Monday, July 29, 2013

Indy-pendant Author and the Tomb of Copyright Horrors

Since my last little non-fic article was pretty well received, and because I absolutely love writing stuff like this, I figured I would do another one: a beginners guide to copyright laws and how they apply to authors and publishing. No, I am NOT a copyright lawyer, and if you have any real questions or doubts you should ante up the money and consult one. This is written based upon experience in advertising in a copyright-heavy environment (radio time), lots of business classes (including a few on copyright, trademark, and patent law), and a stint as a volunteer content moderator for an art and fandom website (where I did have to deal with law-types in regard to copyright violations). Note that this post is based on US copyright law, but it's a pretty good rule of thumb for anywhere since at some point you will probably deal with the US market.
I decided to write on this topic this time because I've noticed a lot of posts coming through FB about pirated e-books. It's a shame that sites exist to steal other people's work of any type. However, I've also noticed that some of the people fighting against this type of piracy are in fact “pirates” themselves, either through ignorance or perhaps thinking that their type of theft isn't as “bad” as someone stealing their book. In the sincere hope that it is simply ignorance, here's a dose of edumacation.

What is a copyright, and how does it differ from a trademark?

A copyright designates the legal ownership of an idea expressed in a form that is tangible in some way; books, songs, art, and photographs all fall under copyright laws, for example. This copyright can extend, in certain cases, beyond the initial item that is copyrighted, such as fan works based on a favorite series. A copyright does not have to be formally filed to be legal or enforceable; being able to prove that the work existed in a certain form as of a certain date is sufficient to enforce copyright. If you wrote it, took it, filmed it, whatever, and you were not under contract to give it to someone else, it's yours and no one else can use it unless you say so.
A trademark is different than a copyright in that it must be legally filed, it must list all formats in which the trademark may be used that the owner wishes to be able to enforce protection on, and is limited to recognizable, identifying “items”, such as a name or a logo. It is also much more enforceable and generally carries tougher legal repercussions for theft. You cannot trademark a book; however, you can trademark the title, you can trademark an icon used to designate a series (the mockingjay and arrow logo from The Hunger Games are trademarked), you can trademark your character or world names (the name Harry Potter is trademarked, as is the world name Pern), you can even trademark your own signature (Walt Disney's signature is trademarked). Because of the huge cost and legals that go into trademarks, I am not going to cover them at length here. They are best discussed with a lawyer who specializes in them.
Let's break it down into how each would work into your book, which we will call Lindzee Loo and Her Adventures in Wyvernopolis. The book (meaning the text within it) and the cover art are copyrighted; you get this automatically under US law, no action needed on your part. Though you likely have provable documentation of your ownership of the work before it is published, as soon as it hits Smashwords or Amazon, they're both locked in and the publication dates are definitely usable in a court of law should you ever need to protect yourself. (Note: those sites also track any uploaded revisions, so don't try to change your old work to resemble something famous and try to sue on infringement, because it won't fly.) If you want additional protections under trademark laws, you need to purchase them and they are REALLY expensive. But you could, if you wished, file for trademarks on the name Lindzee Loo and any other characters you wanted to protect, Wyvernopolis, and/or a particular branding image on the cover (maybe it's a wyvern wrapped around a sword going through a platypus... something very identifiable), and of course, “Lindzee Loo and Her Adventures in Wyvernopolis”.
Trademarks and copyrights serve the same basic purpose: they protect your intellectual and identifiable property from being used or traded by others without your express permission, should you choose to take legal action against infringement. That is the big catch; in order to protect your copyright, you have to file legal action against those who infringe upon it. No one else is likely to do it for you unless they have a legal claim, such as your agent or publisher, and they can just pass the buck back to you if they want. Sometimes just asking nicely works as well, but don't count on it.

Who owns a copyright?

Copyrights are owned by the people who created the work; in the case of joint creation, the copyright is automatically shared. Copyrights can be legally transferred, either permanently or for a limited use. For example, I did the actual artwork for my own book covers for Heartkeeper and Heartbound, but Marya Heiman (who is awesome), working under Clean Teen Publishing (also awesome; deal, I'm pimping my peeps), created the final layout including the title, credit, and border, in part using elements that she purchased the rights to use. We share the copyright on the covers, limited by the contract that Marya is under for the other copyrighted parts. They (Clean Teen or Marya) cannot take my artwork and use it on another book or anything else without my permission, and if we ever dissolve our contract, I cannot use Marya's layout on any further publications of the same book. I could, however, make an offer to Clean Teen to purchase their part of the copyright so that I could continue to self-publish using the same cover layout. They do not have to accept my offer, though, and there is nothing I can do about it. I would also have to secure the rights to the elements separately, even though Marya already paid for them, unless her contract for the elements states that it is transferable. The people that Marya bought the rights to the elements from have no claim to either of our work at all as it pertains to those book covers, but we are still restricted by their contract rules. See how it can get convoluted pretty quickly?
Limited use copyright is a little different, and is something that professional cover designers are very familiar with. The most common example that you see in independent publishing or small publishing houses is the purchase of stock photos to use for book covers. The cover designer purchases the right to use the image on a commercial product, namely the cover of the book and/or advertising materials. However, their usage of the image is limited to that one product; unless their purchase contract says otherwise, they can't use it on a bunch of books without paying the rights again. When you buy a “stock cover” from a cover designer – one that they can sell over and over under different titles – that used stock images, then they are (hopefully, for their sake) selling the design elements under a multiple usage contract from the original stock provider.

Types of copyrights

There are dozens of types of copyrights that can be invoked for any particular work, but the type of copyright, if it is not the generally understood concept, must be specifically stated to be assumed or acted upon. For most of you, the general term “copyright” is the most applicable. Your book is copyrighted; that's good enough. The rest would apply to artwork you might want to use, or if you ever want to release the copyright on the book so that anyone can distribute it. Here's just a few of the ones you might commonly hear:
Creative Commons: Creative commons is a type of copyright that specifically means that the work has been released from legal liability so that the public can use it for non-commercial use unless otherwise stated. They can pick it up, distribute it (as long as it is for free), use it on their website, and use it in artistic pieces within limits. As an example of what would be considered to be “within limits”, we'll say I took a photograph of a sunset and released it to creative commons. Someone making a movie could not use that image as part of the opening credits, the movie poster, or anything else that was a focal point of the movie. But they could print off the image, put it in a frame, and have a character walk past it once in an office. In order to use it as a focal point – bringing it back to books, we'll say as part of a book cover, it would have to be...
Commercial Usage Allowed: Some copyrights, including some creative commons, are designated as commercial usage allowed, meaning that they can be used in a context meant to generate revenue for someone else. Doing a web search for “free fonts commercial use” is going to get you a lot of different font choices you can use for your book cover at no cost or signed contract (the “contract” in this case being replaced by a general release page on the website you got the font from). Yes, fonts ARE copyrighted, did you know that? Just because it is loaded on your machine does not mean it is free to use, especially those you found online. Many are free to use for non-commercial use (like for a presentation or a report) but just as many require a contract and a fee to use them for anything that you plan to sell, even if that fee is .99 cents and you simply clicked “I accept” rather than actually read the contract, shame on you. When you hire a cover designer, they are checking that the font and the images used on your book cover allow commercial usage. In the case of images, they are also checking for something else:
Derivations or Deviations Allowed: A copyright license that allows derivations means that you can make changes to the copyrighted item to fit your particular needs. If you purchase a stock photo of a wolf in a forest and cut out the wolf and put it on a different background, you are making a derivation; alternately, if you leave the photo as is and add something else such as a bird, that is also considered to be a derivation. This is important: if the copyright license does not specifically state that derivations are allowed and you do this, you can potentially be sued for breach of copyright.

What “Fair Use” Really Means

This is the most overused, and incorrectly used, term in defending the use of copyrighted materials. Here is what Fair Use means: it means that you can use an insignificant portion of a work, that does not contain the focal part of the work itself, in the context of a review, not for profit use, or an educational setting. It does not mean that you can take something you like, use part of it in or on your book, and sell it.
We clear on that? Good.
Copyright law comes down to this: unless you specifically own it, you cannot use it or do anything with it unless you can PROVE that you have the legal right to do so in the form of a stated release or contract, unless your usage falls under Fair Use as stated above, that you have to be able to produce upon request. And in general, getting permission to use copyrighted material costs money. Sometimes LOTS of money.
Now we will break all this down by addressing the Top 5 myths and misconceptions of copyright, especially as is seen commonly in indy publishing.

Myth 1: Because I found it on the internet, it must be free to use.

Website builders, for example, are notorious thieves. They see an image they like and they take it to use on their own site. And this doesn't only happen with the kids making their fun little personal pages, big companies have been busted doing this as well. Though people take an image they see and use it all the time, it doesn't make it right, or legal. Remember, copyright protection only goes as far as the person who owns the copyright is willing to pursue it. So if you find a pretty picture of a sunset on someone's Flickr page and decide to put it on your website, chances are very good that absolutely nothing is going to happen. But if you put that picture on your book cover and the owner recognizes it, especially if you are making money off of book sales, they can sue you for all of your book profits. And personal damages. And depending on how good their lawyer is, maybe emotional damage to their bichon frise. In other words, don't take the chance.
By the way, if you use a copyrighted image on your cover without permission and Amazon or Smashwords or the like catches you, you can get banned off the site. Permanently. Bye-bye, indy author.

MYTH 2: Trademarks that are part of the common culture are okay to use without permission.

Tread carefully. The short answer is no; if you want to mention McDonalds in your book, you need permission. The truth of it is many trademark holders won't mind if you use their trademark in a positive light, but you should ALWAYS check. Call their marketing department for their trademark usage rules in published works. They will either just tell you yes or no, or they will ask for the example reference, in which case you send them the page that they are mentioned on, and then they will either give or deny permission. You may need to pay to use the name, so be prepared to change your mind.
Random fun fact: Steven Spielberg wanted the boys in E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial to order Godfather's Pizza during the Dungeons and Dragons scene, and even filmed Elliot carrying Godfather's pizza boxes. The word came from Godfather's late as to whether they could use the name: the answer was no. So they had to get permission from another company and reshoot the scene; some releases of E.T. even still have the audio of Elliot referring to Godfather's (did they sue? I honestly do not know). Good for the company that gave them permission to use their name, though; Pizza Hut made a fortune by being able to market E.T. glasses and such as part of the deal to use their name.
Anywhoo, this also goes for performers, movie titles, band names, etc.. You might think you are giving them free advertising; they might not want it. Think of it this way: you want to include a passage in your love scene where the lovers are listening to Barry Manilow. Aw, how sweet. Did we mention your lovers are members of the Ku Klux Klan? Barry isn't so happy any more. Or maybe, unbeknownst to you, that band you mentioned in your paranormal novel has a member who is afraid of ghosts and is offended that he is now associated with a ghost book. Or even more simply, that band might get upset because they think you are using their name to make your book more popular to make you more money when they got nothing. Because you never know, it is always best to check. Bands and personages of public interest often trademark their names, so find out who manages them and call them and ask. It's their job to answer questions like that. If you don't get an answer, just don't use it.

Myth 3: Quoting Song Lyrics Counts As Fair Use

Nope. Fair Use, once again, applies to reviews, education, and non-commercial usage. If you use it and make money off of what it is used in, you can get in trouble if you don't get permission first (remember Barry and the Ku Klux Klan lovers). Right off of Tor's website, in reference to Christine by Stephen King:
A prolific quoter of songs, King made sure that each of 'Christine’s' 51 chapters starts with a rock n’roll lyric. The music permissions were so expensive that he had to pay for them himself (to the tune of $15,000) and their copyright info takes up three entire small-print pages.”
King was a pretty big name by Christine. If the copyright holders of the songs weren't going to give him permission for free just because he was known, you can bet your bylines they're going to be ticked if you don't even ask first.

Myth 4: If It Is Not On My Book, I Can Use It To Advertise.

OMG NO. No, no, no, no no no nononononono. You cannot take a copyrighted image of a guy – and if you did not take the picture, it's not yours, remember - and say he's your “dream cast” for this character in this book, sold here (link to Amazon). You cannot take your favorite songs, make a “dream soundtrack” to this book, sold here (link to Amazon) (or worse, give the songs away as advertising your book). And you cannot use copyrighted music as the background track in your book trailer made up of clips you found on Youtube but have no idea who actually owns them, overlay your book blurb, and put your name and purchase info in the credits (link to Amazon) (or link to anywhere they can buy your book) (or mention anywhere associated with making you money).
Advertising works the same way as making your book: if you don't own it, you need permission to use it, and this goes tenfold if you are using it to make yourself a buck. Why do you think only big name companies have the hottest music or great classics as music beds (a “bed” is the technical term for background music) in their commercials? Because they needed to purchase the rights to use it and it is expensive. Like, close to a million dollars expensive, for one song clip by one big-name artist.
If you use that hit song for your book advertisement in any capacity without getting permission, remember: you can be sued for your profits. You can be sued for personal damages if the owner of the copyright decides they don't like how it was used. AND you can be sued for lost advertising revenue because you didn't pay for it. AND if the performer is part of a union, guess who else is coming after you? Ever heard of a little group called the RIAA?
So your indy novel that maybe made you a hundred dollars in Amazon sales just cost you a few mil because you used someone's song to advertise it. Believe me, claiming “I didn't know” will not hold water in a courtroom. Still wanna risk it? Maybe that “dream soundtrack” isn't sounding like such a good dream any more.
However: the truth of the matter is that if you simply provide a list of the titles of songs on Facebook and say its your dream soundtrack and link to your book without actually providing the music, the chances of anyone slapping you with an advertising infringement is next to nil; you're walking a fine line, but like I said, copyrights go as far as people are willing to act to protect them and for things like that they are very unlikely to act against you. If you post a popular picture that you found of some actor or actress and say they're your dream cast, same thing. If you take that picture and overlay text advertising your book, or link people to the songs in your dream soundtrack in the advertisement for your book, then you have a much better chance of getting in trouble. You get the idea.

MYTH 5: If I Change It Enough It Is Okay To Use Without Permission.

I heard this all the time on the art website with photomanipulations; the artist would say that if they changed the copyrighted image, the copyright no longer applied. False. Remember above where I talked about “Derivations Allowed”? Laws protect copyright holders from having their images altered and a new copyright claimed on them; that is why when you purchase a stock image, you have to make sure derivations are allowed. Altering images without permission, especially to use to make money, is a violation of the owner's copyright.

How to Do It Legally (and Pretty Cheaply) and Still Look Professional

      1. The best way to look professional and stay legal is hire a professional who knows the legals. It saves you a LOT of potential headaches. Professional book designers (should) know what their legal obligations are to making a book cover that isn't going to get you both sued, and hiring them is usually cheaper than getting a lawyer.
      2. Contract, contract, CONTRACT. Cover your butt and cover it well. Get or find the legal release to use any copyrighted material, print it off, and put it in a folder in a safe so that if anyone at any time asks for proof of right to use something, you have it.
      3. Number 2 also goes for hiring professionals. Their contract should accept responsibility for legal repercussions of copyright infringement on materials that they sell you the rights to or that your name will be associated with; in other words, they need to guarantee in writing that they can legally sell you what they are selling, or legally use what they are using to sell you as an author. If their contract does not have this clause and they will not adjust it to include this clause, do NOT accept it. Find someone else.
      4. If you cannot find the permission online to use something you like online, don't use it. It's as simple as that. Look for something else.
      5. Know what is available to you. For example: there are thousands of music beds out there that are creative commons, commercial use allowed, already nicely set up to thirty seconds, one minute long, or looping that you can use in your book adverts. There's hundreds of thousands more that are under ten bucks. Just do a web search for “commercial music beds”. You can even commission a musician to write music for you, just like you would hire a cover designer or commission an artist for your book cover. There is something out there for every budget and music style needed. And doing it this way is a lot better than ticking off someone like Lady Gaga.
      6. Even as an indy who is not under contract to a publisher, you are a professional in a professional field as soon as your first book is released. Your best chances of being taken seriously and picked up by a publisher are out the window if they find out that you were convicted of a copyright violation charge; it's right up there with plagiarism. Even if you are never picked up, be the real deal and treat the law about copyright seriously. You will be much more respected if you do so, not only by your readers but by others in the field, because they know that other people's work – and most importantly their work - is safe with you.
      7. Get legal help from a lawyer when you have serious questions. Copyright law is in many cases vague, confusing, poorly written and very difficult to understand without training. In many instances the law is not set by the way the law itself is written, but by the way courts have ruled in previous copyright cases. If you can't quote specific court case rulings on specific copyright usage or know someone who can to answer your questions, ask a lawyer. If you can't afford a lawyer, do your research and do it well. And if you don't find your answers, don't take any chances; a $200 dollar lawyer consult is a lot cheaper than a $20,000 fine, don't forget, and two days away from writing your book to verify beyond a doubt that everything about it is legal is much less a “waste of time” than spending two weeks in a courtroom is. Many copyright violations are made by people who simply wished that what they wanted to do was legit, so they fooled themselves into thinking it was. Don't be that person.

This very well may be a Part 1 of 2, because there is a lot of stuff that I did not cover, such as parody law and that sort of thing. If you have any specific questions, please ask and I will do my best to help you! If I cannot find you a very specific example that answers your question from a reliable and verifiable source (as in, not Yahoo answers or any of that crap), I'll just say so, won't give you false info, and will say what I said from the beginning: lawyers are always your best option with legalities. But this is a good primer on the general stuff that will keep you from losing your hard-earned rewards.
So remember folks … if you didn't make it, if you didn't write it, if you didn't record it, if you didn't take the picture, if you didn't film it – in other words, if it is not yours – and you use as a part of or to sell your book, you're stealing. You're no better than those pirate sites that took your work and try to take money from you. If you expect everyone to respect your rights as an author, respect everyone else's rights back.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Real Deal of Book Sales (and Why Yours May Not Be Selling)

WARNING: THIS IS VERY LONG.  Go get some coffee and maybe pop yourself some popcorn or something.

Got it? Good.  I mentioned possibly writing a post about this topic to the girls at CTP and they were all over it, so this is what I spent aaaaallll day yesterday writing.  I hope someone finds it helpful!

I am extremely new to the published author industry. It was not something that I had even given serious consideration to joining three months ago, but one story snowballed and here I am. I've been scrambling to play catch-up on actually learning how e-books work, how to accept an edited electronic document, and how to market yourself on social media; but I did come into it with one thing that many authors don't have... years in the book selling industry and a lot of time working with the public in entertainment. I used to work in a small book store chain in New England called Book Corner, starting as a cashier in 1987 and leaving at the management level in the late 90's. I also spent many a year working in the theme park industry and also as a radio personality, and have a lot of hours clocked seeing what people react to, why they do not react the way folks expect them to, what makes the public listen to you, and what makes them walk away. Most of this article will focus on my book store experience, but the public relations stuff will come up later.

When you work in a brick-and-mortar book store, you learn how book sales really work and it is vastly, vastly different than many independent authors today think it works. Yes, times are changing and a nobody can go to a rock star through their .99 cent e-book on Amazon overnight; it does happen and I will not tell you it doesn't. Frankly I can't tell you how or why that works because I have not worked on that end of it long enough. But what I can tell you is a lot of the background of why books sell, when books sell, what makes people buy books when they have never heard of the author, how best seller lists really work, and why some of the fallbacks that many authors use in indy publishing are actually hurting you. Badly.

I will be mentioning specific authors and books in this article so that the reader will be able to easily grasp examples. Sometimes you may not be happy to read what is said. But please keep in mind I am not saying this to imply that the author or publisher is scamming anyone, ripping anyone off, or trying to be deceptive in their practices. This is simply how it actually works.

Book Store Terminology

Before we go into the details, you have to know some of the basic terms of the trade. If you haven't worked in a book store, a lot of these will be unfamiliar, and occasionally shocking, because their descriptions will give you some clues as to how the bound book market works.

Hardcover: any book that is bound between two thick cardboard sheets with pages in between. There are two big classes of hardcover books: the general term “hardcover” is used for any mass produced book that is later intended to come out in paperback; such as when a Harry Potter book would come out, it would come out in hardcover first and then paperback a year or so later. It also applies to many hardcovers that will never come out in paperback but are intended to remain marketed on a large scale, such as Dr. Seuss children's books. Then there are gift books or coffee table books. These books are usually odd sized, full of full-color pictures, and generally never intended for the paperback market. Many are intentionally printed to be remainders, described later.

Trade paperback: Any paperback that is non-standard sized. This includes everything from oversized paperbacks of mass produced fiction books (The Hunger Games is printed as a trade paperback), to the big paperback For Dummies series, to paperback glossy picture books.

Mass Market paperback: when you think of a paperback book, this is generally what you are thinking of. All those fiction, sci-fi, and fantasy paperbacks in the book store that are all the same size and line up neatly on the shelf are mass markets.

Remainders: the sale books that you see at the front of every book store with the big sticker on the cover that is usually hugely below the printed price on the inside of the book; think of the 500 page illustrated book of castles that is the size of a Ford Pinto and sells for $12.99, and the inside cover price says it was originally $80.00. Remainders are made of four categories of books:
      1. Books that were printed specifically to be remaindered. These books never appeared in a bookstore for $50.00 more and often don't have an inside price, but they look like they should be expensive. They were specifically printed to go on the remainder shelves at a “sale” price. Here is where we take away our first lesson from book publishing: books really are not that expensive to make. It costs a LOT to set up the printing machines, set up the interior of the book, color-correct all the photos or illustrations, pay the editor, the marketing department, and the janitors, but when the book is actually rolling off the presses they don't cost that much simply because so many are made at once by big publishers. This is why you see these big beautiful hardcover books selling for $10 when your independently published book in a run of 100 copies cost you $12 a piece. The more you print, the cheaper it gets and the greater the profit margin is on sales. Remember that.

      2. Books that were specifically printed to be remaindered but they don't tell you that. Collectors books on something that actually has mass interest are often released at an extremely high price at first and then remaindered later. A good example would be a huge book on Star Wars full of nice pictures and great trivia that is released at $75.00 for Christmas sales and then goes on the remainder table for $15.00 that summer. The publisher knows that very few people are going to spend $75.00 on a book, but there's definitely people out there who will and they want their money. Many more people will buy a $15.00 book and they want their money too. So they print a ton of copies, knowing that they will definitely not sell all of them at $75.00, but that they will sell tons at $15.00. At $15.00 they are still making money (remember what I said about cheap printing) but at $75.00 they made a LOT of money.

      3. Books that are specifically printed to be remaindered but publishers won't admit it to anyone. Hardcovers with a high market appeal are sometimes printed in quantities enormously over and above what is actually going to sell to the public at full price, specifically to put them on the remainder tables in the front of the store and keep the author's name in everyone's face at a later date. Two examples of this are Danielle Steele and James Patterson; go to any book store and look at the sale table of fiction hardcovers and you have a very good chance of seeing these names... maybe not Danielle Steele so much any more but this happened all the time in the 80's and 90's. This is not to say that these authors don't sell hardcovers at full price when they come out; they definitely do, and thousands of people have enjoyed them. But when they release, a book store will get 100 copies of Danielle Steele's newest hardcover knowing they might sell five (most people wait for the paperback), that they will ship them back to the distributor, and that the book store will get them back with a sale price six months later.

      4. Oops. Yep, publishers sometimes think they will have a hit on their hands and they don't, and they try to dump the books for anything they can get. But it does not happen as often as you think. Those other three categories of sale books make up the bulk of remainders.

Stripped books: You won't see these in a full-price retail bookstore, but occasionally they make their way into used book stores or flea markets. When a mass market paperback does not sell or gets a price change, most of the time the publisher does not want the book back. The retailer rips off the front cover of the book, throws the book away (or the employees take them home), and sends the cover back to the publisher for credit. This is why you rarely see mass market paperbacks at a sale price in a book store.

Dump: a cardboard display that holds many copies of the same book, or many copies of a book by the same author, or many copies of books from one publisher. Book sellers hate these because they are a pain to set up, fall apart easily, usually look like crap within a month, and usually contain books that are not going to sell. But they look pretty for about a week so publishers love them, and they are usually sold at a discount meaning distributors will buy a dump to increase the profit margin on sales.

How a book store is set up

The vast majority of books in a book store are not going to sell. The book store knows it, the publishers know it. The books are there to fill shelf space so that the book store looks good when you go in there to get the latest Stephen King book. Of course the book stores want all the books to sell, that is their business; so the shelves will be stocked with books that they hope will appeal to at least somebody someday. But they know that most of those book sections – travel, how-to, gardening, games, etc. might sell two or three books a month if they are lucky. Most of their sales are going to come from the fiction-type sections.

And of those, about 40% of the sales are by the big boys. They're the authors that you have all heard of, the latest hit, have an established brand (like Harlequin Romance), or are the authors that have been around since the dawn of the dinosaurs and have a solid following. 

Another 40% of the sales come from books that are just like the first 40%. Before someone even picks up a book to see if it is interesting, it has to catch their eye. The books most likely to catch their eye are the ones that look similar to books the reader has enjoyed before, and book publishers and cover designers know it. They use this to get you to pick up a book and turn it over and read the back cover, even if you don't realize that is what made you pick up the book. Ever think to yourself that every book that came out after a hit looks just like the hit book? It does, and it's because the marketing tactic works. Look at your own book shelf and compare the covers between books that you bought during a fairly close timeline. Note: on occasion being the odd duck out works simply because it looks different, but you have to have something to compare it to for this to really take effect. I'll get into that more later.

The last 20% are made up of books that either the buyer went in specifically looking for (it was recommended or they need it for a specific purpose, such as a gift or training their new puppy) or much more rarely, random purchases. Big lesson number two: your book is not going to sell unless someone has a reason to pick it up off the shelf first; either they need it, they heard about it, or it looks like something they would like. This also applies to e-books; the shelf is the search engine, or that “recommended books” list on the bottom of the page of another book. A reader is not going to click unless they have a reason to.

How Best Seller Lists Really Work

There's currently two major kinds of best seller lists: those such as the famous (or infamous) New York Times Best Seller List, and those generated by a specific retailer such as Amazon. They share some characteristics, but work very differently. We'll start with publication (like a newspaper) best seller lists by going over something they don't want you to know:

Publication best seller lists have almost nothing to do with what people are actually reading.

I'm not kidding.

Best seller lists from major publications are not generated by the number of end sales from retailers to readers; they are (mostly, because some now incorporate e-book sales numbers) generated by the number of books sold by publishers to retailers and distributors. This means that if a publisher sells three million copies of their books to retailers, the book goes on the best seller list even if the book stores do not sell a single copy. In reality, because the best seller lists have a good reputation, if a book gets on that list it generally sells. But this is how publishers get people to buy books from new authors that they want to push: they sell lots of copies to book distributors or chains, usually at a discount, so that the book will appear on a best seller list. You will see the list, think the book must be good, and go buy it. Viola, a new author is a hit. If you don't buy it, the publisher can still claim it is a best seller.

For an example of how this works, we'll look at the best selling book that you have probably never read: Dianetics by L. Ron Hubbard. You may not have even heard of it, though it has sold over 80 million copies, which translates to this: almost as many of you should have read this book as have read any Dr. Seuss book according to the reported sales numbers. Dianetics is the book that launched the Scientology movement (now I bet you know it) and has been off and on the Number 1 place of best seller lists since it came out in 1950, and gone through around 60 editions.

The reason it is on the best seller list is very obviously not because the public is actually buying and reading it. It's because the publisher sells these books in bulk at an enormously discounted rate to distributors, who then sell them in bulk at an enormously discounted rate to book stores (in the case of the mega-chains you can cut the distributor out of the mix), who receive them in bulk, rip all the front covers off, throw the books away (except maybe one or two copies), and send the covers back to the publishers for credit. The book hits Number 1 because the publisher sold so many of them, and you the reader ignore it because it's Scientology, for crying out loud.

Another example that actually shows this system working would be the release of 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey, which many of you may have read and I'm sure most of you have heard of. The book released in 1989, and was again, sold in massive quantities to distributors and chains. Massive quantities. When we got these in at the book store, we got in about 300 copies, which was more than our entire self-help section held at the time. No one had heard of Stephen Covey, the self-help movement was tiny, and we hated the book because it was flimsy and would not stay on the shelves. Seriously, we despised this thing. But because the publisher sold so many, it went immediately to the Number 1 slot, people thought it must be good, and it sold. And then it became a hit with the readers. Not before it appeared on the New York Times Best Seller List, after it did. That is how these lists work; the publishers make the sales rank, and then you read it. Not the other way around in the vast, vast majority of cases. There are of course exceptions, but they are rare.

Amazon, B&N, and other online retailers of course can report their sales directly; what you see is what is actually sold by that vendor. Therefore if a book is listed as the Number 10 bestseller on Amazon, you know it really is ranked Number 10 in sales at that time; note the caveat at that time. The sales are still manipulated by publishers through various means, but they really are accurate in their own way. However, you have to remember the golden rules of how books sell: 40% big guys, 40% books like the big guys, and 20% everyone else. This makes the numbers exceedingly deceptive.

There are well over 2 million e-books listed on Amazon alone; I actually think it is over three million right now but I can't find current numbers offhand. And indy authors, your book is one of them. Do you know how many book sales it takes in one day to break the Top 100,000 out of over 3 million?


Not tens, not twenties, not hundreds. Five books on average. Just one day at that number of sales and you'll be at a pretty good rank for a week.

That is because 80% of the book sales are going to a very, very small percentage of authors. There's millions of books out there, and an enormous percentage of them on Amazon are never even going to be seen, never mind read, and this includes your freebies and .99 cent'ers. So here's your rule for retailer best seller lists:

The person who is doing “much better than you” probably only sold a few more books than you did, unless they are in the top one thousand or so.

This is no exaggeration. The difference between being ranked at #2,000,000 and number #200,000 is around two sales in a day. If you're at the two million mark and your buddy is at the two hundred thousand mark, and both of your books are .99 cents, they definitely are not getting rich while you aren't. So don't feel bad about it. Also, the book sales numbers are generated during a very small time window, so it is easy to be misled (or to mislead) by quoting the numbers to show popularity. For example, as of this moment my own book Heartkeeper is ranked #118,146 in the Kindle store. Nerd Do Well: A Small Boy's Journey To Becoming A Big Kid by Simon Pegg (that guy from Shawn of the Dead and Hot Fuzz) is ranked #138,945. So technically right now I could say I am more popular than Simon Pegg which does make me feel good for about three seconds, but it simply really is not true. No, actually it doesn't even make me feel good because I adore Simon Pegg and now I feel guilty. You see how it works now, though. By quoting just those numbers I could say, accurately, that I am selling more books than this pretty big-name actor. I am; today. But in the long run I'm not even close.

By the way, my book is also doing better than some of Wil Wheaton's books and I am also almost as popular as Jon Stewart (as of this very second per very deceptive sales figures). Two thumbs up for me!

How This Translates To New Authors On The Market

Like it or not, the e-book revolution has not completely taken over book sales; you are still up against major publishers who will glut the market with whatever they want to sell. And chances are, what they want to sell is not you. Here's another harsh reality that most authors do not realize while dreaming of signing with a major (note I said major, many small publishers are not like this at all) publisher:

If you are a newly published author, you are filler.

You are the last of the marketing department's concerns. You are the packing in the box. Sure, they might make up some posters and send them to book stores, they may even make a dump of your book if the cover looks nice. But they don't really expect you to sell. They hope that you will sell, and they hope enough people will try your book that you will sell more when your second book comes out, but they don't expect it to, so neither should you.

It takes time, word of mouth, more of your titles on the shelf, and familiarity in browser's minds from seeing your name out there for a few years before it begins to click with most readers that you are an author worth spending money on. Don't believe me? How about A Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin? There's no doubting that it and the whole series is huge right now.

The first book in the series came out in 1996. 

Did you buy it then? Didn't think so. Your book is probably not going to be any different so don't expect it to be, and be thrilled if you are wrong.

Get To Why My Book Isn't Selling, Already!

Okay, okay, it's now time to get to the rest of the title of the blog post, and focus on why any particular person's book is not a hit. (Obviously I can't speak for your book specifically, but you are likely starting to see how your book fits into the broad scheme of things.) Now that you understand how the basics of the book market really works, we can get down to the nitty gritty with the Top 10 Reasons You're Not Getting Book Sales.

      1. Facebook Likes Do NOT Translate To Book Sales. Period.

“OMG, that goes against everything I have read and heard and done and as much as I don't want to admit it you are right.” I know. Here is what I see new authors doing, and I did it myself: they set up an author page on Facebook, they join a bunch of author groups in their genre, they trade likes with other authors, they get all excited that their page has so many likes, their book comes out and nothing happens. Why? Because those other authors are not your market. They did the same thing that you just did; they boosted your numbers and you boosted them back. But you are probably not going to buy their book, so why do you expect them to buy yours?

Unless your Likes are made up entirely of real readers, who really want to read your book, and know that they are going to have to spend money to do so and are willing to do so, your Likes mean nothing. Court your readers, not other authors.

      1. You're Marketing Too Broadly.

Remember the second 40% of book sales? People buy books that are like other books that they have read and enjoyed. If someone reads and enjoys true crime, they are most likely to buy other true crime books, not your historical romance. But many new authors try to convince anyone and everyone that their book is worth looking at. It's not going to happen. I'm sure that when you go to a bookstore, you do not look at each and every section equally and give every single title equal consideration for your purchase; you go straight to the sections that interest you most. That is where you should be spending your time trying to sell your book: with the people who are most likely to buy it, not anyone who will possibly listen to you.

      1. You are just like everyone else.

Today's major avenue for independent authors is social media. We all know it, we all use it, we all rely on it to get the word out. The leading theory is that if you can sell yourself, the book sales will follow, right?

Now look at your own news feed, which for many of you I am sure has a good number of other indy authors on it. They talk about their books, they talk about giveaways, they talk about Like milestones, they talk about sales, they talk about blog tours, and they talk about everything else that you are also talking about with your own book. People are paying about as much attention to you as you are to them, which frankly probably isn't very much because it's the same thing over and over with a different icon next to it. Yes, of course you want to talk about your book or no one is ever going to know you wrote one, but if you're not standing out in the crowd somehow, no one cares. Your posts mean nothing and are not going to sell your work if people are just skipping it because they read the same thing on 50 other author pages this morning. Find a way to catch their attention.

      1. Your Book Is Just Like Everyone Else's Book.

Obviously it really isn't, but people don't know that because it looks and sounds just like everyone else's book. Especially on social media, people have only two or three sentences to grab someone's attention, and usually only one visual (the front book cover) to impress them with. So you do what authors do: you post a couple of sentences explaining how the main character has a problem, raise the question of if they will resolve it, and post your book cover of Photoshopped stock images of attractive people with a link to Amazon to buy it. Does this sound like one of your posts? How about other people's posts?

Remember, people will not buy your book unless they pick it up first. This translates to ebooks as well; clicking that link to look at the Amazon listing is the same thing as picking your book up off a shelf and looking it over while considering to buy. Writing a two sentence liner is very, very difficult to do well, and if your cover is using the same hunky model that five other people's covers are using, they may not specifically remember it but subconsciously they are very likely to be thinking “seen it, skipped it, skip it again”. The balance between being familiar enough to be comfortable, but different enough to stand out is not easy to get, so be thinking about it and talking to your cover designer and beta readers very early in the book process.

      1. Ebooks do not sell themselves.

In order for an ebook to sell, someone has to see the page first. And just putting your book on Amazon is not nearly enough to get it to appear on people's computer screens; it's not like a bound book in a brick-and-mortar where maybe someone will walk past it and think “hey, that looks cool”. The opposite end of the indy author who goes overboard about their social media marketing is the indy author who thinks that once the book is formatted and posted, their work is over. My friend, it has only just begun. Get out there and hit the pavement and sell.

      1. You have not been out there long enough.

The original print run of Carrie by Stephen King was 30,000 copies and really didn't do that great until the movie came out. The first award he won was for 'Salem's Lot, from the American Library Association, which gave it an award in 1978 as the Best Book for Young Adults (wow, really?). And its no secret that King wrote for long before that, selling short stories to men's magazines. Even the authors who seem as if they suddenly fell down from the heavens into a pile of cash and millions of adoring fans struggled for a long time to get there. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone was published in June of 1997 and hit Number 1 in August of 1999, for example, and we already talked about A Game of Thrones.
As you can see, these things do not generally happen overnight. The golden rule is that it takes three books published to start gaining a following. Though rules are made to be broken, it is pretty accurate; at three books you have been around for a while and people have seen your name on the bookshelves, you're still writing so they assume you must be at least half-way decent and they are more likely to give you a chance, thus probably buying more of your books if they liked what they read. Yes, this works for Amazon too. With one book you don't show up very often on the recommended feed, but with every book you publish there is a better likelihood that one of them will end up on someone's suggested reading list. Your real sales start when you have more to offer and can deliver quality work with everything you're putting out there.

      1. You're too negative/argumentative/impatient.

Recently, chef Gordon Ramsay took on a restaurant called Amy's Baking Company on his TV show Kitchen Nightmares. If you have not watched this series, in short Ramsay helps turn around a struggling restaurant by sorting out its problems and resolving business issues. Amy's Baking Company could not be helped. They did not want to hear anything negative, got downright nasty when offered constructive advice, and blamed everyone but themselves for not liking their food or business. I really recommend that anyone who is planning on working with the public in any respect look up the episode on Youtube; the whole thing is up there and it is a treasure trove of examples of what not to do when selling yourself and your product.

Unfortunately, authors can be sensitive people and when their book does not sell, or does not sell quickly enough or in the volumes they hoped for, they blame other people and sometimes it is very public and very accusatory. If they receive anything but a five star review or there is a criticism in a review comment, they fire back defending themselves or attacking the reviewer. I know, it can be difficult not to do this sometimes, especially for stuff like getting one star and someone says “too short, should have been free” or something useless like that. But arguing will not get you sales, complaining your book isn't selling is not going to get you pity, and blaming others for not buying it is not going to make them feel bad and give you money. Kill them with kindness and positivity, or better yet, just keep your yap shut and pretend everything is going exactly as you wanted it to. Read the criticism, think about it seriously, and learn from it, especially if you see several people saying similar things.

8.) Cheap does not equal sales.

Your book should not be free unless you have something else that a reader can buy if they like it, first of all; if you offer your work for free with nothing else to move on to, the reader is going to forget about you before your next book comes out unless it was REALLY memorable. And while .99 cents sounds like a great deal, many people will read “cheap” as “low quality”. Give yourself some credit and try to make a little profit per sale, because if you think its worth it, other people will too.

      1. You have to spend money to make money.

The old adage is very true when it comes to selling books. Unless you are an excellent judge of your market, a skilled artist, and perfect in spelling and grammar as well, you need to invest in a cover designer and an editor at the very least, and probably start sucking up to some really honest buddies who read your type of books to get them to beta read your drafts for you. A shoddy, unprofessional cover makes you look like a shoddy, unprofessional writer, and many people won't even give your book a chance if they don't like the cover appearance. The best cover won't fix a story that is full of errors that drive your audience nuts. And neither a great cover or professional editing are going to help a story that does not resonate with the reader.

Shop around and spend the money on the best cover and the best editor that fits your budget, and there are plenty out there for every budget. You won't regret it when the reviews really focus on your work rather than the little things that are easily avoided.

10.) And anything else I forgot.

As a new author, you are your biggest marketing tool right now, even if you are under contract. Do some real studying on marketing strategy, sit down, and make a plan that puts your book (or your link to your book) in front of the people that you most want to see it, make it happen, keep making it happen, and be extremely patient. Chances are you are not going to be raking in thousands of sales a month, but you should see some actual results in a year or two. If you don't, ask questions and start figuring out why. Simply asking “If anyone who reads this could please tell me what their reason is for not buying my book yet, I would really appreciate it because I am trying to figure out how to market it more effectively” will likely gain you a lot of constructive feedback as to what your watchers/likers/email list are thinking on their side of the monitor.

And finally, the typical disclaimer.

I am not a best-selling author, nor do I claim to be the ultimate authority on book sales. These are simply my observations placed into my experience from a couple of decades in business and marketing, much of it selling books and working in public relations-heavy jobs. My suggestions will not apply to everyone, nor will using any of my suggestions guarantee results. As one blogger said (and I wish I remembered who it was; if anyone knows please comment so I can give them proper credit), guessing what will be a best seller is about as accurate as a bunch of drunk frat boys playing darts, or something to that effect. But if even one of my suggestions helps one author make more sales, or the beginning part helps someone understand the book selling business a bit better, I will consider this post a win.

Monday, July 1, 2013

A VERY Belated Update!

   Crazy does not begin to describe the past few weeks which is why I have not had the time to update here ... I decided this morning I simply could not put it off any longer and out of fairness I had to MAKE the time. Hopefully when you read below you'll understand my slowness in posting here.

   I'm very happy to say that "Heartkeeper" was in fact contracted by Clean Teen Publishing, and not only that, was picked up to be a series!  They do NOT like to sit on finished books, which is absolutely wonderful, and worked well for me because not only had I finished "Heartkeeper", but also Book 2 in the series, "Heartbound".  The contract was signed, and we made arrangements to chat via ooVoo to work out the details, and the night we were supposed to meet a massive storm came through town and knocked down trees everywhere.  No power, no toilets, and the clock ticking toward release date.  We got the conference call set up for the next day, and I walked out of it with a ton more work to do ... because not only now was I writing the series, I was also the cover artist! 

   This is HUGE for me because I have really been drawing for much longer than I have been writing, and though I have done paid work before this is the first time that I will be having my work appear on a book cover.  And believe me, when it is appearing on your own book, that adds a huge amount of pressure because you know you have to sell a reader first on your art, then on your writing.  It all comes down to you.  Oy.  And digital paintings are not something that can be whipped out in no time ... they take several days to complete, and now I had to finish not only "Heartkeeper"'s cover in time for the July 6th launch, but "Heartbound"'s cover for July 12th.  In reality that breaks down to 3 days for "Heartkeeper" and 5 days after that for "Heartbound".

   In addition, I was also tapped to make swag for the release party, so I have been beading my little heart out making a necklace and keychains.  They're not difficult to make, just time consuming.  And in the middle of all this I also had to set up a website, a Twitter account, start making an online store for mugs and t-shirts and mousepads and such (though that was my choice to do and I'll finish it after the book stuff is over), write posts for blog tours, and still try to maintain some sort of a semblance of a married life with kid.  Let me tell you it has NOT been easy. 

   I also wouldn't give it up for the world.  It's been a wild ride that I only hope becomes wilder ... for a little while.  When school starts up again it can get niiiiice and quiet so I can work.  :)

Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Fork in the Road (insert Fozzie Bear Here)

"Heartbound" is finished.  It's amazing . . . going from someone who less than two months ago never considered being a full-time writer any time soon to someone who has already completed two books in that time.  Sure, they're relatively short, but they are for YAe, after all.  But now I am at that point of what to do next as I wait to hear back from the publisher to see if the series gets picked up.  If it doesn't, then it sits for a year while I wait for the publishing contract on "Heartkeeper" to run out so I can release them both at the same time under separate titles.  If it does, then I'm going to be in this world for a year or two at least.

And over here I have Blackhollow, Aloren, Stick, Delmari, Sharp-Teeth-Not-Brains, and all the other characters from Felriver giving me very sad looks, as if I have forgotten all about them.  I can assure you I have not, my dears ... Felriver will be written and you will get to preserve your history for generations to come.  Hopefully if "Heartbound" does get picked up, I can work out something that will leave me enough time to work on both series because as much as I love the characters from "Heartkeeper" - especially Fenjine and Amergin - the Felriver animals are my children, and I can't leave them behind.

So here's to hoping . . . I raise a glass to good wishes, gentle proofreaders, and all the worlds, stories, and personalities just waiting for their chances to grace the pages of a book or a Kindle screen. 

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Those Odd Feelings . . . .

Oh geez, not THOSE odd feelings, get your mind out of the gutter!

So it's been a couple of weeks since I updated this, and for that I apologize (as always.  There's a reason I don't promote my blog much).  Writing has been going fantastically well, "Wonderstruck" has been released, and the extended version of "Heartkeeper" is off to the publisher and awaiting "Heartbound" so they can see if they want to pick up the series.  So far it is sounding as if it very well might be a go, which is incredibly exciting, and why I've been writing the book rather than blog entries.  One and a half more chapters, and its done!

Even so, I'm one of those people who regrettably looks at the big picture and tends to worry and overthink things from time to time.  For example, so far "Wonderstruck" has not received any reviews on Amazon.  I completely understand how this happens; after all, it is an anthology, and those usually are not the first things that people look for when randomly shopping.  It didn't get an ARC release in exchange for reviews, but working with so many authors trying to get it finished I'm sure was a headache and a half, and I know I contributed to that by missing a file attachment and not realizing that the edit review I was asked to do was for the story, not my bio.  :/  As such, probably the only people who have really read it so far are the authors themselves, and I don't know about them but I would feel really weird being one of the first reviewers for a book my writing appears in.  So right now I have absolutely no idea if anyone has even read "Heartkeeper", never mind what they thought of it.  Some constructive feedback from reviews would be so awesome before I turn in "Heartbound" so I can be sure that the story style is even something that might appeal to an audience.  I don't think it's really going to happen in the next few days though, so "Heartbound" is going to be submitted blind, which feels so odd considering it's a second book in a series.

And of all the other things I could possibly be paranoid about, the one that is bothering me the most right now is the cover.  Now before I go further, I am going to put this in bold, underline, italics, and caps:


We got that out of the way?  Good.  Now, here is my very personal and individual hangup about such things: I used to volunteer my time on an art website, and my job was to find and put the kabosh on copyright violations uploaded as original works.  As any book graphic designer can well imagine, photo manipulations without permission or credit was a constant headache we had to deal with.  And those are exactly what many cover designers use when they are making book covers: stock photos (in their case, completely legally purchased with license to manipulate and distribute) that have been cut and pasted and blended together to make a unique image for a book cover.  The problem for me is, I spent years finding the illegal ones.  As such I can look at practically any book cover that comes across Facebook and find the original stock elements in about ten seconds.  A great many of them I barely have to look up because they have been ripped so often, I simply recognize them.  And though it's just me due to my previous experience with such things, looking at book covers and thinking to myself as I pick apart the elements "seen it, seen it, know it, saw that one used two weeks ago, seen it ...." is really kind of depressing. 

So of all the things I could possibly be agonizing over - contracts, deadlines, marketing, exposure, money - I'm sitting here fretting because some other art website moderator might look at the cover mashup for my book and be thinking the same thing I would ... "seen it".  I really, really, REALLY would want something completely original for a book cover, and though I do draw and am not completely awful at it in general, I am completely awful at humans.  Sadly, my books have human main characters, primarily.  There's no way I could do it myself, I can't afford the level of professional art that would really belong on a book cover (or SixthLeafClover would TOTALLY get the contract if it was my choice), and it's all the publisher's decision anyway and I know they have some very skilled cover designers.  I love their work, even though I do recognize the stocks immediately.  (sigh) But the site mod in me is still saying that it's someone else's stuff smooshed together and called original and it irks me soooooo badly, even though I know it's completely okay.  :(

So there is my completely immature, privileged, and entitled sort of rant for wishing that I could get something for my book that I know I won't, when I know that what I will get (if it gets picked up, of course) is still going to be amazing.  I'm going to go smack myself with rolling pins and hide in a corner with a gallon of ice cream now.