Welcome to my worlds!

I'm James Maxey, author of fantasy and science fiction. My novels include the science fantasy Bitterwood Saga (4 books) the Dragon Apocalypse Saga (4 books), numerous superhero novels including Nobody Gets the Girl and the Lawless series, the steampunk Oz sequel Bad Wizard, and my short story collections, There is No Wheel and Jagged Gate. This website is focused exclusively on writing. At my second blog, Jawbone of an Ass, I ramble through any random topic that springs to mind, occasionally touching on religion and politics and other subjects polite people are sensible enough not to discuss in public. If you'd like to get monthly updates on new releases, as well as preview chapters and free short stories, join my newsletter!

Sunday, April 19, 2009

An open letter about Dragonseed

Dear readers of the Dragon Age,

We are still officially a little over two months away from the release of Dragonseed. I'd like to ask for my most hardcore fans of the series to go ahead and place orders for the book now, rather than waiting for the book to appear in stores.

Why now? Dragonseed is appearing in a completely different real world environment than the first two books. The economic turmoil that began last fall and carried over into this year has hit bookstores to a similar degree to other industries. Bookstores used to buy their inventory on credit. When the credit markets locked up last year, bookstores freed up money to buy stock for Christmas by returning unsold stock at record rates to the publishers. Publishing is a strange industry. If Sears or Walmart buys blue jeans from a manufacturer, and those blue jeans sell sluggishly, they have to keep marking the jeans down until they sell. They don't have the option of returning their inventory to the manufacturer. Bookstores, on the other hand, have long had a model where they can return excess stock to the manufacturer for full credit. Thus, mid-list books like mine turned into a type of credit card for bookstores last fall. They could return books that might sell only a few dozen copies per store to free up revenue to order more copies of guaranteed bestsellers like the various Twilight books which sell hundreds and thousands of copies per store. It's a perfectly rational economic move for the short term, but the long term consequences may prove devastating for bookstores, publishers, authors, and readers.

First, there's a tricky bit of logic here, but bookstores frequently lose money on best-sellers. When the last Harry Potter book came out, most bookstores had to sell it at a discount to stay competetive with other bookstores and, more importantly, with retailers like Walmart and Target which also stock bestsellers. While I don't have hard numbers to prove this, it wouldn't shock me if more copies of Harry Potter sold through Walmart and Target than all bookstores combined. What's a bookstore to do? It's not like they can refuse to stock Harry Potter. They have to have Harry Potter in the window of the store to draw in shoppers who might then buy my books and maybe a mocha frapachino, which they are selling at a profit. Except, by Christmas time, a lot of stores didn't have my books--they'd returned them to order more minimally profitable bestsellers. Bookstores saw revenue decline, but they saw profits decline even more. (I read somewhere that Barnes and Nobles actual sales fell only 6%, but their profits fell 30%... but I'm not reading an actual prospectus to get these numbers, so perhaps these are only horror stories writers whisper to one another).

With credit markets more restrictive than last year, bookstores are simply ordering fewer books than they were last year. Obviously, this is bad news for publishers. A lot of publishing houses are cutting costs by letting go of staff and closing imprints. They are also cutting their promotion budgets. I do book reviews for Intergalactic Medicine Show, and last year I used to get a couple of dozen advance reading copies a month sent to me. Since the first of the year, the flow of ARC's has dropped to almost nothing. The few ARCs I have gotten this year have been for established bestsellers like Brandon Sanderson rather than new authors. Again, I can see the logic in these costcutting measures. The ARC's cost a lot to print, and there's a low review to print ratio--a publisher might print 200 ARC's of a new writer's book and only see a dozen actual reviews as a result. Still, as inefficient as the ARC system was, it was often the only advance publicity a new book got. It seems logical that less publicity for the midlist will generate fewer sales.

Obviously, this is bad news for writers. But, it's also bad news for readers. First, there are going to be fewer bookstores to buy books from. The megachains of Barnes and Nobles and Borders drove a lot of small bookstores out of business. There are plenty of small towns in North Carolina that simply don't have any bookstores any more. People in small towns now drive to bigger towns to shop at Borders... except, there's a very real chance that Borders is going to go the way of Circuit City before the year's end. We may be moving into a world where the only national bookstore chain left is Barnes and Noble. There will be fewer places to go browse for books, and when you do go to browse, you'll find fewer new releases on the shelves. Eventually, Barnes and Noble will have little more variety than the book section at Target.

Obviously, I hope I'm wrong. Some people have put forward the hopeful theory that as the economy turns downward, people return to simpler passtimes, and this includes doing things like reading more books. And, while Borders may vanish, there are other chains that might move into the gaps. Books a Million seems to have found a successful model for surviving in smaller cities, for instance. You may even see the return of mom and pop bookstores; there's a lot of empty stores out there just waiting for small businesses to jump into the gaps.

But, this is all long term hopefulness. For this summer, bookstores are ordering fewer books, and publishers are putting less money into promotion. It's into this real world environment that Dragonseed is going to be hitting the shelves... assuming it does hit bookshelves. Last year, I could go into any Barnes and Noble and find copies of Bitterwood in the months before the release of Dragonforge. Lately, I've had the disturbing experience of going into some Barnes and Nobles and not finding my books. The books sold just fine for their category, but they weren't best sellers in any sense of the word. There's a very real chance that Dragonseed may appear in only a fraction of the stores that the first two books showed up in. The titles will, of course, be available on Amazon, but shelf presence matters more than anything else for book sales. If the book isn't on the shelf, it won't sell.

So, this is a naked, blatant appeal to fans of the Dragon Age: You will be doing me an immeasurable favor by going to your favorite bookstore soon and preordering your copy of Dragonseed. If bookstores see a book preordered, they are likely to stock additional copies. If a bookstore chain sees hundreds of preorders, the title is more likely to show up throughout the chain. If Dragonseed gets into bookstores, I think it will sell. You can help make that "if" happen.

Obviously, I don't want you to order Dragonseed just as an act of charity. I'm happy to report that Dragonseed is the best installment of the series yet. Bitterwood, Jandra, Burke, and Hex are all back for further adventures. I've got some of my best villains yet in the form of a sky-dragon named Vulpine, the Slavecatcher General, and his brutish earth-dragon enforcer, Sawface. We finally get to see Atlantis! The humans have gunpowder! The dragons have something worse! And as cool as the good guy/bad guy fights are, the good guy/good guy fights are even better. Ragnar versus Burke. Anza versus Bitterwood! And, right at the center of the book, Hex versus Bitterwood in a two chapter slugfest that may be the third best fight scene I've ever choreographed. The first and second best fight scenes come later in the book, as our heroes stand against the gods themselves in Atlantis and the fate of all mankind and dragonkind is finally resolved. All this, and I've not even mentioned Blasphet's master plan, or the sea serpents, or the story of why Harry Potter is thought of as a historical figure, or the return from death by ... but I should say no more.

Seriously, Dragonseed is the book I dreamed of writing when I started this crazy mish-mash of dragons, robots, steam-punk and superheroes. I promise it's worth every penny of your money, with more action, humor, and sensawonda than you're likely to find in books twice its size. A good bargain at double the price. Buy now! Save the economy. Long live the Dragon Age!

Monday, April 13, 2009

Squidoo: The Dragon Age

I was contacted over the weekend by a fellow named Mike Moore who has created a Squidoo "lens" on my Dragon Age novels. I confess, I had never heard of Squidoo before. Apparently, it's a site where users can create articles around very specific and focused topics, called "lenses." It differs from wikipedia, I think, in being less rigid and encyclopedic in its approach.

Anyway, here's the link to Squidoo: The Dragon Age. Mike just posted an interview with my earlier today where I discuss my favorite characters from all three books, as well as give some insights as to my creative process, and reveal why the third book of the series may or may not bring peace to the middle east.

Also, this is probably a good time to mention that on the last weekend of April, I'll be in Richmond, Virginia as a guest at Ravencon. Ravencon is a fairly new con, but it's been expanding at in impressive rate, and has already developed a reputation for the quality of the planning and programming. If you're in the area, it's well worth the price of admission.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Six Publishing Paradoxes

The event with Ed Schubert yesterday at the Regulator Bookshop went great! About twenty folks came out. I had a rough outline to follow for the discussion, though almost immediately we started taking questions from the audience and the discussion became more free form. Still, we started by presenting the following six paradoxes about publishing:

  1. You need an agent to get your novel published by a mainstream publisher. You can't get an agent until you've been published.
  2. Editor's at publishing houses are looking for fresh, original voices; the marketers and publishers are looking for books that are just like other books that are hot at the moment.
  3. It's easier to write a great book and get it published if you aren't obsessed with getting published.
  4. Most writers are introverts, but building a successful career is easiest if you're an extrovert.
  5. Nothing will sustain you more than stubborn faith in your own talent; nothing will hold you back more than stubborn faith in your own talent.
  6. Every rule about how to make money as a writer has already been broken by some highly popular writer.

Expanding on these further, should you be interested:

You need an agent to get your novel published by a mainstream publisher. You can't get an agent until you've been published. Neither of these statements is categorically true. Baen Books is a major publisher that looks at manuscripts without requiring an agent, and I know half a dozen people at least who are represented by agents even though they have yet to sell their first novel. I think there are three good strategies for escaping this paradox: First, schmooze. Go to cons and meet agents and editors. Don't harass them, but do introduce yourself and talk cleverly about something other than writing. Then, when you get home and write your query asking them to look at your novel, you can mention enjoying your discussion at Worldcon, or whereever. Second, go ahead and publish anyway. Short stories don't need agents. Small press book publishers don't need agents. Build a track record in these smaller venues. Third, just be brilliant. Believe it or not, stories are found in slush piles by publishers and agents that they just have to share with the rest of the world. The great stuff can rise to the top. How to become great is a problem I'll leave to you to figure out.

Editor's at publishing houses are looking for fresh, original voices; the marketers and publishers are looking for books that are just like other books that are hot at the moment. I think it helps if you know how to pitch your book in terms marketers understand. Editors at a lot of houses aren't the final decision makers on what books get published. They have to present their cases to others. I think it helps from the start if you learn the shorthand for pitching your book. Ed Schubert describes Dreaming Creek as a mystery with a Twilight Zone twist. My agent pitched Bitterwood as Robin Hood with dragons. I now mostly talk about the series as Planet of the Apes with dragons. In marketing, originality boils down to your work being like some famous work, only different. I'm pitching my new novel proposal as "like Moby Dick, only with a dragon instead of a whale."

It's easier to write a great book and get it published if you aren't obsessed with getting published. This was true in my case, at least. Early in my career, I spent to much time trying to figure out what it was that publishers wanted and trying to adapt my writing accordingly. So, of course, the novel that finally caught an editor's eye was Nobody Gets the Girl, a superhero novel that I wrote almost as a dare, and that I considered unpublishable. I wrote it for the sheer psychic release of writing the damn thing, and once I wrote it I put it away and didn't think about it for a whole year until I won a Phobos award, and Keith Olexa, the editor at Phobos, asked if I had any novels written. So, despite all the advice about knowing the market, and understanding how to pitch your book as being like other books, the biggest lesson I've learned is, if you're not under contract, just write the book you most want to write and worry about selling it later.

Most writers are introverts, but building a successful career is easiest if you're an extrovert. I hate crowds. While I'm not anti-social, I only have a small core of really close friends I hang out with regularly. I'd be perfectly content to live in a log cabin high up on a remote mountain, writing in isolation, maybe seeing friends once or twice a month. I am by nature someone who would rather sit and think than someone who would rather go out and talk endlessly about trivia. If you want to sell your books, you have to go out and put yourself and your book before large groups of people. You need to be bold enough to approach newspapers and magazines with article ideas that feature you and your books. Shyness is not your friend.

Nothing will sustain you more than stubborn faith in your own talent; nothing will hold you back more than stubborn faith in your own talent. I wish I'd realized this about five years before I did. My belief that I was good enough to be a professional writer sustained me through many hundreds of rejection letters. Unfortunately, it also left me deaf to many valid criticisms of my early work. By thinking I was good enough, I wasn't striving to constantly be better. I hit a plateau of mediocrity sometime in the mid-nineties that it took me six years to work through because I honestly believed I was a good writer. And, I was... I just wasn't good enough for publication. Yet, if I'd been less stubborn and confident, I don't know if I would have toughed it out through all those rejection letters. Often in the arts, the aspects of your personality that make you strong are also the ones that doom you.

Every rule about how to make money as a writer has already been broken by some highly popular writer. Every one I've ever talked to who has built a career in writing has reached the top through very different paths. I think it's important to draw lessons from the journeys of others, but with the awareness that your own journey is going to be completely different. You can't follow anyone's footsteps, and no one will be able to follow you. Sometimes, though, it's enough just to see that the journey can be made. People do reach the promised land. Keep moving.