The Role of Gatekeepers

I used to live in Portland and sell books to Powell’s frequently.  Recently, I learned about their web book buying program, and settled in to see how it works.

I was somewhat disturbed to read “no print on demand” on their list of guidelines for what they buy.  I know a lot of good books that have used this technology, and Powell’s is an independent store.  Yet, here was a line that means they will stock and sell only mainstream-published books through one of their largest-reaching purchasing methods.

Of course, I have also seen weak books published through print on demand.  I’ve seen fiction books with wandering pointless plots and sudden losses of continuity, and nonfiction with unparsable paragraphs and thickets of misspellings.  I understand wanting to wade through fewer bad books.  Buying a book is a commitment of their their money and shelving space.  Having a gatekeeper — in this case, traditional publishers — helps them choose books that will be profitable for them more efficiently.

As a reader, I’d like to have a gatekeeper too.  It would be wonderful to have someone presort books so I could count on buying well-written, well-edited books that I would enjoy.  The problem for me is that traditional publishers are not doing a very good job of it.  When I go to Barnes and Noble to look for books, I seldom find any new science fiction I want to read.  Barnes and Noble works so closely with traditional publishers that they influence which books reach print, and they are doing it in a way that doesn’t work for me.  In other words, their gatekeeping is keeping books I’d like away from me instead of raising the quality of books available to me.

I used to look to Locus for science fiction recommendations.  However, some time back I found they’d sent me too many cynical or bleak books.  They were prioritizing workmanship and literary quality over enjoyability.

There are more books than ever available to choose from.  A quality gatekeeper would be a genuine service to me.  Until I find one I can trust, I do what many readers do — I rely on the recommendations of friends and I read books by my favorite authors.

As a writer, that is your opportunity.  If you can show me that you will consistently deliver what I like, you can make a customer for life.

Case study: Girl Genius

How are writers reaching readers?  The case of Girl Genius shows an interesting alternative to traditional publishing.

Girl Genius is a series from veteran comic writers and artists Phil and Kaja Foglio.  I found it on issue 3 and bought back to the beginning.  I’d enjoyed their work on previous projects like the Myth Adventures illustrations, and the Phil and Dixie comics at the back of magazines about Dungeons and Dragons.  They had a track record, a good sense of humor, good writing, and good art.

Yet their new project, Girl Genius, was struggling.  I loved the set-up.  In a world dominated by Sparks — hereditary leaders with the ability to do mad science — one girl discovers she has a much bigger legacy than she knew.  The art, dialogue, world-building, characters, and stories were all good.  Even after switching from black and white to color interiors for more popular appeal, the Foglios continued to report that they were having trouble finding the money to print the comic for sale.

Eventually, and with worry, they decided to take the comic online.  They stopped printing individual issues.  They scanned and put up the previous story, bit by bit, free for online viewing.  They set up new revenue models of online advertising, selling the compilations and related merchandise, and accepting donations, which they rewarded with wallpaper art.

It was not too many months after going online that Kaja reported that they should have done it sooner.  Instead of the sometimes delayed printed issues, new pages of the comic continued to go up very regularly on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.  Their complaints changed from not having enough money to print to needing to reprint sooner than expected.  They won awards for the comic.  Over time, they became one of the sources of a new trend in Steampunk decor, costuming, and storytelling.

You can read the story here, and I recommend it:  Girl Genius.

I think this case is very interesting.  Girl Genius is a huge success online, and would have been discontinued if only the print distribution method had been available for it.  Their content is excellent, which definitely helps.  That was not enough for success through traditional distribution.  I think it is also worth noticing that they took their existing fanbase, treated them very well with free content and gifts for donation, and used innovative ways to spread the word like a Twitter feed from one of the minor characters.

There is a lot here that could be of value to someone thinking of distributing their words online.

A Service to Writers

I’ve just been over at Norman Spinrad’s blog.  He’s the brilliant writer of books like Bug Jack Barron and Child of Fortune who has won prizes, been a best seller, and published for over four decades.  He was talking about how the current state of U.S. publishing has just about torpedoed his career.

You can read the post here:

In the comments, a couple authors (including bestselling author Jerry Pournelle) recommended he try e-book publishing again.  Spinrad tried some early experiments with the form.  As with his writing, he was ahead of the curve there.  The alternative methods have more traction now than they did then.  It’s possible to be ahead of a market that will work later.  So he might well succeed with the distribution channel now.

What does it mean when a writer like that is no longer considered worth publishing by the big New York publishers?

Spinrad and his commenters also discussed editing.  Pournelle said, “Of course that means that authors, most of whom are notoriously bad at editing their own works, need to find a way to get the benefits of good editing…”  Spinrad replied, “And I emphatically agree that writers need editors, good editors.”

So there you have it.  Good editing is a service to writers, and a service to readers.  Since it is becoming rare to gain that editing through the traditional publishing path, writers need other ways to find editors.

So here’s a small detour about me.  I serve writers as an editor.  Two books list me as editor at  Changes of the Heart and Pot Limit Omaha/8 Revealed.  In addition, these books mention me in their acknowledgements:  Self Coaching 101, Poker Mindfulness, Professional No-Limit Hold’ em, Small Stakes No-Limit Hold’em, and Elements of Poker.  (Except for Small Stakes No-Limit Hold’em, if you use these links to buy a copy of the book, I will receive a small commission.  Thank you.)  These are poker and self-help books.  Poker is actually a great place to practice copyediting.  You may have noticed that Hold’em is spelled in two different ways, just among these titles:  Hold’ em and Hold’em.  Poker vocabulary is in flux, and it’s rather fun, actually, to decide which version of a word to apply to a particular book, and then see that it is spelled consistently throughout.  I have done a lot of poker editing in just three years because I am familiar with the field, comfortable with such ambiguities, and because my clients, especially Tommy Angelo, have spoken often and eloquently about how much they like my work.  The self-help projects arose from my training as a Martha Beck Certified Life Coach.  It is another field I know well.

I’ve collected some of the statements from my clients here:

For a new author of science fiction — a field I have even more experience with than poker or self-help — the decision to hire an editor is a harder one.  It’s true that editing will improve a book.  It’s also true that regaining the money spent to create a book looks like more of a challenge than it does with self-help.  How to market fiction is an important part of creating the bridge of words from a writer to a reader.  I’ll talk more about that later.

What is editing, anyway?

I’ve noticed some confusion about what editors do.  In broad terms, editing is the process of making writing better.  That can cover a lot of territory.  So here are some precise ways that editors improve manuscripts:

  • They correct misspellings, grammatical errors, and inconsistent punctuation.  This is sometimes called copyediting.
  • They flag awkward phrases, either offering alternatives or leaving the rewrite to the writer.
  • They point out logical problems, missing attributions, and errors of fact.
  • They suggest stylistic choices.
  • They note places where the structure or flow of the manuscript doesn’t work well.
  • They point out holes in plots and places where the story lags.
  • They comment on point-of-view errors and tonal mismatches.
  • They suggest titles, chapter breaks, subplots, and more.
  • They praise what a writer does well.

Not every editor does all of this.  There are other things some editors may do.  In addition, “editor” is the title of someone who works at a magazine or publishing house and takes responsibility for the works published.  An editor of that sort accepts or declines the manuscripts that arrive from writers hoping to see their work in print, in addition to working to improve the manuscripts accepted.

Over the past few decades, the number of writers wanting to publish has grown while certain portions of the market for writing have shrunk.  This creates an economic pressure where editors who work for publishers do less editing — in fact, a manuscript in need of editing may never be accepted for publication. With the growth of the self-publishing path for putting writing in the hands of readers, there are now two reasons a writer might hire an editor directly rather than relying on the services of the editor at the publisher.  First, editing can increase the chance that a manuscript will sell to a publisher.  Second, if planning to self-publish, editing improves the professional appearance of a book and increases the chances it will sell well, directly to readers.

Hiring an editor is also useful for website writings, brochures, e-books, and more — anywhere a writer or business wants to put their best face forward.  An editor works where someone has written for themselves, and wants the words polished.  If the words aren’t there yet, it is better to hire a writer.

If you are hiring an editor yourself, think about what specific services you wish.  Do you simply want someone to catch the typos?  Or are you looking for someone who has a broader view?  Also check to see if the editor has a compatible style.  For example, if you wish to speak conversationally, an editor with an academic style may make recommendations that don’t suit your voice.  Look at examples of what the editor has already worked on.  Talk to the editor, and see if you feel comfortable.  An editing relationship, especially on a book-length project, is long enough that it is worth having an editor you will enjoy working with.

Having a second pair of eyes review and comment on your writing can improve it significantly.  The best editors bring strong experience in writing, the understanding to see your aims and honor your voice, the judgment to improve your writing, and good communication skills to pass their knowledge on to you. Editors have tastes and specific skills.  A great editor of software manuals may be clumsy with literary fiction, and vice-versa.

So look for an editor who is a good match for your writing.  Then enjoy collaborating to make your writing better!

How to earn good money from writing

Let’s look at some basic math on the money in writing. Imagine that your goal is to earn at least a modest $40,000 a year from your writing. What paths can lead to that amount of money?

  1. Sell a lot of books.
  2. Build a base of fans.
  3. Use writing to promote another business.

The first method is the showiest. Rocketing up the bestseller list is a jackpot, especially for a first book, whether fiction or non-fiction. How does it happen? A book first catches the attention of a publisher, then receives good marketing, and then it catches fire with readers, and all of a sudden, we have a new hot author. From my observations, the books most likely to hit this sweet spot are both well-written and meaningful. They have a voice that appeals to many people and a message that resonates.

Imagine that your first book comes out as a trade paperback — the ones new literature tends to arrive in — at $16 per book. If you receive a common 15% royalties on it, that’s $2.40 per book sold — to reach $40,000, you will need to sell 16,667 copies. A few books rise much above this, and the sky is the limit for those. From anecdotal evidence, it appears that many, perhaps most first books, never sell enough copies to earn out their $5000 advance against royalties. In other words, they sell fewer than 2000 copies.

A second path to reaching $40,000 is to have 1000 raving fans. Kevin Kelly develops this idea here:

and talks about some further research into it here:

For a writer, earning $40 per fan per year probably means completing three books per year, self-publishing them and selling them through a website so that the profit per book is $10 to $15. This could work, with some sales outside the fan base. The critical concept here is to tend those fans well, communicating frequently with them and offering something that they are passionate about, so that they purchase everything you put out. Include some special editions, some upgrades, a tip jar, and some additional merchandise such as t-shirts, and this begins to look very promising — as long as you enjoy cultivating the fans.

I have seen a third option work well. These are the business owners who write a book and use it to create the platform for their business. A book establishes the author as an expert. It adds an instant level of credibility, and introduces you to a potential customer in a much more in-depth way than the most comprehensive website. Coaching, consulting, and public speaking are natural complements to a book. However, I’ve read of a plumber, and a cleaning specialist who’ve expanded their business significantly with a book.

For this path, imagine that you sell 1000 copies of the book on the self-publishing model at $10 profit each, then 1% of those who buy it go on to hire you for a $3000 other service, whether it is a speaking engagement, six months of coaching, or remodeling their kitchen. There’s your $40,000.

Are there other alternatives? Of course. The first one that comes to mind is selling very many articles. These three interest me the most.

And all of them benefit by following the principles of Bridge of Words. If you can write in a way to connect to readers, all of these will be easier.

Podcasts for writers

The Odyssey workshop for fantasy writing has started a blog. It already contains several podcasts from successful fantasy writers about writing and publishing. Some of these look useful for all writers. Check out the blog here:

The Curious Case of Quotes and Periods

Punctuation has meaning.  It also has a look.  Here’s a case where those who want punctuation to be meaningful and those who want it to look right come into disagreement.

Take a look at the following sentences:

He spells his name “Jynsyn.”
He spells his name “Jynsyn”.

Which one do you think is right?

Right now, there are two competing rules that determine which of those sentences is right.

The first rule may be the more established.  It says that the period goes inside the quotes, period.  This is the “looks right” rule.  The period looks a little more connected to the letters of the sentence when it is inside the quotation marks.  Because quotes are high, and periods are low, when the period goes outside the quotes, it looks a little stranded.  Plus, this rule is easy to follow.  A copyeditor travelling quickly over a page can swiftly spot any places where a period is next to quotes, and make them all the same.

The second rule is a little more complex.  It allows a period and a quotation mark to have two different relationships, depending on the meaning of the sentence.  It lets the punctuation express more nuance.

This is the second rule:  “A period goes inside the quotation marks when they enclose a complete sentence; it goes outside the quotation marks when they do not enclose a complete sentence.”

By the second rule, that last paragraph has a correct relationship between the period and the final quotation mark, and so does the second sentence about Mr. Jynsyn.

I see both versions in well-edited text.  After all, the first sentence about Mr. Jynsyn seems to imply that the period is part of his name.  On the other hand, the lonely period in the second sentence is not beautiful, either.

So, what do you do?  For writing in your own blog, letters, and so on, you can pick the rule that suits you.  When writing for someone else’s publication, follow the publisher’s style guide on this one.  Rule 1 seems to be a little more common – if you are unsure, ask or check their previous publications.

In either case, follow one rule or another consistently throughout a single work.  Attention to details like that is the mark of a professional.  Being able to carry out either rule consistently through a work is a mark of a flexible editor.  But switching back and forth within a single piece is just sloppy.

A quick pointer

Cory Doctorow has put up an amazingly helpful article for writers who face information overload from the internet. Check it out here:

In Praise of Writing

I love writing. It’s the original mass medium. It’s accessible to nearly everyone. It takes very little expense or technology to write or to read.

Let’s look at how writing improves on speaking. What is written down can be improved, made more efficient and more beautiful before it is delivered to its audience. I find it profoundly respectful for someone to write their knowledge to share in an optimized form. A writer who writes well saves me time. First, carefully chosen words save time. Next, I can easily pick up what I need and skip the rest. Finally, I read words significantly faster than I can hear them. Time is my most precious resource. I appreciate writers who save it for me.

Writing has other advantages over speaking. The writer and reader need not be in the same place at the same time. Where would we be if Shakespeare’s plays had been improvised rather than recorded? Also, once writing has been delivered, it remains preserved. What someone has written down can be checked, referred to, and stays accurately historical. What was said shifts in memory. That’s why Samuel Goldwyn said, “A verbal contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on.” And writing is searchable – that’s how I know Samuel Goldwyn is the one who said that.

I love books, too. I like holding them and smelling them. I like the look of them lined up on my shelves, reminding me that I could read them again. Or loan them out or give them away. I like how they last. I like how a book can be a long and substantial conversation. Whether with a kindred spirit or someone who challenges me, that exchange is extended enough to reach new territory. Someone who has written a book demonstrates more expertise than someone who gives a two-hour speech. Books are the antidote to sound-clips – and yet, books are entirely patient, letting me take them up or put them down as I will.

This is a challenging time for writers and books. The publishing industry and book distribution systems are changing. The number of manuscripts reaching agents and publishers are at an all-time high – while the number of books that sell remains steady. Other media gather more attention and money.

Yet the best speeches, audios, and videos are written first.

So Bridge of Words is about helping writers connect to readers. It’s about: the process of writing, to bring words into form; the process of rewriting, to make the words more valuable; putting yourself into your words, to bring the best you have to your readers; and delivering those words to your readers, so they serve their purpose.


Hello world!

My official first post will arrive on September 23rd. I’m looking forward to focusing on writers and writing here!

Until then, why not check out my other blog at Creating Space is a blog about success, space, and science fiction, and has quite a lot of writing content, too.

All the best to you,