Friday, January 20, 2012

Ambrose/Barron Convo 1: Wearing The Publisher Hat

I recently settled into a Google Doc with my publishing pal Jeff Ambrose, and we had a broad conversation about this Writer thing. We decided to split it up into two "hats", writer and publisher. This week? "Wearing the Publisher Hat". You'll be able to find the conversation on both of our sites.

Jeff Ambrose of The Window In The Basement is JA
David Barron of by David Barron is daB
“Wearing the Publisher Hat”

David Barron: We’re both successful businessmen, I of H2NH ePub, you of Dark Elms Press.

Jeff Ambrose: Yep, that’s right. Dark Elms Press. But after a major overhaul of things, I’m now blogging at a place I call “The Window In The Basement,” which is just about writing.

daB: Which is a good example of two different approaches. I’m just hanging out on my Blogger blog, because I’m too lazy to maintain a bunch of places.

Starting Up

JA: Yeah, but here’s the thing -- you started your blog as a writer’s site, and it still is a writer’s site. When I started Dark Elms Press, I made a major mistake: I tried to combine my author sites with my publisher’s site with a writing blog. That doesn’t work. Then, back in March or April of 2010, I started the “Jeff Ambrose” site. All was fine until I started using pen names. The more I wrote under different names, the more I realized I needed other sites … or, that how I organized in the first place it was fundamentally screwed up. So really, the last few weeks I’ve been trying to correct mistakes, multiplying web sites like loaves and fishes.

The lesson in all of this for anyone setting out to be an indie writer: Keep your publishing site, author(s) site(s), and writing blog (if you have one) separate from the beginning … or at least as much as you can.

daB: Yeah. There’s one Dean Wesley Smith article that lays it out, “Think Like a  Publisher: The Early Decisions”, and it’s perfect. I made a Do This post “Indie Ployas well, and it boils down to, start simple, but efficient. Obviously, my first 50 stories/titles were a, that’s a weasel word...were ‘terrible’. In the sense of being muddled-through, but they were Educational. I just finished my first short story for 2012, and I sat down at my computer and formatted it in 10 minutes, and it looks better than anything I published in the first two quarters. And, production costs? Well, I pay myself $100/hr, so...$10.

Speaking of which, I think the most important thing an indie writer can do, ever is pay himself. That would have reduced our ‘publisher vs writer’ problems right there, starting with a clear vision of exactly how much money we’ll need to at least break even. And, it’ll help us understand why we should behave like a publishing professional.

Learn in Public

JA: Wow, you just said a hell of a lot of good things, but I think the most important point you made you left unsaid -- and that’s that one has to be willing to learn in public. I mean, as a new indie writer, there’s only so much you can do at the beginning, when you don’t really know what the heck you’re doing … or how it’ll turn out. But maybe that’s not true for every writer. Me, I’m an intuitive creative type. I hardly know where a story is going, much less what my next project is. I’m not really sure how much I could’ve planned the publishing side of things too far in advance … and yet, as I say that, I remember thinking very early on that I wanted to write under two pen names. But there’s little point in rehashing all of that here. The real point is that the entire process is one of learning, and if one isn’t willing to learn in public, one can’t engage in this business. That’s the nature of it.

It’s much like your point about your first 50 stories. You only got to where you are now, with the most recent story, by formatting the first 50, figuring out by trial and error what works, and what doesn’t. And yet, I read your first Alan collection long before you learned “good” formatting, and I didn’t find it distracting the least bit. But that’s me.

I suppose the point is that, for the one setting out in this business, one must accept three truths. First, you must realize that you can’t know everything from the get-go. Second, you must be willing to make something of a fool of yourself in front of others, because that will happen. And third, you mush have the energy to keep learning from wherever you can.

daB: Taking off from the third point, it’s also important to figure out who is a responsible source of business information. I will now make a sweeping statement, drawn from a disastrous month, nobody on KindleBoards (et al) is a responsible source of business information. I will in fact make a less sweeping, but equally harsh statement: Nobody with fewer than 10 published books is a responsible source of business of writing information, and same goes for eBusiness of writing. Now: a caveat: You should follow loads of muddle-through folk, (like, say, myself...) because they provide commentary and best practices (i.e. Don’t Do This!) on the responsible business advice of professionals.

Changing gears, you mentioned that the First Edition formatting (you can read that as “done in Word”, instead of by html) of the Alan stories collection wasn’t distracting for you, the reader. I’m sure that was true for most of my readers, but the fact is that it took me at least 10 times as long to format that thing in Word for Smashwords, Amazon, et cetera as it did when I’d paid my dues with the next fifty titles. Even formatting one of those stories took forever (and often Mr. Meatgrinder would eat it and spit it out.) Now, though, I can maintain a good ‘publishing to writing’ ratio.

Knowing “Enough”

daB: That is to say. I work 20 hours a week, I’m a part-time Indie. I write 18 hours, and I ‘publish’ for 2 hours. Before those ‘first 50’, I wrote 10 hours, and ‘publish’ 10 hours (and that includes research!). Do I think it was worth it? Heck yeah! ...but there comes a point where it’s diminishing returns. On that third point...there’s a time when you Know Enough. You don’t Know Everything, but it’s time to stop researching and Just Write.

JA: I don’t know if I’d say it quite like that, David, in terms of “knowing enough.” The problem, as I see it, is that when you think you “know enough” you can be tempted to sit back, put your feet up, and say, “I’m done.”

I do, however, understand your point, and it’s this: You can’t let your lack of knowledge get in the way of actually working. There’s a point when you know enough to get started. There’s a point when you know enough to know it’s time to researching other options for publishing (switching from Word to Scrivener for publishing needs, in my case). Long time ago, I used to listen to the self-help guru Anthony Robbins on a regular basis, and he said a few things that have always stuck with me. One of this was this: No one needs to understand how electricity works in order to use a light switch. We can’t let our lack of knowledge hold us back.

daB: Agreed, of course. I should add “For Now”, I Know Enough For Now, not forever. I’ll use formatting as the easy example because it has the most logical progression. Sure, I didn’t know at the start how to create an EPUB file from scratch (I’m still not esp. confident, but let it ride), but I found the Word ‘export to HTML’ button and then stuck the results into the Kindle Previewer until it worked for the “First Electronic Edition”, then for the “Second Electronic Edition” I boned up on xml, with the help of people like Guido Henkel and, then, Paul Salvette, until I had my own workflow. Finally, not quite satisfied, I picked up Paul Salvette’s excellent guide, learned a lot of crunchy XML things, and now I can say that I’m on the “2.5th Electronic Edition”.(ordinal fail) And? That’s Enough For Now. Once I have about 10 books, I’ll learn some more, go back and reformat them all at once, and call it the 3rd Electronic Edition, it’ll be beautiful. For now? I can format a book in 20 minutes and it looks great (albeit a little minimal)

Short Fiction

JA: I still remember when I started indie publishing a year ago. I had no idea what the heck I was doing. Just learning as I went. Like you, I spent a long time on formatting, cover art, blurbbing, uploading -- what have you. But over time, the more I did it, the faster I got. Now, I have a basic work flow, and keeping this work flow “well oiled” is one of the reasons I continue writing short fiction. I don’t want to lose the skills. This is one reason why I think for the new indie writer, a year of short fiction is the way to go. You just learn a hell of a lot writing and publishing short fiction. Not to mention the thick skin you develop.

daB: I agree. I would say to anybody who wants to start this that you should really focus on short fiction. There’s three very simple reasons: 1.) It’s quick! You finish a lot of titles, and you put them up. One a week. 2.) Multi-skills Practice, it’s a full exercise routine, blurbs, covers, formatting...oh, right, and writing. 3.) Making collections teaches you more about formatting than making a book, and about introductions, blurbs...and it’s fun, too.  Solid practice.

JA: Also, if you’re writing/publishing a story a week, you can’t get hung up on anything. You just have to write, finish, publish. You just have to say, it’s done, I’m moving on, it’ll live or die, and I’m not looking back. I’ve seen, in my limited experience, writers nitpicking words in a blurb -- as if a word or two is going to make or break their book!


daB: With blurbs, that sort of mindset can be helpful at the start. But it shouldn’t take more time to write the blurb than it took to write the First Line of the story.

JA: My own take on blurbs, especially for short fiction, is that the should be about 30 words long. I skim long blurbs, and if they’re too long, I just skip them. What I try to do in a blurb is write a sentence that shows a character with a problem and the twist a story will take. Sometimes, that’s not possible -- especially with short fiction, which can lack a conventional plot -- but that’s my goal when I sit down. Don’t know if I always hit it, but I try.

daB: Really, at this point, esp. with Amazon’s easy preview, the first line of the story often serves as a sufficient hook. (I mean, it’s what you do for editors, right?) I often just end up with a blurb appearing as I’m about to format the book and need to enter the metadata. It’s not so difficult. Read a lot of movie taglines, and do that. (It’ll be better than a lot of the eBook blurbs I see from monied publishers.) The story will out. I mean, the blurb for “Swift Invasionis The aliens were completely unprepared for one completely prepared human. So was Humanity. A science fiction short story. ...but it’s still one of my best-selling stories, because (I suspect) it’s enough to draw the reader to the preview, which is tight.

JA: Movie taglines are a great way to learn how to write blurbs. Get on Netflix and spend an hour analyzing them. Also, if I’m really stuck on a blurb (which is often the case), I’ll hop on over to Smashwords and read all of Dean Wesley Smith’s and Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s blurbs, just for inspiration. But I try not to spend too long on them.

Paying Yourself

JA: Going back to something we said earlier -- about when to know you know enough -- there’s another danger we indie writers have to watch our for, and that’s perfectionism. You can’t get caught up in that! Just recently, I spent four hours trying to come up with a title and cover for a story. Four hours! That’s a huge waste of time. And when I look at it in terms of what my time is wroth -- $50 an hour, say -- I’ll have to sell 500 copies of that story in order to earn back that time.

daB: Agree, agree. Which goes back to ‘paying yourself’. You have to ask: “Would I pay somebody else $250 to do this?” The answer, in this case, Titles can be changed. That’s the joy of Electronic. It’s pretty easy to make a new edition. (Don’t use that as a crutch, but embrace the convenience!)

JA: So, what happened on the Kindleboards? Never been on myself.

daB: Well, if you’re a regular reader of Dean Wesley Smith’s blog, you can probably imagine. Mostly useless comments, Wild Mass Guessing, and bull - boasting about sales numbers and dramatic business proclamations (‘publishers will go bankrupt’, ‘Amazon will eat our young!’) Waste of time, mindset break. You don’t need to be doing that.

Abrupt? Just wait until
Next Week: “Wearing the Writer’s Hat”!

If you want to have a Convo with me (or Jeff) and have indie published some stuff, hit me up on Twitter where I exist as DavidalBarron, or shoot me an e-mail at DavidalBarron [at] gmail [dot] com !

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