Special Guest: P J Haarsma!

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A while back, my 8th grade boys went absolutely mad for a new science fiction series called The Softwire, by PJ Haarsma. No matter how many copies we bought, they always stayed checked out, with a long hold list. Fast forward a few months to DragonCon, where I happened to run into that very author in the dealer room. I explained that I was a writer and a librarian and gushed about how much his books had energized my boys, and he very kindly agreed to be our guest here on MW. PJ Haarsma’s latest book is The Softwire: Awakening on Orbis 4. PJ is one of the co-founders of The Kids Need to Read Foundation, a tax exempt public charity that purchases books to donate to underfunded schools and libraries. Which makes him a hero in my book!
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Two Troubling Trends

Actually, I don’t know if they are troubling, but I figured I might catch your attention if I use a little fear. Fox News does it, so why can’t I?

It was my agent who alerted me to the first trend. She had just returned from the recent book fair in Barcelona and during our phone conversation she commented on the number of publishers who are outsourcing their editorial staff. In fact it astonished her. It seems that in order to save money, publishers are reducing their number of editors and letting them work independently. You may not see the significance in this, but it creates a dramatic shift in the publishing process.

Historically, publishers accepted an author and their unpolished manuscript with hopes of molding both into something that might sell off the shelves. This is exactly what happened to me. I worked with a wonderful editor who helped me shape my Softwire books into a popular young adult series. But now it seems that publishers are looking for an alternative to that “costly” process. Now they require a finished manuscript ready to go to print. Publishers are sending agents and writers off with an acceptable list of editors to make their manuscripts printable.

But who pays for this?

You do. The writer.

It’s up to you to negotiate a deal with this independent editor. It might be an upfront fee, a lion’s share of your advance, or kissing them into your royalties. This is the troubling part. It’s hard enough to make a living as it is, and now I have to share my scraps with another person! I’m not trying to be greedy here. I just want to eat. (I could eat a little less, but that’s beside the point.)

Now, I know a zillion people are going to write back and tell me a different story and I have yet to experience this myself, but this is what I was told. Yes it was secondhand knowledge from my agent (I’m sounding more and more like Fox news with every sentence), but she tells me this process is becoming fairly popular in the publishing world. I’m not sure if it will stick, but as publishers scramble to stay alive, I think this is a pretty sweet deal for them.

The second trend excites me, although I’ve bumped heads with other authors who don’t share my sentiment on the subject.

eBooks. eReaders. Everything “e”.

For those of you who know me, I’m very “pro-internet”. I think it’s the best tool authors can use to connect with their readers and build an audience. I even built a virtual alien society where fans of The Softwire can sign up, choose to be a character from the book, and interact with other people on the Rings of Orbis (www.ringsoforbis.com). I also created the virtual world for Frank Beddor’s Looking Glass Wars and together we are now looking to expand this format. The Rings of Orbis site is extremely popular, and in my case, it’s the driving force for my book sales.

Sorry. Back to eBooks.

Whether you like eBooks or not, I think they are here to stay. I was talking to a CRM at a Barnes and Noble the other day and she informed me that their online store and eBooks were their fasting growing market. And growing more every day.

Have you ever heard of Smashwords? This company just signed a distribution deal with Apple to help writers get their books in the iBookstore for little or no up front cost (it’s actually free) and writers keep 85% of the net sale.

Yes, I know what you’re thinking. This will place a whole bunch of books in the market that shouldn’t have been published in the first place. I agree, but think about this for a second. If I’m an established author with my own audience, and I have a way to reach my fans personally (the internet) and I’m paying for my own editor anyways (see above), then why not publish like this? It’s not like traditional publishers have tons of money to promote books anymore, especially if you’re a new author. They just can’t afford it. They’ll tell you that right up front.

I think this is an intriguing trend. And it’s the only beginning. I’m experimenting with different revenue models, distribution ideas and payment methods. I’m actually excited to be writing again!

So this is the point where I usually being to ramble, and shift my talk to healthcare, rampant celebrity obsession, or ugh… religion. Best I end this now.

Feel free to contact me through any of my sites. I answer all my email, or at least I try. The game site is www.ringsoforbis.com. My personal site is www.pjhaarsma.com and you can learn more about my books, The Softwire series, at www.thesoftwire.com (I told you I like the internet).

** PJ’s going to be in meetings all day today, but he’ll be checking by later on, so feel free to ask questions in the comments.

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22 comments to Special Guest: P J Haarsma!

  • Kim

    Okay. Taking the e-book issue out, that is about the scariest thing I’ve heard in a while. Do you know if this trend of houses asking the author to get their own editor is for un-agented work and agented work both? Big houses doing this, or smaller? Both?

    But on a plus side, it might make your editor more interested in your work or grant the writer the ability to screen his or her editor for compatibility. Nothing worse than someone helpfully trying to turn your detective novel into a romance, or vice-versa.

    Kim Harrison

  • PJ

    Hi Kim,

    Big house, “agented” work. All in an attempt to cut costs. It adds one more step to getting published and it allows publishers to choose from manuscripts presented in their best form. (There is a lot of good work out there.) If I sit and think about it long enough, I can see the publishers angle, but it’s still frustrating.

  • Deb S

    Finding the right freelance editor could be time consuming. Hooking up with the wrong one could be a messy and expensive.

  • PJ

    That’s the scary part. There are no guarantees.

  • E-books, and e-readers, have been on my mind for a while now. I have way too many books at this point and making the switch to e-books is becoming almost a necessity.

    However, the cost for any of these devices is outrageous at this point. I just have other financial priorities at the moment and can’t justify the cost of one.

    I’m probably going to end up with a Kindle as I like the e-ink feature over a more traditional back-lit computer screen. Since I’m an IT professional by day the thought of staring at a computer screen to read doesn’t appeal to me. I think the e-ink screen on the Kindle and the Nook would work better for me.

    That said, of course I’d prefer the Kindle DX since it has a much larger screen. But the thought of spending over $500.00 once all is said and done (taxes, warranty, protective case, etc.) is just too much. My mind starts to calculate how many books I could purchase with that money instead. Not that I have the room for them, which brings me back to my central dilemma.

    I’m tempted to just deal with using the Kindle software on my PC to get started until I can justify the cost, or Amazon starts to bring the cost down to a realistic level.

    However, choosing which platform to go with is no small thing. This bears extra investigating before I make up my mind.

    On the outsourcing the editor issue, that’s not very comforting for someone like me who hopes to someday become published. But if that’s the way the industry goes so be it.

  • PJ – the author having to hire an editor is scary. It does seem to make fiscal sense for the publisher, but its just another hit an author has to take. I wonder how many authors who just want to get published no matter what will buy into this and after a while it just becomes the norm.

    @cedunkley – I love holding an actual book, but decided to try reading electronically. I started on my iPod Touch which was ok, but you have to flip pages so much it becomes a distraction. Then I tried my netbook. This worked pretty well when I changed the screen orientation so that I could hold the netbook just like a book. That worked pretty well, but still no substitute for the real thing.

    Maybe the Nook or Kindle with the e-ink would be better I don’t know. I may make the plunge at some point, because, like you, my wife and I have a huge collection of books.

  • Hi, P.J. Many thanks for visiting our site and for a thought-provoking and terror-provoking post…. Writers hiring their own editors. I’m speechless. Truly. I’m looking forward to the day when we’ll have to cut our own trees and make our own paper.

    As for e-books, I have no doubt that they’re the fastest growing part of the market, but the flip side of that is they remain a tiny fraction of the market, right? I’m not disputing the trend, but I think it’s going to happen more slowly than many expect, that there will always be resistance. Love of paper books runs deep, and I think that the digital music model, which so many point to as the path books will take, is not as analogous as it first appears. The number of people who listen to music is huge; the percentage who are young and comfortable with technology is significant. The book reading population is far small, far older, far more resistant to this type of change. I’m not saying it’s not coming; I just expect it to be more gradual. But I would love to hear your opinion on that.

  • David,

    Speaking of e-books, do you know when or if Eagle-Sage will be available on the Kindle? I noticed the 1st two books are already but not the 3rd one.

    If publishers and/or authors who have the rights make their back catalogues available in e-format, I could see that helping to grow the e-market even more.

    I can only dream of something like The Complete Andre Norton Collection being available on an e-reader. Even just the complete Witch World books would do.

    Something like that would be cause to make the plunge into that reading forum a bit faster.

    It would seem that e-books might be a way for established authors to generate sales of their back catalogue. I imagine quite a few printed books never even had anything like e-rights in their contracts.

    Authors over at the Book View Cafe are doing this, using the site to provide free content and to sell some of their older works (and newer ones too I believe).

    While still a small slice of the overall picture, I can only wonder how fast it might grow.

    What will become of libraries, I wonder, the day e-books outnumber print?

  • PJ

    David,

    I think you nailed the biggest resistance to the eBook. So many people love the feel of a real book (but then I loved the sound from my vinyl records too). I see the eBook being embraced by the generation behind us who have grown up with the internet, and its cool devices. I have yet to cave. I love my books. I can’t even get rid of them when I’m done. And besides, what would I do with all that shelf space?

  • Todd

    You have some really neat sites to help tie in to your written works. How cool is it that you have Nathan Fillion and Alan Tudyk helping you out?

    Tie in sites will become more common or simply more interactive fare mixed in with the book since I think that the netbooks and iPads are the near future. You will see Kindle and the other ereaders begin to morph more towards the netbook and iPad.

    It may already exist but I could easily see a site for editors like Rent-a-Coder where you place bids for editing work or the writer goes in and chooses an editor based on various fees, rating systems and previous feedback.

    The next editor choosing system that comes out in the wash may actually be more efficient and better. Maybe not so good if the cost has to be born by the writer but a market system will work itself out.

    That’s what contracts are for, right? The editor will have as much invested in making sure the book is the best he can help produce since his fee may be based on the contract with the publisher or even based on sales.

    There again the publisher may not even be needed in the future with platforms like Smashswords and others.

    It may be just as important to team up with graphic designers and/or game designers or app designers to help create a book that is visually appealing and interactive along with being well written and edited.

  • Emily

    PJ> Hey, vinyl is making a comeback. I spend a chunk of my afternoon last saturday watching my boyfriend wander around a record store and finally buy 3 records. 🙂 So who knows, maybe the paperback will make a comeback (after having been all but replaced by ebooks, that is…)

    I’d consider getting an ebook reader a lot more seriously if the following things would happen:
    1). I could buy textbooks and the screen was large enough to read them.
    2). I could get textbooks for free that way, since I’m a prof and get free hardcopies
    3). I could actually TAKE NOTES on the ebook next to the text–like scribble in my notes–like I do oin paper (“real”) textbooks now.
    4). Libraries would make available ebook copies for loan of the books that I need for research–that is, academic boosk–and, again, I could make notes on them and save them, just as I would a photocopy.
    5). They were readable like paper, becuase I, too, spend a ton of time staring at a screen and don’t know that I want to do that for much longer than I already do.

    Now, I don’t know if these are happening, have happened, in progress or whatever because I haven’t been paying attention to the ebook market much beyond what I read hear and what I hear about Nook from a friend who works at Barnes and Noble. So, they may be well on their way to these thing (I think the ipad–stupid as the name is–might be able to do the note-taking thing, with a stylus or something eventually).

    Other than that, yeah, having to find my own editor is a scary thing…I guess it would be like finding an agent, right? Then they’d pitch the manuscripts. Maybe it would result in agents and editors either working together or merging into the same thing.

  • heteromeles

    There are actually two big points on eBooks.

    I’m not disputing that they’re here for the next decade or so, but there are three things to consider.

    1. Fast growth. If something goes from 0.01% of the market to 0.1% of the market in a year, it has a 1000% annual growth rate. If something goes from 50 to 75% of the market, it has a 50% annual growth rate. Things that are tiny ALWAYS grow fast, that’s the way the math works. While it’s great if you can make money on it, keep in mind that the fastest growth always happens on initial entry, not as something’s taking over. David alluded to this above, and I’m just making it explicit.

    2. Power. My other hat says environmentalist, and in the US (ditto elsewhere) we’ve got this power crisis looming, consisting of three parts: growing demand, real problems finding new places to put any sort of power plant (problems are more about stupidity and greed on the part of speculators than technical issues, but coal, oil, and nukes do have massive waste issues), and a power grid that is a kludged-together piece of antiquated crap (which is not to insult the geniuses and master electricians who keep it running. The fact that we need geniuses to keep it running is in itself scary), plus the fact that the batteries in the average small electronics these days contain elements that are either a) from the civil-war-ravaged region of the Congo, b) part of the rare earth market that China’s trying to lock up, or c)harvested from a lakebed in Bolivia, and Bolivia’s trying to turn itself into the OPEC of lithium.

    Now, unglaze your eyes. The point here is that I’m not so sure that eBooks are viable in the long run, because they depend on an infrastructure that has huge problems, and the way things are going, we’ll probably have to cut back substantially on our power consumption in the next decade.

    So, by all means, get into eBooks now. But unless those hypothetical fusion plants start coming on line, or (more likely) we start coming out with $5 eReaders that are powered by hand cranks, don’t assume that they’re going to displace good old books. After all, once they’re made, books take no energy.

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to go re-read that first edition paperback of Dragonflight I got. It’s not going to last forever, but it was published in 1968. The computer files from 1998–gone.

  • Hi PJ! Thanks for being our special guest today!

    I love my paper books. I keep my favorites, and my super-special favorites are on the bookcase next to my bed so that if the house catches fire, I can throw that bookcase out the window and save my books. I don’t think paper books are going anywhere this century at least. With that said, I also love my Kindle. It’s easy on my eyes, as easy as a paper page (and easier than some mass markets with the teeny print!) It weighs nothing at all. For someone like me, who carries at least two books on a weekend vacation and ten or twelve on our week-long beach trip, the Kindle is more convenient than packing all those books. It fits in my purse, so I can carry books on an airplane without wrecking my back.

    I’ve heard all the arguments, and yet I still love my little e-reader. I also buy paper books from the brick and mortar stores as well as online, and I visit the library once a week. I’m an inclusive reader!

  • PJ

    Misty,

    Well done. I think you are single-handedly keeping the publishing industry alive!

    Heteromeles, your second point just gave me ideas for three new books. (I’ll send your cut. That is after my new independent editor takes his or hers 🙂

    I heard somewhere that the biggest cost in publishing is the printing and the paper (I don’t know if that’s true or not). If publishers can make money from eBooks then they will move in that direction, whether we, the reader like it or not. It’s just economics, but keep your hands on that copy of Dragonflight. I’ll be worth something one day.

  • Wow, that’s mildly terrifying about the editors, though possibly freeing if things turn out as you suggest. But as one of those aspiring authors who might have to deal with both of those issues, I find it’s useless for me to worry about it. All I can do is write the best damn story I can and then see what happens.

    Het, I have to disagree. I honestly believe that humanity is resilient enough that we’ll find a way around our problems, even if the solutions create *new* problems. But then, I don’t believe that an apocolypse will ever happen — just layer upon layer of change.

  • heteromeles

    Moira, I’m not disagreeing at all that humanity will survive. My general point here is that we (collectively) have a bunch of unsustainable habits, and as with any such habit, eventually we’re going to have to get off them if we don’t want them to kill us.

    Investing in something that depends on the habit growing only works in the short run.

    In the longer run, I think this is potentially very good news for writers. After all, our major entertainment competitors right now are heavily dependent on those unsustainable habits I just mentioned. We aren’t. We’ll find a way.

  • Tom G

    If publishers force us to hire and pay for our own editors, then why do we need publishers? If they go that route, I think more and more writers will just “self-publish” and sell through places like Smashword, and I’m sure Amazon will jump on board and provide POD services and start selling. Who knows, maybe the best editors will become selling points for new e-books, if not their own “brands.” Mr Indie Editor presents: Bestselling Author’s newest thriller.

    I’m not a fan of outsourcing, since my great IT job was outsourced and now I’m a bench tech making not-quite-enough to pay my monthly expenses.

  • Yeah, that was sort of my thought too, but I was wondering how the published thought, but the conversation moved to the ebook thing, which I’ve read and argued over before. 🙂

  • PJ, Thank you for this. I think. (laughing)
    I knew that pubs had been outsourcing copy editors and line editors for years, but the idea of doing that with the regular editors makes me kinda queasy…
    Not that I’m surprised. Saddened. But not surprised.

  • Getting rid of editors would destroy the whole point of a publisher. Publishers are often validated by being the so-called “gate keeper” or more accurately the Crap-meter — they are supposed to sift the good from the bad, the promising from the hopeless, so that what’s on our shelves, for the most part, is good quality. And who does all that sifting? The editors. Get rid of them and what’s left? A glorified Kinkos? I suppose they’ll still have marketing muscle, but for how long? This seems like dumb atop of dumber if they actually move whole-hog in this direction.

  • Michele Kenney

    I’m a huge fan of Kindle. I’m a little ashamed to say that I haven’t bought a paper book, other than art, for a couple of years now. Take it from a late forty-something lady who is just trying to navigate the complex waters of publishing, E-books will be huge. I even recommend the larger version (DX) to my students for their text books at a fraction of the cost, and weight on the back!

    Hiring my own editor……how do I go about that? And at what cost? Is that something that you all will be doing in the future?

  • Considering I purchased 6 more books today, that I don’t have the room for I really do need to just stop and start putting away money for an e-reader. My biggest issue is I want the Kindle DX more than the others and that’s a lot of money.

    But then I look at the pile of books I’ve purchased in the past 24 months and I could have easily purchased the Kindle DX. I wonder, however, if owning an e-reader will slow my purchasing habits. I would think so since there would be no need to purchase it until I’m ready to actually read it.

    I can simply wish list the ones I want to buy later. I’d probably save a lot of money that way.

    Tackling the decision to purchase an e-book reader is starting to sound a lot like plotting out a novel. There seems to be the same amount of thought and planning and scenario-imagining involved.