Anthony Neil Smith jump-started the careers of countless crime writers with his fearless editing for the e-zine, Plots with Guns. He’s a tireless novelist as well as Director of Creative Writing at Southwest Minnesota State University. For this Ashedit interview, Neil shot straight about e-publishing, where he’s been, where he’s going, and crime writers in general. His third novel Yellow Medicine just released as an e-book.
Elaine Ash: What’s the deal with e-publishing? You have a top-notch agent, and four published novels in print, Why go there?
Neil: My strategy is to find all the readers the print books missed. While I loved the small presses I was on, they were limited in getting books out there. I’m now trying to find a new audience on e-readers, and I hope it’s bigger. I’ve always wanted to write books strong enough to allow me to keep on publishing the next one. Always more demand. That’s what drives me–the next novel.
I see the e-market as more like the old pulp market–cheap and fast. Novels getting shorter again (the old pulps were, what, 120-150 pages?) I don’t even know if [back in the day] those guys did anything as far as marketing themselves. They wrote, got paid, and drank a dirty martini on the back porch of their beach house. Book tours? Ha. So without a publisher, I’m going to have to drum up the buzz on my own–Twitter, blog, Facebook
Elaine: When you say that the small presses “just weren’t reaching the market,” can you tell us a little bit about print distribution and how it works? What was the actual market reach of the presses you were with and how did they handle publicity?
I don’t know how print distribution works, really, except that a bunch of bookstores
order some copies because I’m coming to sign, and then I find out later they returned all the signed copies. Great mystery and indie bookshops carry it, but then some won’t, and then the big box stores carry it, or they don’t. Meh.
For publicity, I dumped almost all of [my] advance [money] back into touring. I had a PR person or two at the company set up some signings, but that was about the extent of it. I did a lot of my own set-ups, too. Crazy blog tours. Conventions. $$$. The publisher put some ads in mystery mags, then sent out review copies. Below: Neil with Charlie Stella
Did it help? I have no idea. Glad for it, but the thing that’s different with e-publishing is that I now *know* if certain strategies pay off or not because I get to see the numbers, and I like that. It’s fun trying to figure out what makes the meter move. When you’re with a publisher, you only get a quarterly statement, and you don’t know which stores have it, which don’t.
EA: This is quite illuminating for the gob-smacked bystander (that would be me) trying to figure it all out. Can you break down how e-publishing works to the fledgling novelist or someone with a handful of shorts they might put out in a collection? How is it that you “see the numbers?”
Smashwords has a style guide to help with some things. Kindle’s info does, too. It comes down to a single-spaced doc file with justified text and a proper indent instead of a tab key. Then I save that as an html file, then I downloaded MobiPocket Creator to make the Amazon Kindle files. For Smashwords (which requires a doc file) and B&N’s Nook, you upload the book and they do the transfer to Epub and other formats for you.
I always know how to use PhotoShop pretty decently, so I make a nice hopefully professional-looking cover, or get some cool artists to do it (like “Poker Ben” Springer and new PWG art director Erik Lundy).
Then you pick the price point. Under 2.99 nets you 35% royalties. Over 2.99 (on Amazon, anyway) nets you 70%. The choice is money or readers? A lot of awesome writers are getting attention because of offering .99 books. Some people think it’s a “race to the bottom”, and that it’s not a money-making strategy, but you need readers first before the money will come.
You see the numbers because all of the self-publishing platforms show you the sales, updated in real time. There’s a way to do that with print books finally through Amazon’s Author Central, but for a long time authors didn’t have easy access to the sales numbers.
Elaine: Plots with Guns is one of a handful of “premiere” online sites that look really beefy on a writer’s resume. If someone’s been published in PWG, other editors take note. I know, I’m one of them. What writing qualities are you looking for? Are there mistakes people make over and over that guarantee they’ll be rejected?Neil: I like a lot of style. The story is most important, but I need to know I’m in the hands of a real talent who knows how to pull strings and press buttons, Wizard of Oz style. I like the writing to fit the characters. I also get a lot of sing-songy stuff that feels way off, as if the writer just doesn’t get the depth—so the dialogue is silly, the action overbaked, like a seventh generation rip-off of a pulp story from the Forties (or let’s face it, the Nineties these days). I hate cliche, I hate it to be too self-aware (although it has to be a little), and I hate when a writer is trying to impress me with writing instead of a story. I want the writer to disappear until it’s over. Then I’ll give him or her some props. If I can’t even finish the damned thing, you’re done.
Ship all submissions over to Sean O’Kane and the Merry Gang of Pulpsters. It’s all on the site. I’m not reading any more. But if I find someone so good they need to be on PWG, I’ll ask them to write a piece for us.
Elaine: You are one of the original internet entrepreneurs. You established Plots with Guns early on, and put out an anthology. Tell us the origins of PWG. Pictured (right) Scott Wolven, Victor Gischler and ANS.
Neil: I was a grad student at Southern Miss’ Center for Writers in 1999, mixing my love of crime fiction with literary fiction. A couple of friends of mine, Hunter Hayes and Victor Gischler, and I had this pipe dream about a new hard-boiled/nor literary journal, which would never have worked because we didn’t have the money. But later, I realized that my internet account came with free webspace, so why not do it online? It was about the same time as Blue Murder, a fantastic online zine, and a few others spread around, and we could do this for free, pretty much. That was it. So we put it up and just kept rolling until 2004, with the other guys always interested but gradually phasing out over the years, even though I still consider Victor a “shadow consultant,” leaving me to do art (or choose art), layout and formatting and choosing stories.
By the end of the first run I was just a bit too busy and tired to keep up. Later, after seeing Murdaland and Thuglit really nail the vibe I’d hoped to create with PWG, I got jealous and wanted back in, so we relaunched.
It’s pretty much supposed to be a damned stylish looking journal with stuff I like in it. That’s the thing. Stories I liked. I just now decided to hand over the editorial and art reins to Sean O’Kane and Erik Lundy, which allows me to keep publishing the thing but finally let some other people in on the work. They’re also going to do things with art and format and fiction I would never have thought of.
Elaine: Tell me more about the hardcover antho? How much to launch it (may I ask)? How big was the print run? Distribution? Why did you stop at one?
I didn’t pay a dime because I went to a publisher, the great Dennis McMillan, who was into it. He helped rope in some of his top-tier friends to write for it, in addition to the best of the magazine pieces we chose. I don’t remember the print run, but it was small, I expect. Maybe 1500? I don’t know. He also did a limited leather-bound edition. I’m glad to have a few of those. Dennis is a one-man machine, so I don’t know about distribution. We stopped at one back then because we thought we were done. Case closed. We talked about doing more original anthos for another small publisher, but it didn’t work out. And now that we’re up on the web again…you know, I’m happy with it as is. You want it? It’s on the web. No need for anthologies to reprint what’s already there. And I never wanted it to turn into a “business” where I had to worry about sales and costs and etc. Just wanted to get stories I like out to everyone else.
Neil: Outlaw deputy Billy Lafitte bent the rules too much during Katrina, but he was given a second chance by his ex-brother-in-law in Minnesota, where he promptly became much worse—drunk, protecting meth dealers for a cut of the profit, and coercing women into seeing things his way. When he got in over his head with some wannabe terrorists moving in on the meth trade, it was time to play the hero, no matter how bad he was at it. Loyalty came first.