This is the first in a series of interviews with authors about their experiences dipping their toes into the epublishing pool.
Spinetingler: When did you write Choke on Your Lies?
Anthony Neil Smith: I had tried to write it several times over the past five or six years, maybe even earlier. But I finally got to it in 2009. Stopped for a while, then blazed on ahead. After my agent went through to give editing notes, I let it sit for another four months. No idea why. But we finally had it ready this past Fall.
Has Choke on Your Lies been shopped around?
To a few places. We tried some larger NYC houses, had a few editors want to see the book, and we’ve had a couple of passes.
What led to the decision to e-publish Choke on Your Lies?
I guess the next step would’ve been trying smaller presses, and to me the novel didn’t feel like a small press book. I love me some small presses, and my first four novels were on good ones, but to me this book felt more like a mass market throwback to the lurid sixties potboilers. And also, more submitting would mean more waiting–months for responses, and then if someone took it, another year to get it out. Also, I had just finished a thriller that my agent is about to send out to publishers, so in this particular case, I decided to roll the dice. I just wanted to try it out and get it directly to the readers, especially since it’s so different from what I usually do.
How did you decide on the price point?
Discussion with my agent, and also the sense that current retail books are just too damned high. Hardcovers are ridiculously priced. Trade paperbacks seem about right, and mass market are now ten bucks and extra-long. When I was younger, mass market books cost about 5.95. And I’m still young! So thanks to Kindle and other ereaders, new authors can give people a better price to entice readers into trying them. My current price in .99, but only through Feb. 4th. After that, it’ll cost you 2.99. Still a bargain. After all, no trees were cut down, no physical paper wrangling, no middlemen. So why not keep the price reasonable?
Would you like to share and or talk about the sales results so far?
It’s very early, so I’ll avoid actual numbers. But I’ll say this: it’s making me pretty satisfied. And this is something you don’t get to see much as an author–real sales numbers. Most of the time, I have no clue how many books are being sold. No idea how many are returned. I once did a signing at an indie store only to have the same signed copies show up again at a trade show six months later. The store had sent the books back, and the publisher sent them on without even check to see!
So with the ereader numbers, I finally get a glimpse into the underbelly. I like it. And I enjoy the process of figuring out how to sell it. I might make marketing errors along the way, but I’m learning and that will come in handy for later books.
Any feedback from readers?
So far I’m hearing great feedback. Honest feedback, too, which I appreciate. I can take criticism (as long as you can take my response to it). But so far people seem to really think this is an outstanding book with an excellent central character in Octavia VanderPlatts. We were worried that some people might think I was making fun of her–a very large and mean woman–but the truth is that I really love this character.
Is this something you will consider doing again?
Absolutely. I can see writing some work for the ereaders and some for the mainstream publishers. I’m a storyteller, and for each book it’s good to determine what the best strategy for getting it into the right hands is. So I see myself doing this more often. Hoping there’s enough sales of Choke on Your Lies to justify a sequel.
What are your hopes and expectations? Do you hope to create enough buzz to get a print publisher interested?
If a print publisher is interested and makes a good offer, sure. I’d consider it. But it would have to be someone who cares about building this series rather than just throwing it like a dart at a dartboard and forget it if it doesn’t hit triple twenty.
I don’t have expectations so much as I just want to see what happens. Like, I tossed a rock in a pond and I want to see how far the ripple goes.
You recently made one of your older titles available at a higher price point. What have the differences in the two been as far as sales are concerned?
At the moment, um…night and day. The older title at the higher price has some readers, but not that many. Still, that’s not as important. The important thing is keeping it available at a reasonably cheap price (compared to the print version) for anyone who might happen to want it along the way. SO for me, it’s a long term thing versus a short one. I plan to price most of my ebooks around 2.99. I’d pay that for books gladly.
The publishing industry has changed dramatically over the past few years. For you, what’s been the most surprising change? What changes are having the biggest impact?
I was surprised that the ereader market took off as fast as it did. Almost overnight, thanks to Christmas. One moment, it’s over there, gaining momentum so that “one day” it’ll be important, and then BAM! it’s *very* important already. The big publishers don’t quite know how to handle that yet. They’re still overpricing books, too. I think the author is getting a bit more power back, but they’re having to pull hard.
From what I hear, the idea of the author’s “platform” means more than the actual book, which is confusing. They’re trying to sell an author rather than a story? I don’t get it. And the lack of promotion is still baffling. I think there’s got to be a better way to find the readers who want the book and make sure you get it to them for a reasonable price.
The Kindle seems to be a double-edged sword. It’s simplified self-publishing, and hindered predatory presses that exploit aspiring authors, but it’s also helped open the floodgates to unedited works that could deter readers from purchasing self-published works. This raises an obvious question. For writers starting out today, with few or no substantial publishing credits to their name, what should they do? Is it likely writers who don’t have the prior approval of established publishing houses can make a name for themselves and achieve the level of success some established authors are presently enjoying?
Way over my head. From what I see, those self-made writers are doing well on Kindle, and I’m thinking that if they’re able to find an audience, good for them. I shouldn’t beat my chest and rail against them for doing what we all want to be doing–making themselves happy as writers and some pocket money, too. I still like the stuff that comes through the gatekeepers. It makes the process easier. But if people with ereaders are willing to go out and find the treasures in the vast sea of ebooks, fine. Authors just have to make their works the shiniest and best they can.
We’re getting to the point where print-on-demand can mean producing a book in a pretty short window of time, and ordering stock of items one at a time is a possibility with books. Do you see e-readers as a bridge to a future revolution in storytelling that allows for a whole new type of experience that incorporates reading and viewing and other sense, such as being able to hear the wind through earphones as you’re reading text, or hear music or a specific background sound? Or are the differences in the audiences too great?
I think we’re going to be able to integrate, yeah. But I also think there will always be a place for a simple text-based story. That seems to be the basis for so much of culture all over the world that it will probably never disappear. The act of reading creates the “dream” in your mind. Actual visuals can’t compete with that when you get down to it. No matter how great the special effects, I can think up a cooler one in my head. So the ereaders are just the next phase of how we carry those text-based stories around. Same thing that happened to music.
I’ve often thought that publishing was just a bit of technology away from opening the door to publishing companies started by authors, much like record labels sometimes are. We’ve seen a lot of musicians start with a known label and establish themselves, and then start their own label to enjoy a greater share of the profits and artistic control, but they also sign on other artists and the label produces music by other artists. That seems to be more possible within publishing than ever before. For example, what if Dan Brown or James Patterson started their own publishing companies? Wouldn’t that be an enormous blow to their publishers, who make millions off their books?
Might hurt the publishers, yeah. Physical books still need distribution, though. Ebooks, though…so the world is changing fast. Same as the oil industry. Electric cars are going to take over, and the oil companies are now becoming “energy companies” to save themselves. “Hey’ we’re still relevant! You still have to give us money!” But for how much longer?
So I don’t know what will happen to publishing. I’m curious. I really want to see what it morphs into. Hey, James Frey kind of already did the “off on my own” thing recently with Force Fathom Five or whatever. It puts writers to work. Takes advantage of them, yeah, but it puts them to work, too. If they’re willing to do it, it’s a job in writing fiction.
If each author becomes responsible for his or her own work–editing, marketing, sales, promotion–that’s going to be a different world. I’ve often wondered why the book industry can’t be more like the record industry, and by now I think the only answer is just that it can’t be, period.
Are the traditional publishers really as far behind as they seem to be? Do you think that publishers are going to change their percentages and dealings with authors to avoid losing writers? What do you think the publishers have to do to remain competitive and retain their talent over the next few years?
I have no idea. I’m continually shocked by what my agent tells me about the market. It all seems bizarre, some sort of sideways thinking going on. Maybe part of that is being in New York? It’s like things are a bit different there. Publishers think that what works in NYC works everywhere. I actually think some authors could make a whole career without ever leaving NYC. The rest of us, well…
So what I think you’ll see is what you’ve always seen–new technology comes in with a lot of possibilities, and the the big corporations figure out how to spin it, and it works because people like the gatekeepers helping choose stuff, too. But there will always be this cool underground over here that doesn’t get the press, making plenty of money with their “garage sales” (i.e. self-pubbed books). And many authors will find a way to have a foot in both.
I’m sure it’s possible that at some point, complaints and demands for refunds could become enough of a headache for Amazon to do something. Meanwhile, what do we authors do? What about reviewers and organizations? Let’s use Spinetingler as an example. We’re having an on-going dilemma. Should we run reviews of books that are self-published? Should we consider them for the awards? Behind the scenes, the writers behind such works argue their position. We’ve only opened the e-book door to anthologies, because of the realities of the short story market. What advice would you give us about how to proceed? What would you, as a writer, like to see happen?
As a writer…hm. I don’t write reviews because it makes me feel uncomfortable. Also because I don’t like most of what I read. I almost think writers should keep their noses out of the reviewers’ business.
But as for what you should do about ebooks, I’d say it comes down to attention. If an ebook is making big waves, sure, review it. If you read it and think it deserves attention, review it. Of not, don’t. I don’t expect reviews for Choke on Your Lies other than maybe some blogs. And honestly, it’s still tough to get small press books reviewed.
I’ve heard arguments for and against the whole thing about bookstores being able to return books that don’t sell–authors say it ruined everything, store owners say it’s a savior for them, and allows them to take risks on unknown authors. It’s complicated. Will individual returns on Amazon have the same impact? I can’t see that happening.
What are your thoughts so far on the e-publishing experiment so far?
I was scared shitless, and now I’m thrilled. I’m loving the instant feedback. I’m loving the control over the cover image. I’m a bit intimidated by the Kindle Boards and forums–wow, there’s lot to wade through–but I’ll figure it all out. I have to tip my hat to Joe Konrath, the trailblazer here, and Lee Goldberg and Stacey Cochran. I thought they were nuts. Now I think they’re prophets.
What is the Choke on Your Lies about and why should Spinetingler readers go buy it now?
It’s a raunchy modern take on the Nero Wolfe character, my homage to Stout’s creation. But it’s also original in the sense that it’s very Minnesotan (so says I), taking place in Minneapolis, and the narrator is a poet and English professor. I still can’t bring myself to write about a fiction writer–one of my pet peeves–but this cut close. I think you see glimpses of the old Wolfe world, but then it goes way off the rails. The narrator, Mick Thooft, is going through a divorce, but he wants it to be civil. Then his old friend Octavia calls and wants to help, all because Mick’s wife didn’t want her at the wedding because she was afraid Octavia would eat the whole buffet. Mick doesn’t want to accept, but when his wife tries to take the house from him, he decides to take up Octavia’s offer and play dirty. From there, it just gets worse.
Anthony Neil Smith is the editor of Plots With Guns. He edited the Plots With Guns Anthology and is the author of Psychosomatic, The Drummer, Yellow Medicine, Hogdoggin’ and Choke on Your Lies