Catherine’s Christmas Gift Guide 2012: Writers

It’s that time of year again!*

My favorite time of the year, when I happily start to fill my schedule with all sorts of present-hunting, gift-wrapping and cupcake-baking goodness and run a military-style operation to decorate the tree (ensuring there’s equal numbers of each color bauble, that they’re all evenly distributed across the tree and that there isn’t a trace of tinsel within a thirty-foot radius of our house). Which also means that it’s time for my Christmas Gifts I Discovered While Procrastinating Online Guide! 

Over the next few days I’ll be sharing the shiny things I’ve come upon this year that would make excellent gifts for writers, caffeine lovers, book lovers, travel lovers and, um, me. Yes, there’s going to be a Gifts for Catherine category which is basically a list of my favorite things. (No copyright infringement intended, Oprah. You know how I love you.)

We start today with Gifts for Writers

  1. This Ideas for Tweets notebook by Waldo Pancake made me snort with laughter—along with everything else in their amazing range of “state the obvious” gifts… Including their I Could’ve Been a Novel notebook.
  2. Why not treat the writer in your life to a subscription to The Bookseller, so they can cry into their Cornflakes once a week reading about how every Tom, Dick and Harry is getting a book deal (it seems) but they still haven’t? If you pay by the month, a print and digital subscription is just £16 for the UK, €20 for Europe and €41 for the rest of the world per month.
  3. I bought an Erin Condren Life Planner this year and now I can’t live without it; my 2013 edition is already on order. Hours of endless multicolored Muji pen organization fun, every single week for a whole year. And they supply stickers and put your name on it! What’s not to love?
  4. Do you know a writer who’s a tad obsessed with Facebook? Does he need cufflinks? Well, look no further than these Facebook-esque “Thumbs Up” cufflinks, available from Paperchase.
  5. One of my favorite online stores is Not On The High Street, and my favorite NOTHS department is their framed prints section, where I found this pretty—and useful!—No Tweeting framed print.
  6.  Writers Block Sticky Notes. Designed to look pre-crumpled, and they’re in a block. Geddit?
  7. The era of typewriters may be over, but you can still disguise your laptop as one with this gorgeous Object D’Art Laptop Sleeve. Swoon!

What do you think? Which ones would you like to receive in just twenty-five days’ time? 

*I was trying to hold off until December 1st but that’s tomorrow. So, like, it’s practically Christmas. 

The Man Who Made Me Buy a Kindle

It’s happening.

After holding out for as long as I possibly could—after waxing lyrical about the wonder that is a printed book, sharing my rules for handling printed books (that, sometimes, extend as far as not reading them…!) and traveling on a low-cost airline with no fewer than 25 books hidden in my luggage—I’m buying a Kindle this week. If you’re new to this blog, this will be my first e-reading device and the books I read on it will be among the first e-books I’ve bought and/or read from start to finish.

And yes, I’ve been self-publishing and selling e-books since March 2010.

I know.

It’s not because I’ve suddenly taken a turn against the printed book—that will NEVER happen—and I don’t see this as changing anything except me traveling a lot lighter and me not having to buy those awful small, thick paperbacks that after reading turn into a creased-spine mess I can hardly bear to look at. And to be honest, I could easily manage with the traveling and creased-spine thing for another while.

No, I’m buying a Kindle now for a very specific reason, and that’s a man. A man named Michael Connelly.

Michael Connelly is my favorite writer, favorite being the writer who has given me the most reading pleasure to date and continues to do so. If the house was on fire and all other humans were safely out, the one thing I’d grab is my limited edition, leather bound copy of Nine Dragons, which Connelly personally inscribed to me after I won a competition on his website. His detective, Harry Bosch, is like an old friend I only get to catch up with once a year and, just like Julia Keller in The Chicago Tribune, I live in a world where Bosch is a real person. On the wall behind my desk hangs a framed print of The Garden of Earthy Delights by Hieronymus Bosch from the Prado in Madrid; that Bosch is Harry’s namesake (although he prefers Harry to Hieronymus) and the work itself plays a part in one of my favorite Connelly books, A Darkness More Than Night. It also serves as a reminder to me that writers can, sometimes, make their fictional creations seem real.

Catching up with Harry is a big occasion: I buy the book on the day it comes out, clear my schedule and then read it all in one sitting, and I have done that since A Darkness More Than Night in 2001. The way I remember it, I found the hardback of Void Moon in a discount book bin on a lazy Saturday afternoon sometime during my seventeenth year and soon after saw a television ad for Angels Flight, which I then bought in paperback. Then I quickly went back and caught up with the five previous Bosch novels, and have been reading everything Connelly’s written on or soon after its day of publication ever since, including The Black Box which I devoured yesterday.

Well, not exactly everything’s Connelly’s written, and that’s where we come to the Kindle.

More than any other mega-selling traditionally published author that I’ve seen around, Connelly knows how to work the e-book only angle. On the Kindle store, he currently has four titles you can only buy in e-book: Angle of Investigation: Three Harry Bosch Stories ($2.99), a Kindle single called The Safe Man ($1.99), Mulholland Dive: Three Stories ($1.99) and Suicide Run: Three Harry Bosch Stories ($2.99). He also released the opening chapters of his last two novels, The Drop and The Black Box, as free Kindle e-books before publication. And he (or his publisher) regularly drops the price of an early Bosch novel down to $1.99 or $2.99, enticing new readers all the time.

Beginning back in September 2006, a Bosch story called The Overlook was serialized  in sixteen installments in the New York Times magazine. In May 2007 it was published in a slim hardback as a full-length novel. Even though it wasn’t really—”editing” in this case really meant “padding”. But at the time that was the only feasible way to get that serialized story into the hands of all of Connelly’s readers. Now he can release it in its original form as a low-cost e-book.

So I’m buying a Kindle because I want to read everything my favorite author has written. And because if I get time in the New Year, I want to go back and re-read all the Bosch novels for the first time, in order, and all my books are in storage and I can’t stand that horrid little paperback versions that I have of his early titles.

(Ugh!)

Just for kicks though—and loyalty card points—I’m going to buy my Kindle from Waterstones.

Agents Self-Publishing and The Mysterious White Glove

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This morning I answered an e-mail from an author whose agent has suggested self-publishing a novel that hasn’t found a traditional publishing home, and I thought I might as well share an extended version of what I told her.

The long and short of it is I don’t think you should self-publish with your agent.

The Agent’s Role

An agent’s job, boiled down to its most basic level, is to broker deals with publishers for the rights to publish your work. You write a book, the agent takes it to publishers and hopefully, finds one who is willing to publish it. They negotiate a deal, ideally starting with an advance on future royalties, and in exchange for this they typically receive 15% of everything you earn in relation to it.

My biggest concern about self-publishing in partnership with your agent is that it muddies the waters of what the agent is supposed to do for you. Let’s say the author who e-mailed me this morning goes ahead with self-publishing with her agent, and the $2.99 e-book sells 50,000 copies at a 70% royalty rate on Amazon’s Kindle store. That’s a financial return of around $104,000 before tax, or around $15,500 for the agent.

But despite this self-publishing success, the author still wants to see her book on the shelves and writes another novel in the hope of it getting published. If the best it can do is a $5,000 advance, how hard would the agent be pushing for the author to take it, when it’s in neither of their financial interests to do so? (Keeping in mind, for those of you who are wondering why the author would bother still traditional publishing at all, that money isn’t the most important thing to everyone.) Your agent might be the nicest, most honest, level-headed and clever individual in all of publishing, but surely, even if it’s just subconsciously, the lure of self-publishing success would undoubtedly affect their handling of future books.

The Point of Self-Publishing

If you are going to self-publish your book, then you should self-publish your book. When you sell a copy of your self-published book, you should be receiving all of the royalties for it. If you’re sharing them with anyone else, you’ve done it wrong.

A self-publisher has to spend money in order to self-publish, yes— they need an editor and a cover designer, at the very least. But those services are paid for outright; the editor and the designer are not entitled to any slice of future royalties. If you and your agent decide to self-publish and agree that the agent is entitled to 15% of the profits, then obviously you are sharing them. And why? What did the agent bring to the table? Just because someone is highly skilled in negotiating deals for books does not mean they know anything about self-publishing. And you can find out everything you need to know for free, online.

There is a grey area here, however. What happens if you and your agent have been working on the book for the last few months, editing and polishing and rewriting, together? In that case you may feel that the agent is entitled to a cut, but instead I’d consider what happens in a straightforward self-publishing operation: editing services are paid for outright. Perhaps you could agree to put a price on the agent’s editorial efforts, or commit to a royalty share for a specified period of time or number of books. But I am strongly against agreeing to share the profits of a self-published book on an open-ended basis.

The Ideal Arrangement

Just like we all dream of a publishing deal that comes with a six-figure advance, TV book club inclusions and Tube station ad campaigns, the ideal author-agent relationship is a partnership where both parties are totally committed to the author having a long and successful career as a professional writer. And sometimes, self-publishing a book might be a legitimate stop on the road to author stardom—it can build a platform, give an author a proven sales record and create an army of fans waiting breathlessly for the author’s next work. I’m seeing that very thing happen with a number of agented but (as yet) unpublished authors I know right now.

And so your agent might suggest self-publishing and they might be absolutely right. But it’s benefitting from the proceeds where this sunny day becomes overcast. Self-publishing is self-publishing; if you’re going to do it, you need to do it yourself. And the way to check that you are indeed doing it yourself is to look at your royalty cheque and ask, Do I get to keep all of this? If the answer is no, you’re doing something wrong, in my opinion.

The Mystery of Amazon White Glove

A few times now I’ve heard agents talk about Amazon’s White Glove program. I presume this is a hybrid of Amazon Vendor (which is how traditional publishing companies get their books on Amazon) and Amazon KDP, a sort of special KDP for agents who are self-publishing—or rather, “self-publishing”—their clients’ work.

I have to presume because there isn’t a speck of information about it online. If you google it, you only find other authors wondering what it is. Some even doubt its existence, but it does exist. We just know nothing about it. If you can shed some light, we’d love it if you did so in the comments below.

What do you think? Is self-publishing with your agent a legitimate option? Or do you agree with me that the clue is in the term “self-publishing”?