Notes from a Singaporean independent writer

Channel NewsAsia interviewed me today on the topic of trends in self-publishing. You can find the full clip here.

In this post, I’ll expand on the key talking points in the interview, addressing the big debate between independent and traditional publishing from a Singaporean perspective.

What is an independent writer?

I defined an independent writer as a writer who is not compelled by contract to write for a publisher. With the advent of self-publishing and print on demand technologies, every writer is also potentially a publisher. Writers are no longer beholden to publishing houses to publish and sell their works. This means that writers are free to pursue self-publishing or fairer contracts with publishing houses — or both. Regardless of the path to publication, the writer gets paid higher royalties and the reader gets more books, leading to a win-win situation.

Previously, I called myself a self-published writer because that was the path I took. Now, having adopted a hybrid publishing path, I define myself as an independent writer. I self-published my stories American Sons and At All Costs, and I will be self-publishing my next novel Keepers of the Flame. In addition, I sold a short story, War Crimes, to Castalia House for its upcoming anthology Riding the Red Horse. This hybrid approach suits me best, because through self-publishing I can build up my core brand, and Castalia House lets me tap markets I could not have reached otherwise.

Self-publishing: With great responsibility comes great rewards

Self-publishing offers many benefits over traditional publishing, and very few of the disadvantages. Through self-publishing, the writer retains total control over intellectual property rights, the publication process, distribution, promotion and sales. This is the pitfall and the promise of this approach.

Writers who take the self-publishing route have to think of themselves as writers and publishers. The work does not stop when the writing is done. After writing comes editing, cover art and formatting. These have to done to a professional standard to attract and retain customers. Following publication, the self-published writer needs to think about distribution, marketing, branding, pricing, legal regulations, and accounting. If the writer cannot handle these, the writer has to hire someone to do it, which drives up overheads.

Yet this responsibility comes with opportunities. Publishing houses want to make money, and they will focus their efforts, resources and energies on their bestsellers and the best-selling genres of the day. Newcomers are left to fend for themselves. A self-published author chooses which editor to work with, instead of an editor who might not understand the genre he writes in. A self-published author decides what the cover art looks like, instead of relying on a graphic designer he may not be able to communicate with and may not know what the book is about. A self-published author can choose when, where and how a book would be sold and at what price, responding directly to the state of the market, instead of relying on a marketing team that is likely too focused on promoting established bestsellers. A self-published author gets to define their brand instead of letting a marketing team do it. A self-published author cannot be locked into unfair contracts by unscrupulous publishers, allowing them to retain full rights to their work, to use as they wish.

Most importantly, self-published writers are not beholden to the whims of publishers. Publishers want to make a profit, and this means publishing books they believe to be profitable, written by high-profile or connected writers. Without a network or reputation to rely on, or a manuscript that happens to fit the hot genre du jour, many writers are out of luck — unless they take the self-publishing route. Nate Granzow writes men’s adventure fiction, but traditional publishers do not think the genre is profitable (notice the dearth of books in that genre on bookshelves these days). By publishing on Amazon, he got his opportunity to shine — he was one of the 1000 finalists of Amazon’s Breakthrough Novel Awards 2012, and ranked first in the Mystery/Suspense/Thriller category in the IndieReader Discovery Awards 2012.

By shouldering the responsibilities of self-publishing, self-published writers get to reap much larger rewards than their peers. Smashwords offers 70% royalties, plus distribution to affiliates and marketing tools. Amazon also offers 70% royalties, plus extra promotional tools for Kindle exclusives, access to a global supply chain, and its brand name. (Note for Singaporeans: after the Internal Revenue Service takes its 30% withholding tax, the actual royalties are closer to 45%, and because Singapore does not have a tax treaty with the US at this time, there is no way around this.) By using online ecommerce tools, writers get to sell directly to consumers, earning royalties between 90% to 100%. I use Sellfy and Gumroad, which you can find on my website’s bibliography page.

In addition to creative control and royalties, there are three other ancillary benefits: dexterity, flexibility and economies of scale.

Using self-publishing tools, writers can update their works very quickly. If they want to upload a reworked cover or an corrected manuscript, all they have to do is upload them on their distribution or publication platforms, and the changes will be committed within 24 hours at no additional expense. Publishing houses cannot boast the same turnaround time, and for publishing houses that rely on traditional print-to-warehousing-to-retailer solutions, the cost of changing manuscripts can be prohibitive.

This low-cost dexterity also leads to story flexibility. Thriller writer Steven Hildreth Jr. began his publishing career with The First Bayonet. The story started off as a novella on the Kindle store. He received so much positive attention, he expanded it into a full-length novel. The novel-length version generated even more positive press, giving him an inroad to writing success. This is especially important since, compared to the former Special operations Forces or established writers on the market these days, it is extremely unlikely that he would ever be published. With very few exceptions — virtually all of whom are bestselling writers — publishing houses would not allow their writers to do what Hildreth did.

Self-publishing also grants writers economies of scale. For publishing houses to be profitable, they have to sell novels and novel-length books. It is too expensive for publishing houses to sell novellas, novelettes and short stories, except perhaps as ebooks, and even then they have to charge higher prices than self-published authors to cover overheads. The self-published writer, on the hand, can dash out shorter stories and monetise them from the get-go.  This allows the self-published writer an opportunity to make money off these works, promote their existing fiction and reach wider audiences.

Working with publishers: Lessons from Castalia House

I said in my interview that Castalia House ‘knows what they’re doing’. By that phrase I meant that Castalia House is keeping a very close eye on the publishing revolution, and they are doing the things traditional publishing should be doing to stay relevant.

Castalia House is committed to publishing quality works by talented writers. One of my fellow contributors, William S Lind, is Amazon’s No. 1 bestseller in military strategy. Another is Tom Kratman, bestselling author of the M Day and Legio del Cid series. Other writers in Castalia House’s stable include John C. Wright, considered to be the modern C. S. Lewis, and Vox Day, whose novelette ‘Opera Vita Aeterna’ was nominated for the Hugo Award. By attracting and retaining such an august collection of writers, Castalia House is able to tap into their fanbases, reach larger markets, and reassure writers and readers that the works they produce are worth every cent. I feel this is how traditional publishers can survive in the new world of publishing: by being synonymous with high-quality work.

Castalia House also offers fairer royalty rates. For Riding the Red Horse, Castalia buys first-time publication rights. With the exception of editors Tom Kratman and Vox Day, Castalia offers fiction contributors 25% of revenues, divided according to the proportion of words contributed to their section of the anthology. Non-fiction contributors also receive the same terms for the anthology’s non-fiction section, as the non-fiction pieces tend to run shorter than the fiction ones and Castalia wanted the non-fiction contributors to be compensated fairly too. Castalia House prices its stories comparable to market rates, which tends to attract plenty of customers. By comparison, professional rates for science fiction short stories are defined as at least USD 3 cents a word, but this is a one-off payment. Riding the Red Horse could potentially generate royalties that exceed professional rates, paid twice a year for as long the book is sold. While this in no way compares to the monthly payouts of 45/70% offered by self-publishing platforms or the immediate 90+% if you sell directly to customers, it is a far sight better than a one-off payment of USD 3 cents a word or royalties of 1% to 10% from traditional publishers. Personally, I could accept these terms, since this anthology allowed me to reach a far wider audience and monetise what began life as a literary experiment.

Castalia’s last major advantage is that they handle all the backend work: marketing, distribution, pricing, branding, etc. This meant that after I submitted my piece, I was free to pursue other projects. Castalia House uses promotional tools like blogs, newsletters, and free ebooks to market their products, which means I would not have to. Furthermore, by working with the editors I learned a few tricks of the trade, which I am applying to my other works. They also have an in-house ebook store on their website to sell directly to customers, which in turn can be paired with marketing campaigns and special promotions to generate sales and publicity. Their cover art is of a consistently high standard and so is their editing and formatting. I’m confident that Castalia would handle Red Horse Rising, and by extension War Crimes, the same way.

Do note that this is the best case scenario. Many publishers do not necessarily think the way Castalia House does, especially in the realm of marketing and royalties. Writers who want to go the mainstream publishing route must do their research and pay very careful attention to contracts and rights.

Picking the right path

With so many options at their disposal, writers need to decide which path suits them best. I see myself as a craftsman and a professional. Self-publishing allows me to express the totality of my vision and be paid fairly for my work, and by working with Castalia House I can reach out to a wider audience. This hybrid approach suits me best — but it’s not necessarily for everyone.

The choice between self-publishing, engaging a publishing house or a hybrid approach depends on entirely on the writer. Writers need to decide early on how much work they are willing to put into learning the industry. They need to ask themselves if they are willing to shoulder the burdens of running a business, or just want to focus on writing. They need to decide how much money they want to make from their stories, and how much time they can dedicate to writing and the post-writing process. Most of all, they must find out which path would actually get them published.

Whichever choices they choose, one thing is clear: a writer cannot be an author without publishing a story, and self-publishing virtually guarantees publication. But, only publication — actual success is dependent on the writer’s definition and efforts.

I hope you have enjoyed this article as much as I have writing it. If you find value in this post, please leave a donation on the way out using the options below. Thanks!

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A deeper look at piracy

The Singapore government has implicitly taken the position that piracy undermines the creative industries. According to a news report from Channel News Asia, Law Minister K Shanmugam is working towards creating a legal framework that would clamp down on online piracy and protect intellectual property rights. This position seems morally right and just. But it’s overly simplistic.

Shanmugam indirectly argues that piracy stifles the creative industry, by linking a strong legal framework to helping creative industries. This is not true. On the contrary, piracy helps the creative industries by publicising innovation and pressuring the big companies to respond to the marketplace. As described in The Pirate’s Dilemma, a large number of music genres – acid house, dubstep, hard-core – took off after being broadcast by pirate radio stations in the United Kingdom. These music brands began life as too unconventional for mainstream taste, but the pirate radio stations gave artistes a platform to reach out to large audiences, given the artistes the critical mass necessary to achieve mainstream popularity.

The same can be said for Japanese manga, through the scanlation community. Whenever a new manga volume is released in Japan, people scan the entire issue and post the raw images online. These raws are downloaded by translators, who translate the works into different languages, and publish the translated issues online. Both the scanners and the translators are, for the most part, ordinary people who happen to possess the right equipment and know-how to hold up their end of the scanlation process. This allows Japanese manga to reach audiences far outside Japan – especially for manga that are released only in Japan. With some creativity, these audiences can be turned into paying customers.

It is true that online piracy leads to the loss of revenue. The music and motion picture industries (among others) routinely report losses in the hundreds of millions, if not billions, of dollars. In Singaporean movie theatres, advertisements extolling audiences to respect IP rights and cease pirating are regular screened before the feature film. These advertisements claim that failure to respect IP rights will lead to filmmakers choosing to cease making films, and movie theatres to close down. But this advertisement does not ring true in a world where the global movie industries continue to rake billion-dollar revenue in ticket sales alone. While it is true that there will be some people who will consume pirated content without giving IP owners any compensation, piracy can help boost sales, as in the case of Japanese anime, music, and books. The big picture is, quite clearly, more complicated than what the big corporations are saying.

Governments and corporations need to stop blaming pirates and start understanding why people pirate IP. Speaking as an IP owner, I can think of three reasons why people do it.

1. Cost

Let’s face it: when forced to choose between paying $50-plus for the latest blockbuster video game, or waiting patiently for a few hours/days/weeks to download that same game off a torrent website, there will be people who will gladly choose the latter option. Especially if, for a few more hours of waiting, they can have any additional downloadable content or extra features that have already been released. Even more so if these people live in places with low income, and high prices for IP. The same holds true for other kinds of IP: books, music, movies, television dramas.

2. Availability

There is a large amount of IP that is simply not readily available in some parts of the world. Anime and manga, music, and more. Pirates create and meet demand for this IP by publishing and distributing this IP on places where users can readily access this IP. Sometimes this is done using legal means like YouTube. Sometimes this is done using more questionable means, like pirate radio stations. The platform pirates use are engineered to reach a large number of people at low cost, giving them a distribution network that could potentially rival the ones used by existing companies.

3. Convenience

Digital Rights Management tools are complicated. Many games, such as Operation Flashpoint: Dragon Rising, Splinter Cell: Conviction, Assassin’s Creed 2 and beyond, have DRM measures that prevent people from (easily) pirating software. The same goes for music, ebooks, and other digital IP. But these measures punish legitimate consumers. Coding a program to prevent multiple installations of the same game from the same DVD (such as SecuROM) may sound like a good idea, but this prevents legitimate consumers from re-installing their games. This can happen when the computer is reformatted, when the user gets a new computer, or when the user simply wants to play the game again after having deleted it. These are perfectly legitimate uses, but DRM software like the one I’ve described punish users for doing any of these by preventing consumption of software. Other tools, like the one used by Arkham City, are fairly complex to navigate and spoil consumer enjoyment. Pirates make consumption of IP convenient by scrapping DRM tools  from the original content and posting the now-DRM-free content.

Legislation is not the answer to these questions. These are legitimate consumer needs not being met by the companies that insist on DRM regulation and strict anti-piracy policies. Strict legislation may make piracy more inconvenient, but it will not address these concerns. If anything, they will exacerbate them, because consumers will have fewer places to address these needs, and they will take out their frustrations on the corporations by refusing to buy their IP and spreading the word to boycott their products. This creates additional market pressure on the pirates, who will at some point team up with hackers and crackers to circumvent any new anti-piracy means to publish pirated content.

What is needed is a new business model. Pirates shouldn’t be seen as evil money-sucking parasites. Pirates should instead be considered as friendly competitors. IP owners should strive instead to compete with pirates on their terms – on the terms of cost, availability and convenience, and any other reason why consumers will choose pirates over legitimate purchases. In this sense, piracy can be thought of as simply an additional cost of business.

If possible, IP owners should also factor piracy into their business models and understand how to use their distribution models to the IP owners’ advantage. Underground music artistes in the UK went mainstream after the mainstream record companies started collaborating with the pirate stations. The pirates gained prestige, the artistes made more money, and so did the record companies. It could be possible to do something similar for other IP. Author JA Konrath reported an explosion of sales after he started giving away one of his ebooks. Shortly after the creation of the Baen Free Library, in which Baen’s published books are posted online in their entirety for free reading, Baen reported increased sales of those published books. In those two cases, online pirates could easily reproduce the text of those books and distribute them for all to see. The result was increased publicity, increased consumer awareness, and therefore increased sales.

Piracy is a problem that has been around since the articulation of intellectual property rights. Legislation has done little to curb it. What is needed is a different approach. Instead of trying to stamp out piracy, companies should instead seek to meet the consumers real needs and wants, and compete with pirates on their turf. Companies should also seek to co-operate with the pirates to create win-win situations, or at least situations that are advantageous to the IP owner. IP is produced for consumption – it’s time to understand understand what the consumer wants and meet it, instead of blindly focusing on profit.