Nice start to a New Year

I woke up this morning to find that the January 2012 issue of 10Flash Quarterly has gone live. It contains my zombie flash piece “Base Instinct,” which was fun to write.

Super-short-form writing doesn’t come easily to verbose me, but it was satisfying to pare a story down to its essence–and there are lots of markets for flash. I plan to submit a few more 1000-word (or shorter) stories this year. My main writing goal, though, is to finish the draft of the novel I’m writing, and that right speedily. We shall see.

2011 was neither a bad nor a good year for me. Meh, I would have to say. I would look forward to 2012 with less trepidation if it did not include the specter of a presidential election. Still, I hope it turns out to be a terrific year for all of us, and that the Mayans will have the last laugh and the world will not end.

New YA adaptation coming soon

I’ve finished the primary draft of a nonfiction project near and dear to my heart: turning a scholarly work on the history of American immigration into a book for young readers.

The book is A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America, by Ronald Takaki, who was a leading scholar of immigration history and a professor of ethnic studies at the University of California at Berkeley. The young people’s adaptation, which I have based very closely on Professor Takaki’s original text, will be called A Different Mirror for Young People.

This project has been special for me for two reasons.

First, most textbooks in U.S. history classes spend little time on the great waves of immigration that shaped this country. Textbooks often ignore the relationships among immigrant and ethnic groups, or between immigrants and native-born Americans. ┬áTakaki’s book focuses on how different ethnic and racial groups of immigrants cooperated, competed, and were pitted against each other by politicians and employers. It also looks at the experiences that different immigrant groups shared–the ways the groups were similar, and also the ways in which each group was unique.

Second, I not only admired and respected Ron Takaki as a scholar, I cared for him as a friend. I was lucky to get to know Ron and his wife and colleague, Carol, years ago, when I turned another one of his books into a multivolume series on Asian American history for kids. The Takakis’ warmth, generosity, and passion for learning and communicating were inspiring. We remained friends, and I was always delighted to see them when our paths crossed.

Ron died in 2009. His work touched the lives of many students, teachers, and readers. I know it would please him enormously to know that A Different Mirror will soon be available to young readers.

Inventory

Zachary’s in Italy for a couple of weeks. At such times I enjoy taking on projects: sorting out the hall closet, say, or organizing the pantry. This time I’ve inventoried my fiction output.

Two realizations led me to spend the last couple of hours sorting files, an enterprise that eventually required me to fire up Z’s oldest, most dust-covered computer.

One realization was that I want to use Scrivener for writing and revising fiction from now on. To this end I consolidated all the files for current or recent stories and novels from my laptop and netbook into one set of files with a consistent labeling system. The next step will be to decide what’s worth working on, prioritize it, and import those files into Scrivener.

The other realization was that there was a shocking amount of stuff–from mss. of romance novels that were published in the 90s to proposals, ideas, and correspondence–languishing on 3.5-inch floppies in a box in my office. Hence the firing up of the aforementioned ancient computer, the copying of files from many floppies onto a flash drive, and the examination of those files on my laptop.

They were full of surprises related to my nonfiction career and to fiction projects I’d started but set aside long ago. In addition to the usual kind of thing–letters I don’t remember writing to people I don’t remember meeting–I found that I have full mss. (some in WordPerfect 4.2! but OpenOffice converted it) of successful nonfic books from decades ago. That got me thinking about self-pubbing some of them, now that rights have reverted, on the “nothing to lose” principle.

On the fiction front, I found proposals and ideas for romance novels from back when I was writing for Harlequin. Some that got turned down then as too weird or unconventional would seem tame in today’s romance market. I also rediscovered a fat Civil War novel I ghost-wrote for a CEO in the 1980s; the surprise here was how little I got paid for it, although I must’ve thought it was enough at the time.

The best part was that while copying the files for a historical novel I started a long time ago, but gave up on after 105 pages, I got an idea for turning it into a steampunk novella, so now I can be excited about it all over again.

After all this filing, an afternoon of yard work might be positively refreshing. But probably not.

Shout-out to HorrorMasters.com

In lieu of some “best of 2010” list, I’m going to close out the year with props to a site I think is one of the most useful I’ve found:

If you’ve read HPL’s “Supernatural Horror in Literature” you’ve seen his remarks on, say, Edward Lucas White’s story “Lukundoo.” If you then thought, Hey, I’d like to read that story, and googled it, you probably wound up at HorrorMasters, a site with a vast library of classic horror, novels as well as short fiction, all free, readable online or downloadable. There’s new fiction, too, but for me the best thing about the site is the availability of hundreds of older works, including many that cannot be found at Project Gutenberg or Google Books. It’s a priceless resource.

If you haven’t checked out HorrorMasters, give it a try. “Lukundoo” isn’t a bad place to start.

The Importance of Royalties

This morning’s mail brought an unexpected check for $200 dollars: my royalties for recent sales of the German edition of a Harlequin Silhouette romance published in 1995.

I published the novel under the pen name Suzanne Sanders. Its title was One Forgotten Night in the US and most other countries. In Germany the powers that be gave it the rather literal title Der Cop und die Lady.

The point isn’t the book, or the amount of the check. It’s that fifteen years on I’m still earning something from work I did in 1995. One Forgotten Night is one of many revenue pipelines I’ve laid over the years. A lot of them have run dry; others burble along modestly but steadily, or spit forth intermittent gushes. Some were disappointments and never produced at all. Newer ones have yet to show what they can do.

Royalty earnings from published books make up a share of my income each year. Some years that share is small. Some years it’s not. It’s never predictable.

Today’s little mini-windfall reminded me that I’ve been thinking about trends in one corner of publishing: YA nonfiction for the school and library market.

When I started writing for this market, some publishers or imprints paid authors under royalty agreements (in which, typically, the author holds copyright in the work and receives a share of the work’s earnings down the stream, if any). Others made flat-fee deals (in which copyright is held by the publisher or packager that commissions the work; the author receives payment for the work but no share of its downstream earnings). That’s still the case, but these days more publishers have adopted or are shifting to the flat-fee model.

My first published work–fiction and nonfiction–was flat-fee, for packagers or specialty publishers. When I started being published by houses like Simon and Schuster and Oxford University Press, and getting royalties, I said I’d never go back to flat fee. I’d even get all soapboxy and proclaim that authors should never shortchange themselves and undermine their profession by taking flat-fee work.

Since then, of course, I’ve made plenty of compromises–especially when working with packagers or contributing to multi-author series with a compensation model already in place. I might write for a flat fee if the fee is juicy, as in a recent one-off for a packager in which I adapted a work of popular science for kids. Or if I like the subject and know that I’d find the work fairly congenial. Or if I like the editor. Or if I need the work. Conversely, if an editor offers me a book deal and I like everything about it except the flat-fee contract, I’ll ask for a higher fee in exchange for sacrificing royalties. Sometimes I get it.

But I do my damnedest to do as much of my work under royalty contracts as possible. This might mean taking a $5000 advance on 7 percent, say, instead of a $6000 fee. Or turning down a flat-fee offer in the (sometimes justified) belief that something better will come up. Or working harder to come up with book and series ideas and pitching them to my publishers, as opposed to just signing on to existing projects, because when an idea I “own” is bought, it goes to copyright contract.

I don’t mean to lecture or tell other writers what kinds of deals they should or shouldn’t make. I’ve been all over the place in my writing career, and I don’t expect that to change. But I’ve learned to consider, when offered a book deal, whether it serves my long-term as well as my short-term goals, and to aim for a deal that suits me and not just the Gods of Publishing.

That $200 I got today, thanks to amnesiac-gemologist-shooting victim Nina and hunky maverick cop Mike? I’m gonna spend it on massages.