Friday, 31 October 2014

Wake-up call

I started that full-time writing thing with a dose of optimism. Return on Investment did much better than expected (about 500 sold copies since July and more than that lent via Kindle Unlimited), although it's now much slower and sells about one copy a day on average. Sales and lowering the price did nothing to boost sales, but considering how weird and uncommercial that book is, I'm still happy with how it's done. I'll call it a modest success.

I didn't walk out of that job without a "business plan". I did projections based on about 12 months of sales data, built a model based on average yield per book (aka, how much do I make per month per book). For yield, I went with the sales of "backlist" titles - not the ones that are just out and might sell a thousand copies or so in their first month, but the few dribs-and-drabs sales I get on titles that are "older" (= older than six months).

Based on that, I averaged out yield and then assumed that future books would sell about the same. I was hoping that the front list sales spike and maybe even growing readership would mean I was low-balling, but I didn't count on either of those. Basically, I was running what I thought was a worst-worst case scenario.

So when I got my royalty payment for last month, I thought there was a mistake, but I went through the statement and ran the numbers, and it's pretty alarming. Almost half (40%) my royalties are from one front list title that's rapidly fading. It had a very good three months, but the money from that title is falling at a rate of 50% a month. And worse: My strongest, long-term sellers sold a good 50% less than they had for the last 1.5 years.

Overall, my backlist (the books I rely on to pay my bills), are over 40% down, and once that strong front list title hits sales hell in a couple months, and assuming my back list doesn't recover by some miracle, I won't be able to pay my bills/fixed costs in about 2-3 months. If the sales trend continues, I'm going from "below minimum wage" to officially "poverty line" in the same timeframe. It's the kind of crash that makes me look at my monthly outgoings and ponder which one I can/should cut. Do I really need regular haircuts? (And yeah, it's made worse by living near one of the most expensive cities on the planet - not really a choice as long as my partner works there.)

(I don't mean to be whining. I have the best readers, and I'm grateful for every book they bought in September - or earlier, in the case of the retailers. I'm speaking quite candidly because it might be helpful for other writers. If any of you have seen the same sales drop, you're definitely not alone.)

I'm not sure what a viable strategy is for the future. I clearly over-relied on my backlist and my worst-worst case scenario was about 50% too optimistic. Which means I quit my day job about 3-4 years too soon. I knew I'd be scraping by for a few years and hoped I'd write my way out of there, but this month really claw-hammered that confidence.

I'm not good at writing the kind of book that sells inside this genre. And I don't see that changing.

And just the explicit/gay/bisexual content means a somewhat limited audience - that material doesn't get into the mainstream. I'm currently pretty much aiming at a sub-group of a sub-group of a sub-group, and apparently that niche audience is too small to sustain me.

One part of me is completely freaked out. (And freaked-out writer = too freaked-out to write, so this isn't even a productive frame of mind, much as I'd prefer to call it a "kick in the pants".) I prefer to have a rough idea where things are going, how much money I can expect, because I want to intervene on time and steer against it.

This might have been a freak month, and gods give that it is, but I have to act pretty much now to be prepared if this is the shape of things to come. (Smoke, fire, the works.) Anything I write now and publish via a small press will still take 9 months at least to earn me money (At least 6 months of production time for a publisher, plus 3 months until Amazon pays out), and it's closer to 12.

Self-publishing is closer to 6 months - three months of production time (editing, layout, cover, etc), plus 3 months until Amazon pays out. I can't do much until mid-December (as I won't be here, and I'm still working on the Birds book), but from mid-December, I really need to act.

Going the traditional route (getting an agent, getting a big publisher) is now literally something I can't afford. I can't wait 4 years or more to get paid. I'm entering crisis/survival mode now.

What it'll mean above all is: 1) I will self-publish some things fairly quickly. 2) I need to write faster, and even a LOT faster. 3) I have to diversify in terms of genre. 4) I will very likely re-join the workforce in early 2015.

Number 3) means I'll likely launch a second pen name and write speculative fiction (sci-fi, fantasy,  historical) under a different name. For that, I'll likely revive my old German pseudonym, but it's not yet decided. I think a new name would be good to leave some expectations at the door (read, no more disclaimers that the current book "isn't a romance" - there won't be romance expectations attached to it. This might prove to be tremendously liberating.)

It'll also mean I'll be writing from a different angle. My characters might still be gay or bisexual, but there won't be any explicit content on the page (this will likely affect my urban fantasy series I've been planning as well as my historical thriller). There might still be a romance sub-plot, but it won't be the main focus of the story. I'm also very likely going to write a few books with a female lead. Which will be brilliant, I think. I have at least two books that focus on women, and only one of them is bisexual.

Above all, it means re-shuffling my release/writing schedule. I knew that writing fantasy and historicals was a financially risky idea, but now I have the actual numbers to see just how fucking stupid it is to write either and more than maybe one a year.

I will still indulge myself and finish the Bird Book, because I've already almost lost this book twice, and if I stop now and desert it again, I fear it'll just wither and die off - gods know when I get into the position again where I can devote several months to it. Yes, it's a luxury I can't afford, but screw it, I'm 70-75% done with it now.

I'm putting the other five WWII novels and any further gay fantasy novels on hold for the time being. I literally can't afford to write them, and I'm sorry for that, but the bank wants the mortgage money every month, and I like eating.

In mid-December, I'll start on my straight-up historical with a main character who's most definitely bisexual, but will only be courting women. My partner has been requesting that book for the last 3 years, and it's time I write a book I can sell to mainstream readers without having to "warn" about the gay sex. It'll mean a screeching halt on my WWII stuff and pushing hard into the crusades research, which is not what I was aiming to do, but hopefully more sustainable. It'll also mean that what WWII research I've done will go into a book told from a hetero/female POV.

Overall, and as weird as it might sound, I'm still optimistic. What I consider crisis mode now might lead to some amazing books/experiences/growth. And I'm all for that.

So, yeah. This is my Halloween/Samhain post. The irony doesn't escape me. This is as "horror" as I can muster, and it all comes back to one of my main fears: fear of change, fear or loss of control. I'll get over it. This is most likely a good thing when seen from a couple years' distance.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

Inspiration: Family

I think I've written repeatedly about family. It's clearly something that keep coming back, so I'll just risk repeating myself.

I think real life has made writing about family A Thing in my work.

Let me explain. My family, gods bless them, wasn't/isn't the sanest one. While my mother managed to create a more supportive micro-environment, my family's psycho-dynamics are shaped by a grandmother who had 8 living children (out of 12 births), but neither the interest nor the emotional resources to care for even one of them.

They were fathered by a WWII veteran so fucked up from his close, prolonged brush with death (he got out of Stalingrad before the 6th Army was locked in) and wracked, for the rest of his very long life, by what we would now call survivor's guilt plus a massive dose of PTSD. One symptom of that was ... let's say "emotional unavailability". He wasn't nasty, but he never did come home from Russia. And the only thing he ever loved were his horses. (You will recognize him in my next book after this one. I have a young officer there who even looks like him.)

Eight children, all competing to the blood for the love of parents that weren't there in any meaningful way. As they grew up, my grandmother played favourites. Two of her eldest daughters were pulled into a toxic game of "today I love you, tomorrow I hate you", played in a fashion that always pitted one against the other, and played essentially for forty years. I don't think she did it on purpose. There's also the story that she worked as a nurse at 17. She saw a lot of people die.

But all that still travelled along the bloodlines. And while I was lucky and never at the core of the toxic jockeying and politicking, it has shaped how I view families, and how I write them. Many of my characters are from toxic families, families that literally threaten their sanity and continued existence (say, the Spadaros, and I think the Krasnoradas fall into that too, in the widest sense).

Others have dead mothers. Some have dead mothers and fathers. (Inspiration for that is basically taken from real life.) Say, Kendras and Adrastes - and both of them deal with their dead fathers in different ways. Both recognize themselves in their fathers or try to not make their father's mistakes.

Other families exist, but far away, some kind of benevolent (the Bird Book), some anything but (Malcolm's family in Country Mouse/City Mouse).

You can always spot the autobiographical wound. It's in every book, even when I mask it or write around it (I don't want to be that authorial one-trick pony who keeps writing about the same stuff). At times I'm leaving family out (Return on Investment), but even the absence signifies something. The unspoken can be just as significant, and usually is.

As a writer, I think I'll eventually get there to write about families that are not toxic, destructive/self-destructive/oppressive/dangerous. It would make a nice change. On the other hand, I think all families are messed up - by some standards, mine isn't even anything special. Some of its members needed 15 years of therapy to be able to cope, others have the luxury of writing about them.

Over time, I'll continue to dig into that toxic mess from several angles and try to make sense of it. I haven't even managed to write about the really vile stuff - the crimes and deliberate cruelty. There's an "accident" (read: likely murder) and at least one rape that'll keep me busy if I ever want to write a *really* dark book. I'm not there yet. Maybe I'm hoping that people die before I can write what I think is the truth, or at the very least, a compelling enough "myth" that it shaped my family and how those people act and react and interpret life.

And I'm not even beginning to look at the small, but much more pervasive stuff (like family members, both blood and married, who are not just right-wing but could be legitimately be classed as skinheads and Neo-Nazis).

Somebody once said that just surviving into adulthood means you have enough material for a lifetime of books. The books I'm bringing from there will at times be dark. It's my baggage, the load I carry. Above all, I'm glad for the distance in time and space and that I have the tools to make sense of it all.

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Royalty-split deals for translators - all aboard the crazy train

I've just had a very very strange encounter with a friend who is trying to build a side business for translating fiction. (We were also discussing her translating a few short pieces for me next year, something I'm shying away from, because I've crunched some numbers and can't currently afford to pay a translator anything approaching fair wages.)
And yes, cost is a big issue, especially for self-publishers and small presses. (M/m has been trying to push into foreign markets, some with decent results, others with awful results: in essence, it's a matter of under-spending and delivering sloppy results.) Cost has definitely held me back so far.
So, to solve the cost problem, some self-publishing people are advocating what they call the "royalty split". It looks great on paper: Translator does all the work, including quality control, editing, proofing, and gets 50% of the net proceeds from Amazon, while the original author gets 50%. Sounds fair, doesn't it?
Except it stinks.
Let's look at a real case that my hopeful translator friend is planning to jump on. I'm strongly advising her against it, and the numbers will show why.
Let's assume a full-sized novel of 80,000 words or about 250 pages. A translator would probably take about 100 hours to turn the book around. I'm pulling this number out of the ether, correct me if I'm far off the mark, but here's a discussion that seems to bear out my estimate.

S/he'd have to be damn amazing to turn in clean copy (most royalty-split deals assume the translator does EVERYTHING, including editing, proofing, quality control of the finished files). So assume we're having an absolutely amazing translator who does a great job in 100 hours and delivers a print-ready, layout-ready book.
The book in question is the second book in a series in a mainstream genre (not m/m), priced at 2.99. 

In my experience, all series "fade", in other words, every next book in a series sells 10-20% less than the one before. 
The current target-market Amazon sales rank of the first translated book in the series is about 800,000.
Based on my sales in the same target market (my book, launched at a similar date, has a sales rank of 50-60,000, which, I just checked, translates to TEN sales a month). Based on the 800,000 number, I expect that other book to sell maybe 1 copy a month. 

The translator of that book may or may not have signed a royalty-split agreement, but the fact is, that book doesn't even sell two copies per month, and it's priced at 2.99. In other words, the translator can't even buy a cop of coffee for her monthly payout. I hope to gods s/he asked for a downpayment or an advance or ANTHING.
Because, at an estimated 1/month (leaving the currency out), it'll take her decades, if not centuries, to get paid a fair wage, which I'd define as at least minimum wage, which is nowhere near what a qualified translator would ask for managing such a project and all the grunt work that goes into it.
The self-publishing advocated (who otherwise make a HUGE amount of sense) like royalty-split because they say it's a "fair" split of risk for the author and translator. 

That's bollocks. There's almost zero risk for the author (if the translation ends up sucking, just get a new word slave), and all the risk is with the translator. It's madness. In my humble opinion (as somebody who's done translating and editing), it's immoral.

At the very least, if you should consider agreeing to such a deal, make sure the author has a track record and actual SALES. And plan for the worst-case scenario: namely, author sells 1 copy a month or less. Make sure you're still OK working for free, because that's pretty likely going to happen.

Thursday, 16 October 2014


I haven't done that many words recently, but I have been doing quite a bit of research for the next book (my historical novel). Originally, I was planning to wrap up the first draft by 1 November, but that's not going to happen. It would mean writing 3-4,000 words per day to hit that goal, and while it can be done, I'm a lot slower than that when I'm on my own. (That would be roughly equivalent to 15-20 pages of finished text.)

However, the new goal is to hit "The End" by 12 November. Which is the date when I pack my bags and fly out to join L.A. Witt in Seattle for four weeks. (The last week, the Dude is joining us for some sightseeing.) The plan is to see Washington State (where we have a book set), Portland and Seattle (where we have several books set) and write a couple Market Garden books while we're in the same room. We have some fragments, but really need to focus for a few days to wrap them up.

So, the last few research books helped me understand an entertainment career in 1930-1940ish, which is what I desperately needed to flesh out my character. Like, how do get a record contract, what is the usual rate of pay, and how many sold copies constitutes a hit? I also looked at the evolution of jazz/swing, and some of that history was fascinating. I didn't know, for example, about the massively positive bias Paris had for blacks - essentially, once jazz/swing started making an impact, and no doubt also driven by Josephine Baker being a mega-star, Black was cool, and many black musicians/artists were astonished how much the Parisians loved them (even discriminating against, say, whites or other ethnic groups, like Romany, when it came to hiring), compared to their US/UK home crowd. (Of course, the Nazis ruined it all, and most black artists left Paris when the Nazis were at the gates.) It's not a part of history that's commonly taught.

So, yeah, fascinating stuff. It took me about two days to research all that, and there will only be a few sentences referring to it in the final manuscript, so in some ways, researching that deeply is an outrageous waste of time. However, I think it'll show in added depth, richness and confidence, so it's all good. If this book is going to be the best one I've ever done, putting in some extra work is no problem at all.

I'm planning to re-work some passages to reflect the research (just making it sharper and more correct - I was going with some guesstimates, and they didn't prove to be spot on).

On a side note, I hope everybody is having fun at GRL in Chicago this year. I'm hoping to be back next year.

Meanwhile, if anybody wants to meet me in Seattle from 13 November to 10 December, please get in touch. Happy to meet for a coffee/chat/sign books. 

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Wrapping the Scorpion series

For me, a book "leaves" in two ways: I've finished the editing process (developmental edits, line edits, proofing); I'm receiving the final files (allowing me to file the project folder under "published" and update my spreadsheet entry from "in editing" to "ready"; but even after that, the book is in limbo - no reviews, hardly anybody has read it, and I have no idea how it's being received. That last step can last months, sometimes half a year or a year. Unless the book is out there, there's still something unfinished about it. I haven't been paid for all the work, and I don't know whether it's a flop or a success. Whether the people I wrote it for actually like it.

In any case, A Taste for Poison, the third and last Memory of Scorpions novel, is now available. (And thank you, pre-orderers. It'll go into general circulation in two days (13 October).

This brings to end a process that started in 2010, when the idea came to me, and 2011, when Scorpion was published in its first edition by Dreamspinner. I wrote Lying with Scorpions in 2013, and Taste for Poison in early 2014. Both represent the largest part of my solo efforts in 2013/2014 (on my own, I'm fairly slow).

I've undergone quite a few changes since that first version. I went through four real life jobs, was laid off twice, head-hunted once, walked out of a job during my probationary period once, studied "Personal Development" type courses, from energy work to hypnosis. Changed direction a few times, blundering along the path that still always means writing. Regardless of all other shenanigans, I'm writing, thinking about writing, developing as a writer, and, hopefully, as a human being.

When I began writing Scorpion, we'd just moved into our house. As I write this, we've lived here for 4 years, re-vamped the garden, but overall not changed a lot. There's a sense of history for me between those books. Ideally, the reader won't notice the years that came in between. On my trophy shelf, however, where I keep my print author copies in order of appearance, there are several books between the parts of the Memory of Scorpions series: Capture & Surrender, Unhinge the Universe, the Country Mouse collection, the Japanese version of Skybound (all between MoS #1 and MoS #2), and If It Drives, Hostile Ground and Return on Investment (between MoS #2 and MoS #3). That's seven books in between - just showing how slow I am, really.

But considering that the ending of book 3 leaves a lot of room for future adventures, am I really done with the world? 

Not quite. That is, the Kendras trilogy is currently done. I might eventually return to the Scorpions and write about their adventures again, but I think I've left them in a good place. Feel free to make up your own version about what happens next.

There are a couple things that intrigue me about that world - a great deal, actually. I do want to write a novella about Widow's origins (how he fell in love with the Lady Protector, essentially - avoiding spoilers here), I want to write about how Adrastes joined the Scorpions (which is very different from how Kendras did it), and I'm intrigued in a can't-look-away kind of way y how the Scorpions started - or Veras An Timresh's last stand against the Westlander invasion at Gorge Point. I think I'm looking at a novella each at least, if not more. Then I know stuff about Selvan I wouldn't ind sharing, but that can be part of Adrastes's story. So, yeah, those might happen. I really hope they do - I love the characters, even if some of them are villains.

In the meanwhile, I really hope you enjoy the third book - and feel free to follow me on the blog tour and ask questions. I'll do my best to answer. 

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Assorted October news

I think I'll soon launch back into writing (maybe today, though the evening is taken over by my Queer Book Club) - the reservoir is filling up, and the thought of writing doesn't cause reluctance or disgust (yeah, it was that bad, and gods know why).

Then I'm part of a charity bundle called Another Place in Time, which brings together some of the finest historical m/m writers. You can get it here. All profits go towards, which champions LGBTQ rights globally. My contribution is the short story Deliverance, liberated from Noble Romance a while back and re-edited. You can find a more specific blog post about it all here. I will release Deliverance on its own likely in April 2015.