Thunderbird Studios Now Live

thunderbird-bg_04You may have noticed my drop of output here. That’s because I’ve divided my personal blog from all semi-professional efforts like reviews and articles. Where have they gone?

Thunderbird Studios.

I’ve been dreaming about this for a few years now. Growing frustrated with the small press market, I wanted to do something bigger, something greater. But I also realized that we don’t need another company pumping out half a dozen titles a year. They needed more of a marketing answer.

I highly recommend you follow Thunderbird on Twitter or Facebook. If you’re a reader, check out the interviews and expect more in the next few months, or take a gander at the various reviews to look into something you like. And if you’re a writer, keep an eye out for the upcoming submissions window.

But yeah, I’m not giving up the blog just yet. But it would just be for my personal thoughts or the occasional book announcements these days.

LitOps: Authorial Cross-Discipline

Outliers Primer Cover

Announcement: Join our Facebook event for the launch of our free chapbook set in the Outliers universe, available September 6th!

This post is about writing. Just bear with me a moment…

In 1776, a Scotsman by the name of Adam Smith published a book entitled The Wealth of Nations. As his work defined early capitalism, one of his largest concerns was how labor (particularly manufacturing-based) risked learning skills and tasks that were too specialized to acknowledge the greater whole of the process.

Fast forward to 2016 and in some fields we have the exact opposite problem: we’re asked to do almost too much.

If you ask me about my day job, my usual response is that I’m a developer. In truth, the term for my field is DevOps (Development Operations), a cross-discipline that consists of various kinds of programming, networking, and database administrations. I create interactive webpages, set up the end points that they pass on their way to the databases, plural. Sometimes I triage network or server performance issues, sometimes I connect to remote servers for deployments. Name just about any technical difficulty and I’ve either dealt with it or were somehow involved in the resolution thereof. Being a developer these days involves a great deal of skills and knowledge.

Being a litterateur (writer) is rather similar.

I suppose you can call it LitOps, literary operations. But whether it’s a truly self-published author or an independent press trying to get booted, there are many hats to wear. Aside from writing and editing manuscripts, there’s formatting (more complex these days due to print versus e-reader files such as mobi, pdf and epub). There’s cover art, which not only includes the illustrated or graphic front but measurements for the spine and the back cover. And all of this grows more complex with any experimental introductions, such as adding illustrations or e-book linking.

I’ve never tried a “choose your own adventure” book with hyperlinks but I suspect that would be technically interesting…

Outside of production there’s marketing; setting up promotions, contacting critics for reviews, author signings, online advertising and anything else that can influence readers. Sales can be automated online, but at conventions there is a need to ship or transport the goods, prepare the table, handle direct sales, and then break all that down after. And then there’s managing public relations. Aside from face-to-face, people often ask questions on Facebook or Twitter and they’re probably going to want to be answered in a professional manner.

And there’s even a legal side. At its simplest, a publisher has to deal with the terms of service with his/her distributors. If publishing third parties, there has to be written agreements regarding how rights and royalties are handled. If you work with other creators, there are franchise agreements too. I’ve signed and worked on franchised works include Stoic Studio’s The Banner Saga game series (The Gift of Hadrborg‘s print version is coming soon) and now my company’s forthcoming Outliers universe.

I suspect that if you’re an up-and-coming writer, you’re probably reading all this and saying “No, no I don’t want to deal with any of this!” Well, the old ways aren’t dead. There are still the successful and established publishing companies out there that can afford to have its employees and contractors specialize. A friend of mine mentioned how great it is to work for one of these: all he does is write and answer questions regarding editing, and occasionally attend a few signings.

But the hard truth is that many of those established, profitable publishers truly want established, profitable authors. Sometimes an author will “make it,” and get paid a professional’s salary. But unless they keep at it and find their audience, there’s little staying power. How often does a short story ever take a person to the top?  How often is an author’s debut novel the pinnacle of their bibliography? Examples exist, but it’s like that one school kid who becomes a professional athlete; exceedingly rare compared to the size of the field.

Learn. Grow. Expand. We all want to write, but never be afraid of kaizen. Sometimes that means doing things you don’t want to do, but someone has to. And no one is going to care more about your work than you. Learn the business, because knowing is powerful in its own right.

This is what it means to be an author these days.  And it is better to embrace the change until it affords one a better opportunity than to assume that the opportunity is ever coming.

Ginger Nuts, Specters and TPS Reports

“In a way, we were robbed thrice.”

Earlier today, the review site The Ginger Nuts of Horror released an update regarding the situation at Spectral Press. As usual, I advise anyone of interest (particularly fellow writers) to read the original post before continuing with my observations on the matter.

But for those who just need a recap, Spectral Press has declared itself in financial straits. Owner Simon Marshall-Jones also mentioned health problems, to which I wish him health and speedy recovery. But with regard to the former issue, The Ginger Nuts of Horror will be altering its policies.

  1. They will no longer review works that offer only exposure.
  2. They will firmly vet small press publishers to prevent abuse.
  3. They have shown concerns regarding fair payment.

I applaud points one and two with alacrity. The third point I’d like to discuss because of vagueness in need of redress. Particularly on the subject of the token payment system (ah yes, TPS reports) and business growth.

My friends and I have all made erroneous steps once or twice in the (mine)field of the small press industry; tiny businesses who exist thanks to the ease of Amazon’s print-on-demand and eBook publishing services. We know better than to submit for “exposure.” And any publisher who too readily accepts our work likely has a quality problem. Despite our cautions, we still made mistakes.

print pressWe have been victim of at least one publishing company who failed to make the promised royalty payments when it formally closed its doors. Not only did they fail to deliver the meager earnings owed, but the returned stories could not be published anywhere without the less valuable “reprint” status.

These stories were some of our best work too, now reduced in value. And worse, because these anthologies were on-and-off the market in a mere four months, even the promised exposure failed to really materialize.

In a way, we were robbed thrice.

It’s nothing new however. The problem of troubled publishers failing to pay their authors is far older than Amazon. Even legends like Robert E. Howard suffered. When the author died in 1936, Weird Tales still owed him at least $800. Adjusted for inflation, that’s around $13,800 by today’s standard. A serious chunk of change.

In an ideal world, we would be paid the professional rate of $.05 a word, at the very least. But as book sales drive compensation, it’s not uncommon to settle for something less if only to get both companies’ and authors’ feet in the door. As I read and reread The Ginger Nuts’ statement, I began to wonder what and how they defined fair payment.

Payments from small press generally come in two forms: royalties and token, both with boons and burdens.

Royalties cost the company little up front, as they instead divide and deliver percentages of the sales to the authors for as long as the book remains on the market. If the book does well and the percentages fair, the authors will probably make better than a token payment. For the companies, royalties also encourage authors to get out there and sell the books direct, as they have an on-going incentive. The downsides? Royalties can be nil if the book doesn’t sell, and the author and company could end with nothing. Plus, royalties have to be paid periodically.

Token payments come with a whole different set of pros and cons, an upfront payment for temporary publishing rights. The downside is that it’s an upfront cost to the company, while the authors gain the benefit of immediate pay. The authors have less incentive to promote their work– they’ve already been paid. On the flip side, once the book surmounts those costs, the company begins earning pure passive-profit that the authors never see.

commercial revolutionI can tell you from experience that capital-intensive token payments are much easier for all parties. After the Bolthole anthologies were released, I had to hound a couple of authors every few quarters, telling them to update their rejected PayPal contact information. Calculating totals wasn’t fun.

I also learned to set aside capital from my pocket to pay authors as on-time as possible– PayPal can have delays three to five day long when transferring funds. Geez. I almost forgot I have to do that this week for Far Worlds.

But I digress.

Still, there is a potential problem with the token payment system. When a publisher is young, a low token payment is probably fine– If authors don’t like it, they shouldn’t submit. But persistently low payments are telling. If a publisher opens in 2012 and offers $10 for short stories, and in 2016 they’re still offering only $10 for submissions, then either:

  • A) Check with the prior authors and see if they’ve been paid. If they haven’t been, there’s a good chance the publisher is hoping the next release will be a strong enough ROI to cover all debts. In which case, don’t trust them.
  • B) The publisher is barely breaking even, which is neither good nor damning.
  • C) The publisher is making bank from the difference of cost against profit.

A is the worst case scenario. Obviously an author shouldn’t submit to them, as the publisher is outright gambling that book sales will turn around their situation. B (if you can prove it) is not great either, and should lead authors to question the publisher’s direction.

But of these options, C is the most complicated. It means that the publisher is actually growing, but is milking the situation instead of upping payments for the benefit of their authors. Admittedly, publishers need capital to grow; to pay for site improvements and better art, to launch bigger projects and so forth. Yet they’re not helping their authors grow with them. If evidence suggests C, quality authors could and should go elsewhere.

How do you prove B versus C? Well, it would help if publishers were more forthright about their sales data. If not, you can try to make estimates against the book’s sales rankings on Amazon. You can also watch their website. Did they suddenly get way better looking banners and artwork? Are they obtaining costly features and plugins? Did they just procure an author you’ve actually heard of for a novel?

But before you jump to conclusions, dig deeper. Make sure that one of their staff isn’t an experienced web developer or artist. Or that they weren’t already friends with the author long before the company came into existence. Or perhaps they’re infusing their own, private money into improvements (in which case, they’re bloody awesome). If they’re using available resources and skills to get out of option B, you can’t blame them.

But if you are one of those C optioned publishers reading this, I’d advise you to raise your rates. If your response is that it’s a hobby and not a business… well, you’re going to have a bad time. Because for authors and writers out there, it is a business. It’s our business.

Treat it with respect or walk on. 

The Face of the Future

Nothing is really going on, and that’s a good thing.

The last three weekends I had have been entirely absorbed by other events. The latest was a trip to Miami Beach. Although relaxing, my inner introvert badly needs time away from people. I desperately want to think, ponder and create.

I completely missed my last submission window. Again. The story is there and the development and pacing thus far are good. However, I decided to give up when I realized how cramped a 6,000 word limit was going to be. Normally, one can speak to editors and so on to go beyond this limit… provided the tale is spellbinding and there’s no expectation of pay beyond the word count maximum. But there was so little time to await an answer. And I had gone through 3,500 words just to ready the complexities of the main plot.

The next few months have a few projects:

  • Finish writing and editing all existing drafts to “stay hot” and keep a collection ready for future submission windows.
  • Continue to develop the business website and get it operational by the turn of the year.
  • Finish Outliers Volume 2.
  • Complete the synopsis and first chapters for the next novel, an original.
  • Begin preparing the KickStarter package.

Yeah, you read that last one correctly.

A friend and I have been discussing it. I’ve been studying successful KickStarters and have a good sense of what we’ll need to present in order to succeed. The secret I’ve noticed is that the amount of effort put into the KickStarter itself is frequently a good indication of the project runner’s commitment to the project.

A lot of thought has to go into devising a good KickStarter. The project itself has to show initiative and polish. The reward tiers have to be fair to both parties; not too little as to disappoint potential funders and not too much as to overburden the project runners and put the project at risk. We have to have a voice and a good idea, and our ship should be waterproof before hitting the ocean.

One point that a friend of mine has indicated is that many successful KickStarters are actually, effectively, finished. Manuel and I have been in discussion of what to do for this and decided to try producing at least one example of the end product before showcasing the project. Having a “prototype” can:

  1. Prove whether or not we can do it. And whichever tools could we use to speed up or make it possible.
  2. Show how long it took to make a single prototype under less-than-optimal conditions (we’ve never done this particular type of work before, we had no outside funding, etc.)
  3. Alleviate concerns raised about our experience for a KickStarter. When project runners explain, “This is all new to us,” it doesn’t instill confidence in backers. But a combination of relate-able and direct experience will ease backer concerns even if this is our first KickStarter.

After some discussion today, we have the general story outline down for the first portion. So sometime soon I’ll sit down and work on the actual manuscript.

Open Source Thinking: Author Pay Rates

The Good Fight

Super Hero Monster Hunter: The Good Fight from Emby Press is now available in print as well as for Kindle. Check it out for several amazing stories by yours truly and many other great authors! It’s the start of something big.

So in light of the post yesterday, I’ve been thinking some about how much we would be paying our authors for their work. But I’ve been thinking more and more about the slog to earn our stripes as a professional publishing company.

As I’ve noted before, being a professional author is harder than ever. And the joy and joke is that publishers need to pay off their starting cost debts and return to black on top of the need for authors to get paid. Granted, the debt isn’t much to surmount and people often supplement themselves with another career.

But let’s do some quick math here. E-books typically sell for either 35% or 70% royalties. Some may rush to point out the changes to Amazon’s royalties, but I would counter that it only applies to Kindle Unlimited and Lending Library. For the sake of argument, let’s say that the listed price is $5. Thus, at best we’re earning $3.50 and at worst, $1.75, and none of this includes printed royalties.

On the costs side, let’s focus strictly on what we’re paying the authors. In the past, the anthologies we’ve released have used pure profit sharing. This “nonprofit” (no entity keeps the money, just the creators) approach gave authors incentive to keep pushing the book after the release, and we had no real start up costs to worry about— we used the “free” ISBN from Amazon, and everything worked via a private contract rather than officially starting a company. There was no reason to preserve income because the project was never in the red.

This time around, we would have a minor debt to pay off and need additional capital to grow.

If you’re not willing to pay your authors what they’re worth, someone else will.

The usual approach for small press publishers is to compensate authors with token payments, exposure and a free copy of the book. Overall, not a bad package in lieu of professional pay for a fledgling writer. Let’s say that a publisher pays its authors $15 per a short story. A twelve story anthology costs $180 for the authors alone. And this doesn’t include cover art or editing (for which the business owners will probably be responsible.) If the sales are fifty-fifty on the 70% versus 35% royalty rates, that’s around $2.62 per sold copy.

That means to cover the authors alone, the book has to sell 69 copies. If you optimistically sell just 70% royalty stories, you can actually earn that cost back in 48 sold copies. If just the 35% rate, 103 copies.

So that is the most basic model. Lower the price of the book and you’ll have to increase sales. It also doesn’t cover the cost of the cover art, which one can technically do if they use a public domain image (possibly acceptable) or no cover (not recommended.)

Now here’s the secret about artists. The average price of cover art is roughly $500. This is a stiff price to beat in the sales, but there’s actually some economic flexibility if people don’t mind paying for the difference in time.

DenariusExplained, a professional artist might have a back list of interested clients willing to pay $500 or more around the clock during the best of times. But on occasion, there maybe a lull in the number of demanding jobs, during which time it makes sense for an artist to take a lesser paying job as long as there is a very distant deadline and a patient customer.

So if you go to an artist and ask them, “I have a limited budget for this, but I’m also in no rush. Can we work out a lesser rate with expected delivery in 9 months? I understand if higher priority jobs come along in the mean time.”

And chances are, you can probably work something out depending on the artist’s schedule and professional philosophy. It helps if the artist is interested in the work you’re doing, because their muse needs inspiration too. But if you go rushing to them, exclaiming that you need this image and you need it now, now, now… well, have five Franklins ready at the very least. Because exposure doesn’t fill the pantry.

Which brings us back to the original point. Yeah, cover art will add more to the cost although as I said, there maybe room for some flexibility on that. Yet here’s what I suspect a lot of small press companies face: costs (should) inevitably grow.

Why are they growing? Well, the biggest reason would be author pay rates. If you find a good author who is willing to work for $15 a pop, they’ll probably be ecstatic to be published for the very first time. After a few more stories, they’ll start to wonder if maybe they could earn a bit more, so they start searching. Are their short stories worth $25? Yes, so what about $50? Sometimes? Can they get 1 cent a word? 2 cents? Always hunting for that professional rate of 5 cents a word.

At a 5,000 words pay cap at 5 cents a word, that same twelve story anthology suddenly costs $3,000. Chances are, that cover artist cut you a deal before because you were a small company. But if the authors are earning that kind of money, then the artist will probably want the average professional rate of $500. That means a game of professional ball costs you a minimum of $3,500. And there are bound to be additional costs I haven’t factored into the equation.

If you’re not willing to pay your authors what they’re worth, someone else will. If your readership base isn’t large enough to support higher rates, then your writers will start seeking a company who pays better and has a larger audience. If you’re not paying attention to the market, it’ll kick your ass.

A blog post I once read mentioned that large publishing companies seldom cultivate writers anymore. It took me less than a minute to realize why; major publishers really don’t need to, not when you have hundreds of small companies willing to gold pan for them. Even if the little guys don’t realize it until they back a winner who brings in the readers… and then gets poached.

It’s a ceiling that stops many small press companies. And something every publisher has to bust through to join the major leagues.

Sunlight on a New Day

Hopi_Tawa_MuralI’d say I’ve been thinking about starting a publishing company. But that would be an understatement.

The fact is, we (not I) have been doing more than just thinking about it. Yesterday I closed my eyes and opened them to a business plan, complete with a basic budget and a five year strategy. It had most of the essentials. LLC filing costs for tax considerations, policies, necessary tools we’ll need, growth ideas, purchasing of a round of ISBNs…

Although there is are initial costs to crest before we’re official, the plan covers the first round of critical questions. On some fronts, we’re not inexperienced in this, having gone through the process three times and figuring out the basics. But in other regards, we’re trailblazing. I’ve never set up a real company before. On the plus side, creating an LLC is cheap. There are tiered costs for converting it into stocks, and equity is an important consideration to maintain the nature of a startup company. But that’s something to visit another time.

For the moment, focus is on structuring our policies, mission statements and marketing considerations. We have a few ideas on that latter point. The biggest hurdle of any author is simply getting their name out there. A publishing company of reputable quality doesn’t take long to attract at least a small following of readers and interested parties. Last I checked, there are roughly half a million published writers in the United States alone. Writing good or even amazing material just isn’t enough to stand out.

Another factor we’ve been discussing is how much of our infrastructure we’re going to in-house. While there are some great services out there that I would strongly consider once we’re of a particular size, I want to handle as much as I can on my own and outsource as I realize that certain tasks are too complex or offer no real benefit to maintain. If I can in-house my own file management system with minimal problems, fantastic! If I’m blowing two or three hours a week dealing with an exploding mail server, I’ll probably just go with Google business emails.

Yeah, it sounds like a great deal of work. But we have a hotshot artist, an up-and-coming writer and a tech guy looking to automate aspects of the job. One could do worse. Yet nothing is happening until the royalty payments for Marching Time and Far Worlds are complete however. As eager as I am to get started, I need to wrap up the old business first.

Editor’s Gripes

“We are pushing our ourselves to do more.”

I sent an update email to the other editors. It included a spreadsheet with the status of all the stories, and a break down of everything we still had to do.

A lot of our tasks are dependent on previous things. For example, we can draft the table of contacts but we cannot finalize it until the authors have signed the contracts. Authors can easily change their mind in the last minute and its certainly their right to. Once we have their approval, we can finalize the table, which is the blueprint for organizing and formatting the book.

Thus it’s difficult to get a head start on a lot of the end-game aspects of publishing. Our challenge is magnified by the fact that we’re doing illustrations for the anthology too. The con is we can’t rush the art. It’s done when it’s done. But on the pro side, that time can also be spent getting advanced copies to reviewers. And there were a few other issues to deal with. Some marketing opportunities, contract writing. Andrew has to write the introductory letter.

There’s so much we’re doing that’s ground breaking for us personally. I am grateful that, at the very least, we are pushing our ourselves to do more. To try new things and grow, and not be stuck in the complacency of the same thing as the last two anthologies.

But there comes a time one needs a break from it.

I am managing the finances for three separate anthologies. And although one of which comes to an end this year, I want to avoid the potential of grave errors. Once the slate is cleared, I might do a new anthology. It won’t be involved with the Bolthole however.

Anyone who fancies themselves a writer, try it. Try editing. Put together an amateur anthology, learn from it. Discover your mistakes, figure out what sells. You’ll learn so much. Even if you find out it’s not your thing, you’ll walk away from it with improved writing skills and understanding of the business.

You have to get out there. You have to make business if there isn’t any. You can try forever and face a wall of preformatted rejections, or you can find out yourself what sells and what doesn’t.