publishing

An author’s view of the First Sale Doctrine

by Gary A. Braunbeck

Abuse of the first sale doctrine is fairly rampant in the small-press bookselling world. This is a real sore spot with me, and is going to take some explaining, so get comfortable.

You have possibly encountered on-line booksellers who offer copies of books (often books they did not themselves publish) for outlandish prices. I myself have seen copies of my Cemetery Dance collection Things Left Behind going for as much as $1,750.00 (which, by the way, is a good deal more than I received for writing it; not bitching about what Rich Chizmar paid me for it, not at all, but I would dearly love to have more than one copy of my first book but that ain’t gonna happen because I can’t afford the prices many places are charging for it). The sold-out release of Borderlands 5 turned up at several on-line auctions within days of its publication with bids starting — starting — at between $200.00 and $500.00.

There are some who mistakenly think this sort of thing is illegal; it isn’t. It is allowed under what’s know as the first sale doctrine.

According to Section 109 of the U.S. Copyright Act, whoever first purchases the physical copy of a copyrighted work (a book, a DVD, VHS tape, CD, etc.) has the right to do with that copy whatever they want, including transfer ownership of that physical copy in any manner they choose. They can give it away, sell it to some place like Half-Price Books, or offer it up for on-line auction. The doctrine deals with the physical object, not the intellectual or artistic expression contained within. For more info, read Lucy’s article “Why you can rent a novel but not a music CD“.

Here’s what pisses me off about this: there are some booksellers and individuals who will purchase and hoard multiple copies of a book with no concern for the work, the author, or the work’s fans — they couldn’t give less of shit about the quality of the stories or the novel. What they’re concerned with is obtaining as many physical copies as possible because (as was the case with Borderlands 5) a particular book might sell out very quickly, and they, in turn, can sell their copies at a price that is sometimes as much as 700% higher than what they paid for it originally.

When confronted with their unapologetic avarice (and avarice it is, make no mistake about that), they will inevitably defend their actions by claiming that they’ve every right to turn a profit on their investment…and then probably have the nerve to bitch about having to pay four bucks a gallon for gas because OPEC are a bunch of greedy bastards. What’s wrong with this picture?

Understand something: I am not condemning specialty-press publishers like, say, Donald Grant, who produce exquisite (and justifiably expensive) limited editions of books geared toward book collectors — those rare birds who have a deep and abiding respect both for the physical object and the work contained within and who, it should go without saying, can afford these editions. Nor am I condemning any specialty-press publisher who at a later date offers up copies of a book they’ve previously published at a higher price: after all, it’s their product, and if they can find a buyer for their product, more power to ’em.

I am also not condemning those who offer up for auction or re-sale books with the intent of using the money to assist others who are struggling with financial hardship or to fund charity drives.

My problem lies with those who buy books solely for the purpose of re-selling them at obscenely inflated prices so as to fatten their personal pockets just because they can.

No, it isn’t illegal, but in my book it is (and always will be) reprehensible and immoral. Which is why I do not buy books from sellers who engage in this practice, be they on-line or in the dealers’ room at a con. As far as I’m concerned, it’s price gouging if I see a book selling at more than twice its original asking price. I’m not completely unreasonable about this; I realize that booksellers have to make a certain amount of profit to stay in business and cover basic operating costs, so doubling the price of a sold-out or out-of-print book strikes me as equitable and fair, but beyond that — I walk away.

And God help ’em if they have the nerve to ask me to sign any books for them so they can jack up the price even more.

More on why self-publishing is (probably) a bad idea

My husband was recently interviewed by a reporter from his hometown newspaper. He got a ton of website traffic from the feature they subsequently ran on him, and he was contacted by old friends he hadn’t heard from in 20 years, and that’s all good.

However, the staffer who interviewed him — a reporter who is not an intern, and who has written dozens of features for the paper — asked a truly jaw-dropping question: “So your books are self-published?”

This was the second question she gave him; she asked it in the same tone as the first, which was to ask if he was from Newark. In other words, it wasn’t really a question, but more a statement of perceived fact she was double-checking.

This question floored us because:

  1. It showed she hadn’t done basic preparation for the interview and taken two minutes to do a Google search and find out that he’s professionally published 20 books, etc.
  2. It showed she profoundly misunderstood the process of becoming a professional fiction writer.

Gary, being the nice guy he is, gently told her that pro fiction writers don’t self-publish and explained why. And he thought that would be the end of it, until he saw the feature in the paper and read this line:

“The author has never self-published because a lot of book stores will not carry self-published authors and it also can be expensive.”

The reporter was likely on a strict word limit, so her including that line struck us as strange and unnecessary. In subsequent discussion on Livejournal, our friend Mehitobel made a comment that I think nailed it on the head:

“See, that’s just a weird-ass line. I can see someone ignorant of publishing, or even so jaded with local author profiles that they expect a local author to have self-published, asking about it in an interview. But the line quoted above from the article suggests to me that the reporter may actually view self-published books as the norm, better, or more ambitious. It’s like she has it backwards.”

It’s possible the reporter had been listening starry-eyed to some life coach who told her he’d sold a ton of self-published books and that self-publishing is the right and proper thing for an entrepreneurial spirit to do. If you are a self-help guru, evangelist, TV star or some other celebrity, sure, you can self-publish a book as an adjunct to your public speaking engagements and do very well. And independent comics artists have long been admired for DIY books. But if you’re a non-celebrity trying to become a pro fiction writer, self-publishing is more likely to hurt than help.

I don’t consider self-publishing to be synonymous with vanity publishing. Vanity presses are scam artists preying on the hopes and dreams of the naive; however there are places like Lulu.com that are straightforward, useful print on demand services.

I don’t consider writers who choose to self-publish their work to be “cheating” or lacking in intelligence or moral fiber or anything like that. Want to make a book of love poems as a Christmas gift for your sweetie? Planning to put together a calendar or anthology to support a charity? Have you written an RPG rulebook or other game supplement you want to get into peoples’ hands? After you’ve done your homework, does Lulu.com or a competitor seem to be the most economical way to get your project into print? Go for it.

But if you’ve got a novel or even a short story collection and you aspire to a larger audience than your circle of friends, you really ought to reconsider.

I know several people who’ve self-published poetry and fiction books. They’re nice people. Most of them did it because they were frustrated by the long, tedious process of submitting their work to and being rejected by traditional publishers. I can certainly sympathize with their frustration.

But 99.99% of the time, if your goal is to establish yourself as a legitimate author and put yourself on a track to a career as a writer, self-publishing is going to be a costly mistake. The only time it’s not a mistake is if you’re an experienced publishing professional and you know you have the resources to produce, promote, and distribute a good book that can adequately compete with the 400 other books that are published every day.

But people who write pro-quality books almost never have to turn to self-publishing; they generally only do it if they have very specific, well-considered publishing plans in mind and want complete control of their projects. If a pro has a book that the big houses deem unmarketable, he or she can usually find a small press willing to get the manuscript into print.

The average advance for a novel is $5K or thereabouts. It might take you months or even years to finish your first book. It could also take you years to squirrel away that much money if you work an entry-level job. So let’s think of finishing a publishable novel as the equivalent of having slaved away to save up $5,000.

If you told me you were taking your $5,000 and going to Las Vegas, I’d probably ask if you were going to splurge on a fun vacation.

If you replied, “No, I need more money; my bank doesn’t pay enough interest, and the stock market’s too darned complicated. I’m gonna hit the casinos and turn this five grand into fifty grand!”, I’d think it was a phenomenally bad idea and try to talk you out of it. Yes, you could get lucky at the slot machines and come home with a fat roll of cash, but the odds are you’d come home hung over and broke.

If on the other hand I knew you were a statistics prodigy with an eidetic memory who’d been consistently winning regional poker games, I’d think you had a real chance. If you then told me how you were sure you could keep the casinos from figuring out you could count cards, but knew you might be wrong and detailed a plan to escape quickly and safely with your winnings, I’d think it was a daring scheme and congratulate you.

The notion of being a rebel writer self-publishing your way to grand authorial success is as bright and shiny as Vegas. But unless you’re very talented or very lucky, it’s just not going to pay off in a career.

I realize I’m probably preaching to the choir here. But based on the reporter’s questions, some people might need to read this.

On Book Blurbs

by Gary A. Braunbeck

If you look at a book, usually on the dustcover, paperback cover or somewhere in the first couple of pages you will see something like “‘(This author’s) writing is a dazzling bravura of wild imagery and nail-biting suspense.’ – Reed McReaderson” or “‘A wonderful book! I couldn’t put it down!’ – Gush Auteur”.

These little cover raves are known as “blurbs”.

I am a firm believer that a handful of strong blurbs can be just as effective as the same number of positive reviews; they’re shorter, they’re direct, and they reveal nothing spoiler-like about the work in question. This, to my mind, makes them a good alternative for potential readers who don’t want to chance having a review give away too much of the story.

Some — but not all — blurbs are culled from reviews. Probably half the time (or more) a writer will contact other writers and ask them if they would be willing to read something with an eye toward providing a blurb. I have gotten several wonderful quotes this way, and have also provided them for other writers. (I don’t always do this; in the past 4 years I have been asked to read several novels for which, in the end, I couldn’t in good conscience provide a blurb because, well…I didn’t like them.)

Let me quickly address a few misconceptions about writers providing blurbs for other writers:

  1. Yes, a lot of the time these writers know or are at least acquainted with one another — but that in no way means that a good blurb will be guaranteed. A writer worth any blurb value has his or her reputation to uphold, and publicly praising a bad book won’t help that cause one bit.
  2. I can’t speak for others, but I myself do read, from first page to last, each and every book I am asked to blurb. (There seems to be a rather cynical belief that writers don’t bother reading their buddies’ books before giving them a blurb — while I don’t doubt that this happens every so often, it is most assuredly not the norm.)
  3. Yes, any writer providing a blurb is aware that it’s going to be used to entice a reader to buy this particular book, and will slant their blurb to that end — but bear in mind that is because they like and believe in the book to begin with, so its integrity needn’t be called into question.

This is not to say that things can’t go wrong here, as well. If a book is saturated with too many blurbs, one gets the feeling that the publisher is overcompensating and perhaps trying to sell you a bill of goods. The first book in Dean Koontz’s Frankenstein series has ten pages of blurbs inside.

That’s overkill, because the sheer amount of them robs each individual blurb of its effectiveness. You’re so numbed by the time you reach the end of the damned things you almost don’t feel like reading the book — which turns out to be quite a lot of good, old-fashioned fun. But because it starts off by pummeling you with page after page of rave blurbs (almost none of which refer to the book itself), you go in with the creeping feeling that someone is trying to convince you a sow’s ear is actually a silk purse.

My own personal cutoff point is two pages or a dozen blurbs (whichever comes first); after that, I ignore them. With blurbs, less is definitely more. (The ideal for me, by the way, is a single page containing somewhere between five and ten concise, tantalizing quotes.)

I am very careful to make certain that none of the blurbs used for my books are taken out of context — I don’t want readers to feel that these quotes have been employed to mislead them, and I don’t want reviewers to feel that I’ve misrepresented their theses by “doctoring” their comments.

What it boils down to is that strong blurbs can serve as the middle ground for readers who want some sense of what to expect from a book but don’t want to chance having anything “spoiled” for them … and reviewers can write whatever they damned well please without fear of being accused of “spoiling” anything.

I still think the best solution is to read the first few pages of a book to figure out if you’re going to like it or not. But if that’s not possible for whatever reason, then seek out a review; read the first two paragraphs and the last two paragraphs if you want to avoid encountering spoilers. If that doesn’t appeal or work for you, then turn to the blurbs.

In Praise of Proofreaders

by Gary A. Braunbeck

After a while, regardless of how well-focused, disciplined, and determined you are when writing a book, you just don’t, well… see it any more. It happens to all of us at some point on every project. You spend so much time writing, cutting, revising, and polishing, that you risk either not seeing the forest for the trees or become so over-focused on one particular tree that you don’t notice the forest fire until it’s too late.

Okay, carried that metaphor just a little too far, sorry, but hopefully you’ve already discerned the point: that there comes a time during a book-length project when you’ve spent so much time working on it that you lose perspective.

Here’s the thing: by the time you, as a reader, pick up a copy of an author’s book, the author him- or herself has read it over at least three times — and this is after the countless hours spent writing, re-writing, and polishing. If you want to include all that, as well, then I think it’s safe to say that by the time a book goes to print, its author has read it through, from beginning to end, a minimum of seven times, probably more.

This is a necessary evil. Editorial suggestions and changes must be considered and/or made, the manuscript must then be read through to make certain that these changes mesh with the overall story (tone, narrative arc, continuity, etc.), and if a problem is then discovered, it must be fixed, and the whole process starts over again.

I’m oversimplifying this because to describe the process in painstaking detail would not only rob the reading experience of some of its magic, but bore you to tears.

But when the book is finally out there, and everything looks good, the author and the editor can sit back and smile at having done their job to the best of their abilities. Authors often cite their editors as having been “instrumental” in helping to shape a book that may have encountered some rough spots along the pot-holed road to publication. Editors deserve all the credit that an author cares to cast their way, no arguments here.

But there is a group of unsung heroes in the publishing process, people whose names often don’t appear anywhere in the book, but without whose effort, insight, and input, a lot of us would look like illiterate fools.

I am talking about proofreaders, those folks whose thankless job it is to go through your manuscript once you’ve ceased being able to see it anymore and look for the signs of a possible forest fire (see over-extended metaphor at the beginning). Many people think a proofreader’s sole responsibility is to check spelling and punctuation.
While that is definitely right up there on their list of duties, many of them go the extra mile — hell, many of them go several hundred extra miles — to ensure that the book they’re working on is the best it can possibly be.

And they do this by deliberately searching out those elements that you, the writer, ceased to be able to see somewhere around Draft #3.

Two personal examples: a few weeks ago, right before my second Cedar Hill collection, Home Before Dark was being prepped for the printer, one of Earthling’s marvelous proofreaders noticed that in my story, “Palimpsest Day”, the age of the mother did not add up if one stopped to consider her dates of birth and death. Now, I know that a lot of people tend to read such details with a quick eye and don’t stop to do the exact math … but that’s no excuse for sloppiness, and that is exactly what this mistake was — sloppiness on my part. I had become so over-focused on fine-tuning the story so that it fit into the overall arc of the Cedar Hill cycle that I overlooked a small but significant detail — making sure the mother’s age added up. While a mistake of this sort probably wouldn’t have ruined the story, its mere presence would have lessened the story’s value. I had read through the manuscript so many times that I simply didn’t see this problem any more, and thanks to a sharp proofreader, neither will you.

Second example: up until its fourth round of proofreads, my novella In the Midnight Museum contained a glaring continuity error that, while in and of itself quite small, would have damned near pulled the rug out from underneath the entire story had it not been caught by the proofreader. It was a quick, minor detail that very well might have been overlooked by most readers, but those readers who would not have missed it would have had the entire second half of the story ruined by this nagging inconsistency. (You’ve noticed, haven’t you, that I’m not telling you the exact nature of this mistake? That’s because I am so embarrassed by it that I dare not share the specifics, lest you think me, well … simple. “My God,” you’d say. “A sponge would have seen that.” And I’d prefer you leave this essay thinking I have an IQ higher than my shoe size.)

But, again, this potentially destructive detail was overlooked by me because I had stopped seeing the whole of the moon and focused only on the crescent (I figured it was time to switch metaphors).

So consider all of the above to be a preamble to this: a song of gratitude to all proofreaders, those unsung heroes who labor over our manuscripts almost as long and intensely as we do, whose unblinking eye often catch the flaws that we can no longer see, and whose objectivity gives us a fresh perspective just as we need it the most.

I’m going to end this by getting even more specific: Paul Miller, Don Koish, Deena Warner, John Everson, Ron Clinton, Robert Mingee, Jack Haringa, and — my own personal major domo, Mark Lancaster … thank you. A thousand times, thank you. Thank you for caring about my work enough to go those extra hundred miles and always pointing out even the smallest problem, no matter how testy I get about your nitpicking. You are why I look like a good writer.

My gratitude and admiration knows no bounds.

Now see how many mistakes you can find in this blog entry. Just don’t tell me about them or I might throw a hissy fit.


Gary A. Braunbeck is the author of 14 books and over 150 short stories. If you enjoyed this article, take a look at his book Fear in a Handful of Dust: Horror as a Way of Life.