Publishing Perils – Interview with James D. Macdonald

James D. Macdonald is the award-winning author of over forty fantasy and science fiction novels, including his most recent work, Lincoln’s Sword.  I recently chatted with Jim about his frequent collaborations with co-author Debra Doyle, as well as his work in educating writers about publishing scams.

You’ve had a pretty amazing career as a fantasy author.  Can you tell us how you got started in the genre?

I got started in the genre by reading an awful lot of fantasy when I was young.  Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, the Chronicles of Prydain, pretty much every word that Robert E. Howard ever wrote, Tolkien, and endless others.  My father had been reading and collecting science fiction since the ‘thirties, so we had the house filled with fantasy and science fiction.

So, fast forward a few years.  I was a young sailor, with a girlfriend in Philadelphia, a bookish young lady.  We wrote letters to one another all the time.  Often, those letters included bits of fantasy story titled “Yet another scene.”  It was sort-of medieval gritty with romantic undercurrents.  Nothing coherent, just scenes.

Fast forward a few more years.  I was married to that young lady, I was still a sailor, but we (Doyle, for it was she) and I had written and published one short story (a werewolf story, “Bad Blood,” which is currently available in e-book format).  We wrote two young-adult science fiction novels under a group pseudonym.  Then the nice folks who had packaged that YA SF series (Planet Builders, by “Robyn Tallis,” if anyone remembers it–pitched as “Sweet Valley High in Space”) asked if we would like to write a middle-grades fantasy series.  “By golly,” we said.  “We could do that,” and pulled out all the scenes from Yet Another Scene.  This became the Circle of Magic series.  With that, we were on our way.

You’ve collaborated with Debra Doyle on over forty novels.  Tell us about how your collaboration works.

The way we divide the writing is like this:  I write a “strong outline” (what anyone else might call a first draft), which generally comes to around 3/4 of the length of the finished book.  I sketch out scenes, dialog, and descriptions, although often the dialog will read “Doyle does this part.”

Debra takes this, and goes through and re-writes the book, though when she comes to action scenes she often writes “Macdonald does this part.”  And so we pass the drafts back and forth, writing and re-writing, and adding (or subtracting, or moving) scenes as seems good to us.  I tend to edit on hardcopy; Doyle usually edits on-screen. Sometimes we act out scenes in our kitchen.  Sometimes we gossip about our characters’ personal lives.  (Once, our elder daughter, walking in on such a conversation, asked, “Is this someone I know, or is it someone from one of your books again?”)

When we’re at a place where we’re both happy with the book, we go through, page by page, marking up that physical page, handing it off to the other person, marking it up, handing it back, until we’re both happy with it.  Then we take the next physical page and repeat the process.

In the final analysis, I get final cut on what happens, Doyle gets final cut on how we say it.  That is, I have the plot, she has the words.

You’ve also written books on your own.  How different is the process when writing by yourself, as opposed to working with a partner.

I find writing with a partner much easier.  Doyle does all the hard parts.  (If you ask Doyle, she’ll tell you that I do all the hard parts.  It works for us:  The rocks in my head match the holes in hers….)

When I write on my own I find that I write much shorter than when I write with Doyle.  I’m also far too telegraphic.  In editing, my editor keeps asking me to “explain more” and not to clip the ending, but rather to play it out.

When I’m writing on my own, I also tend to write scenes out-of-order, as they occur to me, rather than telling a coherent story.  That makes the process of second-drafting more interesting, as I have to play jigsaw puzzle with the bits.

One of the things that you’re known for is creating “Yog’s Law.”  Can you tell us what that is?

Yog’s Law is simply this:  Money flows toward the author.

It’s a tripwire defense against scams, of which the literary world is brimming.  The only thing you have to tell a writer is “I love your story,” and he will think you’re the finest person in the world, filled with good sense, a friend, a mentor, a god!   So,  Scammer: “I love your story.  Give me all your money.”  Writer:  “Sure, here you go!”

Few people in legitimate publishing know much about the demimonde of literary scams.  That’s because they don’t impinge on the world of real publishing much.  The agents don’t submit books, the publishers don’t print books, the bookstores don’t stock those non-existent (or, only theoretically-existent) books, reviewers don’t review those theoretically-existent books, and readers don’t read them.  But the writers have pumped in enough cash, each, to buy a decent used car.  All of which goes to supporting some sleazy people in the lifestyle to which most of us would like to become accustomed.  (One of them, currently being investigated by the Florida Attorney General, in business for around a decade with no evidence of being able to sell books to anyone but their own authors, boasts that he owns a yacht.)

What led you to develop Yog’s Law?

Here’s how I got into it:  An article appeared in my local paper of the “Local Man Writes Book” variety.  Getting one of those articles in a small-town newspaper isn’t a big trick, or particularly hard to do.  (A whole bunch of vanity presses use those kinds of clips to prove that they’re legitimate, even though the same paper would also print “Local Man Accepted to Community College.”)  The paper came out, and I got a phone call.

The person calling was a writer who lived a few towns south of me, who wanted to know how much it cost me to print my books.  I was still a new writer myself at the time, but the question shocked me.  I didn’t pay to be published, I didn’t know anyone who did, and the idea that someone would pay to be published seemed just weird.  Imagine an innocent newly-wed just discovering that hookers exist.

Turns out that this fellow had paid thousands of dollars to Commonwealth Books.  He’d mortgaged his house to pay to publish his book.

You have to understand that Commonwealth was a complete fraud.  There was no way he was going to earn back his money from sales because not only didn’t they have any distribution, there weren’t any, and never would be any, physical books to sell.

Anyway, that radicalized me.  Here was a guy who believed in his book so strongly that he literally bet the farm on it, and he was going to lose his house.

Yog’s Law was the result:  It’s simple, it’s easy to remember, and it covers most cases.  Yog’s Law doesn’t say anything about how fast the money moves, or how much of it there’ll be.  It only talks about the direction of money flow.  It doesn’t say that writers don’t have to pay for groceries, or for paper, or postage, or for magazine subscriptions.  It only says that writers don’t pay to be published.  And they don’t.  Not then, and not now.  Not if they want to find readers.

There are only two sources of money in publishing:  The readers, and the writers.  If money is coming from the readers, that’s real publishing.  If it’s coming from the writers that’s somewhere between a very bad idea and an out-and-out fraud.

Since then we’ve seen the scammers go to great lengths to disguise themselves to avoid tripping it (e.g. requiring that authors get an “evaluation” (for a fee) from an “independent third party” (who just happens to be the same scammer at the a different address)), and lately we’ve seen the vanity presses and scammers launch direct attacks on Yog’s Law, but it still holds firm, and it’s as true today as it was when I first devised it.

Has the situation changed much since then?  Are writers more aware of literary scams, or has the problem gotten worse?

The situation hasn’t changed in some ways; there are still a ton of vanity presses and scam agents out there.  Newbie writers…there’s a never-ending supply of them, folks who have spent years writing their books, then fifteen seconds looking for a publisher (they Google on “book publisher” and send their book to the first place that pops up).  What has changed is this:  There’s now a huge supply of brand-new agents and publishers, folks who woke up last Wednesday and decided that they want to be agents or publishers.  The low cost of email, and the low cost of electronic publication, make it possible for them to look good from out front.  They have no intention of scamming anyone, they don’t charge fees, their hearts are filled with great plans — and they fail miserably, taking writers down with them in the flaming wreck of their businesses.

Agenting and publishing are not entry-level positions.  Yet we have folks who have no idea what they’re doing, creating ghastly contracts (because they’ve never seen a real publishing contract in their lives).  The authors who submit books to them might know more about publishing than the publishers.  The amateur (but well-meaning) agents, and the publishers, have no idea what makes a commercial manuscript, they don’t know how to edit, they can’t figure out how to market or promote a book.  Their sales are the same (or worse) than the authors could do on their own through self-publishing (and those numbers are, typically, dismal).  The eager would-be agents have no contacts among publishers; they are no more able to submit a work to a major house than the author would be on his or her own.

How can new writers quickly identify whether or not they are dealing with a legitimate agent or publisher?

Here’s how to tell a real agent from a would-be agent:  A real agent has sold books that you’ve heard of.

A real publisher has distribution–that is, you can find them for sale in the usual places that sell books– and non-trivial sales.

Newbie writers are just as vulnerable as ever, and from the author’s point of view, there’s nothing to choose between a well-meaning incompetent and a hard-eyed fraudster:  Neither one will be able to sell the author’s book, both will soak up the author’s time and passion.

The scammer will cost more, in terms of dollars, but it’s often easier to break away from a scammer.   The amateur may have gotten the author to sign an all-rights-for-the-term-of-copyright contract before deciding, a year later, that it’s all too hard and disappearing, leaving a book that the author can never legally sell for his or her entire life (plus seventy years).

Doesn’t self-publishing violate Yog’s Law?

No, it doesn’t.

First, we aren’t talking about vanity publishing — that’s where the author pays some publisher to take his or her book, and gets a fraction of the income back afterwards. (If you already paid the full freight for publishing the work, why are they keeping 85% of the income, too?)

Tate, Dorrance, Vantage, AuthorHouse, PublishAmerica, Strategic, endless others — they range from being very bad ideas to open scams.  If you’re paying to be published, you should get 100% of the income back, not a royalty.

But on to self-publishing.  Self-publishing is one of the subdivisions of commercial publishing.

You have to divide yourself into two parts:  You-the-author and you-the-publisher.  You the author pay nothing.  You look at you-the-publisher and ask, “Is this guy the best publisher in the world for my book?  Why?”  If the reason is, “He’s the only one in the world who will take my book,” that’s not the right answer.

Now, on to you-the-publisher.  As publisher, you look at the work that you-the-author submitted, and ask yourself, as any publisher would, “Can I publish this work profitably? Is there an audience?  Is it good?”  You acquire the book, then you pay for everything:  Editing, copyediting, typesetting (or formatting for electronic publishing), artwork, promotion, marketing — the whole deal.  Either do it yourself or hire it out to freelancers. You also set a royalty to pay you-the-author.  If you can’t see your way to putting 15% of the cover price of every copy sold into an account labeled “Retirement” or something — you need to re-evaluate what you’re doing.  Money is still flowing toward the author, even if it’s only from one pocket to another in the same pair of pants.

As a publisher you can lose money.  Maybe even a lot.  (The best way to become a millionaire by being a publisher is to start as a multi-millionaire.)  No one ever said that publishing is an expense-free business, and you’ll be going head-to-head against experienced professionals.  If that’s the way you want to roll, go for it.

There’s a lot of interest in e-publishing right now.  Do you foresee this trend becoming the dominant form of publishing?  If so, what will the consequences be for writers?

No, I don’t see it becoming the dominant form of publishing, thouigh I do see it becoming an important segment of publishing.  E-publishing disenfranchises anyone who doesn’t have an e-reader, which is (and will probably remain) almost everyone in the world.  As to the consequences for writers, you could have written a headline any time in the last couple of centuries that read, “Big changes in publishing: Authors to be adversely affected.”  Writing has always been such a marginal occupation that writers have had to fine-tune their survival strategies just to make it by.  Any change will break those strategies, so until a new equilibrium exists a lot of people will be scrambling.

What advice do you have for new authors who are hoping to make writing their career?  In this day and age, how possible is this?

My best advice is to read a lot and write a lot.  That’s how to get good.  To make it a career, send your best material to the highest paid/highest prestige markets first.  Start at the top and work down.  You may still wind up at the bottom if you follow that strategy, but if you start at the bottom you’ll never work your way up.  The best advice on how to have a successful career I ever heard was from Neil Gaiman:  “Never publish anything bad.”

What that works out to in practical terms is, if you have a work that isn’t good enough, don’t self-publish it.  It still won’t be good enough.  Folks who read it and are disappointed will remember your name, and not in a good way.

As to making a career of writing, it’s as possible as it’s ever been.  Which is to say, darned difficult.  People have always wanted, and always will want, information and entertainment.  The ability to teach, and the ability to tell lies so well that people want to hear those lies, however, is rare.  Rare things can always be traded for money, whether it’s a Babe Ruth rookie baseball card, or a good short story.  The trick is getting the buyer and the seller together.  That’s distribution, and distribution is what makes the difference between real publishers and a not-so-real publisher.

Finally, can you tell us a little about what you are working on currently?

I’m working on a novel involving Emergency Medical Services in a world with supernatural beings.  For normal humans, if you have an impaled object, you don’t remove it in the field.  If you have a vampire with an impaled object, however, you have to remove it as soon as possible.  So, this book answers the question, What happens when werewolves dial 9-1-1?

To learn more about James D. Macdonald and Debra Doyle, visit their site, Madhouse Manor.  Their novel, Lincoln’s Sword, is available in print and electronic versions wherever books are sold.

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Nathan J. Lauffer
10 years ago

This is an excellent post.  I really enjoyed learning about James’ collaborative writing.  Also, his point of view concerning publishing and scams was very insightful.

9 years ago

Fascinating to hear how famous authors got started….. I learned several good points here, especially the thoughts on how do find or know a reputable publisher. Of course his answer makes sense, but it is something not everyone may think about if they don’t read it somewhere. Thanks for sharing 🙂

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