In the last few months, I’ve received two emails from authors asking if By Light Unseen Media was still in business. They were wondering, they said, because “nothing has been posted on the website since 2013.”
By “website” they mean this blog, of course. We’ve released a couple of titles since then, but that’s not obvious from the book descriptions or main page. So, I have to apologize! I didn’t blog very regularly, as it was, and I haven’t been posting on the blog at all since 2013.
Partly that’s because BLUM has a Facebook page (www.facebook.com/ByLightUnseenMedia/), and I’ve been posting updates, cover reveals and news articles there. I’ve been updating the website, too, but if you’re visiting for the first time after seeing our name in a writers’ market list, you don’t know that.
By Light Unseen Media is most definitely open for business! Our titles are all in print and available, we are not in financial trouble, our authors get paid their royalties due promptly, and we’re not planning to go anywhere. Since that last blog post below, we’ve put new covers on most of our titles, and released A Most Malignant Spirit by Zvi Zaks, Blood on the Water by David Burton, and a special Kindle exclusive bundle of the Diana books by Inanna Arthen under the title Fortune’s Fool. In the next month or so–we’re fast-tracking it–we’ll be releasing a completely revised and updated second edition of Brad Middleton’s compendium of vampire-themed television shows, Un-Dead TV.
I won’t deny that we’ve been very quiet. Book sales took a nosedive in 2012 and I’m still trying to bring them back up, using various tactics including social media, paid ads with Bing, Amazon and Facebook, NetGalley, and special bundled editions for Kindle Unlimited. Results have not been as strong as I hoped, and because of this, I’ve been holding off on new acquisitions.
If you’re an author with a story that meets our submission guidelines, you’re welcome to submit a query. I’m very behind on responding to queries because I’ve had to take on other part time work to pay the bills. But By Light Unseen Media is open for submissions and I hope to expand our catalog and boost sales this fall. I sold my house and moved to a new town this summer, and financially things are looking up.
All the Shadows of the Rainbow, Book 3 of the Vampires of New England Series by Inanna Arthen, will be officially released on September 30. It will be available immediately in trade paper, hardcover (with dust jacket), epub, mobi (Kindle/Kindle Fire) and PDF editions, and you can order directly from By Light Unseen Media or through various retail outlets. Links to more outlets will be added to the detail page as the book goes “live” in their catalogs.
SUPPORT YOUR LOCAL INDIE! We would absolutely LOVE to have readers order our books through local independent bookstores! Each of our titles has an Indiebound logo on its page (forthcoming for All the Shadows of the Rainbow as soon as Indiebound picks up the ISBNs from wherever they get them). But even if your local store isn’t part of Indiebound, all our books may be ordered from Ingram. They are standard discount and fully returnable (please emphasize that. Some retailers simply can’t get it through their heads that so-called “POD” books can be returnable!). Indie bookstores are also welcome to order books directly from By Light Unseen Media, if they’d rather work on a “consignment” basis.
We make a smaller profit on books ordered wholesale than books sold direct, or through Amazon. But we want to support small bookstores and we’d like to see our books in stores. So do consider asking your local store to order for you–and if you have any problems, get in touch with us.
Two of our titles have new reviews! Nocturnes in Purgatory by Joseph Armstead was reviewed in the Sacramento Book Review and San Francisco Book Review, August, 2013 issues. Both are published by 1776 Publications, LLC. Unfortunately, the review will not be available online for a while yet, but you can read an excerpt on the book detail page here on BLUM, or, if you’re local to those cities, you can check the periodicals directly.
Inanna Arthen’s Vampires of New England series has just been released in an exclusive limited ebook edition for Amazon Kindle: The Compleat Vampires of New England. For a terrific price–cheap ($2.99) or nothing (for Amazon Prime members eligible for the KDP Kindle Lending Library)–you can get Mortal Touch, The Longer the Fall, and a generous sneak peak of the forthcoming third book in the series, All the Shadows of the Rainbow. This is your chance to catch up with the whole series!
Oh, wait, did the world not end, after all? Then all you vampire fans need something to read! If you have a brand new Kindle, Nook, Kobo reader, iPad or tablet, check out our ebook editions, only $4.99 for all formats. If you prefer paperback or hardcover books, you can order them from us, your preferred online vendor or your favorite indie bookstore. In fact, we’d love it if you asked your local indie store to order our books for you! They’re all available from Ingram–and the paperbacks can be printed while-you-wait on the Espresso Book Machine, if there’s one local to you.
Our newest offering, just released December 15: Nocturnes in Purgatory by Joseph Armstead. A sequel to Krymsin Nocturnes (2010), Nocturnes in Purgatory continues the adventures of Montgomery Quinn, a millennia-old “metahuman” who has battled vampires and evil magic since pre-history. In Armstead’s vivid alternate universe, vampires are “Homo Draconis,” humanoid beings who evolved in the shadow of Homo Sapiens and now exist as a secret underground, under force of treaties with the United States government. In this new story, Quinn and his allies–including “blood-witch” Cold Janey and semi-ghost Patricia Silver–attempt to prevent the vampires of Borrego Bay and a society of serial killers from getting, and using, a sinister artifact connected to powers that pre-date humanity. Combining the best of Robert Ludlum or Tom Clancy and H.P. Lovecraft, Armstead’s books are just what you want if you like your vampires evil and your thrillers richly detailed and horrific.
If you love vampires on television–from Dark Shadows to Forever Knight and Buffy the Vampire Slayer to Vampire Diaries and True Blood–you’ll love Un-Dead TV, the Ultimate Guide to Vampire Television. Exhaustively researched and written by Brad Middleton, founder of the biggest, best-known and longest-running vampire fan website on the Internet, Vampyres Only, and with a Foreword by J. Gordon Melton (The Vampire Book), Un-Dead TV includes hundreds of entries, photos, appendices and an index. The most comprehensive and detailed reference work about vampire-themed TV ever! Available in hardcover–ask your library to order a copy!
In August we released Dawn Prough’s City of Promise, an unusual vampire/science-fiction combination. In the year 2063, the only safe haven on earth for vampires is the independent metropolis of Gideon, built and governed by scientists. It floats in the ocean over the Atlantic Ridge, outside the territory of any nation, and offers vampires menial jobs and a “work for blood” program. As a diver cleaning the city’s underwater infrastructure, vampire Misty Sauval encounters a body…and a short time later, the body’s fiance, who has been brutalized by a crime boss who kidnapped his baby. Misty is drawn into Gideon’s growing criminal underworld as she attempts to help this stranger avenge his loss and recover his child.
No matter how you like your vampires, we’re sure to have something you’ll love!
You can order City of Promise by Dawn Prough directly from By Light Unseen Media or from online retailers. It will soon be available for order through your favorite independent bookstore (as soon as Indiebound catches up with the listings). Ask your local library to order a copy!
Science-fiction and vampire stories rarely mix. Prough’s exciting and fast-paced story is set in the year 2063 in the metropolis of Gideon: a city planned and governed by scientists and built to float in the Atlantic ocean, where it is outside the claims of any country or nation. Having exposed the existence of vampires to the world and triggered a brutal persecution, Gideon became the only safe haven for the vampires who survive, offering them housing and a “work for blood” program of menial night jobs. But this glittering new city’s prosperity is already attracting organized crime. Vampire Misty Sauval wants nothing more than to stay safe and legal, but she plunges headlong into warring gangs when she helps a mysterious injured stranger she discovers on her way home from an unusually rough night on the job.
Featuring a diverse cast of characters and a vividly drawn futuristic setting, City of Promise is an entertaining read. Don’t miss it!
Two recent spicy tales in the book world are giving me some thoughts about where readers’ attention and purchasing power is currently headed.
As all alert book professionals know, the “self-publishing” field is disproportionately occupied by so-called “erotica” (let’s not be prissy about it. That means soft- to hard-core pornography). This is especially obvious on Smashwords, where all you need to do is turn off the “Adult Filter” to see several new porn titles on the main page every time you visit. That’s one of the major reasons that I’ve retreated from Smashwords: the neighborhood has gotten pretty run-down, even for “self-publishing.” Sure, there are plenty of writers putting up books there about growing tomatoes or adjusting to new fatherhood, or ordinary genre fiction, or memoirs and poetry. But with that “Adult Filter” in place (it’s on by default, thankfully), I guarantee that you’re missing about a third of Smashwords’ most colorful offerings.
Being acutely aware of this, and also being aware of how virulently prudish, repressive and anti-sex America has become politically, I wasn’t at all surprised when Smashwords [finally] ran into some blowback.
In mid-February, Smashwords was informed that PayPal would stop serving their clients if Smashwords continued to sell books dealing with “rape, incest and bestiality.” PayPal claimed this actually came from the credit card companies they work with, and that seems to be true. Other vendors and “self-publishing” platforms were given similar ultimatums, by PayPal and by credit card companies.
Smashwords CEO Mark Coker sent an email out to Smashwords users, asking them to take down titles dealing with these themes: rape, incest and bestiality. All hell broke loose. Mark spent several weeks of what must have been agony placating angry writers and negotiating with PayPal, and finally, on March 13, PayPal caved in and moderated its policies. Smashwords clients were lucky. Other venues, such as Amazon, simply yanked the books, and one of them, Bookstrand, deleted all “indie” titles on any topic from its catalog, just to be on the safe side.
What interested me about this whole kerfluffle, however, was how many people were infuriated and threatened by the banning of these specific themes. There was no blanket purging of “erotica” per se. Only three admittedly fringe sub-themes were mentioned. Rape, especially if it’s presented as titillating or gratuitous, is almost universally condemned and rejected by editors, reviewers, agents, and most readers who say they won’t read or consider any fiction that includes it. Along with this taboo, you would think, if not hope, that incest and bestiality would be minority recreational tastes even among readers of erotic fiction.
But apparently not. Attempting to restrict fiction about “rape, incest and bestiality” seems to have rocked Smashwords to its foundations and, at least according to Mark Coker, sent most of its 30,000 writers into a foaming rage. It seems that stories about rape, bestiality and incest (chiefly non-blood-related incest such as stepfathers and daughters) must be very popular, and essential to the artistic expression of one heck of a lot of “self-published” writers.
I’m sorry, but that just strikes me as…weird. Mark Coker crows about championing “legal fiction.” But “legal” is merely a technicality and says absolutely nothing about merit, value, ethics or even the potential harm that something might do. Many proscribed things have no business being “illegal” at all, while many things are “legal” which are pernicious, toxic and downright evil. The porn industry has always waved the “legal” flag almost as a taunt, with descriptors like “barely legal” (which means, “kids who are technically over the age of consent but look young enough to indulge your pedophile fantasies”).
Of course, having won this very public battle for “legal fiction” and “free speech” (cue the Sousa marches and waving flags), Smashwords has now established itself as the number one porn-friendly “self-publishing” platform and is publishing even more “hot sex with stepdaddy” stories than ever. So if rape, incest and bestiality float your boat, you now know where to find them.
As the “self-publishing” world was dealing with this crisis, traditional publishing was dealt a similar thunderbolt by a trilogy snarkily labelled “Mommy porn” (and not in the sense of MILF, apparently). A British author using the name E L James wrote an extremely popular Twilight fan fiction story titled Master of the Universe, and adapted the story into an “original” trilogy of books (Fifty Shades of Grey, Fifty Shades Darker and Fifty Shades Freed). Initially published by a small Australian press, the trilogy was picked up in a bidding war by Vintage Books, part of the Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, for a 7-figure advance. The film rights immediately were sold to Universal for something over $5 million. The eager anticipation, pre-sales and general “buzz” around the first book’s release rival that for Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. As the New York Observer complained, everyone is talking about the newest blockbuster–and about its origin in fan fiction.
It’s not that unusual for fan fiction writers to transpose their plotlines into an original fictional universe for publication. You’d be surprised how many romance and erotica series, in particular, started out that way. Most of the writers go to greater lengths to disguise their stories’ roots and distinguish them from the source material than did James, who apparently changed very little except the characters’ names and the hero’s body temperature. It’s also not a bit surprising that a book with fan fiction origins is all about sex, because that’s pretty much what fan fiction is for. The vast majority of fan fiction has no other function than to imagine fervent relationships, torrid love affairs or just context-free erotic interludes among various characters, the more unlikely the better. (Sirius and Buckbeak? I know it’s out there somewhere. After all, bestiality is okay, Smashwords says so!)
But what I find somewhat disturbing is the phenomenal, mainstream enthusiasm for books dealing with a humble, submissive, youthful female being seduced and dominated by an older, extremely powerful and wealthy male. The Twilight Saga has been under attack for years about the “bad message it gives to teen girls,” the disparity of power and privilege in Bella’s relationship with Edward, and the fact that all of Bella’s self-worth and reason for existing depend on being accepted by a man. Now these same dynamics have been translated to a slightly more grown-up and very sexual relationship, and it doesn’t seem to bother anyone at all.
Alessandra Stanley writes in the New York Times, “what is shameful about “Fifty Shades of Grey” isn’t the submissive sex, it’s the Cinderella story. One reason the books sold so well over the Internet is that that this kind of riches-and-rescue tale isn’t easy to find outside Harlequin novels…it’s harder to find story lines that reward helplessness outside the bedroom — or off the rack.” Of course, “rewarding helplessness,” and fantasies of winning the adoration of an all-powerful male who will take care of the heroine so she never has to worry about responsibilities is a core attraction of romance for its female readers, and always has been.
You hear a lot these days about “rape culture” and “triggers” (topics that can reactivate trauma for survivors of abuse), often from the same individuals who fiercely defend their own tastes in erotica, and their right to free speech. It seems, however, that many people forget just how ubiquitous the “rape fantasy” once was in literature–and not just romance books, which weren’t called “bodice rippers” for nothing.
As part of my research for The Longer the Fall, I read a number of popular 1950s novels, including Grace Metalious’ Peyton Place. I was mildly surprised to find that Peyton Place doesn’t live up to its reputation. It’s a dismal, bleak, unpleasant book without that much sex in it, and the sex it has is no more exciting or positive than the rest of the story. But the really off-putting thing for me is that the hero of Peyton Place is a flat-out rapist, and apparently both Metalious and her huge audience found that perfectly okay.
I’m not talking about the infamous subplot, based on an actual incident, in which a stepdad molests his daughter, who has an illegal abortion and finally kills him. I’m referring to the virile Greek school principal who “cures” the older heroine’s frigidity (the result of a tragic affair with a married man and an illegitimate child) by brutally forcing himself on her.
The whole scene made me cringe, even though it was identical to the scene in Gone With the Wind in which a drunken Rhett carries a struggling Scarlett upstairs and rapes her all night. Like Metalious’ heroine, Scarlett awakens the next morning neither outraged nor traumatized, but awash in post-coital bliss. We all know how successful Gone With the Wind was, so clearly this dynamic, at least in the recent past, had considerable appeal for women readers. A masterful male sweeps a timid or repressed female off her feet and fires up her forbidden passions–that formula has earned countless authors and filmmakers their fortunes, and with Fifty Shades of Grey, it’s doing it again.
Alma Katsu asks, on Huffington Post, whether the monster success of E L James’ trilogy heralds a new era for acceptance of fan fiction. It’s certainly going to raise awareness of the massive volume of free, fan-written derivative work being produced and read, but what I see is the possibility of mainstream acceptance of very explicitly erotic books. Unless Fifty Shades of Grey breaks out of the gate only to fall flat on its face, I suspect we’re seeing the new wave in fiction publishing as a whole: lots and lots and lots of sex with just enough plot to justify it: basically sex for its own sake rather than serving a larger story.
I’m rather ambivalent about this. I like a well-written steamy bedroom scene, myself, but I prefer to see fictional sex play the same role it does in real life: dessert, not the whole meal. I also think that sex in fiction, like everything else, should serve the characters and story, not the other way around. But it’s starting to look like mine will be the real minority point of view when it comes to sex in books.
Ten or twenty years ago, the admonition, “consider the source” wasn’t always as reasonable as it sounded. As everyone who’s studied formal logic knows, “ad hominem,” or attacking the speaker instead of the argument, is a logical fallacy: a way of cheating in a debate.
But these days, with so much of the information presented to us consisting of unvetted, biased and self-serving rhetoric (when it isn’t just cynical bare-faced lying, which it often is), “consider the source” is the very first thing you need to do with anything you read online. That’s especially true with the endless punditry and advice posted by the gigabyte on the topics of publishing and writing.
An excellent example of this appeared yesterday in an editorial that’s been zooming around the Twitterverse and Blogosphere. Posted to Salt Lake City based KSL Online by Kimberly Sayer-Giles, the article is headed, “Romance novels can be as addictive as pornography.” The gist of the piece–you can go read it and come back if you need to, it’s not long–is that romance novels, in excess, cause women to have unrealistic expectations of their husbands and thereby threaten marriages.
There are so many things wrong with this piece, it’s mind-boggling. I’ll take it from the top.
The header, “Romance novels can be as addictive as pornography,” is one of those loaded statements like “when did you stop beating your wife?” It takes as a given that pornography is actually “addictive.” There’s no such general agreement. The word “addiction” is over-used to the point of trivialization in popular media. While it can include certain behaviors, those behaviors must be crippling and pathologically compulsive before they’re in the realm of true “addiction.” Of course, the pundits love to use this word because it’s a high-emotion trigger word and a cheap way of grabbing attention. They don’t care how misleading it is, they just want people to read what they saying.
So, the minute you read the article header, you’re being emotionally manipulated by a misleading word and an unsupported comparison.
The article next states that romance novels are enjoying huge popularity. Out of all the other categories of book to which romance sales could be compared, Ms. Sayer-Giles only mentions “religious, self-help and inspirational books.” It seems like an apples-and-oranges comparison, since fiction is consumed as entertainment while “religious, self-help and inspirational books” are all classified as non-fiction: books that are read for very different reasons. But her choice is suggestive of where she’s coming from.
Ms. Sayer-Giles writes,
“In fact, some marriage therapists caution that women can become as dangerously unbalanced by these books’ entrancing but distorted messages as men can be by the distorted messages of pornography,” said best-selling author Shaunti Feldhahn, who studies the differences between men and women.
“Some marriage therapists”–gee, can you vague that up a bit? Which ones? How many? Can we get a quote? And just who is Shaunti Feldhahn? If she “studies the differences between men and women” (that’s a rather broad field in which to claim general expertise), she must be doing so on her own time. According to her biography on Wikipedia, she has a bachelor’s degree in government and economics and a Masters in Public Policy. If she has formal training in psychology, sociology, gender issues, or even addiction issues, she’s keeping it quiet. Among her books, however, is a Bible study guide “for women only.”
Which brings us to the next paragraph:
According to psychologist Dr. Juli Slattery, author of “Finding the Hero in your Husband”, there are similarities between what happens to a man when he views pornography and what happens to a woman when she reads a romance novel.
Now, who is Dr. Juli Slattery? Well…according to the link in the article, “Dr. Juli Slattery is a Christian psychologist, speaker, wife and mother. She serves as Family Psychologist at Focus on the Family and co-host of the daily broadcast with Focus President Jim Daly and John Fuller.”
Focus on the Family, as we all know, is dedicated to vigorously attacking any form of entertainment which offends its extremely conservative Christian world-view. Their most high-profile assaults are against television, but they obviously pay attention to other forms of media, like literature.
At least Dr. Slattery has serious training in psychology. But I really have to question her assertions, as quoted and summarized in the article:
Men are very visual, and viewing pornography produces a euphoric drug in the body. This drug is the reason pornography becomes addictive. When the natural high wears off, a man will crash and feel depressed (as happens with any drug) and crave another hit.
A “euphoric drug?” Could she be talking about…endorphins? Activities that spark that “euphoric drug” include (among thousands of others) exercising, laughing at jokes, riding roller coasters, and healthy sex. But calling endorphins “a drug” makes them sound like something alien and unnatural, and pathologizes the universal experience of a pleasurable “high.” How can we be “addicted” to our own bodies’ natural response?
Dr. Slattery develops her argument for a few more paragraphs, and then we hear from another expert.
Pornography addiction counselor Vickie Burress said reading romance novels or viewing pornography may eventually lead to an affair for some women.
Now, who is this Vickie Burress? Well…she’s associated with Victims of Pornography.org, which is “a project of Citizens for Community Values.” Citizens for Community Values is a very conservative Christian activist group. Along with attacking pornography, they’re training candidates for public office in “Bible-based” perspectives.
Are we seeing a pattern here?
The entire article is very vague about precisely what it is about romance books that attracts women to neglect their marital relationships, and what, in detail, “romance addicts” do (or don’t do) that makes them so “dangerously unbalanced.” It offers no specific case examples, nor does it describe any common themes or tropes in romance that would be problematical. It glosses over the fact that “romance” itself is a huge and diverse category of fiction, about which it is difficult to generalize. The article also ignores the fact that almost all romance, by definition, promotes strong committed relationships and happy endings.
But I think the entire argument is one of those typical examples of backwards reasoning that lie behind every attempt to demonize some form of entertainment or recreation. It presumes that women who read romance novels and engage in fantasy to the detriment of their marriages would be just fine if they hadn’t been seduced and entrapped by those evil external forces. It would be far more fruitful to look at the women and their marriages first, because it’s highly probable that women who become “addicted to romance” are escaping critical problems with their spouses, not creating them. Fantasies may not be the most constructive way of dealing with marital conflict, but they can be a lot safer than confronting a husband who is, say, a violent batterer or an alcoholic. “Romance addiction,” if it even exists, is almost certainly a symptom, not a cause. Almost all addiction is.
The article concludes with suggestions for “fighting the addiction.” Ms. Sayer-Giles says,
Read self-help books together or contact a relationship professional or coach, who can help you to rekindle the flame in your marriage.
“A relationship professional or coach,” such as…? “Kimberly Sayer Giles is the founder and president of LDS Life Coaching.” That’s LDS as in Latter Day Saints: Ms. Sayer-Giles is a Mormon, and her advice comes from that perspective.
I have a lot of trouble believing that reading can be “addictive” in the same way that, say, playing the lottery or certain types of video games may potentially become. Reading is a unique activity, requiring a high level of engagement and creativity on the part of the reader. Yes, it’s pleasurable and stimulates endorphins–but unlike the passive experience of viewing pornography or watching TV, reading requires active psychological collaboration or it doesn’t work. It’s not the same kind of instant and unthinking reward that come from most addictive behaviors. While there may be women who sour on their nice but obese and absent-minded husbands after reading hundreds of books about muscular Highlanders, it’s doubtful that they’d prefer a paperback to real-life sex if the sex was even a fraction as exciting as the encounters in the book. Let’s put the real blame for these marriage problems where it really belongs.
Of course, I have to confess my own bias here. If reading and books were actually addictive and “dangerous,” I’d be out there corrupting the public at every opportunity. I’d lurk around elementary schools and offer free books to children! I’d read aloud to helpless senior citizens in nursing homes! I’d give books to babies! “Turn on, tune in and read” would be my clarion cry–no one would be safe! I’d be Public Enemy Number One!
Come to think of it…
But in all seriousness, I can only wish that reading was a true addiction. The fact is, I’ve never known anyone, of any age, to be harmed by reading any book. No one. Not ever.
No, it’s when people–especially young people, and women, and the dispossessed of all kinds–stop reading that we need to start being afraid. That’s when our society will truly risk becoming “dangerously unbalanced.”
There’s a huge change happening in the publishing world. It’s not very good for readers, and it’s going to be very, very tough on writers. It’s a fundamental shift in how publishers and those who support the publishing industry make a profit. This shift is occurring not merely in one area, but throughout the industry from top to bottom, and it’s happening rather quietly. The odd thing is, for all the attention focused on parts of this shift, no one seems to be stepping back and putting together the whole picture.
Among SF/Fantasy writers, there’s a maxim called Yog’s Law, that states, “money flows toward the writer.” That is, writers should never pay to be published, to have their manuscripts read by an agent, to be edited after they’ve signed with a publisher, and so on. This maxim was valid back in the days when charging the author almost always constituted a scam. The writer’s job was to create, and having done so, his/her goal was to sell the creation to a publisher who then shaped it into a marketable form and distributed it to the public.
That’s all changed now. Say goodbye to Yog’s Law: it’s about to join the typed manuscript with two carbons and those skinny galley proofs in the dustbin of publishing history. Writers are becoming the publishing industry’s second most important paying customers. This is not a prediction. It’s already happening.
In the book-publishing model that was current from around 1900 to the 1990s, an author’s role in the process was “the talent.” He or she delivered a manuscript to the publisher and was paid a lump sum originally intended to support the author until the book was in the marketplace. This “advance” was paid against future royalties as stipulated by the contract–it was calculated on the assumption that the book would earn much more. Aside from writing the book, the author participated to some extent in promotion, but this was planned and paid for by the publisher.
By the end of the 1970s (the recession might partly explain this), publishers started angling for “blockbusters,” titles which would become huge best-sellers and generate vast profits. In order to attract and keep authors and/or books that seemed likely to generate that kind of audience excitement, publishers began competing with each other and offering larger and larger advances. Although publishers have always been very secretive about their financial details, it was generally understood that most books published never earned as much in royalties as the author had already been paid. They were a loss for the publisher. It was the very few best-sellers that effectively subsidized the rest of the catalog. In pursuit of these, advances rose to outrageous heights, and single book deals turned into huge make-or-break risks.
This was not a practical way of running a business, and publishing houses rapidly folded or were bought by large media conglomerates that could afford to run the book division at a loss–not that they wanted to do that indefinitely. The conglomerates devoted the bulk of their funding and energy to promoting the biggest sellers, while so-called “mid-list” books were tossed out onto bookstore shelves with very little fanfare or promotion, given a few weeks to prove themselves, and were quickly remaindered if they didn’t take off. Mid-list authors found themselves doing promotion on their own, without the publisher’s support or financial backing for things like book tours.
The wealth, high profiles and celebrity status of a few top-tier authors attracted many more aspiring writers to the field. Agents and publishers were swamped with queries and manuscripts, the so-called “slush pile.” This led to a sharp increase in the number of disappointed hopeful writers accumulating rejection slips and frustration. They were a booming demand just begging to be met.
The second half of the 1990s saw the appearance and rapid development of three new going concerns. The first was the Internet, which gave aspiring writers an entirely new way of networking with potential readers, promoting themselves and getting to be known outside their immediate social circles. Second, these years saw the founding of several “self-publishing companies.” Unlike the old style vanity press, or true, author-does-it-all self-publishing, these companies didn’t require authors to front thousands of dollars for a large press run. They exploited digital printing (“print on demand” or “POD”), allowing books to be produced, economically and almost instantly, in any quantity from one on up, as they were ordered. Trafford, Lightning Source, PublishAmerica, XLibris, iUniverse, Authorhouse, and other companies popped up during these years, and aggressively recruited aspiring authors in venues like Writer’s Digest magazine.
Despite the utter scorn and contempt heaped on self-publishing by the professional writing community, despite lawsuits and scandals and complaints against some of the companies, despite the fact that these books rarely sold to anyone besides the author and his/her friends, the “self-publishing companies” became immensely successful. Although “self-published books” rarely if ever saw the inside of a bookstore, the third going concern to erupt in this period was Amazon.com. All the “self-published” titles appeared there, so authors could feel that their books were legitimately on sale, side-by-side with the biggest literary stars.
The companies operated at virtually zero risk, because all the expenses were paid by the author, with a very generous mark-up. Most of them sold “publishing packages” with various tiers. Those that did not charge the authors for services required them to purchase a certain number of books. The books weren’t even printed until they’d been ordered and paid for, and the “services” provided in the packages generally could have been obtained by the author independently for a fraction of the cost. The companies appealed to writers who wanted to publish their books without learning all the complexities of the publishing business. The companies also angled their marketing directly at the injured pride and stinging rejection felt by so many aspiring writers, and the bait was almost irresistible.
So the “self-publishing companies” grew and grew. Since 2000, scores of smaller firms have been founded–more than 100 of them at minimum–sometimes calling their programs by other euphemisms, such as “co-publishing” or “publishing partnerships.” Meanwhile, a number of the original companies have been collected together under the aegis of Author Solutions Inc., the world’s first self-publishing conglomerate.
But they all have one thing in common: they make their money from authors, not from selling books. The companies do make a small amount from book sales, and they certainly are happy to see a title take off and sell lots of copies, as, extremely rarely, one does. But with “publishing packages” generally starting at around $500 and going up to as high as $25,000 for a “package” that ostensibly includes pitching the book to the film industry, these companies are raking in the bucks.
By 2009, faced with closing bookstores and declining sales (and another recession), it was inevitable that traditional publishers would start to wonder how they could tap in to this lucrative phenomenon.
Christian publisher Thomas Nelson didn’t create much excitement when it launched its “self-publishing” arm, West Bow Press. Nor did Hay House when it opened Balboa Press, or LifeWay when Cross Books was announced. But when Harlequin, a major respected romance publisher, started up a “self-publishing” division named Harlequin Horizons, the professional writing community went crazy. Writers’ trade organizations RWA, MWA and SFWA delisted Harlequin as an “approved publisher” amid frantic accusations that Harlequin was cheapening the profession and sinking to the level of the much-reviled PublishAmerica. Consequently, Harlequin renamed its “self-publishing” imprint DellArte Press–but that’s the only thing it changed.
Publishers aren’t the only businesses aiming for a piece of the “author services” market. The venerable writer’s magazine, Writer’s Digest, has started a “self-publishing” imprint of its own, named Abbott Press. Like the publishing companies above, Writer’s Digest is collaborating with Author Solutions Inc., which provides the actual services to the writers, but other “author services” programs are handled independently. Bowker, which controls and sells ISBNs to publishers, is offering an “author services” package, which includes one ISBN number. Barnes & Noble now runs PubIt!, for “self-published” ebooks, and the indie music packaging service CDBaby has launched BookBaby.
Ebook self-publishing, so far from being the “revolution” it’s hyped to be, is simply the next level of the “self-publishing” wave. Like “self-published” print books, “self-published” ebooks are produced entirely by the author. The only difference between “self-published” ebooks and “self-published” print books is that the ebook enterprises–Smashwords, Fastpencil, PubIt!, Kindle and so on–don’t charge upfront for “publishing packages.” Instead, they operate as “author mills,” collecting pennies per unit sold, but signing authors and churning out titles in such vast numbers that their profits are enormous, because the financial investment for the ebook distributor is negligible. Whatever costs are involved in creating and marketing the book are paid by the “self-published” author.
But authors aren’t only paying to publish their books–they’re paying, willingly or otherwise, for the marketing and promotion afterward. As I describe here, “self-published” authors are now being charged fees to submit their books for reviews. Even traditionally published writers have been paying for marketing and promotional services for a long time, as publishers stopped bothering to promote mid-list titles. Companies providing those services have been well-established for a decade or more.
This is the REAL “publishing revolution.” It’s not epubbing. The notion that epubbing per se is some kind of “revolution” is absurd. It’s a logistical challenge for the nimble and a nightmare for the big companies locked into the status quo, but a change in publishing format is not a “revolution.” Nor is “self-publishing” a “revolution.” Authors could always self-publish. No one ever stopped them. Given what most of the “self-publishing companies” charge for their “packages,” it hasn’t even gotten much cheaper.
No, the “revolution” is that authors are now paying to be published, by the tens of thousands. The burden of reaching readers, building an audience, and making a profit is wholly on their shoulders. This is happening at breakneck speed in spite of the fact that “self-publishing” is no more “acceptable” than it ever was. In this broader context, the fine distinctions between true self-publishing, POD subsidy presses, vanity presses and self-published ebooks is meaningless. “Self-published” books of any kind are shunned by retailers, reviewers and book bloggers and dismissed by traditionally published authors. That hasn’t changed one particle–in fact, the prejudice has gotten even stronger as “self-published” books flood the market. “Self-published” writers are barred from every professional writers’ trade group, guild and union, and denied eligibility for their awards. Readers avoid them, saying they “don’t want to pay to read somebody’s slush pile.” Yet hordes of authors, both new and experienced, are embracing “self-publishing” anyway.
But they’re not challenging traditional large publishers. They’re doing them a favor.
I’m no more omniscient than any other pundit, but this is where I see things going. The media conglomerates will sign far fewer book deals, and they’ll be looking for “properties” that can adapt readily to other platforms, such as movies or TV series, as well as being blockbuster books. The publishing houses will have “self-publishing” branches and authors that don’t get a big contract will be referred to these programs. Any “self-published” book or author that rises above the churning mass of 99-cent ebooks and POD paperback novels to earn significant attention and profit will be approached by a big publishing company and offered a deal. The publishers won’t be subsidizing a loss-leader mid-list with their best-sellers anymore, and they won’t be shuffling through slush piles trying to guess what might pay off. They’ll let the writers and the free market take on all the risk and expense, and sift out the chaff for them.
With all those authors fighting to be noticed, the pay-for-review and pay-for-promotion industries will be booming, along with other “author services” like editing and cover design. There will always be a few James Pattersons, J.K. Rowlings, and Stephenie Meyers (and independent successes like J.A. Konrath), but everyone else will be digging deeper and deeper into their own pockets, and paying out far more money than their books ever earn in sales.
I find this scenario plausible for three reasons: first, it makes perfect business sense for the big publishing companies. They’ll never run short of writers; collectively, agents and publishers now reject hundreds of manuscripts every day. Offering writers a paid platform to prove they’d be a worthwhile investment, and making a profit off the writer either way, is a win-win deal for the publisher. Second, this forecast aligns with the general trends of corporate business practices and economic disparities in the United States, which appear in no danger of changing anytime soon. Third, it’s already happening.
This will be a very grim situation for writers. But what can they do? For every writer who holds out, twenty star-struck would-be celebrities will rush to sign up in their place. Just ask James Frey! It’s not going to be a lot of fun for readers, either. But after all, who cares about them? Not the publishers: they’re making their money off the “self-published” writers.
I don’t know what will happen to small publishers in this game, but chances are, they’ll continue pretty much as is–and a lot of them will eventually concede and start offering “author services” just to survive. The “self-publishing” rage is hurting small presses a lot more, because many writers are choosing that route instead of querying a small press, thinking that they’ll make more money on their own. The way things are going, small publishers might want to buy stock in Author Solutions Inc. and Amazon.com.
The very next day after I posted about the new trend of fee-for-service reviews, I received an announcement of another such program. Midwest Book Review has been running since 1976 and is unique in favoring small press and self-published books. They’re also unique, in my experience, in mailing out hard-copy tear sheets for the reviews they publish online.
Today Jim Cox, the editor-in-chief of Midwest Book Review, informed recipients of his email newsletter that he is launching a new service. Up to now, Midwest Book Review has been a strictly “post-publication” reviewer, accepting only finished, bound books. Now, for the first time, Midwest will review ebooks, ARCs, galley proofs and manuscripts–for a “reading fee” of $50 per title. Finished, bound books will still be reviewed for free–at least for the time being.
Mr. Cox explains that complimentary copies of finished review books can be sold by the reviewers to “supplement their income,” but the $50 reading fee is “the only compensation” that readers of ebooks or ARCs will receive for their time and trouble. It’s not clear whether the “reading fee” guarantees a review–certainly, most of the bound books sent to Midwest Book Review don’t make the cut. As far as I can tell, the $50 just means your ebook or ARC will be looked at.
In the past three years, it has become a lot harder for By Light Unseen Media’s books to get reviewed–so much harder, in fact, that I’m starting to wonder whether the time and money I invest in trying to get reviews of finished books could be more fruitfully spent.
In 2007, when Mortal Touch was released, I researched reviewers carefully and only queried or sent copies to those who reviewed that genre of book. I was hopeful but realistic. By Light Unseen Media had no other titles in print at that time, and Mortal Touch got no pre-publication reviews. I queried 26 reviewers, sent out 17 review copies and wound up with 8 reviews, including one that was syndicated and appeared in the Boston Globe’s book blogs and the Midwest Book Review.
By 2010, I had refined my techniques considerably. I’d built a long list of book review and genre blogs, with various preferences and specializations, and I carefully matched titles to reviewers. I only queried blogs that were active and current and obviously taking new books. For each query I sent out, I read the review submission guidelines and followed them exactly. By now, By Light Unseen Media had released half a dozen titles by several different authors. We were getting pre-publication reviews from Publishers Weekly and Library Journal. I sent books with a simple review packet that included information about the book, the author and the publisher, including distribution information. Since I reviewed books for Blogcritics, I saw publicist queries and review packets from the biggest publishers. I thought By Light Unseen Media’s review queries and packets were up to professional standards, certainly for a company of our size.
Our last title, Blood Justice, received a pre-publication review from Publishers Weekly. I queried a total of 45 bloggers and reviewers, most of them carefully selected from my long database (the author discovered several himself). In a few cases, the submission guidelines specified to just send a book, or I had sent books to the blogger previously. Most of them, however, asked for a query by email or webform. Of the 45, 6 replied saying they weren’t interested or were too backlogged with books. I sent out 10 review copies. 4 bloggers reviewed the book. The remaining 29 bloggers never responded to me at all, not even an auto-reply.
But that’s much better than my own second book did. The Longer the Fall got a pre-publication review from Publishers Weekly. I sent out 46 queries to book bloggers and reviewers. 5 of them replied saying they weren’t interested. I sent out 8 review copies. I got one review, from Harriet Klausner. From the remaining 33 reviewers I queried, I heard not a single word, not so much as a cricket chirping. Several bloggers who wrote favorably about Mortal Touch either ignored the query for The Longer the Fall or accepted a review copy and have never reviewed the book.
Our third 2010 release, Krymsin Nocturnes, fared similarly, after getting pre-publication reviews from both Publishers Weekly and Library Journal. To date, I’ve queried 54 reviewers and book bloggers, received 8 refusals, sent out 9 copies, and Krymsin Nocturnes has gotten one review, from Harriet Klausner. (I’m in her debt. Seriously.) I admit that the San Francisco Chronicle was a long shot. It’s the author’s local newspaper and I figured it couldn’t hurt to see if they would be interested in a hometown author (I guess not). I sent The Longer the Fall to the Boston Globe in the same quixotic spirit. But 34 reviewers never responded to me in any way whatsoever, not even to say “buzz off” (although by now, I’m kind of getting the hint).
A couple of the bloggers who reviewed Blood Justice didn’t notify me they had done so, and I only found the reviews as I was checking on the copies I’d sent out. One of them was a joint write-up with a similar book that left me rather puzzled. The reviewer wrote, “Both of these trade paperbacks are by imprints I’ve never heard of and I suspect they’re both print on demand that you’d probably find most easily by ordering them through Amazon. For all I know, they’re self published although if so I’ve read professionally published work that wasn’t as well written.” Now, I’m delighted that Blood Justice got a mention, especially one that says it’s well written! But I’m not sure why the reviewer said “By Light Unseen,” as he called us, is an imprint he’d never heard of. I’d sent him books before. Blood Justice had a review packet accompanying it, and the copyright page has complete details including our Mission Statement. But most of all, I know this gentleman! We’re in the same regional writers’ group and I’ve met him!
Clearly, I didn’t make much of an impression on him.
I spend a lot of time looking at book review blogs. What I’m seeing now is that book bloggers–apparently–only want to review books from the big publishing companies. They’re all reviewing exactly the same few big release books–and nothing else. In a given week or month, I’ll see ten, twenty, fifty reviews of the exact same titles. When the blogger runs out of mainstream books, he or she blogs about random topics, or picks a favorite old classic published decades ago and does a fondly nostalgic write-up on that. Retrospective articles about old books are becoming more and more common on book blogs.
The implicit message from the book bloggers seems to be, “Don’t call us–we’ll call you.” The only way to get reviewed these days, it seems, is to make your book conspicuous and important enough that it attracts the blogger’s attention and he or she wants to read it, and asks you for a copy (or buys one, as some do). I found a post from a young blogger explaining the right way to approach a publisher and request a complimentary review copy. It was a good post and sound advice, but I couldn’t help feeling a pang of irony when I read it.
I’m guessing that the bloggers have been so overwhelmed by “self-published” (i.e. published by the vanity/subsidy companies like AuthorHouse, XLibris and so on) authors that they’re refusing to look at anything that isn’t a recognizable big name imprint. So much of the “self-published” stuff is desperately, horribly bad–unreadable bilge–and the authors, spurred on by the companies and all the marketing gurus, are unprofessional, persistent and entitled. “Self-published” authors flood the Amazon forums with constant self-promotion and pester Barnes & Noble continuously (which is why Barnes & Noble was so incredibly rude to me). I’m sure they’re aggressively hounding all the book bloggers all of the time, and consequently the book bloggers, like oldtime speakeasies, only open their doors to celebrities and personal friends. I’m having to remove more and more bloggers from my list because their guidelines now say, not only “no self-published books” but “no POD books.” A lot of the “self-publishing companies” let their customers use an “imprint” name, so the bloggers can’t tell whether an unfamiliar imprint is a small press or a camouflaged book from PublishAmerica.
In the last few months, there have been several online uproars sparked by authors who took public exception to comments made in reviews, and either sniped at the reviewer or complained on their own blogs. There have even been rumors of an alleged “YA Mafia” of authors supposedly intimidating book bloggers to only give them glowing reviews, or be cut off from receiving future review copies. You can bet that I have less than no sympathy for these prima donna authors. They don’t know how lucky they are to be getting reviewed at all. They’re taking their privilege for granted and then complaining about it. Right now, I follow some twenty book bloggers and genre review websites on Twitter. Not one of them will review By Light Unseen Media’s books. A number of them have submission criteria that ban me from even sending a query.
Book bloggers have the absolute and unqualified right, of course, to review–or not review–whatever they choose. It’s their time and their blogs. I’m not trying to criticize them. After all, book bloggers do this for the love, no one pays them a dime for all their hard work, right?
Well… That might be about to change. There’s a whole new review game in town and some of the biggest names in the industry are already on board.
“Self-published” authors (usually flattered with the label, “indie”) are now being aggressively solicited to pay for the privilege of being considered for a review. They’re not paying for the review, of course–that would be unethical! The descriptions of these services all very carefully explain that the author isn’t paying for a review. The fee is simply for submitting the book, and “to cover costs.”
Kirkus, one of the big pre-publication reviewers, has been running such a program for a number of years. It used to be “Kirkus Discoveries” and now is called “Kirkus Indie,” and costs $425 per title–$575 for “express service” (which I guess means the review comes out before the copyright expires). Irene Watson’s Reader Views has also been running for a while. With Reader Views, the review is “free” but the accompanying “publicity package” costs from $95 to $495. There are a few smaller pay-to-submit review websites. About a year ago, The Jenkins Group launched The Critics’ Bookshelf, in which “indie” authors can list their book, for $179 per title, in a sort of catalog that is mass-mailed to reviewers, media outlets and so on. The Critics’ Bookshelf is premised on the imaginative notion that book reviewers are desperately searching for more books to review.
Now two more of the big pre-publication reviewers have realized that there’s money to be made from all these hungry “self-published” authors. ForeWord has initiated ForeWord Digital Reviews: web-only reviews for which you can be considered, for a submission fee of $99 per title. Meanwhile, the granddaddy of them all, Publishers Weekly, offers PW Select, a special quarterly supplement for “self-published” books. Authors can submit their books for $149 per title. Subscribers get the fee waived, but how many “self-published” authors subscribe to Publishers Weekly? (You get a partial subscription with your book listing, which may be another motive for PW: to boost circulation.)
The catch to these fee-for-service programs by Kirkus, ForeWord and Publishers Weekly, of course, is that they firmly segregate all the “self-published” books into their own isolated and well-labeled section, rather than evaluating them in fair comparison with the mainstream books that get reviewed for free. I can guarantee you that the only people who will ever read these reviews will be other “indie” authors looking for their own review. No one else will waste their time. That big red “S” pasted on every book reviewed in these special sections doesn’t stand for “self-published,” and everyone knows it.
I can’t help wondering how long it will be before the book bloggers catch on to this gold mine. After all, a “self-published” author who’s already spent anywhere from $500 to $15,000 for a “publishing package” can hardly balk at a “submission fee” of $49 or $99 to have his or her book reviewed on a high-traffic blog alongside big-name bestsellers, right? Why shouldn’t successful book bloggers get some compensation for their considerable time and trouble? A fee would help select out the serious authors (or at least the well-funded ones) from the mere dilettantes. It’s a no-brainer! Some book blogs already take paid advertizing. Submission fees for “self-published” and other unsolicited titles is a logical next step.
Whether or not book bloggers will head down this road, I have no idea, but charging fees for services that once were free is certainly becoming universal, in all areas of life. More and more, it’s looking like the old standby of paid advertizing is the most effective marketing tool. At least it’s honest. Everyone knows what an advertizement is. But readers and consumers are already cynical and overwhelmed by “social networking” and “news articles” and “infomercials” that are nothing but marketing and promotional puffs in disguise. As fee-for-service reviews proliferate, readers will quickly stop trusting those, too. Even now, the two major reasons that readers will pick up a new book are familiarity with the author and recommendation from a personal (non-professional) friend. Publishers and authors can’t control those and they can’t buy them, and readers know that. It used to be that the impartial, professional book review almost qualified as a personal recommendation for readers, precisely because of the perception that a review was a gift, and not for sale. I’m very sorry to see that change.
Of course, I’ll continue to send out complimentary review copies of By Light Unseen Media’s books to any book blogger or reviewer who wants them, without hesitation. Paperbacks, ebooks and ARCs are all available and always will be. But the handwriting is on the wall, and it’s obvious that small press publishers have to find–or maybe invent–other creative ways of connecting their books and their potential readers.