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Right now, my voice actor Sandy is in her recording booth, speaking like a bod. Lifeform Three, my second novel, is currently in production as an audiobook, so this week I went to an event in London hosted by ACX and the Alliance of Independent Authors. Audible president Jason Ojalvo and author-entrepreneur Joanna Penn were speaking, and they had some interesting points on the business of choosing and working with a voice actor. (For an introduction to how to work with ACX, including auditioning actors, look at this post.)
Male or female
So a female author or a male main character must need a certain gender of voice actor, right? (And if you’re crossing the gender divide, how do you choose?)
Actually, it’s less of a cut-and-dried rule than you’d think. Jason said he’d often had authors who’d specified they wanted a female voice, then when a male actor had auditioned it had been the perfect match – even in genres like romance, whose readership are very definite in their expectations.
Jason made the point that the book – or the author’s work in audio – might have a voice that’s independent of the voice of the author or the character; it is its own identity. We’ll come back to this.
When I originally looked for a voice actor, I specified a British accent, but as many of you probably know, the narrator I chose is from the US. Initially I got a lot of US actors auditioning because I was one of the guinea-pig authors when ACX launched in the UK – they hadn’t yet got a bank of UK actors to choose from. So I heard a smorgasbord of attempts to ‘do British’, some convincing and some not. But I soon realised it didn’t matter after a few minutes anyway. The accent was irrelevant. The interpretation of the book went deeper than a voice’s characteristic twang, or lack of it. What was actually important was the voice actor’s understanding of the work.
And Sandy, regardless of the flavour of her English, was the most in tune with the novel. She also liked a lot of books that I liked. I picked her.
Same voice for all your books?
Jason said if you have a series, listeners expect the same voice throughout or it breaks the story world. Authors of standalone books, obviously, might search for new narrators each time. I’m happy with Sandy for both my novels even though they are different in tone – because she works well with my style and outlook.
Joanna has two series, so she cast a narrator for each. Funnily enough, we might have ended up with the same one, as the narrator for her dark crime series was one of the auditioners for My Memories of a Future Life! Small world.
Hunting for narrators
You’re not limited to only the voice actors who approach you – and indeed, many authors don’t find an ideal match that way. Jason encouraged authors to hunt around the ACX narrator profiles, listen to their samples and invite them to audition for yours. Or some authors do what I did – if you know a voice actor who’d be perfect, introduce them to the system.
Working with unfamiliar accents
Joanna, like me, is British, and ended up working with an American narrator. Once into the recording process she found there were pronunciations that were alien to her Brit-tuned ears but natural to the US narrator. What to do about them? Tomayto or tomahhto?
Before recordings start, you need to discuss this, and also tricky pronunciations such as character or place names. Sandy and I talked about it. I suspected there would be many more variations than I’d have be able to think of. If I’d decided ‘leisure’ couldn’t be ‘leesure’, I’d have then, for the sake of consistency, had to pull her up on words I never dreamed had a US difference until I heard them.
And the difference goes further than isolated words – sentence emphasis is also radically different. US English stresses the adjective in a phrase like ‘lying on a sticky mat’. UK English stresses the noun (UK: ‘on a sticky mat’, US: ‘on a sticky mat’).
I didn’t want to stilt my narrator with unnecessary strictures so I asked her to pronounce her usual way. I’m glad, because there were hundreds of differences. Hundreds. It would have been madness. In any case, that didn’t matter. So long as the interpretation of the line was true, the emotion understood, the accent was irrelevant.
Joanna had also come to this conclusion, saying there’s a lot we need to leave to the narrator’s judgement and style. She intervened in place name pronunciations, but allowed everything else to go with the actor’s natural style and emphasis.
Having said that, an audiobook is a creative relationship. The voice actor is expecting you to guide them on interpretation. Sandy and I spent several emails discussing how the bod characters in Lifeform Three should sound and what their individual characteristics were. I sent her short recordings of how they seemed in my own head as I wrote them, which she turned into polished performances. It was quite a feat for her – sometimes she had four or five characters in one scene and had to inhabit all those minds, as well as switching to thoughtful narration. For me it was easy because I wrote them. For her, it was mind-and-tongue gymnastics.
You can probably see why questions of ‘leesure’ versus ‘lezzure’ cease to be important. Forget them.
Don’t expect a drama performance
Jason pointed out that the audiobook isn’t a stage or film performance. It’s a reading – a quieter, more subtle business. Characters’ accents don’t need to be full-on impersonations, they are a hint. Passages of emotion don’t have to be performed, merely rendered so they bring to life what is already in the prose.
In prose, the writer has already done the job on the page. The voice actor is converting that into sound. It’s intimate; it’s not slaughtering the back row. It’s murmuring in your ears.
The voice that is the best conduit for your work
Ultimately, the best narrator is the right person to inhabit the book and bring it alive, from its lightest moments to its darkest corners. If you’re weighing up possible narrators, be prepared to revise what you imagined. If you thought the narrator should be British or male, but the more true interpretation, the one that gives you goosebumps, is US and female, that actor is the one to choose. The differences will vanish as soon as the listener gets into the story. After a minute or two, they won’t notice.
Since I released My Memories of a Future Life, some people have asked me why I chose an American, and indeed have mentioned it in reviews. Then they report that they got immersed. Your best narrator is the person who can inhabit the book, who can become its voice in the reader’s head and make them forget everything else.
Thanks for the pic Michael Mol
Any tips or questions to add? Have you made an audiobook? If you listen to a lot of audiobooks, do you have any feedback on what makes a good narrator? Let’s discuss!
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Today I gave a speech at The Oldie literary lunch (which was very exciting!) and they asked me to explain about making ebooks. I promised a post to distil the important details, and save them from squinting at their notes and wondering if that scrawl really does say ‘Smashwords’, and indeed what that alien name might mean.
If you already know how to publish ebooks you can probably skip most of this. However, you might find some of the links and reading list useful, or pass them on to a friend. And if you’re here from The Oldie – hello again. Nice to have you visit.
How to do it
It’s easy. Really easy. If you can format a Word file, you can make an ebook.
It’s more complicated if you have footnotes or multiple headings that might need to be visually distinguished, or you want graphics (which might not be advisable) but it’s generally easy. Have I said that often enough?
Here’s my post on how to format for Kindle, in which you’ll see how I had to be dragged into the ebook revolution. But by all the atoms in the heavens, I’m glad I was. You’ll also see the original, grey cover of the book that now looks like this.
That post includes the notes about stripping out the formatting codes and rethinking the book as a long-continuous roll of text, not fixed pages. The Smashwords style guide is also explained. (You knew you wrote that silly word down for a reason.)
If you don’t have the Word file
If you’re publishing a book that previously appeared in print, you might not have the polished Word file with all the copy editing and proofreading adjustments. Often, the author sees the later proofing stages on paper only, and any adjustments are done at the publisher. If you can get the final Word file, that’s simplest.
If not, try to get a PDF, which will have been used to make the book’s interior. You can copy the text off a PDF and paste it into a Word document. You’ll have to do quite a lot of clean-up as this will also copy all the page numbers and headers, and there will be invisible characters such as carriage returns. You’ll need to edit all of these out by hand.
Sometimes PDFs are locked. You can’t copy the text off by normal methods, but you can find a way round it with free online apps. Dig around Google and see what you find.
Another option is to scan a print copy. Depending on the clarity of the printing and whether the pages have yellowed, you may end up with errors and gobbledygook words, so again you’re in for a clean-up job. You’ll need a thorough proof-read as some scanners will misread letter combinations – eg ‘cl’ may be transformed into ‘d’ and your spellcheck won’t know that you meant to say ‘dose’ instead of ‘close’. But it’s quicker than retyping the entire book.
There are two main ebook formats. Mobi (used on Amazon’s Kindle device) and epub (used on many other devices). They are both made in much the same way, and the instructions in my basic how-to-format post are good for both. PDFs are also sold on some sites.
You need to get a cover. Cover design is a science as well as an art. A cover is not just to make your book look pretty, it’s a marketing tool. If you’re republishing a print book, check if you have the rights to use the artwork. If not, you’ll have to get another cover made. Use a professional cover designer (see later). Here are posts to clue you in:
Where I nearly made a disastrous mistake with a cover
Where do you get a good cover designer? See the books list below.
Hiring editors and proof-readers
In traditional publishing, a manuscript goes through a number of stages – developmental editing, copy editing and proof reading. If you’ve done this, go straight to formatting your manuscript. Otherwise, the following posts will help you understand what you need to do.
Daunted by the thought of an editor with an evil sneer and a red pen? Fear not, we respect you more than you know.
Getting your book on sale
The main DIY platforms to sell your ebooks are Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing, Kobo Writing Life and Smashwords (you’re getting used to that name now). Publishing on them is free and they’re simple to use. You can publish direct to ibooks, but that’s not easy unless you have a PhD in Mac. And a Mac. Besides, Smashwords (ta-daaah) will publish to ibooks for you. There are other platforms that act as intermediaries, for a greater or lesser fee, and greater or lesser advantage.
Beware of sharks. If you get what appears to be a publishing offer, read this.
Books to get you started
Written from an author’s perspective – The Triskele Trail
David Gaughran – Let’s get Digital
Alliance of Independent Authors – Choosing a Self-Publishing Service
Catherine Ryan Howard – Self-Printed (also covers print as well as ebooks)
And some other useful resources
And, er, that’s it. Any questions?
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Categories and keywords on online retailers: choose them wisely and the algorithms will target your ideal readers – especially on Kindle. You can make a whole science out of it, but this piece on KDP explains the basics in good, plain English.
Essentially, you pick two categories, and then get yourself in several more specialised lists by including set keywords.
But this system has its limitations. At first writers of genre fiction had many sub-categories to choose from, but writers of literary, contemporary and general fiction found themselves in one immense category where it was hard to be seen. There were few ways to tell the algorithms ‘I’m non-genre but I have a flavour of romance, or loss, or my novel is set in Borneo’. Recently Amazon has made big improvements and refined the choices – find them here.
Despite this very welcome addition, the results haven’t been as good for me as when I unknowingly broke the rules. When I put other authors in the keywords, my sales soared.
I did it in all innocence. Reviewers had been comparing my first novel with Paulo Coelho, Margaret Atwood, John Fowles, Doris Lessing, so I put those names in the keywords. My sales rose, readers seemed happy to have found me this way – so the comparisons must have been useful and valid. Then I discovered writers who did this were being sent warning emails so I removed them – and fizzled back down the charts.
It’s a real shame, because for me, this tactic was more effective than keywords about genres, subjects, settings, themes and issues. And surely the author and their style is a significant feature of any novel. With literary fiction, it’s the most important quality of all. It’s a valid way to talk about a book in the literary world – and yet it isn’t accommodated in the search mechanisms that writers can control. It’s a refinement that would be helpful to both authors and readers.
What’s more, now would be a great time to discuss and lobby for it. Here’s why.
We are connected…
Last week I was watching a videocast from the Grub St Writers Muse and the Marketplace conference. One of the panel members was Jon Fine, director of author and publisher relations at Amazon, so I tweeted @Grubwriters with my point about author comparisons. Jon Fine was rather interested in the idea and replied that it was something they’d never thought of. So…. watch this space!
(Let’s pause for a geek check: I tweeted a question in my home in London at 7.30pm, watched it read out to a room in Boston where it was 2.30pm, and real live people started to talk about it, with voices and hand-waving… and a man from Amazon stroked his chin and said ‘maybe we could…’)
— Roz Morris (@Roz_Morris) May 2, 2014
So I want to kick off a discussion here. Amazon are in the mood to get constructive feedback on this right now. There couldn’t be a better time to discuss it. I’ve shared my one tiny idea for improving the algorithms to help readers find our work; you guys no doubt have more to add. The questions begin!
1 Have you tried a category tweak that got you to more readers – Amazon-legal or not? Is there a category facility you’d like to see?
Jon Fine also said the categories problem was more widespread than Amazon. The industry standard for classifying books by subject, BISAC seems limited in its precision, although possibly it’s geared for booksellers rather than readers.
2 If you are – or have been – a bookseller, what’s your take? Would you find it helpful if the BISAC categories were made more flexible and detailed?
3 As a reader, how do you use search tools to find new books?
Let’s discuss! And change the world… :)
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A week or so ago I talked about making audio books with ACX, the self-publishing arm of Audible. From the author’s end it’s relatively simple – pitch your book, listen to auditions, guide the narrator and review chapters as they’re posted on ACX. But at the other end of the line, the narrator/producer is spending 4-6 hours on each finished hour you hear. What are they doing? When you listen to the files, what problems should you be alert for? And if you’re narrating and producing your own book, what do you need to know?
I put these questions to my narrator, Sandy Spangler.
Sandy: First I print out the pages of the text. Then I review them to refresh my memory and make notes about pronunciation or content/emphasis. Then I prep the ‘studio’ – which is my closet. I set up the laptop and hook up the mic and headphones.
Each chapter (or chunks if they are long) gets recorded in one go because the laptop needs to be outside of the closet, away from the mic or we can hear the fan. I hit record, then shut myself in with mic, headphones, and a glass of water.
Roz: You need studio-grade equipment to meet the quality standards for an audiobook. Podcasting gear won’t cut it. Equipment notes follow at the end of the piece. Back to Sandy.
Sandy: I monitor the audio as I go via headphones. Any time there is a mistake I do a retake and keep going so I don’t interrupt the flow.
Roz: Watch for these when you’re reviewing the uploaded files. Even with the most meticulous narrator, a repeated phrase or two can slip through. The finished quality is the responsibility of both of you!
Sandy: I usually catch around 98% of the errors. The tough ones are when I read a word incorrectly but it sounds right at the time (like make instead of makes) so I don’t catch it. Sometimes I can fix it while editing but sometimes I have to re-record the word or sentence. That’s a pain because it holds up the workflow.
The only time I come out is when I need to check a pronunciation – Roz has some pretty atypical words! Oedema? Nebulae? Roentgen??
Roz: Sorry about that…
Sandy: I record six or so chapters at a time, until my voice gets tired, then load them onto my main PC for editing. I splice together the chapters if they are in chunks, then compress the audio and equalize so the sound quality is good. Then I listen to each chapter and follow along using the printed manuscript to make sure it is correct. I try to fix any mistakes, and make a note of the ones I can’t. I also adjust the pauses between lines so it flows dramatically.
Roz: See the first post about establishing the perfect pause!
Sandy: I listen for the best takes and remove the bad ones, and cut out extra noises like mouth clicks and breaths. I usually end up listening to each recorded line at least twice, sometimes as many as five or six times. I spend more time on the dramatic passages because those feel important to get right.
Roz: This is like the writing process!
Sandy: Once a chapter is complete I run a range check to make sure it fits within the ACX parameters. I adjust the volume as needed, then export it as an MP3 ready to upload.
Incomplete chapters waiting for pickups get put aside until after my next recording session so I can drop in re-recorded lines. Sometimes the new lines need to be tweaked to get them to match the original recording – different days can sound quite different.
Sandy: Do your research before spending money on equipment. Get the best setup you can afford because when you are recording a solo speaking voice there isn’t much to hide behind, and there is only so much you can do in post-production.
Most audiophiles recommend a high-end microphone with a pre-amp to convert the analogue sound to a digital signal. The pre-amp is almost as important as the mic, so if you go this route you have to spend quite a bit of money to get a good sound. If you are planning on doing professional recording full time this is probably the way to go.
USB microphones have a built-in pre-amp, but traditionally sound tinny and aren’t warm enough for audiobooks. However, they have come a long way recently because of the huge rise in amateur voiceover work for video blogs and podcasts. The mic I bought is a high-end professional brand (Shure PG42) and tuned for voice recording. Since this voice project is a bit of an experiment for me, I wasn’t prepared to buy a full mic/pre-amp system, so I invested in one of the best USB mics.
There are some great resources out there for mic comparisons, such as this one. The other advice I would offer is to give yourself a crash course in post-production – for compression, equalisation and to remove mistakes and odd noises. There is a ton of great info on the web, such as articles like this …and video tutorials like this. ACX also has some very useful tips.
Oh cripes, two names that sound the same!
This really caused a hiccup, and made me rather unpopular with Sandy. Listening to her chapters, I discovered I had a Gene (the main hypnotist character) and a neighbour Jean. On the page, they are perfectly distinct, but in the ears… they sound the same. This gave Sandy some extra rerecording and messed up our schedule.
I talked in my previous post about the pronunciation guide. When you write this, check you don’t have two names that a listener might get confused!
Ooh, knotty word
Less of a problem, and certainly more amusing, was a word that didn’t translate well to a US accent. There’s a line where Gene, the hypnotist, is described as wearing a ‘knotty’ jumper. In Sandy’s voice it came out as ‘naughty’. I imagine comics letterers have the same problem with ‘flick’.
This might not have mattered, except that the knotty jumper occurs again in tense scenes that would be rendered farcical if the listener thought a character was wearing a ‘naughty’ jumper. We decided to stay the right side of serious and replace it with a less troublesome ‘rough-knit’…
In the meantime, do you have any questions or tips on working with audio? Do you listen to audiobooks? What do you like or not like about them? Share in the comments!
Stop press! Once your audiobook is finished, you’ll need to market it. Joanna Penn has some great tips in this post.
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Do you want to release your title as an audiobook? If you live in the US, you can go through ACX, the DIY arm of Audible, but ACX wasn’t open to UK authors – until now. For the past month, I’ve had both my novels in production as a test pilot, and now I can tell you what I’ve learned so far about offering a title, choosing a narrator and working with them.
Good question. ACX is a network where narrators and producers can meet authors who want their work released as audiobooks. Once you’ve hooked up, you can then use the site as an interface to create the book, keep track of contracts and monitor sales. In short, it’s genius.
You know how tedious it is every time you set up an identity on a new site? All that form-filling and profile-making? ACX requires minimal faff. Once you tell them who you are and what book you’d like to offer, it pulls the detail off Amazon.
- opt to narrate and produce the audiobook yourself, but to do this you must have professional-quality equipment and experience of sound editing, or the book won’t pass the quality check.
- pluck a willing narrator/producer out of the ether – this is what I did.
Pitching your book
Next to your book info, you can add notes to make your book more attractive to collaborators – your platform, sales figures and anything else that will convince them you’re worth working with. Which brings me to…
Making an audiobook isn’t cheap. An average novel is about 10 hours of narration (roughly 90,000 words) and is likely to cost $200 or more per finished hour.
You have several options if you’re seeking a narrator/producer on ACX
- pay up front
- pay a royalty share (which I did)
All the ins and outs of this are much better explained on the ACX site, so check them out there.
Choose an audition passage
When I talked to the ACX crew, they told me many writers put up the first few pages as the audition piece. This can be a mistake, because the beginning may not be typical of the book’s action. I looked for a challenging scene with dramatic dialogue as well as the narrator’s internal thoughts, which I felt would test the reader’s approach more usefully.
I added notes about the context of the scene and the style of the book – and waited for auditions.
And lo, they rolled in. (This was in itself a wonderful surprise.) Once I got over the novelty, I realised I needed to tweak my presentation.
Accent – & mistake #1 – ACX lets you specify the age, style and accent of the reader. Age and style were easy enough to choose, but accent caused me more trouble. I assumed this had to be British as, obviously, I’m a Brit, my characters are Brits and I write with British language. However, ACX is predominantly US, so that vastly reduced the available talent pool. Some of the voice actors did very credible Brit accents. Some couldn’t pull it off and sounded Chinese or German. Others ignored my stipulation – quite wisely as it turned out they sounded just fine in their natural accents. So I quickly realised accent was a detail that didn’t matter, and edited my directions. Indeed the narrator I chose is American.
Another reason to choose an accent other than your own is if the majority of your readers are in another territory. I sell a lot in the US, so an American accent might make them feel more at home.
Accent isn’t the only deciding factor, though.
Suitability for the material – While the narrator might be able to do a good job with the audition scene, you have to be sure they’ll interpret the whole of your book in the right way. A Regency romance needs a completely different approach from literary fiction, and I can imagine it’s a nightmare to realise your narrator simply doesn’t ‘get’ your book. If you have a contender, poke around in their ACX profile and follow up any websites where they demonstrate other books they’ve narrated. Also, ask them what they like to read.
Acting versus reading & mistake #2 – some books benefit from a reader who will do a lot of gutsy acting, including distinct voices for the main characters. But for most fiction, that’s too much. They’re journeys in prose and need a more intimate, subtle treatment, which might even sound flat to some ears. Listeners know they’re being read to. They don’t need rollicking declamation – or music or sound effects. And a good reader can make it clear who’s talking without bursting into different voices, so you actually need less ‘acting’ than you might think.
I made another mistake here in my original guidance notes for the audition. I didn’t ask for different character voices, but I did explain the book had sections in a different tone – the female narrator, and the future incarnation who was a male version of her. Thankfully, before it went live a friend pointed out that this might cause a lot of horrible baritone overacting, and that I should simply let the text do the work.
Ultimately, you choose a narrator on a hunch that they fit your work. One author I spoke to at LBF said he knew when he’d found his because the guy sounded like the ideal voice he’d have chosen – but better. That’s how I found mine too – although it was by a more roundabout route.
And here is Sandy Spangler – my narrator!
I had a shortlist of possible voices, including seasoned Broadway actors, but there was one question I couldn’t answer. When I looked into their backgrounds, none of them had narrated a novel like mine, and I was worried they wouldn’t get it. Then I remembered a friend who I’d heard do narration work – on a computer game, of all things. At the time, I noticed how she had an insightful, feisty quality that reminded me of Laurie Anderson. Even better, I knew her reading tastes made her a good fit.
I contacted her. She didn’t know about ACX, but she was keen to give it a go, registered and sent me an audition. Her reading was just right – inhabiting the material with well-judged expression and I knew the book would suit her personality. If you’ve been a subscriber here for a while you might recognise her from some of the goofy photos I’ve used on my posts. But her voice absolutely suits my kind of fiction, and if yours is like mine you might like her too (here’s her ACX page).
Here’s how we’re working.
Pronunciation guide – All books have peculiar words and names and you need to warn your narrator of these. We set up an editable file on Google docs. As I said, Sandy’s American and I’m a Brit, so we had to decide whether she should pronounce words like ‘leisure’ and ‘z’ in the UK or US version. I decided we could fiddle endlessly with this so I asked her to do whatever was natural. If we tried to anglicise everything there would be certain words we’d miss, or the stresses would still be American. And I didn’t want to get in the way of her doing the most instinctive job. So she says tomayto while I say tomahto. No big deal.
Pace - one of the first tasks is to approve the first 15 minutes of the audiobook. Sandy was afraid I might think she was reading too slow, but I felt the text suited a measured pace. ACX actually advise that you err on the side of slow because listeners can artificially speed the reading up if they want.
Pauses – you need pauses between paragraphs, scene switches, and maybe in other sections too. We spent an email exchange identifying exactly the right kind of pause for each.
Listen to finished chapters – You need to set aside time to listen to chapters as your narrator uploads them to ACX. We have a schedule and a chart where we tick off chapters I’ve approved or asked for modifications (usually these are pronunciations or stresses). ACX gives you a time code so you can pinpoint exactly where an edit is needed.
Next time, I’ll delve into the narrator’s side, including what exactly is involved in creating an audio book.
In the meantime, tell me: have you made an audiobook? Are you tempted to? Have you any tips to offer or questions to ask? Share in the comments!
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I’d love a traditional publishing deal. I’ve submitted my manuscript to two agents, and while waiting to hear from them I have been offered three ebook contracts – but I’m not sure which way to go. Also, could you quote me a price for professional editing?
I answered the email at length in private, but some interesting issues emerged that I feel might make a useful post.
Wow, three offers!
Three ebook contracts already. Way to go! Some publishers are offering ebook-only deals to authors, and considering print if sales are good. But in the nicest possible way, I was worried about my friend here – because in this market, it seemed unlikely to get that many serious offers and not have secured an agent.
My correspondent sent me the details of the publishers and I checked their sites. I’m not going to reveal their names here as I haven’t contacted them or asked for statements, as you should do in a proper investigative piece. Also, they weren’t attempting to scam or con anyone. They certainly could publish her book. But she didn’t realise they weren’t publishers of the kind she was hoping to get offers from.
One site had several pages about selling tuition and support to authors. There was a mission statement page that included a point about ‘fees’. The others stated they offered services to authors. Publishers – of the kind that my friend here was seeking – don’t use those terms. These people are pitching for business, not offering a publishing contract.
If I were her, I’d wait to hear what the agents say!
But if you do want to use self-publishing services, here are a few pointers.
Some publishing services providers can try to tie up your rights so that you can’t publish the book elsewhere. Others will make you pay for formatting and then not release the files for you to use yourself unless you pay a further fee. (I know regular readers of this blog who’ve been caught in these situations.) Some charge way over the market rate as well.
To get acquainted with the kinds of scams and horrors that are perpetrated on unsuspecting authors, make a regular appointment with Victoria Strauss’s blog Writer Beware.
Check the quality
Assuming no nasty clauses, you also need to know if the services are good enough. I’ve seen some pretty dreadful print books from self-publishing services companies. Before committing, buy one of their titles and check it out, or send it to a publishing-savvy friend who can help you make a sensible judgement.
Your best defence? The Alliance of Independent Authors Choosing a Self-Publishing Service will tell you the ins and outs.
Readers and communities
Obviously traditional imprints score here because they have kudos and reputation.
And the publishing services companies on my friend’s list were attempting to address this. They emphasised that they were attached to reader communities, or wrote persuasively about how they were in the process of building them.
This sounds good, and let’s assume they are genuinely putting resources in. But communities take years to establish, plus a number of these publishers seemed to be relying on their writers to spread the word. We all learn pretty quickly that we need to reach readers, not other bunches of writers. And if a community is in its infancy, you might be better buying advert spots on email lists such as Bookbub or The Fussy Librarian, depending on your genre.
Some of these companies may give you no advantage over doing it yourself. You might be in exactly the same position as if you put your book on Createspace and KDP and write a description that will take best advantage of Amazon search algorithms.
As a novice author, you might not realise how unmysterious these basics are. So don’t make any decisions without reading this post of mine – before you spend money on self-publishing services…. And try this from author collective Triskele Books: The Triskele Trail.
Wait for the agent… part 2
Basically, if you get a proper publishing offer, you don’t pay for any of the book preparation – that includes editing, formatting, cover etc. Which leads me to my correspondent’s final question about editing. This is one of the things a publisher should do! You only need the likes of me if a) an agent says you need to work with an editor to hone your manuscript or craft or b) if you intend to self-publish!
Do you have any advice to add about assessing offers from publishers or publishing service providers? Or cautionary tales? Please don’t name any names or give identifiable details as it may get legally tricky …
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Just a brief post as we all duck away for a thorough Christmassing. Lifeform Three is now up and alive on the Amazons and Smashwords. I’ve loaded it on Kobo and it should shortly be appearing there. Print proofs are in transit from CreateSpace, so in January I hope to have the feelable, giftable, signable, alphabeticisable, filable, decorative version … (Can you tell I prefer print books at heart? Our house hardly needs walls. It has bookshelves.)
I’m still trying to work out which Amazon categories would suit it best. If you pick your categories cleverly you maximise your chances of being seen by casual browsers. In one respect Lifeform Three is science fiction, but early reviewers are making comparisons with Ray Bradbury, Margaret Atwood and Kazuo Ishiguro – all very lovely, but it’s not what most people imagine by the term SF. It’s now possible to fine-tune your book’s categories on KDP by inputting keywords in your descriptive tags, so I’m going to be doing some experimenting in the next few weeks. In case you’re interested, here’s a handy link with a full list of those magic words that could get you wider exposure.
And Lifeform Three now has a website – an online home I can put on my Moo cards (also on the to-do list). At the moment it’s a mere page but I’ll be adding to it. So if my remarks about misty woods, whispering memories and lost doors have got you curious about the story, seek the synopsis on its website or at Amazon.
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All the scribbling world is going indie. New, unpublished writers are, to establish themselves – even if they’re agented. And experienced, well-regarded authors are leaving their imprints – either being dropped or deciding to seek a better way to release their work.
While publishers are probably not short of new material, we know they watch the indie scene to see who does well. At the moment they pounce on the Hocking and Howey high fliers, but in a few years’ time they’ll have a different breed of writer to consider: the well established indie with a clutch of books and a growing audience. The kind of author who used to make up the midlist. I’m wondering, what deals would they offer?
For most of us it’s unlikely to be bidding wars. But one thing’s sure. It’s really going to test the industry because it can’t be a standard midlist deal. Most indie authors will have outgrown that.
Help with production
How much production help will a competent self-publishing author need? Of course, some writers loathe production and will be glad to hand it over. Others, though, relish the control (like yours truly) or will have it so smoothly managed that they’d rather hire the help themselves than hand over a bigger share to have it arranged.
A publisher might be able to offer an economy of scale – although they have often cut staff so much they are using the same freelances who are hired by indies.
Here’s an added complication. The book needs to look professional. How would a deal legislate for a situation where a writer’s production values look like a home haircut? Spin it the other way: what would stop a publisher vetoing an outside editor to keep the work themselves and accrue extra percentage points?
I’ve already made this more complex than I imagined. Suffice it to say: production costs will become a negotiation point.
Help with promotion and marketing
I’m guessing that one of the prime reasons for partnering with a publisher is to gain kudos, exposure and credibility in places we can’t reach by ourselves.
We all know that if a publisher pulls out all the stops they can make a huge difference to a book’s fortunes. But most of the time (ie if they haven’t paid big bucks for the author), they can’t afford to.
What most non-starry authors get is a few mentions in the national press. That can certainly send an indie author reeling with delight. But does it sell copies? The evidence is that it doesn’t. Most books don’t sell unless you keep them constantly on readers’ radar. A splash in the press is short term. Indie authors know they have to keep a sustained campaign of advertising and promoting. The midlist author launch package is little more substantial than a token cork-pop at the book’s birth. It won’t keep the book alive, month in, month out.
There’s worse. At the moment, when you sign a deal, publishers are often secretive or vague about what marketing they will do. They’re used to the writers being so overawed that they never have to explain what exactly will happen or how brief the publicity flare will be.
Indeed, it’s shocking how meagre a publisher’s marketing plan might be. One writer I know was asked for a list of blogs the publisher could contact to run posts about the books. Up until then, the writer had believed the publisher would use their own special contacts, not people the writer already knew about. Another author friend, after two successful books, was sent on a social media course. He learned nothing he couldn’t have gleaned from reading a few blogs.
However, many of my writer friends are excited about the Amazon imprints – even authors who feel they’re finished with traditional publishing. Why? Because Amazon have developed and honed an amazing machine for finding readers. What’s more, the algorithms can work long term with emails and targeted deals. That’s the kind of help we would all take seriously.
I haven’t even mentioned ebooks. As ebook formatting is one of the simplest things for an author to do or source, few of us will need help to make them. Where will a publisher add value? Publicity? The trouble is, their publicity machine is still wedded to print territories, whereas indies are already marketing on the, ahem, wordwide web. Perhaps publishers will start to think globally. Or perhaps ebooks will be left out of publishing deals with indies, as those markets may already be well served.
Getting copies into bookshops is one area where indies struggle – and traditional publishers are acknowledged masters. However, go into your local Waterstones or B&N and you’ll be bewildered by the acres of book spines. What’s the likelihood of someone finding your book by chance, even if it’s there? Except for prominent displays (which aren’t given to every author), publicity is what makes readers pick up a book or ask for it to be ordered – and indies can already get onto the wholesale lists at very little cost. We don’t even need to buy the ISBN. So it is my contention that well targeted, long-term publicity is more significant to an author than distribution to a lot of shops. Do feel free to disagree.
Help with development
It probably seems cockeyed to consider this last. We can’t deny that editors can add a vital nurturing influence. Although successful indie authors will already have their infrastructure for making a book good, few of us would dismiss the chance to do it better. Or am I dreaming?
At the moment a publishing deal is like a fixed-price menu. But the authors of the future will be savvy about publishing. They’ll look for equitable arrangements and publishers will have to be flexible for each situation. A la carte.
Publishers will also need to be more transparent. Right now the culture is to keep the author in the dark. A business relationship can’t be vague like that.
Ultimately a fair deal will take account of what each side puts in. Who, in a publisher, is equipped to strike a fair deal with the entrepreneurial author or their agent? The editors? They know about nurturing content, being its shepherd and handling production. But they aren’t skilled in converting this into workable contract terms and profit shares. And why should they be? That’s like expecting your plumber to be able to fix your computer. The other option is the contracts department. But they’re in a legal ivory tower, away from authors and the realities of book production or selling. It’s as if we need a new kind of job in publishers – a professional who can grapple with all of this.
UPDATE: To be fair, many editors do recognise the need for change. But they don’t necessarily have the skills, systems or company culture to reinvent their relationships with authors. They’ve usually got enough to do keeping up with their publishing schedule – having managed an editorial department I know the realities of getting books out, and how diktats often come from lofty management levels that are impossible to fulfil while making the daily deadlines. So this kind of change is going to take time.
One thing’s for sure. The current standard publishing deal isn’t going to cut it.
Thanks for the dream team pic Permanently Scatterbrained
Let’s discuss this brave new world. Do you self-publish? If a publisher came calling, what would you appreciate help with? What do you want to handle yourself? What do you think would make you attractive to a publisher in return for their help?
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So why did I change?
First of all, I wanted to funk it up. Give it a chance to pop. The purple cover didn’t scream ‘creativity’ and was rather more staid than the tone of the book. (A point that was echoed by a few commenters here and there. Glad we feel the same, guys!)
Also, the original cover wasn’t designed with a series in mind. For books 2, 3 et al I could have varied the background colour and the wording, but the difference would have been practically invisible on a black and white ereader. And see my previous remarks about dullness. Dull, dull, dull.
This tied me in a few creative knots when I designed the characters book. It had to look like it evolved from NYN original, and allow for distinctive variations with further books. And then – something that nobody knew but me – the characters book and its cousins also had to fit retroactively with the updated design.
So… the new NYN cover had to look like the origin book, rather than another book in the series. For a while I fiddled with graphics that would suggest ‘writing’ and ‘drafting’, but decided that might look like another new book. In the end I stuck with typography, to echo the original cover’s use of quotes from the text. This gives it the best chance of being recognised as the original book, but still look like a snazzy reboot.
Big tip for updating a cover on CreateSpace
When you update a cover (or the book’s interior) on CreateSpace, the book becomes unavailable until you approve it, although it’s still available from third-party sellers. It spends 12-24 hours being processed, then they allow you to proof on screen or order a print proof.
Obviously you don’t want your book off sale. so you want this completed swiftly. With a major change like a new cover, you need to see it in print; with colour processes, trimming and so on I think it’s too risky to okay a new cover on a digital proof only. But the fastest you can get a proof to your door is a couple of days, and you’ll pay a big whack for the postage. But if you don’t mind how long the proof takes to arrive (up to six weeks) it will cost only a few dollars.
Your book off sale for six weeks? (Sound of screaming.) Here’s my solution. Make a dummy book.
In my previous post, Catherine Ryan Howard advised you not to make a new edition when updating a book. I agree with her. But this dummy edition will not go on sale. You’ll use it to do the fine tuning, then transfer the files when you know they work.
You need to set it up with a new ISBN – but that doesn’t matter because you can use a free CS one. But you upload the new cover on that and order a copy. While it wends its sweet way to you via China and the International Space Station, the real book sits undisturbed and available. Once you’ve seen physical proof and are happy, you know you can upload the new cover in safety.
So… this means I have a special thingy to give away: the dummy book. I decided to have fun with it. Instead of loading it with the interior of the proper book, I created a notebook (which in my CS dashboard I called the Nail Your Novel Notebook of Surprises). The pages are numbered but blank, so you can scribble your ideas and workings but keep track of them with an index. And the surprise? Every 10 pages or so is a writing tip.
There’s only one, so this is an ultra-limited edition. It won’t be on sale as I can’t imagine anyone wanting to actually buy the thing, but it’s fun to be able to give it away. I’ll also throw in a copy of the original book with its old cover, for you to use or to pass on to a friend.
What do you have to do?
Share this post about my new cover, come back here and let me know you have, and I’ll hold a draw on Monday 8th July. One entry per place shared – so you get multiple goes if you spread the news on Twitter, Facebook, G+ or even the International Space Station. Just remember to note here if you shared on multiple platforms.
Oh, and you can find the new Nail Your Novel, with extra cover va-va-voom, on print and ebook outlets now
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Book marketing, self-publishing – and should you seek a publisher? All the fun of the London Book Fair 2013
Last week I was one of Kobo’s writers in residence at the London Book Fair. Several of the questions I was asked reminded me that every day, writers are trying to grasp this new publishing world. I thought it might be helpful to post their FAQs.
Should I post samples of my book on my blog to tempt people to buy?
You could, but you don’t need to. The ebook stores offer a sample of the beginning before readers buy. Here are two other things I do.
- I use the eye-catching animated widget from Bookbuzzr (here’s Nail Your Novel).
- I also have an audio file of the first 4 chapters of my novel – 35 minutes of listening, perfect for a commute. It’s either downloadable (hosted as a file in Google Docs) or there’s an immediate-play version on Soundcloud.
Should I make a print edition?
If you’re going to meet readers in real life, yes. For my talk, I’d brought along print copies. When I pulled them out of my bag, the reaction was immediate and adoring, as if they were fluffy kittens. Even from the Kobo staff. People picked the books up, flicked through the pages, stroked the spine, read the back (spine and back covers are as important as front). I was amazed, actually, at how much impact a print edition makes.
I have a post here about interior formatting, but it’s quite a faff if you’re not used to it. Which leads me to…
If your book is traditionally published, the publisher does a lot of jobs you’re probably not aware of. Developmental editing, copy editing, proofing, design of cover and interior, typesetting and ebook formatting. It’s a growing business to offer these services to indie authors, so The Alliance of Independent Authors has released Choosing a Self-Publishing Service 2013, with testimonials and warnings where necessary. Before you part with any money, get this book.
What can I do to market my book?
The guys at the KDP stand reported that this year’s number one question was ‘why isn’t my book selling’? (Some writers were ruder than that. I saw a furious lady collar an Amazonian and growl: ‘I have five books on KDP, what are you going to do about selling them?’. If Amazon starts offering marketing services, don’t wail that they’re evil. They get asked about it day in, day out. And it’s very unfair to blame them for it. They just give you the space to use.)
Amazon had some sensible replies: get a stand-out cover, choose categories wisely, write a cracking blurb, get honest reviews, generate curiosity about your work. And (the representative said this with an embarrassed cough): make sure the book is good.
More on marketing
Kobo’s Mark Lefebvre (on Twitter as @MarkLeslie) gave a rousing presentation on writers connecting with readers. One method was ‘street teams’. Remember The Tufty Club? These days, post-Tufty writers are inviting fans to join dedicated sites and giving away special editions, tie-in jewellery, bags and temporary tattoos. If it fits your genre (I can’t quite imagine a red piano tattoo myself) you could make up a few as competition giveaways.
Another tactic Mark described was authors who band together as a bigger presence. Group blogs in a genre such as Crime Fiction Collective, author collectives (such as Triskele Books and Authors Electric) curated collections such as the League of Extraordinary Authors). And of course there are themed blogs like my Undercover Soundtrack.
One of the takeaways is that marketing isn’t one-shot. It’s about staying visible, steadily and sustainably. As with the editorial and production services, there are a lot of marketing companies who’ll take authors’ money for campaigns, but you don’t have to do that. You don’t need a big budget to keep your work on the radar, you just need imagination and likeminded souls. Paid advertising and publicity has its place but there’s a lot you can do yourself.
Let readers pre-order your book
Did you know Kobo lets you create a page for pre-orders? I didn’t. Why would you do this? Because when the book launches, you then get a big spike of sales because they all process on the same day. This pushes you further up the charts and makes you more visible in the Kobo store. Now, if I can just get my blurb written for Nail Your Novel: Bring Characters to Life…
BTW I changed my Twitter name
If you follow my writing advice stream you might have noticed I changed my handle from @DirtyWhiteCandy to @NailYourNovel. @DirtyWhiteCandy was the original name of my blog. I kept it as my Twitter name because I liked its bossy vibe, but as the years go on, fewer people would know (or care) where it came from and if people are looking for writing advice they’d be more likely to follow a tweep called @NailYourNovel. These days, indie author-publishers are looking smart and slick, rather than roguishly maverick. So, much as I liked the @DirtyWhiteCandy story and sass, it has to go.
FAQ: Should I submit to publishers and agents or should I self-publish?
Hmm. Sound of teeth being sucked. Look back over this post and you’ll see the amount of work involved in publishing. You don’t just write a book, upload and hope the fairies tell the world. You need expert help to create it and you need partners to spread the word. Publishers and agents can be your allies if the deal is right.
One of the highlights for many was the heaving turnout at the Author Lounge in the digital quarter. Every author event was swarming with eager listeners. Authors report overhearing agents muttering about tumbleweed blowing through the foreign rights section, while on the upstart digital stands, all was abuzz.
But don’t be misled. In our own corner authors were calling the shots, but the rest of the conference told a different story.
1: Neil Gaiman
On the Sunday before the main fair, there was the Digital Minds Conference. The keynote speech was given by Neil Gaiman. I have to wonder what the delegates were meant to learn from him about digital media.
LBF’s press releases made much of the fact that he blogs and has a lot of Twitter followers. But, my friends, that’s because he was traditionally published. The publishers may have lauded themselves for inviting an author to tell them the way ahead, but they chose one who reinforces their faith in the old model. Even in his struggling years, Gaiman wasn’t like most new authors, writing books on spec while having another job. He was a contractor at DC Comics, getting paid while he made the work that made his name. In fact, why didn’t they ask JK Rowling, who famously lived hand to mouth while writing?
Better still, their figurehead could have been a bestselling indie author who made their success purely from publishing’s new digital tools. Hugh Howey, anybody? Instead they had Gaiman comparing publishing with a dandelion, throwing seeds out haphazardly and seeing what works.
2: Ahem – monstrous storytelling
Elsewhere at the Fair, the authors weren’t getting much credit. I went to the session on digital storytelling. This featured a panel of publishers and developers, but no actual storytellers – the authors.
One of the panel members, Henry Volans of Faber Digital, wrote an accompanying piece for the Bookseller, in which he mentioned Dave’s Frankenstein app. He credited it to the publisher, Profile Books, and the developer, Inkle. He never mentioned Dave, the author. Now, forgive the personal bias but I hope you’ll see it illustrates a wider point. Dave had the entire idea. He pitched it to Profile, figured out how to make it work, reenvisioned and expanded the entire novel to the tune of 150,000 words. (Here are his posts in case you’re curious: part 1, 2 and 3.) The developer (Inkle) was hired by the publisher to add software and graphics. The reader’s experience comes mainly from the writing, not the pictures or the machinery.
After yet another pundit wrote about Frankenstein and gave all the credit to Profile and the developer, Dave quipped on Twitter: ‘I very much enjoy Amazon’s Wool and Bloomsbury’s Harry Potter.’
Back to the Book Fair
Just two examples, but they betray a general attitude. In an era of revolutions, who gives publishers hope? Somebody who’s conquered the new world? No, a lovable demi-god of the old one. Who might tell them what new products the book might evolve into? The people who understand readers so well they can push the artform onwards? No, the middle men.
Authors still aren’t seen as significant contributors to the industry. And this is reflected in the deals publishers offer. They know you’re far more heavily invested in your book than they are and they’ll take unforgivable advantage. They’ll word the contract with woolly clauses that say ‘at our discretion’ and ‘in our opinion’, which mean they can do whatever they like with your rights and your manuscript. They’ll help you with the launch for a couple of weeks, after which you’ll be as alone as if you’d self-published, only you’ll make even less money. Leaving aside the emotional attachment, they have no idea that the work you put in on the average book probably amounts to two man years, and their contribution is a few man months.
Just tell me, should I seek a publisher?
I still think if you’re new to the industry you should query, because you never know what opportunities you might find. You might get feedback that helps you make the book better, or confirms you’re ready to reach out to the market in whatever way suits you.
An agent is probably more help to you at the moment than a publisher. Even if they don’t get you a deal, it’s a contact in the industry, should you need it. But also consider the agent’s motivation. They’re not risk-takers or talent-nurturers. They want you to make a deal, otherwise they don’t get paid. You might get an offer that looks like quite a lot of money, but it might be all you see and the terms might be punitive.
Publishers at the moment don’t seem to be worth the bother. Smart authors can do better for themselves, but this can’t continue. For a while, publishers will bluster on, trying to keep things the way they are. But in a few years’ time, they might be offering true partnerships and fair, transparent deals.
Bottom line? Explore all your options. Treat publishers like any other partnership or service you might use. Evaluate what they will do for you and what you will give them. Self-publishing offers you a powerful walk-away point, which you can use as a bargaining chip even if you want a traditional deal.
Thanks to everyone who dropped in to see me at LBF! If this post hasn’t bludgeoned you with options and confusion, is there anything else you’d like to ask about publishing?
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I post 4 to 5 useful writing links per day… and other stuffMy Tweets
- ‘Hidden forms that tell a story’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Stephen Weinstock November 19, 2014
- I name this book… tips for choosing a good title November 16, 2014
- ‘Each morning, there was a chapter to listen to’ – guest post at Jane Davis’s blog on making audiobooks with ACX November 13, 2014
- ‘Spurred by the song’s rhythm, my typing fingers flew’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, Dianne Greenlay November 12, 2014
- A good editor helps you to be yourself November 9, 2014
- ‘A lyric, a tune fragment, a thrilling chord run’ – The Undercover Soundtrack, JW Hicks November 5, 2014
- Something wicked this way comes: plot book ready soon November 2, 2014
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