The Prophet: A New Thriller

On Tuesday of this week, I decided to release my latest book, The Prophet to the book-buying public. It’s a literary thriller about a fundamentalist cult and a young woman trying desperately to get out. The full synopsis is below:

Twelve year-old Callie Rich wouldn’t know what a normal childhood looks like. She and her family have been a part of the Lambs of Zion church their entire lives, existing in a well-guarded pocket of the American southwest where modernity and independence are shunned. When their leader, the Prophet, excommunicates her father—one of his closest advisors—and takes Callie to be his next bride, it has to be a mistake.

One town over, private detective Max Barker is well aware of the polygamist cult on the Arizona-Utah border, but he keeps his distance like everyone else until Callie’s father shows up on his doorstep begging for help. His family is in danger and he has the proof that could bring the whole organization—and its leader—crashing to the ground. Max, hoping to make good on a promise he’d kept to a former Lamb, decides to help.

Unaware of her father’s plan, Callie joins up with a group of other wives looking to escape, but someone inside the church knows what they’re up to. While Max and Callie’s father work to infiltrate the church for evidence, Callie and the other women of the LoZ must hurry and leave before the Prophet takes drastic action to keep his church, his family, and his legacy intact.

You can buy it for Kindle and other eReaders today over at Gumroad and Kobo. It should be up on Apple’s iBooks store soon.

If you do end up purchasing, it would mean a lot if you left a review afterwards. Reviews help boost visibility and let others know whether they might like it, too.

On Literary Journal Submission Fees and Why Submittable is Bad for Writers

I’m a fierce defender of small businesses. My family has owned a music store and studio in New Jersey for over fifteen years and I hope to one day open my own small bookstore, so when I hear independent operations are closing due to low sales or high rents, it scares me. I already see the toll increased rents have taken on New York City, where small mom-and-pop delis and pizza places have been conquered by the invading armies of Pret a Mangers and Starbucks.

The city seems to be actively trying to push these stores out with the help of predatory landlords and holding companies. It’s not the businesses’ fault. They didn’t ask for higher rents and many have closed because they didn’t pass those expenses on to their customers.

The same cannot be said for the publishing industry, specifically literary journals. Journals often operate at a loss and the very successful ones manage to break even. No one starts a journal or magazine for the money. They do it to publish their friends and colleagues, or they want to give a platform to marginalized voices, or they want to dip their toes into the industry as a way of building up their own resumes, for example.

Many journals are run by volunteers who love the work and love working with authors enough that they don’t mind giving up their free time to put out something great. Others are run by a skeleton crew barely making enough to pay their internet bill. This is America and sadly still a capitalist society, so those bills must be paid. It’s not too much for someone running a business to say, “Hey, I’d like to be paid for my work.” I agree. The question then becomes, “Who’s going to pay?”

If you’re The Iowa Review, The Missouri Review, or Ploughshares, three of the most popular and widely read literary journals in America, the answer is simple: the writers.

To submit a work of short fiction to the Iowa Review, the writer is expected to pay a fee of $4. For the Missouri Review, it’s $3.50, and Ploughshares charges $3. Mind you, these are all for digital submissions. Writers who want to print their stories, stuff them in an envelope, and submit them for potential publication can do so for the cost of shipping without incurring an extra fee from the magazine. You might be wondering why mailing physical documents that take up space doesn’t cost extra, but uploading a digital file suddenly requires you to pull out your credit card.

Blame submission managers. These online filing systems are used by literary journals and even some literary agencies to collect and organize the deluge of submissions they get each day. Fill out a form, upload a document, and you’re suddenly a new, easily searchable record in their database. The most popular of these software services is Submittable, which boasts The New Yorker, NPR, and Glimmer Train as users of their platform.

I’ve used it as a writer and I do enjoy the experience. I can see all my current submissions and get notified about acceptances and rejections all on one page. No more digging through emails or maintaining a spreadsheet. Very convenient. But that convenience comes with a cost. According to Jane Friedman back in 2015, Submittable had several tiers to choose from depending on an operation’s size:

Professional Plan
300 entries/month and 8 staffers/readers
$160 per year

Premier Plan
800 entries/month and 20 staffers/readers
$325 per year

Enterprise Plan
2000 entries/month and unlimited staffers/readers
$1100 per year

That was 2015. If prices haven’t stayed the same, they most certainly have gone up.

However, as I said before, Submittable is very convenient. So convenient, in fact, it has had negative consequences for smaller journals. Jane Friedman again:

This efficiency and frictionless submissions process has come with a cost: submissions can be made with very little effort by the writer—which increases the volume of submissions that journals receive—and publications have to pay to use Submittable.

So a journal that was originally getting by on the Professional Plan can suddenly see its inbox growing into an Enterprise-level plan in a month to accommodate the influx. $1100 per year (plus tax) comes out to about $100 per month to license Submittable. A steep fee for a journal struggling to pay its authors and artists as subscriptions dry up. And with many magazines turning to the internet for first publication, those stories are often read by audiences for free. The only ways to make up the costs are to run ads or put everything behind a paywall, which doesn’t work.

But journals have found a third option in their bread and butter. The writers are the ones who cover Submittable’s onerous fees by tossing a few bucks into the journal’s open guitar case upon submission. Three dollars here, four dollars there. A latte. A premium phone app. Nothing, right?

Is it still “nothing” if the average income for a writer is $6,080? That was the case in 2017 according to a recent Author’s Guild survey. That’s “down from $10,500 in the guild’s 2009 survey.” With authors living WELL below the poverty line to “do what they love,” why are journals forcing the most vulnerable demographic to forego their hard-earned money to gamble on submissions with no guarantee of success? What about LGBTQA+ and writers of color, many of whom see even less in their pockets from their work and are already at a disadvantage, both financially and in what outlets will accept their work?

(And I know some magazines will work with authors in financial straits to waive those fees, but it shouldn’t be on the author to negotiate that. It’s a shitty thing to force someone to announce their financial status just to submit a piece.)

A story that sees a handful of rejections before finally being published might cost that author a week’s worth of food, or make them short on rent, and there’s no guarantee they’ll get paid upon publication. But at least they’ll get the exposure.

I don’t know about you, but my bank doesn’t accept exposure in lieu of a mortgage payment. Hell, people die of exposure.

So, who’s to blame for all these fees? I don’t think it’s fair to lay it all at the feet of the journals who are just trying to get by while also making things easier on themselves. Labors of love are still laborious. Digging through a mountain of email to find a single diamond is no easy feat. However, dragging a hulking system meant for The New Yorker into your operation and then making writers pay for it is also unacceptable.

There are donations. There are grants. There are Patreon and Kickstarter. There’s the possibility of taking a print publication online and eliminating the costly overhead of printing and distributing a physical magazine. So many options, none of which involve forcing the writer to pay to play.

I am a firm believer in the philosophy that money should always flow to the writer, never from them. A $3 submission fee is not insignificant when one is trying to build up their writing credits while destroying their financial credit. Maybe journals would get fewer garbage submissions if they went back to the old ways. There are also free alternatives in the form of WordPress plugins and Trello (Trello won’t manage or collect submissions automatically, but makes triaging them easier from an editorial perspective).

What’s most important is understanding that if something is making your life easier while negatively affecting the lives of the people you depend on to make your living, it’s not worth the convenience.

Oh, and remember how I mentioned Glimmer Train was a Submittable client? Despite their numerous contests and steep fees, even they couldn’t survive. Their last issue comes out in October.

Art in the Age of Entitlement

Carrie V Mullins for Electric Lit:

People have always felt a sort of ownership over art, and that’s actually good. It’s why you keep a book on your shelf and return to it, it’s why you hang a picture on your wall that speaks to you. But when this gets out of hand and you mistake access or a personal connection with your rights, as happens so often in our Internet age, it leads to a dangerous sense of entitlement.

I agree Amazon is not solely to blame for the meager earnings authors make these days. It’s not just about corporations and publishers racing to the bottom. It’s also about the entitlement of audiences who believe they are owed something simply because they want it. This is at the heart of the piracy debate.

Piracy websites (that includes movies, music, and television shows, as well as books) were visited over 300 billion times in 2017. Millions of those visits resulted in the illegal downloading of books written by authors who already earned a living below the poverty line. And yet, when confronted with their theft, pirates turn to the age old defenses:

“I can’t afford to buy new books.”
“It’s not really stealing because it’s not a physical copy.”
“I wasn’t going to buy it anyway, so it’s not really a lost sale.”

All of this is nonsense. It’s easier to deflect one’s indecency than to own up to just generally being a shitty person who did a shitty thing.

Maggie Stiefvater learned about piracy the hard way. Her books were New York Times #1 best-sellers and yet:

Stiefvater, author of the Shiver and Raven Cycle series, raised the issue after she was contacted on Twitter by a reader who told her: “I never bought ur books I read them online pirated.” On her website, Stiefvater later explained that, when ebook sales for the third book in the Raven Cycle – Blue Lily, Lily Blue – “dropped precipitously”, her publisher decided to cut the print run of the next book in the series to less than half of its predecessors.

The Guardian – November 6, 2017

Piracy has consequences and the people who pay are not the publishers. The publishers will always get their money somehow. It might be in the form of lower advances, or lower royalties, or by publishing more garbage books by cable news pundits because that demographic isn’t known for pirating the way YA fantasy and sci-fi audiences are.

When a book is pirated, it IS a lost sale. It IS theft. It is taking money out of the pockets of authors who have spent years creating the art some people feel they are owed.

Author Alisha Kirpalani breaks down the numbers of a sobering reality:

1. Most writers receive 7.5 % to 10% of their book value. Do the maths and you will work out how much that figure is worth in the real world.

2. An average writer spends between 2 to 4 years on writing and getting his book published, if he/she is fortunate enough to find a publisher


3. A writer usually pays for book launches, travelling and all other marketing activities associated with selling his/her book. Before making a single sale, there is an investment that disappears into thin air.

The writer pays–for marketing, travel, research, and if they self-publish, they pay for everything, from cover design to formatting to ARCS for reviewers. Those costs add up and when people don’t pay for books, authors can’t afford to write more of them. It’s that simple.

The bottom line is this: artists need to be paid for their art. If you cannot afford a book, visit your local library. If they don’t have it, see if they’ll order it for you. You are not entitled to someone’s hard work simply because you want it. Authors need to eat. They need to pay their rent and feed their families. You don’t NEED to read their book.

It disgusts me that the average income for full-time writers is only $20,000 when MILLIONS of dollars that could be spent on debuts and mid-listers are poured into marketing known entities. James Patterson is worth $700 million. He doesn’t need a full-page ad in The New Yorker for his latest Alex Cross novel. It will sell regardless.

(My issue lies less with Patterson and more with the Publishing Industrial Complex that enables him. He awards yearly bonuses to hundreds of independent bookstore employees and helps aspiring authors break into the business. He actually pays his co-authors out of his own pocket. I’m not a huge fan of his work, but I am a fan of the man himself.)

You know who could use that money? The mom who wrote her debut novel in 20-minute increments before her kids woke up for the day. The actual young adult who filled several three-ring binders with the world bible for her YA epic fantasy series. The cozy mystery author churning out a book a year while working a 9-5 job to pay the bills. People who didn’t just “write for themselves” (ugh), but who had hoped to turn the worlds inside their heads into lucrative careers.

We celebrate entrepreneurs who build apps and services and subscription cooking boxes. We throw money at them because what they’ve created make our lives better. How are authors any different? They pour years into building something for people to enjoy. Work that spawns pages of fan art and fanfic, yet we treat it as a commodity. Something that will always be there because it’s always been there.

Well, it won’t be. Not if we don’t pay for it. Amazon can be blamed for a lot of the mess publishing is in right now, but this? This dearth of money to spread to the people who need it the most? That’s on us.