Sunday, October 26, 2014

How I regained my rights and published my books my way.

First, a few basics.  I sold my first short story way back in 1989.  That story saw print in 1990.  Over the next decade, I learned my craft, wrote some short stories, sold them, wrote some novels, didn't sell them (for good reason--they sucked), and finally wrote a good novel, but couldn't sell that one either.  The rejection letters on One-Way Ticket to Midnight seemed to always run along these lines, "This is a horror novel, and we no longer publish horror or we would have tried to acquire your book.  Sorry."  Didn't matter if I sent it to them as fantasy, they called it horror and said no.

After several years of this, a small press accepted the book, and it saw print in 2002.  The book got good reviews in places like The Rocky Mountain News, The Denver Post, The Tulsa World, and some small press magazines.  It made the preliminary ballot for the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in First Novel or some such.  The people who read it, liked it or loved it.  Creative people tend to find that the theme resonated with them, and anyone who ever gave up their dreams to be something more can find something in Roy Porter to appreciate.  Total sales: 300, most of those copies hand sold by yours truly before the publisher said the numbers weren't good enough to keep it in print.  Yes, that's three hundred sales, which translated into around $600 or so in my pocket.  Wow, you can make a lot of money writing novels!

I switched to screenplays in 2004 and wrote a bunch of them.  Some were good, some were better.  Two of them ended up getting optioned in Hollywood, but neither went anywhere (as is usually the case in Hollywood). One of those was near and dear to my heart because I wrote it to work out my feelings after my mother died of lung cancer.  Another film I co-wrote went into production locally, but the funding went south, and the movie was never finished.

Writing was looking like a pipe dream.  However, one of the screenplays I wrote in 2004 was a transmogrified version of a novel I'd started in the 90s, which was also the basis for my first attempt at screenwriting.  Back then the book was called Heirlooms, and I didn't finish it because too many people told me publishers wouldn't accept a book that crossed genres the way I was doing it.  So I wrote it as a screenplay called Dangerous Heirlooms, but it didn't go anywhere because I didn't know how to market a script back in the 90s.  When I was cranking out scripts in 2004, I remembered that story, still thought it was cool, but wanted it to be a franchise, so I switched things up, made the protagonist a paranormal investigator, and retitled it Modern Sorcery.  I pitched it to agents and producers, but they all passed saying, "Fantasy doesn't sell."  I said, "I suppose Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings don't count."  And they said those had a preawareness factor built in from the books.  I didn't have that.

Those comments stuck with me, so when I returned to writing novels, Modern Sorcery was first in the queue because I really liked Jonathan Shade, who loves dropping pop culture references in his smart-ass responses.  He was fun to write.  And I loved Kelly Chan, his protector.  I read a lot of mystery/suspense books, and in every series I really enjoyed, the protagonist had a protector--Spenser has Hawk in the Robert B. Parker books.  Elvis Cole has Joe Pike in the Robert Crais novels.  Dennis Lehane gave his duo a guy named Bubba.  Harlan Coben gave Win to Myron Bolitar.  Janet Evanovich gave Ranger and Morrelli to Stephanie Plum.  Jack Reacher is his own protector in the Lee Child books, but there you go.  In any case, all of the protectors were male, so I thought it would be fun to have a female protector and if she were a magically engineered assassin that would be even more cool.  By then, I'd heard about Jim Butcher and The Dresden Files, but I made sure not to read any of them because I didn't want to know what he'd done in case it was too close, and I didn't want to veer away from my original vision for the book.

I did a reading of the first few pages of the novel for Anne Sowards at ROC, and she liked it, so she asked to see the book.  I finished it up, sent it to her, and after a year or so I finally got the rejection saying she enjoyed it, but she didn't love it enough to buy it.  That told me something was off with it, but I didn't have time to look at it because I was working 15 hour days running an online business.

I stayed busy with the business for years.  I made good money, but had no writing time.  Then my father got sick in late 2010.  One Saturday in particular, I dropped him off for a long blood transfusion, and he said I shouldn't just wait there.  I went out to see a movie then spent half an hour browsing in Borders, where I came across Save the Cat Strikes Back by Blake Snyder.  I loved the first Save the Cat book, so I bought this one and went back to the hospital.  Something in that book triggered me, and I knew what was wrong with Modern Sorcery.  I simply didn't have the time to revise it.

In February 2011, my father died.  Four days later, I got an e-mail from Maggie Bonham.  She and I had talked briefly at a convention the previous October about how she'd released her books as ebooks and was making pretty good money from them.  Several people told me I should put my novel up, and maybe the Hitman short stories.  I didn't have time to think about it.  But Maggie's e-mail changed things because she wanted to buy Modern Sorcery for her new publishing venture, Sky Warrior Books.  She'd heard me read the first chapter at a convention, and it stuck with her for years.  As I didn't know anything about how to go about publishing ebooks and was trying to save my business, which had nose-dived when my father got sick, and was spiraling toward utter destruction, I said yes to what turned out to be a five book contract.  Initially it was a three book contract, but when Maggie learned I had the rights to One-Way Ticket to Midnight, she wanted to publish that one too.  And since she was doing the others, she agreed to take Quick Shots, my short story collection.

One-Way Ticket to Midnight debuted as an ebook in May 2011, followed soon after by Quick Shots.  By then, I'd finished the revision of Modern Sorcery to fix the problem I think kept it from selling before.  That one appeared in September 2011.  It took me longer to write Acheron Highway than I intended, and I've written about that elsewhere.  While I was working on Dragon Gate, 47North accepted Pirates of the Outrigger Rift, which I wrote with Bill D. Allen.  I've told that story before too.  Pirates came out in September 2013, followed by Dragon Gate a month or so later.  My contract with Sky Warrior was complete.

In between all that, I wrote a novella called Night Marshal about a vampire gunslinger in the old west.  I'd been reading blogs by people like Joe Konrath, Dean Wesley Smith, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, David Gaughran, Hugh Howey, and others.  So I had a better idea of how things worked.  I paid a professional editor to edit the novella, and a friend did the cover.  I published Night Marshal in November 2012.  I wasn't happy with the cover.  It looked like a self published book.  But I was in control on Night Marshal, so I checked on The Passive Voice website, found a thread about cover artists, and checked them out.  I really liked Robin Ludwig's work, so I hired her to do the cover for Night Marshal.  I loved that cover.  As soon as I made the switch, the book started selling.  It never took off the way I wanted, but it was one short book in a series I passed off to other writers to continue (and the entries by Glenn R. Sixbury, Rebecca Hodgkins, and James K. Burk are worth your time to read).  It's been a consistent seller, and while I'm not getting rich, it's pulling its weight so I'm not complaining.

I also experimented with short stories.  Some of my own as singles, and some I wrote under a pseudonym.  I made more money on the stories I published under a pseudonym than I made off all my novels with Sky Warrior Books.

Because I could see the effects of the experiments I ran on the titles under my control, I started thinking I really wanted to control my other books too.   

Pirates was selling well, and it has a Chris McGrath cover, and I'd love to sell another book to 47North.  I like advances, and they have great people at that company.  I currently have a novel called Guardians of the Sky--the first in a new series--with them waiting to be read.  If they want it, I'll write more books for them.  If they pass on it, I'll publish it myself.  The thirty day exclusive for their first look has expired, but for now, I think it's good to wait for an answer.  Would I consider going traditional with it?  If the money was good, sure.  But it would need to be more than I think I can make off the book myself.

And that brings us back to the five books I still had with Sky Warrior Books.  They weren't selling well, and I wanted to try some things to get them going.  I had Anubis Nights finished, and off to the editor.  That was going to be my first full-length self published novel.  But I wanted a branded look across my titles.  I couldn't get that without having control.  One of the obvious things to do if a book isn't selling is to change the cover.  As an indie, I can do that.  If a publisher controls the book, I can't.  So I decided I needed to get my rights back.

Over the course of two weeks, I exchanged emails and did some Facebook chats with the publisher.  There were a few deal breakers involved that had to be worked out.  For example,  Sky Warrior still has the audio rights provided they get the audio books produced within the next two years.  I suspect they'll follow through on that as at least one of the books is either in production, or they've signed the voice talent already.  I can live with that.  There are a few percentages owed through the end of the original contracts as the books sell, and that works for me, too.  It was all a matter of keeping the lines of communication open and being willing to compromise on a few things.  My goal was to get the ebook and print rights to the books returned to me, and everything else was negotiable.  It was simple business.

In many ways, I'm fortunate that Maggie and I are good friends, and that we were able to handle this back-and-forth negotiation without damaging that friendship.  That was very important to me.  She got me writing again, and I can't thank her enough for that.  I dedicated Anubis Nights to her.  I'm also pleased that she was willing to negotiate and return the ebook and print rights to me early.

As you can see from the covers along the side of this post, I hired Robin Ludwig to design a branded look across my titles.  I'm fine with Night Marshal remaining as it was because it's a shared-world book now.  And obviously, the book with 47North isn't changing (nor would I want it to--I love that cover).  But the Shade books are all together at last, and they are clearly part of a series, while the collection and One-Way Ticket to Midnight are clearly branded to me, but have a different title size and style to differentiate them from the Shade novels.  If you need covers, Robin Ludwig Designs, Inc. does outstanding work.

And if you need an editor who will keep you honest, know your characters better than you do (her character sheets are amazing!), and who will make sure you don't look like a moron in print I highly recommend Andrea Howe at Blue Falcon Editing.  She doesn't charge extra for commas.  Just don't keep her too busy because I'm going to have another book for her to edit soon.

My indie journey is really just beginning now.  Speaking of which, I need to get back to work on Sunset Specters, the fifth Jonathan Shade novel.

If you're an author and you don't have your rights, your options in this new world of publishing are extremely limited.  If you're with a traditional publisher and you're making a good living, that's awesome.  Congratulations!  I'm not opposed to traditional publishing.  But if you see your sales declining, just know you still have options.  You won't get your rights back from a traditional publisher without incurring legal fees, but you can still move forward with new books.

No matter how you proceed on your journey, I wish you success.