Mountains to Sea Festival 2012

For the first time, the wonderful Mountains to Sea Festival will be holding an independent publishing panel (or self-publishing, as I prefer to call it; if we call ourselves independent publishers then what will independent publishing houses call themselves, eh?), and I’m on it, along with Arlene Hunt and Adrian White. Vanessa O’Loughlin of Writing.ie will be chairing the “full and frank discussion” on Saturday September 8th, and it should be a great event. I’m really looking forward to it and I hope that if you’re in the area, you can make it.

The Mountains to Sea Festival has a jam-packed program of author events, workshops and discussions that have me tempted to relocate to Dun Laoghaire for the week to see how many of them I can attend. The full program is available on their website, along with booking information.

See Catherine’s News page for more upcoming events, or sign up to her newsletter to get random and sporadic notice of same.

Low E-book Pricing: The Compensation Problem

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[UPDATE: In light of Sockpuppetgate, I feel I should point out that this post is not about that, and concede that indeed, the reported verbal abuse at the event mentioned below might not have had anything to do with the price of anyone’s e-books but with an admission of faking online personas to help sell one’s book. Please keep in mind that this post is NOT about sock puppetry, although I will say it’s a ridiculous and unethical practice that I don’t condone.]

If you haven’t already heard, there was a bit of an incident at the Harrogate Crime Festival last week. During a panel discussion called Wanted for Murder: The E-book (for anyone surprised at what happened, shouldn’t that title have been your first clue?) bestselling crime writers Mark Billingham and Laura Lippman, seated in the audience, got into a bit of a heated debate with the panelists, one of whom was mega-selling cheap e-book author Stephen Leather.

There were accusations that authors who sold their e-books cheaply were devaluing books in general by selling theirs for less than “half the price of a cup of tea.” At one point Leather was even called a “tosser” which is kind of disappointing for a room full of what we presume must have been thinking bookish types—disappointing in the sense that someone resorted to that sort of scabby teenage boy behavior, but also that “tosser” was the best they could come up with.

I mean, really?

You can read about what happened here.

Now personally I think that it’s very easy to say books are being devalued by cheap e-books when you’re a New York Times bestselling author (if you’re a nobody with no credibility, e.g. me, you have to sell your books cheaply in order to win readers), and the only people adversely affected by this—if anyone is—are the Six-Figure Advance Gang who might not be getting such large deals anymore, and actually I’d guess that more authors than ever, both traditionally published and self-published, are earning money from their writing in this new publishing world, and earning more of it, and anyway why are we all worried when it’s extremely unlikely that the purchaser of every 99c Stephen Leather release is buying them instead of the one £25 Michael Connelly hardback he used to buy before? Can’t we see that it’s far more likely he either never bought that £25 hardback, or he’s still buying it too?

(Or at least paying £10 for the e-book, which is perfectly reasonable.)

But I’m not getting into all that. It’s Monday, and there isn’t enough coffee in the world. What I want to talk about this morning is this exchange which reportedly took place during Harrogate’s heated debate.

Stephen Leather, talking about how even though his e-books are priced very low he still makes more money than he would under the terms of a traditional deal, said, “I will spend four days writing a 7,000 word short story and sell it online for 70p. That’s 20p for me.”

His fellow panelist, Ursula Mackenzie, then said, “So you’re happy to work for 5p a day?”—which apparently got a good laugh.

But Ursula couldn’t have it got it more wrong. She, like many self-published authors yet to come to their senses, seems to be suffering from what I call The Compensation Problem, or expecting each individual reader to compensate the writer for all the work that’s gone into the book.

It doesn’t work like that.

If Leather spends four days writing a short story and sells one copy of it for 70p, yes, he’s working for 5p a day. But unless the world stops turning on its axis or something, Leather won’t just sell one. He’ll sell thousands.

Lets say 10,000 in the first twelve months, for sake of argument, which is a very conservative estimate for him. At the end of the first year, his rate per day for the four days he spent writing that short story goes up to £500.

I’ll say that again.

If Leather spends four days writing a short story and sells it for 70p (therefore making 20p from each sale), by the time he reaches 10,000 copies sold which, being Leather and charging 70p, he could easily do, he’s being paid £500 a day to write short stories.

(And does anyone else feel like they’re back in school doing maths problems?!)

Furthermore, e-books never go out of print. So assuming that the short story continues to sell at the same rate, after two years, Leathers short-story-writing day rate goes up to £1,000. After five years, it’s £2,500. Get to ten years or 100,000 copies, and Leather’s short-story-writing day rate is a staggering £5,000.

That’s about €6,100 or $7,800. To write. Per day.

(To say nothing of the fact that this is a short story, something Leather’s publishers couldn’t feasibly sell in print at the same price, or at any price that would make producing a physical book a good idea.)

Now personally I don’t think anyone should be releasing anything they only spent four days writing, and I doubt I’ll ever charge anything less than $2.99 for my full-length books. But the point is that the money you earn from your writing is not a question of how much you make from individual sales of your work. It’s about how much that work makes in the long run, over time. And this is what you should consider when you price your book.

Time and time again self-publishers tell me they’re going to charge $9.99 for their book. “I don’t care what anyone says,” they say. “I spent a year writing this book and the reader will spend seven or eight hours reading it. It’s worth $9.99.”

Well yes, it might be worth $9.99, but it’s not going to sell at $9.99. I wish it would, but it just won’t. At least not as well as it would at a lower price. Self-publishers have to price their e-books low because we’re competing with books that have a lot more going for them (credibility, validation from publishing experts, expensive cover designs, etc.) than ours do. We do it so in the future we can charge more.

Free and discounted books is not confined to the self-publishing world, or even e-books. Quercus famously distributed free copies of the The Girl With a Dragon Tattoo to Tube passengers in London, in the hope that (a) seeing several of your fellow commuters reading a book might pique your interest in it and (b) those who received the first in the trilogy would go on to read the second and third installments. Obviously, it worked. I started reading Jo Nesbo because Waterstones offered it to me for half-price when I spent over a certain amount on other books. I got it purely because it was cheap. I bought all his other books because I was hooked.

Of course e-books do this on a much larger scale, but I’m not Jo Nesbo and I don’t have the backing of a publishing house. I have to do whatever I can to get people to read my books in the hope that, in the near future, they’ll want to buy them. And from what I’ve seen, free and discounted e-book do work in terms of bringing in new readers.

As for “I spent a year writing it”, you can’t expect each individual reader to pay you for the work that went into writing the book. If we did, books would cost as much as cars. If I said, right, I’m happy to write for $50 a day and I spent eight months working five days a week on a novel, that novel would have to cost at least $8,000, and that’s only my cut. Instead you should think about how much that time you spent writing the book will be worth to you in the long run.

Plus, we’ve never priced books in relation to how many hours entertainment they’re going to give us—two hours in the cinema sets me back €9.50, but a paperback that takes me seven or eight hours to read is the same price—so why start now?

And remember when everyone told us that there was no money in writing?

I think the self-published author has to price their books to sell. If you’re just out of the gate with no reviews, no platforms and no proof that your book is anything other than typing, that’s probably less than half the price of a cup of tea. Once you’ve been around for a while, you can charge more. You should always charge as much as you can, i.e. the highest price at which your book continues to sell at a rate you’re happy with, but for self-published authors, that’s usually less than $5. Sometimes a lot less.

This is not because we’re out to devalue books. This is because we love books, and we want to spend our lives writing them.

As I read about what happened at Harrogate, I felt a bit sick. I love books, I love authors and I love writing. I’d be devastated if something I was doing was contributing to the downfall of the part of the world I love the most. But charging less than a latte for my books has meant that I get to be an author and that I get to spend the majority of my time writing.

If it’s any consolation, I spend a huge chunk of my earnings on books. Real, physical books, sold in stores and mostly, I buy them in hardback. Think of it like my own person carbon credit system.

If we want something to complain about in relation to book-pricing, why not start with the fact that out of the €25 hardback book I bought yesterday, the author, the person who spent a year or more writing it, the person who created it from scratch, the person without whom it wouldn’t exist, only got something like €3.75.

Isn’t that a bigger problem?

The Obligatory Talking About Money Footnote:

Yes, I’m talking about making money from your writing. I know, how terribly uncouth of me. Cue someone leaving a comment about how all they want to do is write, and tell stories, and slow-dance with their characters in a ballroom of creativity, and how they don’t care if they never receive a penny for it and how they’d still do it even if no one else ever read it. That’s fine for you, but I’m interested in being a professional writer, i.e. a person who makes a living as a writer, because I love it so much I want to do it all the time. And as unromantic and all as this is, I need to earn money from it in order for that to happen.

Guest Post: How Mel Sherratt Sold 50K Self-Published Books

Today we have a guest post from Mel Sherratt of High Heels and Book Deals who, after long pursuing traditional publication, finally decided to go it alone—and with fantastic results. Welcome (back), Mel!

“One question I’ve been asked a lot recently is did I have a well defined publicity campaign for my ebook, TAUNTING THE DEAD. So I thought I’d tell you what I did. Last December, I had a ‘launch’ day on twitter when I tweeted about it as often as I could and lots of people kindly retweeted about it for me. I also did a few guest posts on book blogs during that same week. Over the next few weeks, momentum slowly built up and sales increased daily until five weeks after its release and then things went crazy. TAUNTING THE DEAD went to number three in the overall fiction chart and number one in police procedurals, mysteries and thrillers. It stayed in the top ten for four weeks and has sold in excess of 50,000 copies. So is it social media or my ‘voice’ on Twitter or is it TAUNTING THE DEAD itself that was instrumental in getting me noticed?

I’m not sure if there is any wrong or right way for a writer to approach Twitter. I don’t see anything wrong with authors tweeting about their book – we all need to do it – as long as it isn’t incessantly in my timeline. But I use twitter as my virtual office. It’s my place to go and ‘chat’ when I need a break so I don’t want to alienate people who I enjoy chatting to. I don’t promote my book in the sense of putting a link into several tweets a day but I do tweet out if someone has been kind enough to say something good about my book, out of pure delight that they’ve done so. I’m only human – I want to share. But then I get fearful that I might annoy someone in their timeline too!

I also think book bloggers, as well as people who follow me on twitter, played an instrumental part in promoting TAUNTING THE DEAD. It’s the only thing I can think of, apart from possibly, word of mouth. Before I uploaded my ebook, I had a few crime bloggers/reviewers review it for me and I think because they were well known and respected, it had a good effect on my sales. People were extremely kind as I do my fair share of retweeting too. My followers on Twitter also tweet out things without asking and often do ‘tweet outs’ for me when I have news, for instance when I first went into #100 in the overall Kindle charts.

Now I’ve just released another ebook. SOMEWHERE TO HIDE is the first in a new series, The Estate. It’s an emotional thriller – think Shameless meets Bad Girls with the odd murder or two. Am I scared? Hell, yes. This time I haven’t asked anyone I know to review it. I’m looking to see how readers react to it. So far after two weeks, I’ve had nine excellent reviews and only two of them are from people I ‘know.’ Most of these reviewers have read TAUNTING THE DEAD first and then downloaded SOMEWHERE TO HIDE. I’m also getting new reviews for TAUNTING THE DEAD that say the reader is going to download SOMEWHERE TO HIDE too. That for me is incredible – and I think the ultimate test.”

About Mel:

Ever since she can remember, Mel Sherratt has been a meddler of words. Right from those early childhood scribbles when she won her first and only writing competition at the age of 12, she was rarely without a pen in her hand or her nose in a book. Born and raised in Stoke on Trent, Staffordshire, Mel used her beloved city as a backdrop for her first novel, Taunting the Dead, and it went on to be a Kindle #1 best seller.

Mel’s new series, The Estate, is set in the fictional place of Stockleigh because she wanted to create a sense of place on the estate itself. She also believes that the Mitchell Estate can be found a few miles from anywhere in any town or city…

You can find out more at www.melsherratt.co.uk and on twitter as @writermels

About Somewhere to Hide:

With the death of her husband and a tragic secret she’s desperate to bury, Cathy Mason opens her home to young women who need a roof over their head and a sympathetic ear. From victims of domestic violence to drug addicts, no woman is beyond Cathy’s helping hand. The only problem? She lives on the notorious Mitchell Estate, where temptation and trouble lurk on every corner.

When precious things go missing, her belongings are vandalised, and a homeless teenager is found murdered, Cathy reckons it’s just part of daily life on the estate. But when those she cares about most fall prey to violence, she begins to suspect her past mistakes are catching up with her. Can Cathy finally confront her own troubled history before it engulfs not only her, but also the women struggling to rebuild their lives?

Welcome to the Estate – Real life. Real problems. Real crime.

Somewhere to Hide on Amazon.com and here to find it on Amazon.co.uk

Taunting the Dead on Amazon.com and here to find it on Amazon.co.uk.

The Easy Way to Get Your US Tax Back

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Some of the most popular posts on this blog are about the non-US self-publisher’s headache of receiving all your royalties as opposed to having 30% of them withheld for tax reasons. We’ve long established that you can either go the long way around and apply for an ITIN, or the take the shortest route from A to B—or 70% to 100%—and apply for an EIN instead. Once you have those magic numbers, whichever ones they may be, you send a W8 form to the tax compliance department of each company you self-publish with and sit back and wait for your considerably bigger cheques.

But what’s happens to the tax that’s already been withheld? What about the 30% that’s been skimmed off each and every US-based royalty payment you’ve thus far received? How do you get your US tax back?

Up until the beginning of this year withholdings in the year to date was automatically refunded when you submitted your W8 forms, but that’s not the case anymore. And if you were as sluggish as me in applying for your ITIN or EIN, you may even have had withholdings taken in the previous year. So how do you get your money back? The long way around is to apply to the IRS—file a US tax return.

But if you have an ITIN, you’ll have already experienced the joy that is IRS forms, and the foreign language that is their instructions for filling them out. If you live in Europe, you’ll also have to contend with the fact that the IRS seemingly has no clue how long mail takes to get across the Atlantic—they love to send notices warning you to get back them in 30 days or ELSE, but those notices don’t arrive until 29 days after they mailed them.

The IRS owed me about $500 from 2010, and to be honest $500 was not worth engaging in anymore correspondence with the IRS. (Yes, that’s how annoying it is. I got an ITIN, so I was all too familiar with them. Getting the ITIN took me something like eight months.) There was no way I was doing that.

Then I heard about Taxback.com, a company that, in basic terms, helps people get tax back from countries they don’t live in anymore, or countries they never lived in but from where they’ve earned money.

Like royalties.

The company was founded by an Irishman and I’ve been dealing with the Irish office, but anyone can avail of their services from anywhere in the world, as far as I know. Everything is done via e-mail anyway so location is not an issue in that sense.

Taxback.com will be the first people to tell you that the service they offer is something you can do yourself, if you have the patience and like to fill out forms. But I don’t have any patience and I hate IRS forms, so I was more than happy to get someone else to do it.

There’s still some form-filling, but their Taxback.com‘s forms, and there’s only a couple of them. And you have someone you can call or e-mail whenever you have a question. And they’ll check everything is perfect before they get sent to the IRS and if it isn’t, they’ll fix it.

The real benefit to using their service is that if something goes wrong, they deal with it. Right about the time I should’ve been getting my refund cheque, I got a notice from the IRS saying that the ITIN I’d submitted to them wasn’t the ITIN I’d been assigned, and that I needed to submit more qualifying documents—and of course, this being the IRS and them not having a clue about mailing times between the US and Ireland, they’d given me 30 days to get the documents back of which only a couple hadn’t passed yet. But all I had to do was send TaxBack a scan of the letter and hey presto, the problem was fixed. They called the IRS on my behalf and proved to them that the mistake was in fact the fault of the IRS (they’d transposed some digits when entering the data from one of my forms), and within hours, my refund was back on track.

How much does this service cost? You’ve two options, I think: pay a flat free for them to prepare the documents and mail them yourself, or pay a percentage of your refund for them to take care of everything. I did the “take care of everything” one and personally, I thought it was worth penny. (Or cent.) They also have a no refund, no fee policy.

I e-mailed them scans of my forms in April, I think, and I received my refund a couple of weeks ago. I haven’t used them for this, but I believe that Taxback.com can also help you with ITINs, EINs and W8s.

You can find out more about Taxback.com here.

Why, For Me, Print Will Never Be Extinct

Regular readers of this blog and those who’ve kindly subjected themselves to my books will know that I’m a huge Jurassic Park fan. I love the book, I love the movie and even though I’m a total coward who wouldn’t get on a rollercoaster if I was told there’d be a million dollars waiting for me at the other end of it, I braved Universal Studios Jurassic Park River Ride just to see the JP view from the lazy boat ride bit that came before the 80 foot drop.

The first edition jacket design of Jurassic Park.

I love Jurassic Park because it’s one of the first adult books I ever read and I can clearly remember reading it—or trying to; it was 1993 and I was only 11 —in the little caravan my parents used to have installed by the sea. It’s not Pulitzer Prize-winning literature or anything, but it’s a truly great read and reading it was the first time a book really took me away. I re-read it at least once a year, and still have my totally tattered, dog-eared and barely-held-together-by-Sellotape movie tie-in paperback. And if you are thinking What is she on about? Isn’t that book just about dinosaurs?, then I’m afraid we can’t be friends.

And you’re missing out. Big time.

But anyway, my point is I love Jurassic Park. And because I love Jurassic Park, I got a bit teary-eyed watching this TED video in which designer Chip Kidd talks about working on book jackets for Alfred A. Knopf.

I was watching it because I’d heard it was funny and interesting and it was about book cover designs. But a few minutes in, I suddenly realized who I was watching. This was Chip Kidd! The Chip Kidd who designed one of the most iconic book covers in recent memory—the T-Rex silouhette on the cover of the first edition of Jurassic Park! I was transfixed as he described how he bought a book from the gift shop at the Natural History Museum in New York, found an interesting-looking T-Rex skeleton, put a sheet of tracing paper over it and filled the spaces in with pen. Then he added typography to give the cover an overall look of “public park signage”—which, as soon as you hear this, you instantly see and understand. It could be a “Warning: Dinosaurs Crossing” sign, which is of course the kind of thing you’d find in a park of dinosaur attractions.

(Albeit one where the fences had failed.)

A couple weeks back in L.A., I was floating through Barnes and Noble at The Grove on a fluffy cloud of contented delirium when I gasped at the sight of a special edition of Jurassic Park on a table a foot away (and then quickly looked around to make sure no one had heard me gasp).

It was a thing of beauty. Hardback. That thing where the cover is a soft leather and the imagery is embossed into the surface that I don’t know the technical name for. The original T-Rex. Two books in one, Jurassic Park and its inferior but still really good sequel, The Lost World. Silver-edged pages, and on them the original type that I know so well. A map of Isla Sorna (the island from The Lost World) inside, and a red ribbon to mark my place.

I was in love, and I could bring home that love for only $20. Despite my self-imposed rule of no book buying due to no space in my suitcase, I practically ran to the register to pay for it.

On another trip to that same Barnes and Noble, I came across the edition of Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth that was made famous by Oprah’s Book Club.

My edition of Pillars of the Earth, AKA The Fugly One.

It really is a stunning-looking book. My edition of The Pillars of Earth is an offensive eyesore that I can only hope was “designed” (ahem) and printed before Oprah picked it and the eyes of the world turned in its direction, because it really is a horrible, horrible looking book.

The pretty US/Oprah edition, soon to be winging its way to me from Amazon.com. You can’t really appreciate this in 2-D; the physical book is all shiny and embossed and stuff.

The gold/cream edition hadn’t been in Irish bookstores and so now, naturally, I wanted to buy the pretty one, replace the ugly one with it on my shelf (or in the boxes I have in storage as I am currently bookshelves-less) and donate the ugly one to a charity shop or something.

Hearing this, my companion said, “But it doesn’t matter what they look like.”

I swear to the Book Gods, life left my body for a second. My heart felt it like stopped.

It doesn’t matter what they look like?

It doesn’t matter what they look like?!!

Are you ON CRACK?!

But then I realized something: this is why some people can love their Kindles without pining for printed books. Because they don’t love the books themselves, like I do. They’re just after the words. For me, the words are the most important bit, yes, but they’re not the only important bit. For others, the format is irrelevant. We’re two entirely different kinds of readers. And that’s fine. That’s great even, for them, because I’d bet they haven’t cleared out their bank accounts buying multiple editions of the same book because the newer one was prettier.

But don’t tell me that a world without physical books will be a better world. Don’t tell me that I’ll “get used” to e-books. Don’t tell me that literature is going the way of music, because I don’t know about you but I never lovingly stroked a CD case (except for maybe a John Mayer’s Battle Studies but that was for, ahem, different reasons…) or held it in my hands, gazing at it adoringly, while I listened.

You only think that people will one day ditch print books completely because you are not a person who loves printed books. You love reading books, which is a different thing. It’s just one component of what I love. And what I love can never be replaced with some HTML and some plastic.

There are readers, and there are readers who also love books. I think there’s enough of the latter to ensure that while we all might profess love for our Kindles, the printed book is here to stay.

Now kindly all go and read Jurassic Park.

[UPDATE 16.07.12: Woo-hoo—Freshly Pressed! WordPress obviously love JP too. Obviously. I think we should start a book club…]

Do You Ever Want to Go Back?

A question you often hear published authors being asked is when did you know that you wanted to be a writer? Well, today I’m asking when did you know that other people wanted to be writers too? And do you ever dream of returning to the time before that, when you thought you were the only one? Do you ever want to go back? 

Once upon a time, I was the only person I ever knew who wanted to be a writer.

As a child, it seemed as if it hadn’t even occurred to anyone else that someone was actually sitting at a desk and typing out our Point Horrors and our Babysitters Clubs. In secondary school there were certainly other girls who had a flair for the written word, but I was the only one writing articles for a student newspaper, entering writing competitions and generally flouncing about the place as if writing a book was a dream that was mine, all mine. There is no time as ripe with possibility like the summer after you finally finish school, and it was then that my published writer dreams really kicked up a notch. I started to devour every book I could find on the subject, daydreamed about query letters, synopses and Courier (double-spaced), and even though I had recently abandoned my aspirations to be a Level 4 virologist specializing in the Ebola virus—and had made my peace with the fact that I was never going to be a NASA astronaut—I still had I want to be a writer, which was exotic and unusual and exciting and dreamy and great.

And still mine, all mine.

By now I had encountered a few other aspiring writers at workshops and the like, but they were always my seniors by twenty or thirty years. This reinforced my delusion that I was the only twenty-something in Ireland who wanted to be a writer, and so the only twenty-something in Ireland who would—could—become one.

Then one Friday night, through the magic of television, I discovered that there was another one—and she was also blonde, also Irish, and also in her early twenties. Except she had just become a writer,  signing a slew of deals worth over a million euro for her first novel, P.S. I Love You. She was me except for the fact that she had closed the gap between daydreams and reality, and she had done it in spectacular fashion. To say I took this news badly is like saying that Cecilia Ahern has sold a few books. Her deals and subsequent success hit me like a bad break-up: it took me a couple of years to really get over it.

While I was working abroad, I wasn’t thinking about writing or writers, other than reading books that other people had written. When I came back home and started to take my own writing dreams seriously, one of the benefits was meeting scores of other writers. This time around knowing that other people were trying to achieve the same things as me was more comforting than it was unnerving. It made me feel a little bit less crazy about my so-called crazy dreams.

But it had—has—its downsides too. Knowing what’s going on in the publishing world means that you can be a better writer and a better bookseller (when you’re selling your own books), but it also means that you know way too much about everything that’s going on. Every morning a lovely little e-mail drops into my inbox telling me who just signed a deal, what books publishers have just acquired, and how many copies Shades of Grey has sold this week. Then there’s all the blogs I read, the clued-up Twitter types I follow, and the gossip at writerly events. (And please don’t suggest that I cut myself off from it because if I did, I’d have to unpublish Self-Printed, stop writing this blog and find something to do with my life other than try to make a living from my self-published books, because you CANNOT operate successfully in a world you refuse to learn anything about. I have to keep up to date so that I can keep up to date. I could cut myself off if I wasn’t self-published, perhaps, but I can’t because I am.)

But sometimes I daydream about not knowing about all the amazing deals other writers have got, or who just signed with my dream agent or how a novel that contains the phrase “I rolled my eyes at myself” is earning its author seven figures a week. (That’s you again, 50 Shades.) Sometimes I daydream about going back to a time when ignorance was bliss. Like Jack, sometimes I want to go back to when I first wanted to be a writer, and I’d no idea that millions of other people wanted to be writers too.

What do you think? Do you ever want to go back?