Digital Strategy and the Future

It’s time for another Storify Post! This one is on comics & books industries, with a compare & contrast on digital strategy, overall vision, etc.

 

The New Landscape – Platforms, Crowd Funding, and More

Last November, I wrote a post called The New Landscape – Access, Discovery, and Media De-centralization. I’ve decided to call that essay the first in a series (The New Landscape), and today I want to take the topic in a new direction, jumping off of this point:

Here’s what I see as the dominant progression for a creator trying to make money from their work (visual art, music, prose, comics, video, etc.)

Level 1 – Start small, give stuff away for free, sell some stuff. At Level 1, a creator is almost totally reliant on big systems, for both discovery and fulfillment/delivery. Basically no one knows who they are, so they join larger infrastructures and services to get the word out about their material through algorithmic and organic discovery.

Level 2 – Building Audience & Relationships — At this level, it becomes viable to diversify their portfolio, maybe by selling some merch (T-shirts, mugs, stickers, patches, etc). Here, a creator can bring dedicated fans onto a growing mailing list. This level enables direct sales and stronger performance on retail sites, but the creator may still be largely dependent for discovery-enabled growth and a lot of fulfillment/delivery.

Level 3 – Big Creators – Here, creators have a dedicated audience large enough they can get a living wage directly from their base, either totally direct or through Patreon/Kickstarter. Maybe they supplement their income speaking/appearance fees etc., having a large enough platform that they are in demand not just as creators, but as entrepreneurs/thought leaders in their field. They may still use large systems, but if they do, they do so from a far stronger position – they are less dependent on any given system, since their supporter base is strong, a base that is specific and mobilized, not platform-dependent.

This three-tier system is a bit reductive, as I said in the original post, but it provides a framework for what I’d like to talk about today: the differences between services/systems for Platform Building and those for Platform Mobilization.

At the Nebula Conference, I got to meet with a representative from Patreon, who helped answer some questions I had about their company and business model. Their rep confirmed what I’d already seen from being a patron on that platform – that it is more of a Platform Mobilizing system rather than a Platform Building one.

(Note – a number of writers I admire have found some success already using Patreon to support their other writing-based income, including Saladin Ahmed, Kameron Hurley, and most recently, N.K. Jemisin, who hit and easily passed the goal she’d set to allow her to quit her day job.)

Defining Terms

Here’s what I mean:

Platform: a creator’s established body of work, professional networks, and the way that they present as a creator. A creator with a small platform may just have started releasing works, or they may not have reached a very wide audience. A creator with a large platform may be well-known for some other work before they entered a creative field, or they might have built it as their career developed. A large platform tends to come with and from a large supporter base.

Platform Building: A system or process that is Platform Building is one that includes discovery systems – good ways for people that have never heard of the creator to find them and engage with their works. Producing content is Platform Building, as every work creates the opportunity for someone to find and engage with your creative efforts. YouTube, Twitch.tv, and any retail system where a consumer can follow a creator can serve as a Platform Building system. Platform Building enables creator and consumer/reader/fan to engage through the work as well as enabling other forms of communication to strengthen those relationships.

Platform Mobilizing: A system or process that is Platform Mobilizing is one where a creator can send or bring their fans/readers/viewers/etc. in order to make a project happen or to allow more direct financial support for a project/creator. Kickstarter and Patreon are both Platform Mobilizing companies, though in different ways, to different degrees.

Example – Mobilizing for Genrenauts

I’m running a Kickstarter right now, and as of the time of writing this essay, the project is less than 10% from hitting the $5,000 funding goal (yay!) When I launched the project, I was a bit worried that $5,000 might be too high for a first Kickstarter, that maybe I needed to aim lower and then try to build momentum by over-funding.

But in reality, I hit 50% of the goal in two and a half days, largely based on existing fans and strong signal-boosting from friends and colleagues. Based on how things are going, I’m likely to hit the funding goal about halfway through the campaign, and then spend the final two weeks pushing for stretch goals. That seems like a perfectly solid way of going about things in a single-creator project.

What has surprised me is that according to Kickstarter’s dashboard analysis tools, around 27% of the pledges made to the project have come from Kickstarter’s own discovery systems. Those include their search engine, their Projects We Love recommendations, and so on. I had not expected Kickstarter to provide so much discovery. I’d estimate that close to a third of the backers on the project had not heard of me before launch. This, in my opinion, means that I’d substantially under-estimated Kickstarter’s utility as a tool for not only Platform Mobilizing, but also Platform Building. There are going to be notably more people invested in the Genrenauts series when this campaign completes than when it had started.

Given the opportunities involved, any Platform Mobilizing system that uses a crowd-funding approach like Kickstarter will likely be working on building in some discovery systems. The company benefits if people come to trust their system as a way of discovering amazing new content, and the creators benefit from crowd-funding with a system that helps do more than just facilitate a direct mobilization of existing fans/readers/viewers/etc. And it definitely works for me as a consumer, too – I’ve backed a fair # of projects that I only heard about through Kickstarter’s search system. Patreon’s discovery tools, in my experience, are more nascent, and have a ways to go. The company is also much younger thank Kickstarter, so this is to be expected.

The Inevitable So What

Here’s why I think this is a useful framework: I’ve been following Kickstarter and Patreon each since pretty early in their public histories, and trying to study what they can and do offer to creators. In publishing we have this idea of The Discoverability Problem, which is that it is getting harder for individual creators to have their work discovered, which makes it harder for new creators to find a following and build a sustainable career. There are so many books being released (largely due to digital self-publishing) and more releases means that there are more works to choose from. In publishing, the loss of shelf space from the closing of Borders and the lessening number of indie bookstores in the USA (a trend that has thankfully reversed, as we’re seeing new strong indies doing a great job around the country) means that writers are posed with discovery being an ever-greater problem.

One of the best ways to be discovered is to build your platform. The more people know you and have positive associations with you, the more chances you have to sell your work.

With the proliferation of social media, there are ever-more places creators can go to try to build their platform. You can be on Instagram, Tumblr, or Snapchat, as well as older systems like Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, etc. Social media channels are a well-trod way of building platform – incrementally growing your readership/tribe/etc. by consistently entertaining, informing, or whatever you choose to do. This form of Platform-Building tends to take time and a lot of effort. The first few people to any platform will be far more likely to benefit from it, growing their profile as the platform grows.

But any one media company can come or go – the fortunes of a social media company rise and fall. LiveJournal and MySpace are mere shadows of what they once were. Facebook lists on, and Twitter is harried by largely-unchecked abusers and the continual frustration of not being able to edit a typo out of a tweet that’s raking up RTs.

If a creator gets in deep with a single platform, their ability to connect with their fans/readers/etc. is bound up in that company’s fate. This is why people have been harping on and on about email lists/newsletters – if you bring you audience to a system that is much more directly under your control, that ability to connect is much more robust.

And from a mailing list, you can then direct your fans to a new platform, mobilizing them in order to help make a project happen.

This is why I see Platform Building systems as mostly being oriented toward Stage One and Stage Two (see the framework from the earlier post), and that Platform Mobilizing systems are more effective for later Stage Two and Stage Three. It doesn’t seem terribly viable (at least right now) to start a brand-new creative career by going directly to Patreon as your main way of interacting with fans/readers/etc.. For the most part, the people succeeding on crowd-funding/crowd-patronage systems are those with proven success and/or an existing fan-base. But once you have those connections and have earned that support, systems like Patreon and/or Kickstarter can let a creator provide an opportunity for fans, and especially super-fans, to go the extra mile in supporting a creator.

21st Century Creative Economics

Here’s another way we can express this:

Most of my books are available digital-first, from $2.99 to $5.99 per book. I also have paperbacks for $12.99 to $14.99. I don’t have any books out in hardcover, so $15 is the highest price for any of my books. If I have a super-fan who absolutely adores my works and will buy anything I publish, but I only ever ask $2.99 to $15 for my work, then they’ll buy as many of those as I can produce, but maybe I won’t actually provide them with an opportunity for them to support me to their satisfaction.

Then I launch my Kickstarter, with a $100 backer level, and they pick it in a heartbeat. They get a lot out of being able to directly support me and the extra rewards I offer above and beyond the book. And I get a big chunk of $ toward my project, plus a way to engage directly with a major supporter.

This is, I think, the source of one of the big appeals of Kickstarter and Patreon: With those company’s business models, I can offer a wider range of commercial interaction possibilities, and find places where the existing mix of products doesn’t satisfy a fan/supporter’s interest. If I have a fan who makes a really good living and wants to be able to help support me, if I make it easier for them to get more out of supporting me, we might both be able to win – me from greater financial support, them from getting more content from me, more direct interaction, and/or more insight into how I make my art.

This is another way to diversify your portfolio as a creator – offer a lot of different ways for people to support you – ebooks, paperbacks, audio, crowdfunded support, large-ticket experiences (critiques, Google Hangouts, etc.), and so on. And offering that wider mix you may find that you’re not only making more $, you’re giving readers/fans/etc. more chances to connect with you and your work. The perfect overlap of Platform-Building and Platform-Mobilizing.


Speaking of that Kickstarter, please check out the campaign and see if you’d like to join over 180 people helping me realize my creative dreams:

Ebook pricing Storify and the Cult of the Debut

Today just before lunch, I saw this story on Publishers Weekly. Which reminded me of other reports like this one from the New York Times. But there’s a lot to *why* these reported print #s are likely dropping, and a lot these reports leave out. Which is where this discussion started.

I’d also like to say a bit more about the Cult of the Debut. This is a huge thing in publishing. Authors, Agents, Publishers, Reviewers, Booksellers, nearly everyone in publishing is culpable here. We all participate in the Cult of the Debut. The shiny new author, the undiscovered gem, the instant phenomenon new voice that will Revolutionize Publishing, so on and so on. Houses get into huge bidding wars over debuts they think will be the Next Big Thing, spending millions and millions of dollars on an unproven author.

And as authors, we get so worked up about The Big Debut. We see our colleagues getting six, seven figure deals out of the gate, and we despair, thinking we’ll never have the career they’re going to have. We fetishize the Big Debut as the One True Path to writing success? When in reality, a lot of those big debuts fail, and a lot of authors that do end up becoming bestsellers do so by building an audience over time.

VE Schwab just hit the NYT list with A Gathering of Shadows, the second book in a series, and her ninth book overall. She built an audience over six years, bringing her YA audience to her adult series. She has put the work in over time, alongside her publisher, to make this success happen. Stories like Schwab’s are far more achievable, far smarter of a strategy (even with the extraordinary circumstances of her film and TV deals, which are impressive and laudable in their own right), in my opinion, than throwing big stacks of money at debuts and hoping to win the lottery. Schwab has proven her work to be a good investment, has fostered a strong fan base, and now she is reaping the rewards. This is how to succeed without the Cult of the Debut.

Some people do debut right onto the NYT list. My agency-mate Jason M. Hough did with his novel The Darwin Elevator, but that happened because he busted his ass writing all three books in the trilogy so they could be released back-to-back-to-back, so his publisher had all the ammunition in the world to push the book hard. And then? It hit the NYT list probably in no small part to getting a very strong NPR on-air review during drive-time. But there’s no way to guarantee that kind of buzz or support. You make your bets, you give books everything you’ve got, and you pray. Sometimes the magic works, and sometimes, a big advance is the last advance you’ll ever see.

Me? I’m a career slugger so far. I do the work, I write pretty quickly, and I promote the ever-loving crap out of my work by being active online and at conventions. I refine my process, I look at what in my list is working and what isn’t, and I try to focus on writing to where my existing readers are – the pop-culture-savvy action/adventure kind of story.

A lot of writers carve out solid careers for themselves without ever hitting a Bestseller list, without ever getting a major award. They write, they make smart choices about what books to write when, and they find good publishing partners. They develop their careers deliberately, thoughtfully, and by making good bets. Publishers can and often do this, too. But publishers are still frequently distracted by the Cult of the Debut.

And this focus on debuts goes all the way down – Big Debuts get the budget, so they get the support. Which means they get more ARCs, more ads, more events. They get more time during presentations to buyers and librarians, which means they get more exposure to readers and reviewers. All the while, career writers, the long-term proven creators, just hammer out incrementally stronger books, trying to build their audiences organically because they’re not the New Hotness anymore.

We can all do better. Debuts are fun, and it’s exciting to be the person to spread the news about a brand-new author, but there’s a lot to be said for the experience and honed skill of a veteran writer. That’s what I’m hoping to become. It’s not as sexy a role, but it’s far more realistic.


My latest book is The Absconded Ambassador, Episode 2 of the Genrenauts series. The Genrenauts are a group of storytellers that travel to dimensions informed by fiction genres to find and fix broken stories in order to protect their home world.

The Absconded Ambassador

Amazon: the Bricks & Mortar-ing

Well, the inevitable has happened – Amazon is opening Amazon Books, a Brick & Mortar test store in Seattle, WA.

Amazon Books storefront

From the Amazon Books announcement

Read that story first, and take care to study the pictures. That’s important.

And then, if you want some more info, check out this story from the Seattle Times.

I have so many questions. Some are first-store specific, others are for if this becomes a bigger thing.

The Seattle Times piece claims all books will be faced out, but looking at the picture above (from the Amazon announcement), I see some spine-out books. Are those just overstock, or is the Times article incorrect, and there will be some books spined-out? (Presumably workhorse backlist titles, presumably with strong sales records and/or review ratings).

Will Amazon Publishing titles be featured with tables/fixture placement? B&N and many indies have largely refused to stock Amazon Publishing titles, for understandable reasons. The Seattle Times piece indicates that the store won’t be just a showcase for Apub titles, but it seems highly unlikely Apub titles won’t get a solid push – possibly with a Kindle First fixture/table.

Will publishers be able to/be required to pay co-op for placement in these stores?

How will staff be instructed to interact with customers? Engaged and personal shopper-y like indies, or more of a zone defense Info desk culture like Barnes & Noble? Will the booksellers coming over from indies bring that approach with them, and how?

And most of all – how will titles be selected? I see sections marked “Genre <X> with 4.5 Star rating or Above,” “Highly Rated – 4.8 Stars and Above,” “Top pre-orders,” but also some traditional end-caps like “Gifts for the Gamer.”

Basically, I saw the news and wanted to hop on a red-eye to check out the store when it opens. Which is precisely what I imagine Amazon wants from readers. Not just Amazon die-hard readers, but also indie-loyalists, B&N fans, and so on. Making noise and getting attention is the first priority of a new business venture in terms of driving sales.

 

The Bigger Picture

If this test store does well, I could see Amazon Books expanding to a few stores in Seattle plus one in another 5-6 cities over the next year – probably based on Amazon’s “Most Well-Read Cities” lists they put out each year. That would take them to Portland, Las Vegas, Tuscon, Washington, D.C., Austin, etc. (Note that New York City is not on that list, despite being the home of traditional publishing.) It might even be faster – Amazon sometimes confounds by moving faster or slower than expected.

If Amazon Books succeeds and expands aggressively, I see it challenging the regional and smaller chains like Partners, Hastings, and Books-a-Million, and also posing a possible threat to Barnes & Noble directly on a long enough time-frame. The physical bookselling world achieved an equilibrium a while after Borders closed, but it’s not immune to further disruption.

Notably, I don’t think independent bookstores have as much to worry about here. Indie Bookstores have rallied to a big degree, with more American Bookseller Association members in 2014 than there had been since 2002. The current strong Indies have figured out a model that works – personal curation, community connection, and individuality. Each one has their own version of that model – part of the individuality part. And personally, I’ll take an experienced bookseller’s opinion over a Goodreads rating average any day (individual Goodreads reviewers = often good – On average, the #s are wildly undependable).

Amazon Books does have booksellers, and those booksellers could be excellent hand-sellers (most appear to have been recruited from indie stores). But if Amazon Books moved into a city with a strong indie, they might find themselves hard-pressed to beat out an established indie for community connection and individuality. They might end up not competing for customers as much as we’d think.

There could very well be room for everyone to thrive even with a wider-spread Amazon Books chain. I could see Amazon Books staying limited, bringing the .com experience into the retail space as much to sell .com as to sell books directly. But you can bet that booksellers around the country are going to be paying very close attention to Amazon Books this holiday season. And the smart ones will steal cool ideas from Amazon and apply them in their own storefronts as best they can.

So, if you’re in Seattle and want to do some investigation for me, please head into this Amazon Books location and report back. 🙂

Mike’s latest novel is Hexomancy, the fourth Ree Reyes urban fantasy, where geek magic squares off against a quartet of Fate Witches hell-bent on revenge.

Hexomancy cover

The Many Sides of Bundling

Earlier this week, Tor announced that it had partnered with BitLit to offer discounted ebook editions to readers who already own print editions ($2.99 per book).

Books

Angry Robot has had a bundling promotion running for some time, offering free ebooks to customers who buy the physical from one of several bookstore partners, or at conventions.

Bundling has been an on-again, off-again hot-button topic in the publishing world, as readers lobby for getting the ebook edition for free with their physical purchase. A frequent argument I see is that if a reader pays for a book, they feel like they should be able to consume that book in whatever format they want – they’ve bought the content, so format shouldn’t matter.

The production realities in publishing aren’t quite that simple. The final steps in book production diverge between print and ebook – so the  work-hours that make an ebook are different work-hours, with different skills and programs needed, than the work-hours that produce a finished physical book.

 

Don’t get me wrong – I think print + ebook bundling should be universally available. TV and Film companies have already figured this out – in the US at least, consumers can by a DVD, DVD + BluRay, or DVD + BluRay + Digital Download. Sometimes there’s even a 3D BluRay in there. But the different formats are available together. And sometimes the programs involved in the digital download even work (and sometimes they don’t – I’m looking at you Ultraviolet).

To sell a bundled print + ebook edition, here’s what publishers have to do:

1) Partner with BitLit or similar companies, selling companion ebooks at a discounted price to verified print owners (who mark up their physical book to claim the ebook).

2) Create a separate edition (with a separate ISBN) for bundling. That bundling edition would likely cost $1-$5 more than the normal physical edition, just as the DVD + BluRay + Digital Download edition of a film/TV show costs ~$5 more than the DVD + BluRay edition (though digital films/TV shows tend to cost more than individual ebooks). This probably means creating a series of download codes for every book, printing a pull-off-sticker on the inside cover or the like. Printing download codes in plain sight in or on the cover would be incredibly rife for abuse, so some precautions are expected. Marvel comics does this as the default for some comics, offering a free digital download.

2a) As above, but offer universal bundling for no additional cost. That has its own difficulties, as expressed below in Show Me The Money.

3) Publishers broker deals such that every print edition retailer creates a partnership with ebook retailers to enable bundling up-sales at point of sale/checkout. Buy a paperback book, automatically get prompted to buy the ebook at a discounted rate. Amazon has something like this with MatchBook, though only a few publishers have signed on for the program.

 

 

Show Me The Money

Here’s the big question, the one I don’t see asked as often.Who gets paid, and how much?

How does bundling impact how authors are paid?

For this, I’m going to get very hands-on with #s and $. There will even be charts. You have been warned.

Royalties, the amount per sale that writers are paid (against advance or directly) is determined by the specific contract with the publisher. In self-publishing, the terms are not royalties, but instead the creator’s share (as the author-publisher).

But if a physical edition AND ebook edition are being sold at once, how is the royalty calculated? If the ebook is a free add-on, then the author only gets the paperback royalty despite that when looked at from the current paradigm, the book is being sold twice, once in each format.

Part of the trick here is that physical royalties are calculated differently than ebooks. In most contracts, print royalties are calculated off of list price (aka the published price on the cover), 6-8% for Mass Market, 8-10% for Trade Paperback, and ~12% for HC. These rates vary by contract.

Ebook royalties, however, are calculated on net sales, the publisher share of the list price. That’s usually 70% of list price in agency agreements, and usually 50% in Wholesale agreements.

This means that in many cases, authors can get more $ proportionally and in real $s.

Let’s do some comparisons:

For each format, I’ve market the highest royalty for the author in Bold, the 2nd best in Italics, and the third is left in plain text.

Paperback Price ($) Royalty ($) 8% Ebook price ($) Royalty ($) – Agency 70% Royalty ($) – Wholesale 50%
Mass Market (8% Print royalty) 7.99 0.64 6.99 1.22 0.87
Trade Paperback (10% Print Royalty 14.99 1.49 9.99 1.75 1.29
Hardcover (12% Print Royalty) 25.99 3.11 12.99 2.27 1.63

 

So we see that Agency Ebook is the best deal for the author in paperback, but Hardcover tends to pay more than even agency. This is due to the fact that ebook prices scale up as the formats get more expensive, but not at the same rate that print edition prices increase. There’s been major consumer pushback against fiction ebook prices above $10, and especially over $12-13. Ebooks for titles released in Hardcover would need to be priced at $17.99 for the ebook to earn a higher $ royalty than the Hardcover.

N.B. – These price levels are not universal, nor are the royalty rates. Angry Robot prices all ebooks for individual books at $6.99, and Saga Press’ recent release of Ken Liu’s Grace of Kings is priced at $7.99 in ebook, even as the hardcover sells for $27.99.

Price elasticity of demand is a thing, here, and it’s likely that when a book is cheaper than the physical edition, they ebook may sell proportionally more, makin up the per-unit royalty loss with volume sales. Several publishers have tried this approach, and it is the default approach for author-publishers, who tend to set the print $ far higher than the ebook price to show the discount, while usually pricing ebooks at $4.99 and below (sometimes far below). And yet some of these author-publishers have made incredibly good $ selling at those bargain prices, even with a lower author’s share due to vendor agreements (bringing in 35% per sale instead of 70%).

Given that authors tend to receive a better $ royalty for ebook sales when the title’s physical edition is a paperback, how do publishers adjust the sale royalty for a bundled edition?

If the bundling happens with its own edition, how will royalty be calculated – List or Net, and at what rate?

I’d propose that a bundled edition, being sold as a physical book, would probably need to be based off of the print royalty, with a bonus for the ebook, maybe around +5-8% of list.

 

So 8% of list for the MM, but +5% bonus for the ebook, for 13% of list. The reader is effectively paying $2 extra for the ebook, and the author is getting about 2x the royalty as they would on a $7.99 MM.

The result would look like this:

Bundle Edition Price ($) Royalty $
Mass Market + Ebook (13% List) $9.99 $1.30
Trade Paperback + Ebook (15% List) $17.99 $2.70
Hardcover + Ebook (20% List) $29.99 $5.99

 

The royalty gain is higher in Hardcover due to the fact that the promotional price increase of adding $2 is very small in a Hardcover, and publishers margins on a Hardcover are quite good, so I added 8% to the royalty rate instead of 5, especially since Hardcover books are the ones most vulnerable to losing sales to their ebook edition counterpart (due to the larger price difference).

The question then is – would readers pay these rates to get print + ebook as a default? I know I would, as I like to have both editions when I can. you have other thoughts on how to implement a bundling model? Do you want bundled ebooks with physical editions? How would you want them?

Do you have any other thoughts on how to implement a bundling model? Would you want bundled ebooks with physical editions? How would you want them? How much extra is a fair price to get a bundled ebook?

The Tricky Thing About Reading ‘Neutral’

The following was prompted by a recent Telegraph article responding to K. Tempest Bradford’s reading challenge on XOJane. (I’m not linking the Telegraph article because I think it’s a steaming pile of crap – it’s poorly-researched, uses terrible argumentation, and includes personal attacks)

A response I see come up frequently when people talk about reading challenges or pushing for greater diversity in reading is some variation of the following:

‘I don’t pay attention to gender or race or sexuality of authors when I read. I just read what I like and what looks good.’

On the surface, that’s a laudable approach – it’s meritocratic, it avoids bias based on the background of the author.

But…

Continue reading

The Ultimate Genre MFA

So, this article about MFA programs has been going around for the last couple of days.

Unsurprisingly, the ever-thoughtful, ever-incisive hilarious Chuck Wendig has a point-by-point response which is dead-on (standard heads-up: Chuck is virtuoso of inventive swearing).

So rather than add my own point-by-point response, I want to take the conversation in a bit of a different direction, which is to say toward genre fiction.

The State of the Field

This whole article and the discussion around it reminds me of how poorly-served I think a lot of genre writers are vis a vis the MFA establishment in the USA. There are some MFA programs that are more oriented toward commercial fiction, like Seton Hill and USC, and some genre-friendly programs with SF/F writers on-staff like NC StateTemple, and Stonecoast (and there may be some others with Crime or Romance writers), but as recently as 2011, when I was looking at MFA programs, the schools listed above seemed to be pretty much the extent of places where a SF/F fiction writer could go and expect to not just be tolerated, but to be at least marginally well-served – with instructors qualified to assist the writer in becoming better in their chosen genre. When I applied to MFA programs, I got zero feedback as to why. No ‘we had to many genre fiction writers apply this year,’ no ‘your writing sample wasn’t quite up to snuff because <insert craft element>. Just a form rejection. Alas.

So when I sold Geekomancy the next year, I didn’t bother applying again to programs. I have a career in writing, I can share my knowledge through classes offered on the web, and I have the skills to sell stories and novels to professional markets.

Which is annoying, because I *really like* teaching (I’ve taught creative writing, tango, web design, public speaking, and historical martial arts), and I especially love talking shop and sharing knowledge about writing and the business of writing.

Word on the net and in the business is that for most MFA programs, genre fiction is at best an also-ran, at worst an outcast forbidden style. And that seems silly, given how many writers want to specialize in these genres, and how much money those genres make in the industry. So many MFA programs seem to be designed to very specifically train writers to become teachers at MFA programs, to just replicate across the literary  fiction landscape. Except that just like almost everywhere else in academia, there are nowhere near enough jobs for the # of MFAs granted. So an MFA can be a teaching credential, but it’s often more a chance to spend two years focusing on craft. And that’s cool.

Unless you’re a genre writer interested in writing commercial fiction as a career.

So What?

Here’s the fun part.

One of my ‘If I Had All Of The Money’ dreams would be to found and endow a brand-new, world-class Genre Fiction MFA program, with faculty in Crime, Romance, SF, Fantasy, etc – adult and YA. The program would focus exclusively on genre fiction, and whwre most MFA programs do their cross-training between fiction and poetry, or fiction and memoir, this program would cross-train between fiction genres – since those three main genres cross over so much as-is, and current publishing trends are inviting that hybridization.

Some of the faculty would be chosen as much if not more for their business acumen as for their writing experience – their chairs would be for that business knowledge. And as a result, my dream MFA program would have a strong professional development/business knowledge component. Every MFA that graduates from my program would have training in pitching a book, participating in panels, hand-selling in a convention environment, writing query letters & synopsis, self-publishing skills (art direction, hiring freelancers, etc.) social media skills, as well as managing their writing as a business (taxes, expenses, budgeting). You know, skills a professional writer needs to prosper.

I love Clarion West. It taught me a ton about writing. But CW is not a be-all-end-all writing and professional development course. It can’t be.

But you know what can be? A modern two-year MFA program. A good curriculum, consistently evolving to adjust with publishing trends, should be able to give its graduates the most up-to-date information and help them launch their own careers, while also making them incredibly enticing to any smart Creative Writing program, which should leap at candidates with not only craft skills, but business skills. The Low-Residency MFA programs just don’t allow for as much teaching experience, which I would think puts those MFAs in a weaker position when applying for teaching posts, something likely exacerbated by their genre fiction focus. (Note here: much of this is based on limited knowledge – folks are welcome to correct me).

In a few years, it would become The Ultimate Genre Fiction MFA, and other people would copy the model, either adding strong commercial fiction and business development aspects to their programs or retrofitting them entirely.

Yes, it’s a pipe dream. But boy would I love to give it a try. I think the writing would would be notably better for it – as-is, the MFA ecosystem seems to be dominated by literary fiction and poetry, while leaving commercial fiction and genre fiction largely out in the cold, which serves to re-instantiate that divide, as commercial writers often avoid the MFA system and develop their skills elsewhere, or focus on developing their basic craft elements without getting support with genre-specific skills or business development.

Those of you out there who have attended MFA programs, either with or without a commercial fiction focus, low or full-residency – how were (are) your experiences? What would you want out of a MFA program if you could start over?

SFWA Welcomes Self-Published and Small Press Writers

Creative Commons Books image

Late Tuesday afternoon, SFWA announced that it was revising its membership requirements to specifically allow self-published/indie/author-published and small press writers. This move had been under discussion for quite some time, and like many professional organizations, SFWA is somewhat slow to make large policy changes. But changed it has.

I am incredibly pleased by this change. There are many writers who have already been operating at professional levels who had not been allowed to join under the old rules. I hope that this leads to a notable membership boost, and allows SFWA members and officers to broaden the remit of SFWA to support writers regardless of the publishing path they pursue.

SFWA has done a lot for me and meant a lot to me since I joined in 2012. I’ve made connections and friends through events, I’ve had the chance to promote my work at convetions (especially the Baltimore Book Festival), and I’ve benefited from the professional insights shared on the forum and in the revamped SFWA bulletin.

Here’s to a new era for SFWA and for SFF prose writing!

And the Content Wars Continue

Aside

I’ve talked before about the Content Wars in media – the fight for exclusive content, of capturing, holding, and monetizing attention with subscription models, walled garden marketplaces, and so on.

It behooves writers, readers, and all media consumers/producers to stay abreast of what’s going on in the broader business landscape for creatives.

Which is why I wanted to point out this Tumblr article by musician Zoe Keating.

The music industry is not the publishing industry, so I’m not saying this precise model will be replicated in publishing with services like Kindle Unlimited, Oyster, Scribd, etc.

But among other things, it’s a good reminder to be aware of the partnerships you’re making, and that aggregators, distributors, and retailers (Google, YouTube, iTunes, Spotify, Amazon, Kobo) are not your friends. They are businesses looking out for their own best interests. And if you are beholden to any one of them for too much of your business/reach/content, it can and often does end poorly.

2014 in Review – the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Here it is, a big 2014 in review post. 2014 has been a hell of a year, in great and terrible ways, across most axes of my life. It is a year that will not soon be forgotten, that’s for damned sure.

 

The Good

Three New Books

I had three new book releases this year, all in ebook and audio, and one in trade paperback (my first print release). That’s pretty freaking amazing. If I’d accomplished nothing else in 2014, this would still be a win. I’d had one book out each of 2012 and 2013, so jumping up to three book releases was a huge step for me and my writing career.

Those three books, in case you’re new to the Mike-verse, are:

Attack the Geek: A Ree Reyes Side-Quest – a long novella in the Ree Reyes/Geekomancy series. It’s short, action-and-character-driven.

Shield and Crocus: A superhero epic fantasy set in a city built among the bones of a titan. It’s my attempt to combine my favorite parts of the New Weird and Superhero genres.

The Younger Gods: A supernatural thriller starring the one moral son in a family of sociopathic sorcerers who want to bring on the apocalypse.

Writing Breakthroughs

In addition to releasing new books, I was also writing new books. I wrote Hexomancy, the third Ree Reyes novel, as well as revising the releases for this year. I also wrote three novellas in a new series which I should be able to talk publicly about very soon *plotty fingers*. All of these were written very quickly (for me). I wrote the first draft of Hexomancy (72k words) in a month, which was a total process breakthrough for me. When I finished that draft, I was exhausted, depleted, but totally excited. The major question I had was this: Can I do it again? Or was this an aberration?

Then, in about six weeks from the very end of October through the first week in December, I wrote another 70k ish words for the rough drafts of the three novellas. That’s not nearly as fast as the Hexomancy draft, but this was a new series as opposed to a series I’ve been writing for multiple years. If I can consistently produce at the 70k in 6 weeks rate? That would be a total game changer for my writing career.

Outlining

One of the reasons why I was able to pull of these strong production schedules is that this is the year I made a major move along the Outliner/Pantser continuum. Thanks to books like 2K to 10K by Rachel Aaron, the videos/tutorials from the folks at the Self-Publishing Podcast, and Mary Robinette Kowal’s Writing on the Fast Track class, I changed my outlining and pre-production process, giving myself a much clearer outline to work from, as well as learning how to design more of the story ahead of time so that my first-drafting time was more focused on moving forward and less on having to stop and figure out what to do next. I’m still refining my pre-production process, trying to figure out what parts of the world and story I need to have at least penciled in before drafting begins. And considering the production schedule I’ve set for 2015, I’m going to need all of the help I can give myself.

Conventions

In addition to tons of writing, I went to a lot of conventions. Eleven of them, in fact. About half were for work, half were on my own as a writer. I met a bunch of cool people, connected with fans, plotted with fellow authors and with my Angry Robot peeps, sold a bunch of books at the consumer shows, and decided to expand my writing career into comics.

Also, I was nominated for a Hugo Award as part of the Skiffy and Fanty Show, which is amazing. We didn’t win, but getting to participate in the pomp of the Hugo Awards as a nominee was a total delight.

In those eleven conventions, learned a lot about what makes conventions work and not work, what I want out of conventions, and how to approach a convention in a focused way to pursue that agenda.

And More

I’m also planning a wedding, co-hosting a readings series, participating in a podcast, and geeking out as much as I can.

 

The Bad

I Was an Adventurer Like You, Then I Took An Arrow in the Knee

Well, not an arrow. My fiance and I moved across town to a new (awesome) row-home in February, but there was a price. As a result of a day spent tromping up and down stairs with heavy boxes and crawling over the center console of my car to drive back and forth (you see, the driver’s side door was broken because fun), I did something truly unkind to my knee. Walking more than a half-mile or so hurt, driving hurt, and the moderate-intensity exercise regimin I’d been doing was right out. Even using my treadmill desk as a standing desk hurt.

It sucked. I babied the knee for a while, and it got a fair bit better, but then I went and worked two conventions in two weeks, where I had to be on my feet and energetic for eight or so hours a day. And so when I came back, my mostly-better knee had gotten a lot worse. So I went to the doctor, I got an MRI, etc. And it turns out I’ve got a nice little bone spur on my knee that scrapes the tendons as I walk and move.

Sweet. No, wait, the other thing.

Anyway, I buckled down and went through a couple of months of physical therapy, which was incredibly helpful (I know know the terror and marvel of the foam roller. Oh, foam roller, my most hateful friend). I can drive more easily now, but it still hurts. I can use my treadmill desk again in a limited capacity, which is excellent. I’m hoping in 2015 I’ll be able to expand what I do for exercise and get back into some historical martial arts or tango, but it looks like the bone spur isn’t going anywhere unless I want to go get surgery, which I’d rather avoid if I can manage with PT and smart self-care.

 

The Ugly

The Summer of My Discontent

The knee thing was bad. What was worse is how summer went with my day job. Our owners decided to put the whole company up for sale, but we weren’t allowed to talk about it at all, under threat of losing our jobs. Which meant I spent most of the summer worrying about whether I was going to lose my job and having very little control over much of anything.

That was not fun. In fact, it was pretty miserable. For a lot of reasons.

Luckily, we found a buyer, we’re no longer beholden to the old owners, and the company is back, with grand plans for 2015, and my quality of life at the job is way better, and will be even better when our publishing program resumes in March.

 

Takeaways

So, that’s a lot. A lot of good, some not-so-good, and many lessons.

Here are my big takeaways from the year:

  • Discipline and planning have a direct relationship to my speed of production.
  • Some separation between work and my personal life is good, even in a job I love.
  • Conventions are fun, but they require a plan just like every other part of the business.
  • Surprisingly, I am mortal, and I need to take care of myself and listen to my body.

 

Looking Forward to 2015

Where 2014 was a big year in writing and life, 2015 is promising to be even bigger. I’ve got a lot of work planned to be completed in 2015, including some very exciting stuff. I’m going to get married in 2015 to the coolest, smartest, funniest woman I know, and we’re throwing (two?) parties to celebrate that marriage with friends and loved ones. And there’s a ton of books and movies and comics and TV I’m excited about enjoying over the next year.

2014, you’ve been instructive in a bunch of different ways.

Roll on 2015.