Marsha Canham's Blog

February 20, 2011

Ostriches or Butterflies?

Filed under: Caesars Through the Fence — marshacanham @ 3:09 pm

I get inspired by other people’s blogs.  Stephanie Laurens wrote a blog on Dinosaurs and Daffodils, basically asking if this new world of self-publishing was scary or exciting.  I wrote a comment to add to her blog, but the blog gods ate it and of course I didn’t think to make a copy, so instead of challenging the gods again I figured I would just put my thoughts here, changing the analogy slightly from Dinosaurs (which I am, having been in the writing business for nearly 30 years) and daffodils (those brave new souls venturing into the world of self-publishing, for which I also qualify, having self-pubbed my four early, Out Of Print books)…to ostriches and butterflies.  Writers do that, you know.  We love analogies.

The ostriches in this case, are the Big Six publishing houses, the bookstores, and the authors who are standing back shaking their heads saying nope, not me.  Not going to sell my priceless words as ebooks, not going to list them at $2.99, not when I’ve been a Bestseller, when I’ve made it onto Lists, when I’ve been published in hardcover and been on book tours etc etc etc….

Hmm.  I’ve been a Bestseller.  I’ve made it onto Lists.  I turned down a hardcover deal years ago, and I’ve been on book tours etc etc.  And I will admit I turned my nose up at ebooks when they first came out about 10 years ago, maybe more, because the readers were big and clunky, reading material was limited, and face it, I was a big reader myself and had (have) shelves full of lovely books that I could take into my hands, turn the pages, and lose myself for a few hours with some great stories.

I also went on a long hiatus, having grown over-stressed with all the bulls**t involved with deadlines, editors, being told my books weren’t commercial enough…yada yada, I’ve blogged about all that before so I won’t repeat it here.  Bottom line, I stopped having fun so I set pen and paper aside and watched my grandchildren growing up…something that only happens once.

More recently, a divorce after 37 years of marriage set me back on my hiney, right about the time I was considering picking up pen and paper again.  It’s hard to write a romance novel when your life is falling down around your ears, so that made the pen and paper get pushed aside again.  I didn’t think readers would appreciate me stabbing the hero every other page or every time he said:  I will love you forever.

Then last year I had an interesting email from Julie Ortolon, and again I have blogged about this before, but it bears repeating for the butterfly analogy.  She said she had been discussing self publishing her backlist books with several other authors who were interested in doing the same thing.  She wondered what, if anything, was happening to my early OOP books, to which of course I answered:  nothing.  She and a few others started an email group and a website to see who else was roving around wondering what to do in this brave new world of ebooks, and BacklistEbooks was formed.  It started with about 20 members, and we’re now over a hundred with three loops.  A lot of the names I recognize.  Some are dinosaurs like me, (pausing to wave and chuckle at Shirl Henke) having been in the business, in print for the past three decades.

We’re all slowly emerging from the cocoon and becoming butterflies…testing this ebook revolution by first reissuing our backlist books.  Some are having remarkable success and everyone is starting to question the logic of publishers who are making very little attempt to keep their authors from breaking out of more and more cocoons.   Self pubbed authors have complete control over their covers, something only a lucky few of us had many many years ago.  They also have complete freedom to write whatever stories they want to write whether some 20 year old editor fresh out of college thinks its commercial or not.  It’s called diversity, all you publishers out there.  Not everyone wants to read vampire books, or chick lit, or zombies just because that happens to be the trend at the moment.  Regencies have been run into the ground with overkill, as have books about Scotland and Highlanders.  Everyone in the 70’s wrote books based on the Civil War until it turned to dust and killed off more reader interest than the armies of the North and South combined.

Can you SEE me writing a book about vampires?  That’s what was suggested to me in place of the sequel to The Iron Rose because, I was told, pirate books were no longer commercial.

The other big ostrich in this blog is Borders.  Hello? Ebooks anyone?  Amazon has come out with the Kindle, Barnes and Noble has the Nook.  There is the Sony reader and, giving ebooks a huge push, the iPad.  Even Costco has it’s own reader now, the PanDigital, a quarter of the price of the iPad with almost as many features.  A big book chain like Borders should have seen the writing on the wall. An average e-reader holds a thousand books and slips into a purse or pocket.  Ever tried shlepping a thousand books around in your purse? Or even your car?  Students, prime example.  No more slogging 50lbs of textbooks in a backpack, just take out the e-reader.  Lawyers…need to find a case quickly? Check your e-reader right there in court and voila….

And if all that isn’t convincing enough to bring some heads out of the sand…try the basic bottom line.  A midlist author who sells 50,000 books is considered a bestseller.  The royalty rate on each book sold is 8% usually, but we’ll round it up to 10% because my math sucks.  At 10%, the author earns .89 on a book that sells for $8.99.  For 50,000 books then, she earns $44,500.    Authors moan and whine over the low price point of ebooks, saying their books are worth way much more.  Okay. Do the math.  The average price point for an e-book is $2.99, which, at the 70% royalty rate offered by Amazon and Smashwords, works out to $2.03.  So, for those same 50,000 books the author would earn $101,500.  Of course, there are no cushy large advances, which are nice to get. On the other hand, there is no waiting for that advance to earn out, no stalling on the part of the publisher who still uses archaic excuses like reserves against returns to hold back payments.  I’ve often wondered, if you told the president of a publishing house that he was only going to be paid twice a year, that the amount would be unknown and at the discretion of some clever accountants…how many would take the job?

Amazon sends a cheque at the end of every month, Smashwords pays quarterly.  No reserves against returns, just wysiwyg (what you sell is what you get).  In this day and age of computers, bookstores and publishers know to the SECOND how many copies of a book is sold…hell, ten years ago an editor’s assistant mistakenly sent me the URL of one of their distribution centers and even then, they knew exactly how many books  had been shipped, how many were in the warehouse, and exactly how many had been sold and in which stores.  The joy of computers.  I was asked, by that same panicked assistant to just forget I ever saw that website, but of course…hard to forget when you get a royalty statement where the numbers were so skewed it looked like I owed them money.

There are already resources for cover graphics if the author feels he or she cannot do the artwork themselves.  There are editing services cropping up every other day because yes, a good book still needs to be edited.  There are people who format for ebooks, people who scan and convert print books to ebooks, and more sites cropping up every day to promote and review ebooks.  There are a lot of butterflies out there.  The ostriches better get their heads out of the sand or they’ll just be stuck there with their…erm…feathers in the air.

I’d love to get some feedback on this.  Hopefully the blog gods won’t eat any more posts.



  1. Wonderful post! My coauthor and I write as “Evelyn David.” Our experiences with a past publisher reenforced our determination to take direct control over the publication of a new series. We’re not making huge amounts of money yet, but what we do make comes in monthly and we know exactly how many sales we made.

    Comment by evelyndavid — February 20, 2011 @ 3:44 pm | Reply

    • LOL do i have stories about publishers! I’ve written blogs about some of them…the Forty F**king Flowers, for one…but writers should just be able to write, they shouldn’t have to do battle with editors and art departments and worry if their books are commercial enough or sexy enough or too sexy or…heaven forbid too violent if it’s a book about a war.

      Comment by marshacanham — February 21, 2011 @ 5:19 pm | Reply

  2. Marsha,

    Pirate books went out of favor because editors got tired of them (I know readers who lament the loss of the epic pirate romance). Write new ones, when you get your mojo back!! Unless you really want to write about vampires. Hmm. The Pirate Vampire. Maybe.

    Comment by Kelly McClymer — February 20, 2011 @ 6:30 pm | Reply

    • Noooooooooooo vampires for me. Way back when, I read one of Stephen King’s books about vampires and slept with all the house lights on for the next full week.

      Comment by marshacanham — February 21, 2011 @ 5:16 pm | Reply

  3. Hi Marsha, I recently ordered my first ebook reader, a Kobo. My husband asked me ‘why?’ because last year he wanted to get me one for my 50th birthday and I said no. The answer to that question is basically because of what you just posted about. So many authors that I follow are venturing into this new world of self publishing that I want the means to support them and enjoy their work. There are a lot of OOP books that I can’t wait to get in ebook format. I truly appreciate the time, effort, and amount of ‘self’ that writers put into their work and it just frosts me that the publishing industry makes it so hard for you to be fairly compensated.
    Go dinosaurs!!

    Comment by Laura Balanko — February 20, 2011 @ 7:55 pm | Reply

    • Thank you Laura. One of the reasons some authors are still holding back is that they have relied on publishers to do the promoting and advertising, and they don’t realize that word spreads, that readers are actually out there looking for them. I think you’ll see more and more of the dinosaurs popping their heads up, cuz the alternative isn’t pretty.

      Comment by marshacanham — February 21, 2011 @ 5:15 pm | Reply

  4. This blog is so true! It’s wonderful that, with the growing popularity of self-publishing and e-Readers, authors can now write what they “want” and not be “told” to write based on ratating whims of publishing houses and editors. It’s a shame that Marsha, and big name authors like her, were driven away due to lack of freedom. Such waste of talent that readers continue to crave. One example would be an entire line of romance novels that had a large readership and the publisher just shut the entire line down after only a few years. I’ve since discovered there are readers still looking for that type of romance. We need new books from you, Marsha!

    Comment by Jill Metcalf — February 20, 2011 @ 9:52 pm | Reply

    • I’m working on it, I’m working on it. I almost have a *teaser* ready to put up online…a freebie little taste to set the mood

      Comment by marshacanham — February 21, 2011 @ 5:13 pm | Reply

      • Ho! Ho! Very good news!

        Comment by Jill Metcalf — February 21, 2011 @ 5:58 pm

  5. I’ve just returned from an SF convention, where I spent a fair amount of time urging my fellow SF and fantasy authors to do exactly that. (It’s working for me.) For people who haven’t been in the ebook world, it can seem that the obstacles are too daunting. But really, once you make up your mind and get started, it’s just a matter of doing it. It’s not that hard.

    Comment by Jeffrey A. Carver — February 20, 2011 @ 10:31 pm | Reply

  6. Excellent! YES. I’ve been published in both mainstream and indie worlds, and so enjoy the direction in which we’re all headed – which is indie and e. Thanks for posting. I’m going to link to this post through my FaceBook and Twitter accounts. I couldn’t have said it better myself.

    Comment by Winslow Eliot — February 21, 2011 @ 3:42 pm | Reply

    • Thank you Winslow. I usually ramble and type while I’m thinking so I had to cut back on a few points, but I hope to follow this blog with more semi-erratic thoughts *g*

      Comment by marshacanham — February 21, 2011 @ 5:07 pm | Reply

  7. Thanks for your wonderful insights, Marsha. We share a similar path (disenchantment, divorce, setting down the pen), but I bowed out of NY publishing alot earlier than you. Now, thanks to ebooks, it’s so glorious to be a butterfly!

    Comment by Miriam Minger — February 21, 2011 @ 3:47 pm | Reply

    • Isn’t it though? I’m seriously certain I won’t be going the paper route on my next book …it’s a pirate romance, sooooooooooooooo not commercial *snort*…but I’m actually enjoying writing again, knowing I have only myself and the readers to please.

      Comment by marshacanham — February 21, 2011 @ 5:11 pm | Reply

  8. Cheers to all of us brave butterflies!

    The best part about this new world is variety. For authors and readers. We have the freedom to write and read what we want. Every ebook I’ve purchased since I bought my Sony Reader is an oop book. Because the stories I want to read are the very kind publishers say “don’t sell.” The same way I was told to stop writing my happy, feel-good contemporary romances because publishers say those “don’t sell.” I jumped through so many hoops trying to write proposals for what publishers said would sell, but couldn’t get a contract for any of those ideas. So I quit writing.

    Then, I turned my Pearl Island trilogy into ebooks — and apparently readers DO still want happy, fun, sexy contemporaries, because my ebooks are doing so well, I think I’ll start writing again. No more trying to figure out what NYC wants. Just write what my readers want.

    Yep, it’s good to be a butterfly.

    Comment by Julie Ortolon — February 21, 2011 @ 6:20 pm | Reply

    • ME TOO! I just finished re-reading Shanna, by Woodiwiss, and Skye O’Malley, by Bertrice Small. I’m realizing just how much I miss those epic romances… and how many of them had a kidnapped-by-pirates interlude, LOL.

      Comment by Nicola O. — March 6, 2011 @ 5:13 pm | Reply

  9. (justamouse on the Stephanie’s blog)

    Backlist E-books? I think I’ve died and gone to heaven.

    And I love pirates. Bring on the pirates. Scads of them. :p

    Comment by Eva Gale — February 21, 2011 @ 11:02 pm | Reply

    • LOL…well…at least a couple of shiploads worth. And thank you for your comment over on Stephanie’s board too *s*

      Comment by marshacanham — February 22, 2011 @ 4:42 am | Reply

  10. Bravo! I’m one of those grateful readers loading up my kindle with your backlist. I own them in paper but long ago lost track of which bin in the basement they’re residing in. I’ve bought literally hundreds of my favorite keepers for the second time in digital. You’d think the big boys in publishing would sit up and take notice since I know there are legions of us buying…again. Not to mention new readers discovering the great authors in romance.

    Comment by Diana — February 21, 2011 @ 11:36 pm | Reply

    • Thank you Diana. You are the readers we write for *s* and the kind we will keep writing for. As for the Big Boys? pfffft. By the time they figure it out, they’ll be out of authors.

      Comment by marshacanham — February 22, 2011 @ 4:41 am | Reply

  11. I am a not-yet-published writer and I have to say your post gives me hope. I haven’t had an inspiring idea for a long time and I think it is because of what you said – what sparks my imagination and makes me a Brilliant Writer (so to speak) is not what publishers are looking for. I’m writing for myself now and beginning to love it again.

    Comment by kirsten — February 22, 2011 @ 6:20 pm | Reply

  12. I am a romance junkie, but I want to read a intelligent story, escape into another world, feel what I am reading. The way I find great books is through the reviews and comments from other readers through Amazon and There is no advertising, no lists from “professional” critics, no publishers pushing one author or another, just people like me who fall in love with a book and want to share it or even let others know not to waste their time. This is how I found The Pride of Lions. Since, I have filled my Nook with everything you have written and I want more than anything to savor each story but find myself so immersed from the first chapter I cannot put them down. I have at least 14 people started on everything you have written, and they in turn have passed them along as well. There is no better advertising than word of mouth. Oh, and all of them, myself included, love Pirates. So much for what the publishers say. I will admit to reading my share of vampire books, but it’s your writing, your ability to entice me into another world so tangible I can smell the tropical breeze and feel the ocean spray, not to mention wit and humor appealing to intelligence not trends. And that is what’s in your books. Real characters, real thought-out stories, real adventure, real romance in every sense of the word. And there are so many of us who want that in a book. (Please write more.)

    Comment by Stephanie — February 27, 2011 @ 2:52 am | Reply

  13. To be fair to the “big boys” and editors looking for commercial winners, etc — one of the HUGE advantages to e-books is that it reduces to almost zero the non-writing cost of producing a book. (I’m not saying they haven’t taken huge advantage of authors using that as an excuse, but it does exist.) So the barrier to offering a trend-bucking ebook is much much lower… and everybody wins!

    The trick with ebooks, I think, just like e-news, is going to be for the readers to figure out how to find books they love. 3-5 years from now, there will be ebooks everywhere, self-promotion everywhere, and the smart distributors like Borders or B&N will find a way to consolidate and filter that information stream for the reader. I saw a great blog post a week or two ago about how people were using the free samples to decide if they wanted to try a new author, and buying a lot less “DNF” books as a result (“Did Not Finish”).

    Comment by Nicola O. — March 6, 2011 @ 5:20 pm | Reply

    • Nicola, I don’t think we’ll even have to wait the 3-5 years. There are already ebooks everywhere, and I think that’s part of the problem Borders had…not keeping up with the new wave of indie writers, the new wave of authors reissuing their own backlists, the new wave of e-readers that suit every kind of reader from those who just want to read, to those who want to read, send email, or browse the web. All of this amazing technology is out there and the bookstores are going to have to find a way to make the access as easy and eye-catching for ebooks as it is for browsing on a bookshelf. Touch screen searches maybe?

      Comment by marshacanham — March 6, 2011 @ 5:34 pm | Reply

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