Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Flying Cars Still a Bad Idea

There's been much discussion and media buzz lately about the impending test-flight of the Transition "flying car." No pun, but I've been down this road before. Cool though they are in concept, there's just no practical application (other than as a rich-person's plaything) for flying cars, for a number of fundamental reasons.

Go read my old post about it here. Nothing has really changed (except the tanked economy makes the commercial success of this thing even less likely).

Specifically, just take a look at this thing. It makes an ugly little car (it's not exactly a pretty airplane either), and I'll bet it drives about as well as it looks. It has two seats, no trunk, and it's likely that the slightest fender bender will render it unairworthy.

None of this would be a deal-breaker if it cost the same as an ugly little car, but the anticipated cost (and these things have a way of inflating before they're finalized) is close to $200k. If I pay $200K for a car, I expect it to go more than 65mph (165mph is more like it) or at least have a wet bar in the back. (In fact, the Transition only goes 115mph as an airplane, and it doesn't even have a back.)

Though I remembered my post on this subject, I'd forgotten I'd talked about some other perpetual futuristic ideas I thought were also bad ideas (video-phones, touch-screen computers) and those I thought would eventually catch on (ebooks readers).

So far, looks like I'm right about the video phones. Touch-screen computers of various sorts are starting to show some promise thanks to improved interface design, but I'm still doubtful these are ever going to become more than a secondary input device on non-handheld devices.

As for ebooks, sales were a rare growth area over the holidays, and Amazon is once again sold out of its Kindle reader. I think we've finally hit critical mass on this technology, though prices still need to come down, and the devices need to be more flexible.

All in all, my crystal ball is still looking pretty shiny at the moment.

Which makes me feel bad, because the Terrafugia folks who make the Transition are certainly very clever people. I just don't see it ending well though. Sorry, guys.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

"Daemon" and the self-publishing question

Oh, noes!

I couldn't help but notice an article in yesterday's USA Today about the self-published thriller "Daemon." (Ever notice how it's awkward to talk about "USA Today" in anything other than the present tense? I hate that.) You can't tell from the on-line edition, but the story is pitched in the print edition using somewhat more colorful language.

From the front-page sidebar: "Daniel Suarez's self published techno-thriller, a hit, nets a two-book contract with Dutton."

And the sub-title on the article: "Web makes hit of internet tale."

Interestingly, the attention-getting word "hit" doesn't appear anywhere in the on-line version.

You can read the article yourself, but the gist is that Daniel Suarez (writing under the pseudonym Leinad Zerauz, which is Daniel Suarez backwards, in case you didn't figure that out) produced a high-tech thriller which he tried unsuccessfully to market to conventional publishers. He then went the self-publishing route, promoting the book through bloggers and on-line pundits to achieve enough success to interest a major publisher. The book sold on a two-book contract, and movie rights have been optioned a major player.


Unfortunately, I think a lot of people are going to see exactly three words out of this article: self published and hit.

As you know, in past posts (here and here) I've thrown my share of muck recently at the whole idea of self-publishing, so I was curious as to the facts here.

In a way, I anticipated this in my first post on the subject. Without making you go back to read it, here's what I had to say about it at the time:

The whole vanity publishing thing is like Dracula. You think you've got it staked real good, and it just keeps popping out of the grave. It doesn't help that every now and then you hear (usually a lot, because it makes a good story) about the exceptions to the rule, the self-published books that went on to great success, that were picked up by major publishers, and in a few cases, even turned into New York Times best-sellers.

I shake my head every time I hear one of these, because they are rare exceptions, because most of them would have sold through conventional means if the author had only been a little smarter about it, and because I know it's the nature of would-be writers to treat any crumb of false-hope like the all-you-can-eat buffet at the Rio.

Just because somebody won 40 million in the Powerball doesn't mean you should invest your life savings in lottery tickets.

It still leaves questions though. If Daemon is an exception, what kind of exception is it? It is a fluke, or the vanguard of some new trend? Does it change in any way the basic issues of self-publishing? What can we learn from it?

Like I said, to figure that out, I needed facts, and USA Today was notably light on those. At least the kind of background information that I'd need to make any judgments about about how Daemon came to be. Fortunately, it did mention a Wired article that helped bring the book into prominence, and that was easy to find on-line. Not surprisingly, the Wired piece (read it here) has some more meat on its factual bones, enough to develop some more informed opinions about the situation.

First question: What efforts did Suarez make to place his book initially with a conventional publisher?

According to the Wired piece, his effort weren't minimal, but they were probably less than exhaustive. He submitted to "dozens" of agents. That's a little vague, but I'd say it's probably not close to or over a hundred, or they would have said "nearly a hundred," or "over a hundred" or "hundreds." My gut feeling is we're talking a couple of dozen here, though that's only a guess.

In any case, a quick search for "general fiction" agents on Publisher's Marketplace turned up 233 pages (some of which might be agencies with multiple agents). Not all of those are going to handle thrillers, but I think it's reasonably safe to say that Suarez ran out of patience before he ran out of agents.

Of the number he did submit to, he reports that "three read it." Unless he received several-dozens-minus-three letters telling him that they didn't read it, I suspect what this means is, he got three responses. Lack of response doesn't necessarily mean lack of consideration. Sad but true, in the publishing world, no response is simply another way of saying "no." Of the three that did respond, he reports that one said it was "too long" (I don't see any mention of how long the book actually is) and the other two that it was "too complex."

The article doesn't tell us if those responses were of the "get lost" variety or if maybe they were suggesting a rewrite to correct what the agents (correctly or not) perceived to be legitimate marketing problems, of if they were saying "close, what else have you got?"

Frankly, it's often difficult, even for those of us who have been in the business a while, to read past the "does not meet our needs" part of a rejection letter for the editor or agent's actual intent, so it's highly possible that Suarez wouldn't have known the difference anyway.

Let's look at the options that Suarez apparently didn't take in marketing Daemon.

He apparently didn't keep submitting till he ran out of agents.

He didn't rewrite the book to respond to the agent's marketing concerns.

Okay, I'm not saying he should have rewritten the book at this point, just that it was an option.

My gut sense is that this was a good call. Start rewriting when you're out of marketing options. I'm also guessing that the "too complex" comments were way off base. The "too long" comment could have been fundamentally right though, even if the book has now sold at the longer length. This is guesswork, of course. I don't know how long it is. But since thrillers are often big books anyway, I'm guessing that this is really, really long. Overly long books are a harder sell. Maybe this book needs to be this long, but I'll just bet it could be tightened (and one wonders if that will happen by the time the print edition comes out).

Okay, and the third thing he apparently didn't do: He didn't submit the book directly to publishers. It's a totally fallacy that you can't get a book read or sold without an agent. Yes, it can be more difficult to get in the door, especially for a new author, but it can be done. Near as I can tell, Suarez didn't try.

Bottom line, it's by no means certain that the book wouldn't have sold without going the self-publishing route. Maybe self-publishing was a valid route to publication for this particular book, but it's also possible that it was simply a pointless detour on the way to the final destination.

There's something else we can learn here though. The book did sell. It sold for major money. It sold without an agent (though not through the most direct method possible). It apparently sold without being shortened (at least in submitted form) or dumbed down. Though not yet published, it's already gotten good reviews from Booklist and a starred review in Publisher's Weekly.

From this we can take three important lessons:
1. Agents can keep you from selling books as easily as they can help you sell them.
2. Agents don't know everything.
3. Sometimes, agents don't know anything.

Next question...

Was Daemon a "hit" as a self-published book?

By the standards of self-publishing, it was pretty darned successful. Maybe even hugely so. What information I have comes from the Wired article, which was published in their August issue of last year, so they can't be assumed to be current. But at some point the book was selling 50 copies a month, and as of March of last year, the book had reportedly sold 1,200 copies.

Underwhelmed? Well, breaking four-digits in total sales is huge for self-published book. I'm fairly certain that few break three-digits.

It's pretty likely that Suarez made a profit off his self-publishing venture, but it's hard to know how much. I don't know how much he spent, for instance, on set-up, editorial and design costs. I don't know how much (if anything) he's spent on other promotional efforts. I also don't know what the cover price on his POD edition (sold through Lightning Source) was, or what his deal with Lightning Source was.

Let's just take a wild (and perhaps generous) guess and say he made $10 per copy. That translates into $12,000. This isn't chicken-feed, but it's pretty puny by publishing standards. That's a entry-to-low-midlist advance.

In reporting deals, Publisher's Marketplace calls this a "Nice deal." That means it's in the $1-49,000 dollar range, their polite way of saying its at the bottom of the publishing food change. And I'll confess, the biggest deal I've ever gotten is at the ragged high-end of "Nice." I'd be happy to get another such "nice" deal today.

(The Dutton deal seems to have turned the original book into an instant collector's item, with used copies on Amazon selling at $80. Ironically, if Suarez had gone the traditional vanity-press route, he might be liquidating the pallet of books in his garage for some serious bonus-scratch right now.)

Okay, so what did Suarez make going with a traditional publisher? Well, first of all, lets observe first that he did go with a traditional publisher. Apparently without hesitation. If self-publishing is so swell, ask yourself, why was he so quick to cast it aside?

Neither USA Today or Wired was any help here, so I turned to Publisher's Marketplace and their deal-tracker feature for info. The deal was announced in May, two months after the cover date of the Wired article. An agent did handle the deal (interestingly, from their PM listing, they mainly handle business and technical non-fiction, and Daemon is their only listed fiction deal of any kind).

So what did he get? Well, PM doesn't give specific numbers, but it wasn't a "Nice" deal. It wasn't "Very Nice," their next category, meaning deals from $50,000-99,000 It wasn't "Good." It wasn't "Good." It wasn't "Significant." No, it went right to their highest category, "Major Deal." That means $500,000 and up. That's the advance (though for a two book deal, not one). If the book takes off, there could be significant royalties, foreign sales, subsidiary rights, and he's already sold a movie option for unknown money.

And mind you, that "Major Deal" is just what they're passing along to the author. The publisher has an expectation of grossing at least 6-10 times that. That's a lot of books. That's a hell of a lot more than 1,200 books.

So, it's obvious why Suarez went with a regular publisher. For a book like his, self-publishing sucks.

Real publishers know that too. They look at a self-publishing "hit" and figure that if a self-publisher, even a motivated self-publisher like Suarez, can sell 1,200 copies, they can sell ten times that amount without breaking a sweat. If the book is good and they put a little effort in, they can probably sell a hundred times as many. Maybe a thousand.

Most self-published books are over-valued by the people publishing them. Most are unmarketable, flawed, or lacking in some why that they're better off not being published and will never find a market.

But when a success like this comes along, it usually means the self-publisher has undervalued their work. Whatever sales and returns they're getting from their self-publishing efforts, they could be doing much better with a regular publisher.


Now, this post shouldn't be taken as a criticism of Suarez or his choices. He's written what is reportedly a good book, and he's found a path to success. Great success. And as I said up front, I don't have all the facts on his history or circumstances. I'm reading a lot from a little data.

But was self-publishing an absolutely necessary part of that success? Perhaps, but I remain unconvinced. Even if it was for this book, there are special circumstances.

The bloggers that Suarez used to create early buzz on the books were the very ones he'd mined to research the novel, so of course they were likely to respond positively. And it should hardly be a surprise that a book about the internet is especially suited to being promoted on the internet.

None of this applies to your self-published cozy mystery or literary novel about a girl growing up in Poland in 1939. It probably doesn't apply to your thriller, unless it's also about computers and the net.

The book also found an important advocate, Rick Klau, an executive at Feedburner (now part of Google). I don't see how that could be anticipated or replicated.

Finally, there's nothing about the self-publishing that leads inevitably to the Wired, article, which I suspect had more to do with getting the Dutton deal than any other single factor (other than the quality of the book itself).

Suarez found a path to success. It's impossible to say it was the best path, and it almost certainly wasn't the only path. But you can't argue with success.

That still doesn't mean that this path can be emulated, or that you should even try.