Sketch: Harkonnens on Hard Times

So Emmet Blue called me out on my Quick and Dirty fantasy map. He made an educated guess (Indonesia), and now I owe him a sketch. Let that be a lesson to the rest of you: before putting a Google Fantasy Map in your book, maybe rotate it, tweak the coastlines, and don't ask Emmet if he knows where it is.

It's been over two months since I drew anything for you guys, though. Maybe I deserved it.

The commission was, and I quote, "an Elvis-suited Baron Harkonnen singing karaoke while floating at an odd angle, maybe with Sting backing up on bass. That, or whatever that imagery makes you think of." Here's what you get:

What Can a Train Wreck Tell Us About the Future of Publishing?

You probably heard of the Jacqueline Howett fiasco a couple of weeks ago, wherein one self-published author got a bad review, yelled at the reviewer, and then began swearing at everyone who came to the reviewer's defense. In reading it, I understood the train wreck analogy: I knew people were getting hurt, but I couldn't not watch.

It got a lot of people thinking about self-publishing (and the social psychology of the internet), but to me it says that maybe the worlds of traditional publishing and self-publishing aren't as different as we think they are.

Before I go on, though, a little Professionalism 101:  


Okay. What was interesting to me about this incident was what happened on that book blog was the same thing agents complain about in the slush pile. Namely, an unprofessional author got mad about a rejection.

The only difference is, this time, everybody got to see it.

It's like the slush pile is being made public, along with everything that means--unprofessional authors arguing with rejections, berating reviewers on their blogs, complaining about the unfairness of the system. Except now, "the system" isn't a centuries-old institution trying to make money off authors. It's just people.

Some revolutionists say this New World, in which anyone can find their own audience, removes the gatekeepers. But seeing a slush-pile-like reaction like this seems to imply the opposite: the gatekeepers are not gone, they're changing.

A gatekeeper's job is to sift through the slush, separating the good from the bad using the only measuring stick they have: their opinion. Book bloggers, like the one Howett railed against, are among those new gatekeepers. They can't keep people from buying something, of course--just like Random House can't keep me from renting my own printing press and hand-selling throughout the country--but they have a very strong word-of-mouth influence. Many book bloggers even have a very agent-like process, with submission guidelines, queries before full requests--and, apparently, dealing with the angrier members of the slush pile.

Understand, I don't think this incident says anything about self-published authors in general. For one thing, traditionally-published authors sometimes do the same thing.

For another, all the indie authors I know are professional, stand-up folks. Howett is an outlier.** My point is that the same outliers are, and always have been, in the query system. What happened two weeks ago is the same kind of thing agents deal with all the time.

It makes me think the Old World and the New World might not be as different as we thought.

* I do believe that, in theory, an author could respond to a negative review in some positive way. Something like, "I'm really sorry you didn't like that aspect of my book, but I appreciate the constructive criticism. I'll try and improve that in the future."

But it's only a theory. I've never seen it done, nor done it myself, so I don't know how it would be received.

** Also, Ms. Howett may have been having a very bad day, or any other number of things, that might have contributed to her public outrage. This post isn't intended to mock her, just to take a look at how similar it is to a slush pile.

Five Things I Love

I don't remember where I got this meme, but here it is. You may see it again in the future.

Also, you may notice there's a poll in the upper-right corner (some of you will have to click through to see it). I'm thinking of doing polls this way every once in a while, but probably not if nobody's voting. It's up to you guys.

Anyway, 5 things I love:


Rainy Days


Deep Fried . . . Whatever


Hook, Hook, Where is the Hook?

The hook is what you say when your friends ask, "So what's your book about?" It's how you tweet about your book. It is the fundamental concept behind the plot of your story, written in such a way as to make the reader say, "Cool, tell me more."

But how the heck do you distill 100,000 words into one sentence of cool? It's not easy. The internet has some good tips already, but I'm going to throw my own version into the mix because with something as subjective as a novel hook, you can't have too many ways to think about it.

I think there are 7 things the hook should have:
  1. Protagonist. Who is the story about?
  2. Antagonist. Who or what is against the protagonist?
  3. Goal. What does the protagonist want to accomplish?
  4. Stakes. What will happen if the protagonist does not accomplish their goal?
  5. Conflict. What is keeping the protagonist from accomplishing their goal?
  6. Setting. Where/when does the story take place?
  7. Theme. What is the story's main subject or idea?
Figure out that information, then stuff it into a sentence. That's your core. The rest of your query, synopsis, and even your novel needs to be focused around that. For example:

A cowardly bookworm receives a package from his supposedly-dead mother, so he joins a crew of air pirates to find and rescue her.

This is the hook for Air Pirates. Can you see the elements? Some are weaker than others, but they're there:

Protagonist: cowardly bookworm
Antagonist: not specified, but implied in the word "rescue"
Goal: to rescue his mother
Stakes: his mother will be hurt or die (implied in the word "rescue")
Conflict: he doesn't know where she is, and presumably someone doesn't want her to be rescued
Setting: implied with "a crew of air pirates"
Theme: a coward overcoming his fears

As you can see, not everything has to be stated explicitly, but the more clear the 7 elements are, the stronger your hook will be. (There's a lot to be said for voice, too, but I'm not dealing with that here).

Also be certain nothing else is included. The more you try to cram in, the more questions are raised. In the example, I didn't tell you about the future-telling stone in the package because, although it is important to the story, it raises a lot of questions. And as far as the hook goes, it doesn't matter what's actually in the package, just who it came from, and that he thought she was dead.

So an exercise for you. Take a look at the (current) hook below for my Shiny New Idea,* and see if you can find the 7 elements in it. Which ones are weakest? How could they be made stronger? (I'm not asking you to do this in the comments, though you're welcome to, if you want).

A fugitive ninja must convince a young con-artist to take the throne, before the nobles kill everybody in civil war.

Then take a look at your own hook and do the same!

* Post-Apocalypse Dragon-Riding Ninjas (with Mechs!). Don't worry. It all makes sense in my head.

(This post is a remix of an older one) 

Sifting Through Self-Pub Statistics

It's hard to find good statistics on what's going on in the publishing industry. If you read J.A. Konrath's blog, it sounds like making five figures a year in self-publishing is easy. If you read almost any publishing insider blogs, he's an unpredictable outlier.

I want to know what the averages look like, not the outliers. Let's see what we can find.

Disclaimer: I'm working with a lot of averages and assumptions in this post. Feel free to refute them if you've got hard, non-anecdotal facts.

Traditional publishing is tricky. I've heard everything from 0.03% to 1%. Agents get something like 10,000 queries a year, and take on a handful of new clients each. Of those, only some get published. Probably the number is lower than we'd like to think. Traditionally published: 0.1%.

Self-pubbed is easy. Anyone can do it, that's the whole point. Self-published: 100%.

So far, self-publishing looks like an easy pick, but getting published isn't our goal, is it? We want to make money.

No one likes to talk about advances in the publishing world, except to say that "it varies." Tobias Buckell did a survey a few years ago and found the median advance on a first novel was $5,000. Those numbers are old, but we'll go with it. Apparently most novels don't earn-out their advance, meaning royalties become a moot point. So unfair though it may be, I'm sticking with the simple number (minus your agent's 15%). Traditionally published: $4,250.

Self-publishing has no advance, but depending on how you do it, you may not even pay for editing, cover art, or printing services(!). On top of that, Amazon gives authors 70% royalties. JA Konrath suggests an eBook price of $2.99 to increase sales, and I have no reason to refute him here. That means $2.09/book.

But how many books? That's more difficult. Konrath sells thousands of copies per month, hundreds of thousands totals, but that's on many books. Breaking down his numbers, it looks like he has sold, on average,* about 4,000 copies/title. On a given title, then, he made $8,360, almost twice as much as our traditionally published debut author.

But we're not Konrath, are we? We're Average Debut Author Joe (or Joan). And the average unknown author sells, as near as anyone can figure, somewhere between 100 and 400 copies on a single title. Self-published: $522.50.

Traditional publishing wins, right? Well, this is still not the whole story.

If I offered you $10 right now versus a chance to win $80 for rolling a '6' on one die, which is the better bet? You have to look at the expected value. If you take the former, you have a 100% chance of getting $10. If you take the latter, you have a 17% chance of getting $80, for an expected value of $13.30 ($80 x 0.17). So, the $80 is a better bet (though the risk-averse might not care and opt for the ten-in-hand).

That's what we've got here. Traditional publishing offers more money on average, but it's much harder to get there. From the numbers I've got, the expected value for traditional publishing is low. $4,250 x 0.1%. Traditionally published: $4.25.

Where as self-publishing gets 100%. So, Self-published: $522.50.

But it's still not even this simple. These numbers make it sound as if $522.50 is a sure bet (the ten-in-hand, as it were). If that were the case, I'd be working on a random novel generator right now and sell books at $500 a pop! But randomly generated novels will not make you money. In both cases, you have to write something people want to read.

And in both cases, you have to do an insane amount of work both to write the novel and promote it. Once again, you have to ask what your work is worth. Nothing is certain, whichever direction you go.

For me, I'm still aiming at traditional publishing because it's not (strictly) about chance, and I believe I can do it. Because I wouldn't be the writer I am today if I had self-published the first thing I wrote, and I want to see how much better I'll be in the future. Because I'd rather hold the novel for some point in the future when I can make it much better, than make a couple hundred dollars today.

But that's today. Who knows what the future holds?

What's your route, and why do you do it?

* I'd prefer the median, since all of these stats are tainted with outliers, but I gotta work with what I got. Anyway, medians would just lower the numbers, not raise them.

Books I Read: Elantris

Title: Elantris
Author: Brandon Sanderson
Genre: Fantasy
Published: 2006
Content Rating: R for action violence

It used to be that men and women were transformed, seemingly randomly, into nigh-immortal, magical beings. When this happened, they and their families moved to Elantris, the city of the gods. Ten years ago, the magic died. Elantrians lost their power and beauty, becoming like the living dead--unable to heal, enduring pain and hunger so severe that most succumbed to insanity.

When Raoden, beloved prince of the kingdom, becomes one of the fallen Elantrians, his father covers it up, telling the kingdom he has died. Sarene, his bride from another land, arrives in her new home a widow. Meanwhile Hrathen, high priest of the enemy's religion, intends to convert the entire kingdom, because if he doesn't, his god will annihilate them all.

The book alternates between the viewpoints of the three main characters. I admit, I wasn't always interested in all three points of view (most of the time I found Raoden's the most interesting, though the political and religious tension were usually on Sarene and Hrathen's side). Also the novel felt like it started slow to me, but then it's epic fantasy. I understand Sanderson has a world he needs to reveal (and it wasn't infodump-slow, just slower than I wanted).

But by the end, I loved it. One of my favorite things about Sanderson (having read two of his worlds now) is how he reveals the complexities of his world through the story. Not by hiding things from the reader, but by revealing secrets as the characters figure them out. In both Elantris and Mistborn, the characters initially believe the world works a certain way. As they try to save their world, however, they discover there is much to it than they thought possible.

It's that aspect of Sanderson's fantasy that is starting to make him my new Orson Scott Card (no disrespect to Card--Ender's Game is still my favorite novel of all time). If you like fantasy, and you've already read the Mistborn trilogy, try this one out. You might like it.

Is that your Fantasy Trope Smashed and Bleeding on the Floor?

Today is the day! (Well, yesterday, actually, but you get the point). Cindy Pon's novel, FURY OF THE PHOENIX, is out in the world, and to celebrate I'm giving away two copies here today.

The first copy, by random drawing, goes to....

J.J. Debenedictis!

And the best bad dialog--winner of both FURY OF THE PHOENIX and the prequel, SILVER PHOENIX--is the one that not only mocked As You Know, Bob sequel dialog, but it tore apart every single fantasy trope at the same time.

Seriously. I have to rethink my own WIP now.
        "Let's go. We must hurry to Mount Sin."
        "Varen, you mean so we can find out you if you are not really the son of your father who is a farmer but may in fact have royal lineage flowing in your veins, and your mother died because she kept you secret because the evil Lord Goranthianolian received a prophecy from a wandering gypsy who said a child with a glaring star birthmark on their forehead is the only thing that could destroy his evil empire at the solar eclipse sixteen years hence, which just happens to be this summer, but your fake mother, who is actually your mother's nurse maid who ran away with you on your real mother's order to save your life kept this great secret from you for unknown reasons until now, and we only know about it because of Moira, who we thought was a boy but is a girl who was dressed as a boy so she could avenge her father's death and whose death may be from the hands of Lord Goranthianolian's most trusted war leader and chief commander, Tim, and is only exceeded in evil by the great lord himself, and for a little bit we thought she was related to you, but that turned out to not be true, which is a good thing for you, and now we have to travel across hundred of miles to Mount Sin and seek the wisdom of an old shaman woman who lives on a volcano for no apparent reason and see if you truly are the star child of the great prophecy, and we have to do it before the month wears out so we still have time to assemble an army, make new friends, probably pick up a talking cat, and a couple of side quests along the way to deter us, oh, and Moira will probably be kidnapped at some point as well and we will have to rescue her, and do it all in a logistically impossible short amount of time, and save the world?"
        "Yes, exactly. Saying it like that makes it sound horrible. Please don't ever say it like that again."
        "Yes, young possible lord."

It also may be the single longest sentence in the history of bad dialog. Anyway, congratulations Heather Zundel! If the winners could e-mail me at with a shipping address, I'll have their prizes shipped straight away.

As for the rest of you, are you sad you didn't win? A bit jealous, maybe? Well get your own copy! You know you want to.