenly takes the literary world by storm. But Ben Fountain’s success was far from sudden. He quit his job at Akin, Gump in 1988. For every story he published in those early years, he had at least thirty rejections. The novel that he put away in a drawer took him four years. The dark period lasted for the entire second half of the nineteen-nineties. His breakthrough with “Brief Encounters” came in 2006, eighteen years after he first sat down to write at his kitchen table. The “young” writer from the provinces took the literary world by storm at the age of forty-eight.

As my school work increases, my blog posts decrease, but that is also partly due to the increase of work at Medusa's Muse. With one book about to launch and another celebrating its one year anniversary with a big promotion and sale (more on that later), my schedule is extremely tight. Speaking of time constraints, I'd better end now. I leave for class again in a couple of hours and I still have two more tasks to finish for Medusa before I hit the road.

Read the article, then promise yourself you'll keep doing the work, no matter what the return might be. Your Muse expects nothing less.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Another Thought About Defining Your Own Success

Do your art. But don't wreck your art if it doesn't lend itself to paying the bills. That would be a tragedy.Seth Godin

The above comment was written by Seth Godin in his blog post "Maybe you can't make money doing what you love." Click the link to read the full post, which raises some very thought provoking questions, most especially, do we need to monotize our art to feel succesful?

In an earlier post, I wrote about how I define my idea of success for myself and I enouraged you to do the same. Success is a bright and shiny thing we all long for when we see it gleaming with promise on the edge of the horizon. If we're smart enough, or lucky enough, or work our asses off long enough, we too can claim our golden prize. But what exactly are we hoping to get? What if that golden prize is full of snakes, or demands a sacrifice we aren't prepared to make?

I love publishing and writing. It is my passion and helps keep me sane in my otherwise chaotic life. However, I know that the odds of me making a living doing the work I love are pretty slim, so I'm going to school to learn a skill that WILL pay my bills. It doesn't mean I'm giving up on publishing; far from it. By having a so called "day job," one that will help support Medusa's Muse, I can immerse myself in the types of projects and writing I love, thus giving my Muse a little more freedom to explore. I won't have to watch the bottom line so much, worrying that I didn't sell enough books to pay the electric bill. As long as Medusa's Muse can sustain itself, meaning each book eventually earns enough to pay its fixed costs, then I can keep doing what I love.

School is hard work and is already eating into my publishing time. Like right now I'm supposed to be working on my take home mid-term exam for SPEC ED 741, but instead I'm blogging and working on the Punk anthology. I know when I'm finished with school and working in the Orientation and Mobility field, my time for publishing may be more limited. I may have to scale back on my plans to publish two books a year, but I'll still be able to be a publisher. Time management will again be the battle, as it always is, but cash flow will improve. There's always a trade off.

Don't let the need for monitary validation destroy your passion for your art. Keep creating and experimenting, regardless of how many books you sell or earn in a year. Part of being in this industry is the joy of creating, of telling stories and sharing them with others. If you're only here for the glory and fortune, you may be very disappointed when you open that golden prize at last and discover there's nothing inside.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Censorship and Publishing

The Jewel Of Medina by Sherry Jones has created a literal firestorm of outrage from extremist Muslim groups and has struck fear in book publishers, including Random House USA. I say literal because the publisher who finally agreed to publish the book, Martin Rynja of Gibson Square, had his home firebombed by protesters of the book. Mr. Rynja picked up the novel after Random House decided not to publish it once Random House began to receive threats.

This isn't the first time Martin Rynja has stepped in to publish work Random House felt was "too controversial." He published Craig Unger’s House of Bush, House of Saud after Random House pulled out, afraid of being sued for libel.

There is an interesting article about the power of fear to propel censorship, written by Jo Glanville of The Guardian, at The Index Of Censorship, a website that tracks the growth of censorship worldwide. In the article, she writes:

Respect for religion has now become acceptable grounds for censorship; even the UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, has declared that free speech should respect religious sensibilities, while the UN human rights council passed a resolution earlier this year condemning defamation of religion and calling for governments to prohibit it. As the writer Kenan Malik has so astutely pointed out: ‘In the post-Rushdie world, speech has come to be seen not intrinsically as a good but inherently as a problem because it can offend as well as harm …’ Censorship, and self-censorship, Malik observes, have become the norm. What we have seen, over the past two decades, is an insidious new argument for curbing free speech become increasingly acceptable.

As publishers, we must think about what role we play in facilitating censorship. By our actions, or lack of, we are capable of silencing dissent and feeding fear, whether we are aware of that power or not. Every time we decide not to publish something because we might get sued, we are gagging an author whose work might genuinely need to be heard. Of course we need to protect ourselves; the world doesn't need any more martyrs. If we're not the right person to publish the work because we lack the resources to do so, who do we know who can? We must make the decision of whether or not to publish a book from our own knowledge and insight and not because we're afraid. Fear doesn't create social or religious tolerance, it creates blinders and muzzles.

Friday, October 10, 2008

The Many Faces of Headshots, or What Am I Trying to Convey?

I decided I needed a new head shot because the one posted on this blog of me standing in the kitchen holding up a copy of Traveling Blind (the first book out of the box to be exact, which explains my goofy grin) wasn't conveying the right image of me as publisher. But what is the "right" image? And under what criteria am I basing the concept of right on?

Who knew creating a new head shot was going to be such a stressful, anxiety inducing task?

Last year when I launched Traveling Blind, Rick took a photo of me standing next to the framed, poster-sized Medusa's Muse logo that hangs in our hallway. That's where the picture of me on the Medusa's Muse Press website came from. You can see the tension in my jaw and the frightened "is it over yet?" look in my eyes, as if I'm suffering from severe constipation.

My own book is launching next month, so I needed a new head shot that was professional looking without being uptight or goofy. Rick agreed to take the photo, but he wanted some ideas on how it should look. What did I want my picture to say about me? I was stumped, I mean, how does any writer decide that question?

I cruised the Internet and studied the backs of books to discover all the different ways writers convey who they are and what they write about. There are the "I am a very serious writer" photos in which the author looks directly into the camera with an almost stern look on her face. Occasionally those serious writers gaze away from the photographer, but they NEVER smile. The images say, "I take my writing seriously and so should you." Hmmm... so if my jaw is clenched in my photo does it say, "I'm so serious about my writing I don't even breath?"

Some authors like to smile with big, toothy grins, as if saying, "Writing is fun!" Others prefer to press their lips together and curve them upwards into an almost mysterious smile, as if saying "I love my writing, but I'm still very serious, so don't think this is easy."

I found several photos of authors laughing, their mouths opened wide in glee, tongues showing behind their exposed teeth. Was that planned? Did the photographer command them to laugh, or did someone tell a joke and the photographer just happened to snap the photo at the exact moment the author looked lovely while laughing, but not a second later when the author spit all over the camera?

Besides the simple question of whether or not to smile, I wondered if I should sit or stand? If I sat, should I lean forward with hands clasped, or stand with my arms folded? What would that say about me? Plus, there is the question of props. A few authors like to wear hats. The photo of me on the Rocket Girl site was taken at the Gatsby Picnic three years ago. I'm wearing a 1920's Deco costume complete with cloche hat, smiling so big all my teeth are showing. I like that photo, but I don't know what it says about me or my writing other than I love to dress up in costume and go to reenactments.

Rick and I decided to try taking some in the moment photos of me at a cafe with my journal because that would show who I am: a writer, plain and simple. Nothing posed or pretentious. He'd start snapping away while I doodled in my journal and we'd see what we got. What we got was more pictures of me with that frightened, frozen, wide eyes look again, except this time I wasn't looking at the camera. The only one I liked was the picture he took of me when I tossed my journal aside and started reading the funnies. I was laughing and relaxed. However, it didn't convey the WRITER me.

The following weekend, we started working on images for the cover of the book. He shot about a hundred images of me pretending to be looking up at the title while working on my manuscript, and we managed to narrow those down to five that I thought would work. In all those photos, there was one close-up of me that didn't work well for the cover of the book, but just might work as a head shot.

So, here it is.

It might not be the best author head shot of all time, but at least my jaw is relaxed, my eyes are calm, and my expression conveys, "I'm having a great time publishing books."

I think... or maybe I should just stick with the picture of me reading the funnies.

Has any writer been happy with their head shot? I asked around and only about two writers out of thirty have said yes. The rest tell me all the reasons why they HATE their photo, and it usually has to do with their hair, or that their eyes are too crinkled, rather than that the message was wrong.

I am obviously over thinking and obsessing on this head shot issue, which is pretty typical for me. Name any topic on writing or publishing and I'll find a thousand bits of minutiae to ponder. I'll come up with ideas you've never considered, and no one ever should.

That being said, I quit this ridiculous head shot quandary and will stick with the one I've chosen. For now. Until I decide it's too serious... or too silly. Or my hair is wrong. Or... oh bollocks!

Monday, October 06, 2008

Is The I Phone Winning the Ebook War?

This just in from Forbes Magazine:

It's official: The iPhone is more popular than's Kindle. And not just in the obvious categories like listening to music, browsing the Web or the other applications where Kindle barely competes. Now, the iPhone is also muscling into Amazon's home turf: reading books.

Stanza, a book reading application offered in Apple's iPhone App Store since July, has been downloaded more than 395,000 times and continues to be installed at an average rate of about 5,000 copies a day, according to Portland, Ore.-based Lexcycle, the three-person start-up that created the reading software.

To read the rest of this article,written by Andy Greenberg and James Erik Abels, follow the link above. Note that the company is "working on deals with several major publishers." Could this be beneficial to a small, independent press like Medusa's Muse?

Regarding Medusa's Muse, I finished the final draft of What You Need To Know To Be A Pro and sent it to Jane, the Medusa's Muse Copy-Editor. Yesterday the Press designer, Rick, and I took a hundred photos to create several mock ups for the cover. As soon as we have a design, I'll post it here. I'll also write in more detail about how to decide on a good cover for your book, a process which is part scientific, part marketing, part art, and part "eeny-meeny-mineey-moe."

Today, I'm off to school. See you on Wednesday.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Taming the Vicious To Do List

Oh personal assistant, where art though? My Muse is refusing to help me this time, so I'm sitting here wrestling with my To Do list alone. It feels like everything is urgent, important, dire if not done today, and demanding my undivided attention. Or else!

Of course that can't be true, so when I'm feeling like my to do list is chasing me around the house with bared fangs as I plead for mercy, I play The Sims. No, wait... that's escape. I must focus on this list and get it under control.

Time management is my biggest publishing challenge, even more than cash flow. There is simply not enough time in one day to get everything done. Managing the press, editing manuscripts, developing projects, blogging, fulfilling orders and keeping up with correspondence is a full days work. Plus I'm a mom, which has its own set of responsibilities. Oh yeah, and then laundry, which is NEVER done... but we won't go there right now.

To get my To Do list back on a leash, I refer to the book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, by Stephen Covey. You've probably heard the hype around his book, but I'm telling you, it is a sanity saver.

First, I just write everything down in one long list:

-Finish Revising Manuscript
-Finish First Draft of Play for D
- Read Jody's new manuscript
- Read new submission
- Edit chapter from V
- Revise full length play
- Third Quarter Receipts and Inventory
- Pay Royalties
- Finish Cover Designs
- Create Promotional Materials

The list keeps going but these are the highlights.

Next, I get out another, large piece of paper and break it into four areas. These areas are called

Urgent and Important
Urgent and Not Important
Not Urgent, but Important
Not Urgent and Not Important

Then I take some time to really evaluate each task. At first, everything will seem Urgent, but if you step back and think about what you need to do, you'll realize you probably have more time to get things done than you realized.

I figure out what is Urgent and Important by deciding what needs to be done TODAY, or within a few days. What has the biggest, looming deadline? Finishing the revision of my book so it can go to the copy editor by Monday is an urgent task that takes priority over everything else. The next Urgent task is helping the designer get the cover done this weekend. I put those two in the Urgent and Important box. Don't fill the box up with too many tasks or you're letting the To Do list off its leash again.

The next box is Important and Not Urgent. The play I'm writing for D can go there. Once the other two tasks in Urgent and Important are complete, I'll move D's play to Urgent status. I'll also add V's revisions and Jody's book to this Not Urgent box.

I have to look at that word "Important." Of course, everything is important and needs to be done, but perhaps some of those things can take less priority. As much as I love working on my full length play, it isn't Important right now. So I'll put this in the Not Important and Not Urgent box. I'll put Quarter Three bookkeeping in here as well. Of course this is important, but once the other "Important" tasks are done, I'll move both of these up into the Important box.

Just because you label something as Not Important or Not Urgent doesn't mean it stays there and never gets done. Everything gets moved around.

What about the new submission? That will have to wait in the Not Urgent and Not Important Box for now. Preparing the new promotion? I'd better add that to Not Urgent but Important.

As for the Not Important but Urgent Box, that's where I put things like laundry, groceries, vacuum floor, water plants and clean the fish tank.

After putting tasks in little boxes my To Do list doesn't seem so blood thirsty and I am able to focus on the task at hand. Which means I should stop blogging and get back to work revising my book.

For more excellent ideas on time management and achieving your life's purpose, read The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. I used to think it was a bunch of self-help hooey, too. But once I actually read the book and started using the exercises, I saw an immediate change in my life. For example, I started Medusa's Muse.

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Happy Birthday, Medusa's Muse

Today, October 1, is the one year anniversary of Medusa's Muse. It took two years of research and planning before my press became an official business, but on October 1, 2007, I received my business license, thus turning an idea into a tangible, legal, sole-proprietorship.

One month after Medusa's Muse became a "real" business, we launched our first book. Traveling Blind: Life Lessons from Unlikely Teachers, debuted November 1, 2007 and has since sold over 500 copies nationwide and been included in the curriculum of two University Special Education Teacher Training programs. Not bad for an unknown author published by a brand new micro press. The book continues to sell well and it is Laura's hope that her book will help train and inspire future teachers for many more years.

Three more books are in various stages of production. "What YOU Need to Know to be a PRO: A Start-Up Business Guide for Publishers" is due mid-November, followed by "Surfing the Mosh: A Punk Anthology," debuting May, 2009. Tamarian Graffham is furiously writing a book about household management, raising four children, and mostly keeping her sanity in the age of $4.00 per gallon gasoline. For a glimpse of that book, scheduled for release Fall, 2009, read her blog at Tales from the Den of Chaos.

One year ago, I really doubted I could pull off running a press. There was so much I didn't know and I had so little money. But I had the drive, the talents of Rick Wismar and Jane Mackay, and a manuscript I loved written by an author I believed in. I can't say it's all been bliss, but overall, managing Medusa's Muse has been the greatest joy ride of my life.