Are Career Authors a Threatened Species?

Old typewriterLet’s be realistic. Things aren’t as easy as they once were for full-time novelists. Revenues are declining, but at the same time, there’s never been more people reading than ever before. How do we resolve this? Or maybe we don’t? The market is changing. It’s usually foolish to fight it: that’s seldom a long-term solution.

And really, that’s what I’m trying to work through. There’s no point as a new author, moaning about the “state of the industry”. This is pointless. It is what it is.

Does that mean making a living is solely out of book sales is dead in the water? No, there will always be success stories. There will always be people like Andy Weir (author of the excellent book The Martian) making a big dent out of nowhere, and the people with already long-established careers will continue to perform well. So they and others will do well, but I think that maybe when it comes to making a career solely out of novels, proportionally fewer will than we have seen in the past.

For most authors – or those who want to make a living out of writing books – I think it’s sensible to take an honest and open look at your skillset. It’s rewarding too.

Being a good writer is a really valuable talent as the knowledge economy grows to dominate everything in the coming years. Many writers will continue to adopt new skills and become journalists, copywriters, etc. and grow their business that way. In short, it’s much more likely that you can make a career out of writing, than making a living just as a writer of novels. Your novels will be a piece of the puzzle: maybe a little piece, maybe a lot. That will be down to luck, perspiration and determination.

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Are eBooks A Rip Off?

wpid-Photo-4-Jan-2013-0940-PM.jpgThere’s been a number of reports over the last two-and-a-half years talking about the slight reduction in ebook sales, and the increase in traditional dead-tree copies. In fact, the paperback market is booming right now, in part due to the increase in the mainstream publishing industry’s dramatically improved production and distribution channels. As I’ve noted before, in the last few years, the likes of Penguin Random House and HarperCollins have invested in these processes by an order of magnitude and are understandably reaping the rewards.

I wrote quite a while ago about how more and more of my own ebook sales were outstripping paper-based sales. This is certainly a movement that’s changed in the last year, with the books I’ve written published by these mainstream titans allowing for more sales and better margins. I wrote that the establishment will do things to slow the move towards ebooks, and maintain their hold on this market. I’ve also written about some of the other reasons why the ebook revolution hasn’t moved as quickly as many had hoped. I think those things are true, but what I didn’t anticipate, was the size and scope of the entrenchment, which has encouraged a return of the traditional paperback for readers in such volume.

Sure, many readers just decided on average, that they prefer paperbacks rather than ebooks. But many – maybe most – really don’t feel this way. However, when there’s comparative price differences between paper or electronic versions of books they want, they might be inclined to by paper. Especially if ebooks prices are over-inflated.

I think this over-inflation continues in part. But also in opposition to that, the way things work at the moment does mean that many authors are not being paid the right amount for their work much of the time.

Let me try to explain with an example, based on 2017 – now I guess 2018 – prices: Imagine there’s a new book out, both in paper form and ebook. We’ll dispense with the hardcover market now so as not to over-confuse things (though this would also work with that market).

Here’s the very basic breakdowns on the paperback version, on sale in the UK for, say £8.99 (which I’ve rounded-up to £9.00 for ease):

9 pound paperback

£9 Paperback Breakdown

As you can see, We’ve got about 40% of the total RRP (Recommended Retail Price) reserved as markup for the retailer. That’s £4.00. Very typical. Many retailers will charge the full amount (after all, they’re taken the risk in buying a lot of stock, etc., and often the deal means they can’t sell all of it back if it doesn’t sell). But many larger chains and online retailers (hello Amazon) can cut into that markup and sell it for less. So a £9.00 book with a high street retailer making £4.00 is sold on Amazon for, say, £6.00 with Amazon making just £1.00, but happy to do so because they sell so many.

The cost of manufacture and distribution for the Penguin Random House/Simon & Schuster’s of this world has never been proportionally lower. They’ve made big investments and it’s paying off. That’s why the cost of physically making each book (allowing for scale) and distribution is just £1.00.

That leaves £4.00 for the publisher. The author will get a bit of that, as will the typesetter, cover designer, etc. That’s essentially the “intellectual cost” of the book. Remember that £4.00, it’ll be important later in this article.

Now let’s look at that same book going on – for example – Amazon on the Kindle platform. It’s the same book, but in eBook form. And you can get it for £4.99 (again I’m saying £5.00 for simplicity’s sake):

5 pound ebook

Typical £5 eBook Breakdown

As you can see, the breakdowns are different. But that’s fine, they should be for the most part. The retailer is handling most of the actual “distribution”. But that’s a tiny cost (don’t let the technical illiterates in the publishing business tell you otherwise), so I’ve been very generous with the 20p cost there. Though I haven’t written it this way, there’s an argument that the 20p cost is mostly for the retailer rather than the publisher, which is fine.

Speaking of the retailer, they don’t have a big risk any more. If the book sells one copy or a million, they just need an electronic copy on a server (or probably several to be safe) and can distribute that as needed. There’s no advantage to economy of scale, but no disadvantage to low sales either. The book-selling business in the ebook world is a low-risk game. So their markup is significantly lower to reflect that. I think that’s fair.

Where there’s a slight problem, is the revenue for the publisher in this model. Just £3.30. Now, there’s lower costs here which is fair. The retailer doesn’t have to make as big a risk on producing thousands of physical copies of a book that might not sell. And they don’t have to pay lots of money for a typesetter either. But they still spend time and money investing in the author. They’re still the big promoters and backers of talent. In the future, I hope that they stay as a significant force in this area. They’re brilliant at it, and I speak from experience. And they still have to pay for someone to design and produce the actual ebook file. Where a typesetter will work full-time for two weeks to finish a typical book (burning the candle at both ends), a finished and edited manuscript can be made into a perfect and standards-compliant ebook format in a couple of days easily. Hell, even I could do it to a decent standard in one afternoon with some of the software out there.

And of course, the author needs to get paid. Sadly, in the current system, the author is the tiny bit of that £4.00 that gets squeezed the most when it goes down to £3.30.

A publisher doesn’t need to make £4.00 from an ebook. But under the current way of doing things, an author often gets financially penalised when someone buys an ebook over a print edition because of the overall lower revenue per-sale that goes back to the publisher.

The quickest, and – based on where the industry is now – the most practical current solution would be to charge a little bit more for ebooks. The sales are what they are, and may not be affected too much (but I understand how the economic theory of ‘dynamic scoring’ could lay waste to this idea, which I readily admit), but this example breakdown could work better in the short-term. Imagine if instead the ebook sold for just a  tiny bit more; £5.70:

5.70 ebook

Example of a Typical £5.70 eBook Breakdown

Now things are a tiny bit different. The manufacture/distribution cost is unchanged. Because the overall price is higher, the percentage markup for the retailer is a bit higher. But the publisher (and therefore the author and everyone else) is left with almost the same as they would have with the £9.00 paperback book.

£3.80 is less than £4.00, yes. But not by much. And that 20p drop is just to account for now having to pay a typesetter as much, and an ebook designer for two days over that two-week typesetting job, and of course not having the risky investment of mass-producing a physical book, which is the big cost. This price would, arguably, disproportionally reward the publisher themselves, but at least it means the author would get what’s owed to her in full.

The best example that I can come up with to highlight the problem right now: Imagine you hire an accountant to do an audit of your finances. They spend a couple of days going over your accounts. Your income, expenditure, savings and investments, Then they publish an almost scholarly-assessment, where they write up with graphs and detailed references, what extra savings they think you should be making, what investments you should consider, and what expenditure you could do without.

Imagine then that they printed that 10-page report out, and put it in an envelope, bunged a stamp on it and mailed it to you with an invoice for the work they’ve done: let’s say it was £300.

Question: If they emailed the report and invoice to you instead, would you expect them to have only charged £230?

Sure, maybe taking the cost of the stamp, the envelope, the ten pages and the ink together, they could have only charged £299 for the emailed copy. But anything less than that, and they’re basically being paid less for the same. Is that fair?

Anyway, that’s my view, and I’m sure even I probably disagree with the oversimplification in this article. Besides, I love, dear reader, you regardless of which format you buy my books – and they’re available in both ebook and paperback form right here!

Coming Soon: Succession of Power

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Just wanted to give you the heads-up about a brand new book that I’ve written that’ll make its way to a book store (online and brick-based) near you soon.

Succession of Power.

You will be able to buy it for Amazon Kindle, on the iBooks Store and for the Nook, as well as the good ol’ dead tree version. All at pretty competitive prices. I’ll post up more information on that as soon as it’s available.

If you like your thrillers to pack a real punch, then I definitely think you’re going to enjoy Succession of Power.

It’s a political action thriller set in Washington D.C. on the day of the president’s State of the Union speech.

Here’s the blurb:

A bomb detonates inside Capitol Hill during the president‘s State of the Union speech, bringing America to its knees.

Left behind to lead the country under the presidential ‘Succession of Power’ laws is an inexperienced junior cabinet member, aided by the only Secret Service agent who foresaw the horrific act.

Together, they must calm a shaken nation and bring the terrorists to justice before they strike again, while fighting even more sinister forces at the very heart of government.

It’s been a heck of a ride putting this book together, and I really can’t wait for you to read it.

I started writing it during the last week of February this year, and finished it in the last week of August, so it’s been a six-month project, though being swamped at work has stopped me being able to finish it quite a bit sooner.

I had the idea in September last year. I’ve always wondered what it must feel like to be the one member of the president’s cabinet who has to stay behind when the president goes to Capitol Hill to deliver the SOTU. They need someone stay behind in case something terrible happens on the Hill, so that someone in the presidential succession line can take over right away (hence the title).

I really wanted to write a page-turner. It’ll be for you to judge if I’ve succeeded. But one thing that did happen, is the last 45% of the story was written in about the last month. It just came out of me, at 100 miles-an-hour. I was writing it fast, and I hope you read it just as fast. It’s a fun, exciting, pacy high-concept story that hopefully fits in well with the expectations of the genre.

I’ve got a lot of cool stuff in the pipeline, but you’ll excuse me for taking a week or so off before I get back on it again!

I hope this ends up being as fun to read as it was to write. Stay tuned, I’ll have more once it goes live. And of course, it’ll be available on the store here too.

Paying for Journalism Online

wpid-Photo-4-Jan-2013-0940-PM.jpgIt’s been some time now since the fall of Andrew Sullivan’s blog. Sully himself has moved back to a mainstream publication (this time the New York Magazine), and the world has moved on.

Andrew had an interesting idea. Continuing his blog as he had done on places like the Atlantic before, but on his own, allowing people to see a certain number of full-posts through a (leaky) paywall, but giving people full access for a single low yearly fee.

Alas, even Andrew Sullivan, with his huge blog following, couldn’t quite keep it going. For his own health, as much as anything else, he finally called it a day.

Does that mean his experiment failed? Does it mean that paying for online journalism just won’t work? I hope that’s not what people take out of his venture.

First of all, I’m just not sure people will pay to read a blog, that was mostly an aggregate of content from other sites. There might – and only might – be a viable platform for paying to read content, where there’s that direct link between the author and the reader.

The only truly viable platform that exclusively works like that right now is the humble book. Be it a “dead tree” version or an ebook. People, it seems, are still more than willing to pay to consume that written content.

You can say that people are still paying for newspapers and magazines too. Yes they are (though circulations are falling), but think about it, the cost of selling those publications almost never pays for the content. They all have adverts running in them. Today here in the UK, free papers like The Metro are actually (in an income/expenditure sense) among the most successful models right now. They make a lot of money, and don’t charge their consumers for that content.

However, that simple model isn’t working in the online world. Rewind a number of years back. Newspapers started getting websites. Journalists, keen to have their work  be seen by as many people as possible, convinced their bemused editors to let them post all their articles online. That content was available for free. But the value of the advertising (especially considering how clever those media-rich ads could be) was never really understood by the sales teams and editorial teams. Very quickly Google dominated that game, allowing advertisers pay pennies for ads whose equivalent in print would cost many pounds. Google was happy with this because they are working to scale. They can get tens of millions of customers and be quite happy. A modestly popular site that gets, say, 50,000 visitors a week will make a fraction of the revenue from advertising that a weekly magazine with a circulation of 50,000 would make from its ads.

So those appear to be the two main models that people concentrate on. However, I think there’s another model we dismiss at our peril.

Journalists (particularly older ones, like, say, Andrew Sullivan), really dislike “native ads”, sometimes called “sponsored content” or “advertorials”. These are articles usually made by the in-house editorial team, but used to promote a message by an advertiser. Some associate it with Buzzfeed (which does very well, btw), and the like. I don’t see why the concept, with a different tone, couldn’t work in other forms. I’m personally totally okay with that content, as are many of my fellow millennials.

I spoke to a load of people my age (and younger) about this. The response was fascinating. We often seem to be okay with advertorials, as long as they’re called “sponsor content” and is clearly labelled as such. We’re just as likely to read it (if it sounds interesting) as we are the rest of the content. We don’t like being deceived into thinking that an article is purely editorial rather than “sponsored content”, but apart from that, I think we’re okay with it. It’s just more content in the mix.

Unlike the Googlefication of banner ads, etc., sponsored content needs to be high-quality. It needs to be readable. For the consumer, it shouldn’t be in-your-face and offensive (like awful intrusive ads that block the content unless you find the ‘X’ to close it for example). And for the advertiser, it appears to actually have much higher conversion rates than an ad.

It’s scalable, but can’t be automated. A computer can’t automatically write a beautiful, artistic, engaging, clever article for a client. That takes good journalists and copywriters. Therefore, it can’t be made for a few cents. You need to spend real money, and get it out there.

I think that this kind of content can help pay for the other stuff, the content that’s unshackled from the burden of commercial pressures, while making it free to the consumer. It might be online journalism’s best hope for growth.

So I remain optimistic for the future of written journalism and content creation, and I see sponsor content – be it on blogs, news sites, Medium, etc. – as being one of the most interesting and practical ways of getting us there.

Imagine your favourite sites, clean, ad-free, fully-acessable and gratis, with sponsored content among the rest of the work. But paid for and sustainable.

So what do you think? Can sponsored content (done in the right way), be the digital shot-in-the-arm this business needs?

The Rise, Fall and Eventual Rise Again of eBooks

ebookIt was only about five years ago that the world – and me – decided that print books were going the way of vinyl records. In the mid 2000s, the technology that make e-ink screens possible was finally viable for mass production.

Soon after, Amazon released the Kindle, and ebooks went mainstream. Between 2008 and 2011, ebook sales rose 1,260 percent in the US alone. Game over. Independent bookshops, chains and printers stood in fear, waiting for the final death call.

But it never came. It was a close-run thing. Sales were skyrocketing, and in the US, the collapse of bookstore Borders (which filed for bankruptcy in 2011) seemed to signal the very end.

Then the numbers went the other way. Since then, paper-based books have slowly moved back into the mainstream. By this year – 2015 – people like me said ebooks would overtake sales of print. But it didn’t happen. There was something of a plot twist to this story, that I never saw coming. Book stores – including those independent chains – are stronger and more vibrant today than any time before 2010. The American Booksellers Association says they’ve got 1,712 members stores today, compared to 1,660 in 2010. Today, ebooks occupy about 20 percent of the market. That’s about the same market share in 2012. What happened?

I’ve heard a lot of publishers (and authors who have bought this line too) say it’s simply because readers prefer “real” books. And so digital is at 20 percent, and will stay at 20 percent. The market has spoken. I don’t quite buy this. I think there were two reasons why ebooks sales have slumped: one short(er)-term reason to do with a temporary technology disruption from another market, and a longer-term reason to do with corporatism on behalf of the big traditional book-publishing industry.

Let’s look at the first of those. The first mainstream ebook reader in the US, the Amazon Kindle, cost hundreds of dollars when it was first released in the American market. But it sold well. As is pretty much always the case with technology, the prices quickly went down and the features improved. But it’s just an e-ink screen right? So the improvements were incremental. The real push is to lower the cost. Today in the UK, the basic Kindle, (which is much better than the first generation model ever was), will set you back just £59. Adjusted for inflation, that’s a heck of a drop compared to the first model released in 2008. Most ebooks were usually cheaper than their hardback versions, and paperback editions too. Makes sense really. I mean, there’s not a lot of cost involved in the mass-distrubtion of a file that’s typically only a couple of megabytes big, compared to the printing and distribution of a paper-based product. Amazon made big gains with its cheap $9.99 price guarantee for bestsellers (which, because publishers didn’t have the big costs associated with mass printing and distribution, meant that they also actually made more money from the sales of the cheaper ebook versions).

Then a bit of marketplace disruption occurred. In 2010, Steve Jobs revealed Apple’s iPad. “The Kindle’s been great,” he told the enthralled audience at the keynote speech, revealing the tablet to the world for the first time, “but now we’re gonna take it further.” Stephen Fry upon recording his first impressions of the iPad, couldn’t help but write “…poor Kindle.” Tablets had been around for decades, but the iPad was the first tablet computer that captured the imagination of the mainstream. It was a big success, and dozens of rival manufactures brought out their own tablets (including Amazon, with their Kindle Fire range).

Suddenly, in 2010, millions of customers faced a choice. Buy a Kindle (or other e-reader) for, say, $250, or an iPad for $399. Yeah, the iPad is more expensive, but it can do a lot more an a e-reader, which is after all, a uni-tasking device. And the iPad can read books too. Jobs gave a demo of iBooks, and even Amazon produced a Kindle app, so you could read your purchases on the device. Most people, at the time, weren’t going to buy both devices given the prices, so they bought one. And that was the iPad they bought. Or, other, often cheaper Android/Microsoft-based rivals.

But there’s a problem. Reading a book on a bright computer screen – like an iPad – is not the same as reading it on an e-ink screen. The e-ink screen looks like, well, a page. Just printed text on paper. A regular screen is like staring at your laptop. After a while, holding a bigger, heavier, glaring screen to read a text-based book (like a novel or biography) just put people off. So they stopped buying ebooks, and, rather than buying an ebook reader, moved back to paper-based medium. Once bitten, twice shy.

I think this is a short-term issue. But, judging by how slowly the book industry moves, short-term might be 15-25 years. Based on current pricing, I think that the business model of the Kindle could end up being that Amazon will release it for free (“get a free e-ink Kindle for every 5 ebooks you buy!”). So people can have loads of them, all over the house. If you drop one or leave it on the bus, no matter. You can get another for next-to-nothing, and remote-wipe the one you’ve lost/damaged. This ‘free’ ubiquitous attitude will slowly bring people back to ebooks. The rise of people – some of which are very talented – self-publishing on the Kindle Digital Platform, through Barnes & Noble’s platform, Google, or iBooks through iTunes Producer, can also play a part as we see more and more cheap and readily available work. Think about it, the beauty of this, is even if you’re a first-time self-published author, the fact that you’re able to sell as many books (with no upfront risk or cost) as John Grisham is a really exciting and revolutionary thing. Getting it noticed by the public, especially with lots of people releasing utter garbage remains a challenge.

The second problem I see is a trickier one, that could stop things moving forward for a century or more. This is corporatism on the part of the major book publishers. Once the ebook reader arrived, they could see that with nimble, smart, savvy new writers (think E.L. James et al), soon, publishing a book just by yourself could become the “done” thing, even for well-established writers. If Stephen King publishes a book as a hardcover for $19.99, he could see $3 of it. If he were to publish it himself (paying for an editor, cover designer, etc. himself), he could sell it for, say $5, and still make the same $3 off every sale, regardless of how many copies sell, with no risk of doing an overly-ambitious print-run. And at that price, he’d shift many more books.

The big book publishers saw this as a scary future, one to be avoided if possible. Amazon’s $9.99 Kindle bestsellers deal in the US is over, and the publishers are in charge again now. And they’re charging much more for their ebooks than they were a few years ago, (making them less competitive and attractive to readers) while also doing all they can to lower the price of print-book production through innovations and economies of scale. Hachette boosted their Indiana warehouse by 218,000 square feet last year. Penguin Random House have coughed up $100 million to expand and update its wearhorse operations, with 365,000 square feet added in 2014 to its (already huge) warehouse in Crawfordsville Indiana, doubling its size. The boys and girls at Simon & Schuster are set to do the same to their distribution facility in New Jersey: it’s going to be 200,000 square feet larger.

Why the big investment? Because they can put a stranglehold on this business. At the moment, if people mostly buy print books, then big publishers will remain in charge as the gatekeepers, getting their percentage for every copy sold. Because of these expansions and distribution improvements, it’s now often cheaper to buy a paperback version of a book than the ebook version.

I hope this doesn’t last, but I’m not optimistic. I really like publishers, especially the one’s I’ve mentioned above. But I don’t like what they’re doing here. I envisaged a future for big publishers as representing new talent (and established talent), using their incredible editorial, marketing and promotional skills to be champions of quality. Just because “anyone” can self-publish wouldn’t mean they should. There would be a big market – a demand – for publishers who burrow and forage, looking for the best talent out there, and bringing it to our attention. Yes, the margins could be lower for publishers on a per-book basis, but not having to guess what sort of a print-run etc. they have to do would mean the risk is lower too. And they could invest more time not in building ever-bigger factories, but in nurturing more and more talent.

They’d be so important in this brave future. But I fear (and hope I’m wrong) that they could keep things the way they are for the next century and more, before the number of talented self-published writers tilt the playing-field.

 

But don’t forget, you can buy all of my books – both in print and digitally – here! (Sorry, couldn’t resist the chance to cheapen this article with a plug!)

Emma Donogue’s Room – A Gimmick That Works

Room CoverRoom by Emma Donoghue (Picador, £8.99)

The problem for books with a gimmick is that the novelty can wear off after a few pages.

But Emma Donoghue’s “Room” – shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2010 – manages to overcome this impediment, leaving you engrossed until the end.

The ‘gimmick’ is that it’s written from the perspective of Jack, as he turns five. Two paragraphs in, and it’s clear that not all is right with Jack’s world. He lives in a single room with his mother, and appears never to have been outside or seen anything beyond those four walls. But why? What happened?

The poor syntax of Jack’s speech takes a page or so to get used to, but adds to the believability of the story. There’s a conspicuous absence of definite articles in our narrators vocabulary at first (for example: the room is just “room” to him, and the lamp is just “lamp”), which slowly and subtly improves as we sense him growing up and learning more about the world outside of ‘room’.

Donoghue has a knack for getting inside the mind of a child: not in a trite or clichéd way, but with a style that’s believable and gripping. And the author is smart enough to give us the exposition we need to follow the story, without dispensing that important data in an unrealistic or clunky way: “When I was a little kid, I thought like a little kid,” Jack says. “But now that I’m five I know everything.”

Yes, it’s a gimmick, writing from that perspective. And it should grow tiresome, but somehow never does. Without “breaking character” or taking any serious liberties with the form, Donoghue manages to keep her reader – like the two main characters – confined into a story that remains eerily believable.

Writing Apps

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Are you a writer?

What software do you use to write? It’s a question I’m asked a lot.

The truth – cliched and as obvious as it is – is that there’s not one single application that is the writer’s tool. Everyone writes differently, so everyone will find different tools work better for them.

Here’s some I use:

When I’m sitting by a computer, just trying to get some ideas down, I’m a big fan of OmmWriter. It’s a distraction-free writing tool that provides a sound-scape, inspiring backgrounds and encouraging clicking sounds as you type. There’s a few options, but it’s basically a text-editor and all the tools get out of the way when you start writing.

When I have a general idea of, say a novel I want to write, I use one of a number of iPad apps to “block out” the story. One I’m currently using quite a bit is Index Card, because of it’s integration with Scrivener (which I’ll talk more about in a moment). But Scrivener is supposedly releasing an iPad app in its own right that I’m looking forward to, so that might be my go-to app for planning a story in the future.

And that’s because when it comes to putting a novel or long-form written piece together, for my money, Scrivener is currently the best app I can find. I use the Mac version, so I can’t say anything about the Windows version (which I hear has fewer features) but it’s fast and nimble. Whether you are working on an empty new document, or one with thousands of documents, images, notes, and chapters making up a 250,000-word masterpiece, Scrivener remains incredibly responsive.

It’s cheap for what it is, and is feature-rich. But the real beauty of Scrivener is that you only need to learn the features you need, and you can discard the rest, or use them when you find a use for them. Not learning everything (and there is a lot to learn) doesn’t hamper your ability to get a lot out of this remarkable and well-thought-out app.

But that’s just me, your mileage my vary.

I say try everything out you can, and you’ll find a workflow that works. This “software experimentation” requires time and patience, but it’s worth investing that time as it could save you hours (or possibly months) of time later when you find yourself knee-deep in an epic project and only then realise you’d rather work in a different way. Get it right for you from the start, and you’ll avoid lots of headaches later. And I speak as someone who has made that mistake far too many times.

If you’re really inspired, a simple notepad and a text editor will do the trick. But using some of these tools allow the difficulty and mechanics of writing to get out of the way, leaving you with your ideas and the tale you want to tell.

Happy writing and good luck!