Category Archives: indie publishing

The New Cover

I do apologize for my silence lately; I’ve been head-down and working on The Lost Concerto.  Something about writing a suspense novel…they refuse to wait quietly in the corner while you have other things to do.  They nag at you and take over your mind and give you no peace unless you are actively putting words on the page.

It can be maddening, but it does tend to get the book done.  My fantasy stories take much longer, overall, than my suspense work.

Today I wanted to drop in to announce something that’s been needed for a long time–Crystal Cave has a new cover!

I’ve never really been happy with the original cover.  I think at the time I just didn’t know how to do any better.  The original cover is a charming combination of brown and orange, and depicts rocks.

Doesn’t really give you much of an idea what the story is about at all, except that it must involve a cave, which we already knew from the title.  You can see it above, in thumbnail form.

Unveiling for go live officially today, Crystal Cave’s new cover:

I hope you agree that it’s a beautiful improvement!

Retailer as Publisher -or- How Amazon Took Over the World

I worry about the future of big traditional publishing houses, I really do.  They are behemoths, giant corporate entities owned by giant conglomerates.  Change comes slowly, when it comes at all.

For decades these groups have had a stranglehold on readers, and therefore also on writers, of books.  A kind of monopoly of their own–you couldn’t get into the major distribution channels without them, and you couldn’t get into bookstores without the distribution channels.  Certainly self-publishing, or even vanity publishing, were always options.

They just weren’t options that were very likely to succeed.

Along came the POD press.  Along came the eBook.  On their own, these didn’t cause any revolution–eBooks tied you to a computer and were inconvenient.  POD books were pricey and of substandard quality.  Even when good POD services came along–like Lulu, one of my favorites–their prices were still high enough to make it difficult to be competitive, and the lag time between ordering and receiving a book could cause a customer to drop your book and look elsewhere for more immediate entertainment.

This is all just my view, of course.  But I credit Amazon with cracking open the status quo.  Amazon and Big Publishing have gone to the mat several times–you may remember their recent squabble over agency pricing.

Big Publishing always regarded eBooks as a passing fad that would never catch on, much like that new-fangled television set.  As I recall, when the Kindle first appeared on the scene, most big publishers weren’t exactly beating down the door to get their content on the device.  I wonder how things might be different now if they had.

Amazon dealt a 1-2 punch combo that has pretty much assured everything must change.  They started CreateSpace, and they opened up their Kindle platform to everyone.

CreateSpace, on the surface, seems like just another POD.  When I look at CreateSpace, though, I see two distinct advantages–distinct enough that other publishing services have not been able to convince me to switch.  First, CreateSpace’s pricing models are more competitive than other services I’ve seen.  Especially if you use their Pro Plan.  Concerto is over 300 pages, it’s in trade paperback format–which falls somewhere between mass market paperback and hardback on the price & quality scale–and it retails for $7.60.  Granted, I see about a quarter of that, but I’m totally stoked to be able to get prices that low.  I have trade paperbacks from traditional publishers that I’ve bought in bookstores.  Their cover prices are at least double my price.  That is, to me, pretty cool.

CreateSpace’s second advantage is in your listing on Amazon.  If you publish through any other service, your book will show “Usually ships in XX days” next to the price.  As a reader, I hate seeing that.  I’m spoiled, I’m used to instant gratification, and I hate waiting for things to ship.  If I’m going to order it, I’d at least like it to be in stock so it can ship right away.

When you book is done through CreateSpace, it will show up on Amazon as “In Stock, Ready to Ship”.  That, to me, is a pretty big advantage.  As far as price and shipping, I can be on equal footing with big publishing.

Opening up the Kindle to independent content was a huge move–one I’m not sure Big Publishing saw coming.  I know I didn’t see it coming.  Suddenly talented authors could put their work out there on their own, and sell it for $4.99, $2.99, or even $.99–and still make a profit.  Big Publishing can’t compete on those terms.  They have too much overhead.

And now, Amazon has started their own publishing imprints.  They have hired big guns to run them, and they are aggressively pursuing books–some of the same ones Big Publishing is after.  Their contracts, from what I have heard, are more author-friendly than traditional contracts.

What would it mean for all of us if the next Stephen King, or Nora Roberts, or Dean Koontz novel came to us through an Amazon imprint?

What does this mean for Big Publishing?  I don’t know.  I wish I did.  The only thing I’m certain of at this moment is that things are not going to stay the same.  With the opening of the Kindle and like devices, Big Publishing cannot compete.  So they have two options: face extinction, or change the rules so that they can compete again.

Given the history of publishing, I think I know which one of those options I would bet on.  The only question is how successful they will be with their attempt, and I think Amazon will be a large determining factor in that.

Crystal Cave broke the top 100 in the UK today!

Forgive my enthusiasm, but this is my first trip into the top 100 bestseller lists on Amazon of any flavor.

My novella The Crystal Cave broke into the top 100 bestseller list on Amazon UK today for fantasy short stories.

Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #10,784 Paid in Kindle Store

  • #62 in Books > Fantasy > Short Stories
If you think I’m happy now, wait until something of mine breaks an Amazon.com bestseller list 🙂

Announcing the New Arrival

If you hang around here very often, you may have noticed that I sneaked a change into my works in progress list.  I hadn’t said anything to anyone because I wasn’t sure how plausible my new project was–I’ve been spending a lot of time kicking around ideas and possible plots.

But I’ve invested enough time in it now, and I’ve gotten far enough along in the process…and the product I’m seeing developing is solid enough…it’s time to formally announce the new arrival I kind of slipped in.

My newest work in progress is…

The Lost Concerto follows the continuing adventures of Alexis Brooks and Chrispen Marnett.  It takes places almost one year after the end of Concerto.  The storyline features more of the same nail-biting suspense that made the first book a favorite with readers.

To be honest, I did not originally envision Concerto as the beginning of a series.  One of the early reviews on Concerto included this line:

Concerto would be a good first book in an ongoing series; it is an easy read that grabs the reader’s attention and holds it to the very last page.

At the time, I have to admit, I focused more on the grabbing attention and holding it to the last page part–that seemed to me pretty high praise for a suspense novel, or any novel, for that matter.  Besides, how could Concerto possibly be part of a series?  The story was done, right?

That line was a great blurb quote, the kind of thing you use all over the place.  And the more I saw it, the more that bit about a series stuck in my mind.  It took me a while to decide to seriously think about it, and see what I could come up with.  I never planned it to be a series, but I adore the characters.  The chance to write more about them was too good to pass up.

And the story that had developed–and is still developing–out of all of this is good.  I can’t wait to find out if readers agree.

Author Interview

Just a quick note today, to let you all know that Indie eBooks is featuring my book Concerto today, along with my first Author Interview.

Indie eBooks

I hope you’ll come by and check it out!

Agent as Publisher

Last time I mentioned in passing that some agents are setting themselves up as publishers.  I also mentioned the term “conflict of interest.”  You may have gathered that I have some problems with this development.

Here’s why.

Let’s think about the agent’s original purpose.  You hire an agent for a single purpose, really: to be your advocate to publishers.  Your agent should back your work to editors at publishing houses.  Your agent should negotiate the best possible deal for you when the manuscript is picked up.

Now, how can my agent negotiate the best deal for me with a publisher, if he is a publisher himself?  Do you see the conflict of interest here?  Every manuscript that crosses his desk is potential money for his publishing arm.  If he sells that manuscript to a big publisher, that’s money he won’t make–even if the deal from the big publisher is better for you.  This conflict is always there, even if the agent tries very hard not to let his publishing business interfere with his agenting business.  I’m no lawyer, but I don’t believe that it’s very ethical for a person who has a publishing business to hire on to represent you to publishers.

So let’s put that aside for a moment.  Forgetting the conflict of interest, why am I uncomfortable with an agent as my publisher, even if I have no desire to shop my manuscript around to the big publishers?

This is a little more technical.  And there will be those who will disagree with me, which is fine.  All I ask is that everybody consider all of their options, and possible repercussions, before signing anything.  As always 🙂

First, I don’t believe an agent as publisher is going to offer me anything I can’t do for myself.  And I’m going to lose some things by going with this arrangement.

If I hire an agent to be my publisher, he’s going to take my manuscript, and format it for Kindle, Nook, and Smashwords (if he’s good; some of these guys only put it up on Kindle.)  Also, he may take it to CreateSpace or Lulu and make a paperback version available.  He’ll probably hire an artist for a flat fee to create a cover.

There’s nothing there I can’t do myself.  And nothing you can’t do yourself, either, even if you’ve never done any of those things before.  Is it worth giving someone a cut–sometimes a large cut–of your royalties to avoid learning these things?

I’ll also have to sign a contract with the agent/publisher.  And from the rumblings around the internet right now, that contract might have some really scary provisions in it that will make sure my grandkids are giving that agent’s grandkids a cut of any royalties those books are still making.  And considering Amazon is set up for a long-tail sales approach–it’s something to think about.

Another thing that concerns me is this: if my agent uploads my work as my publisher, my work will be under his account at Amazon, CreateSpace, PubIt, Smashwords, and anywhere else he places it.  I won’t have access to set pricing, create coupons or special promotions, or change up any descriptive text.  I can’t add editorial reviews as they come in.  (Technically, through Amazon’s Author Central, I could change text and add reviews–though Amazon warns this may cause problems if my publisher wants to change things later.  And I still can’t set pricing info, even through Author Central.)

This also means that my agent will have access to sales numbers on my books–but I won’t.  I will have to accept on blind faith that the numbers he reports to me are accurate.  Some agents are honest, and will always report everything accurately.

Some are not.

And I have no way to tell the difference, or to verify the numbers I am given.

To me, this is a big problem.  I realize this is pretty much the way big publishing has done business for decades–authors don’t usually have access to raw sales numbers.  They get their royalty statements, and they have to trust that the numbers on those statements are correct, or request expensive audits if they suspect a problem.  Occasionally, those audits turn up problems.

But now, with the reporting mechanisms in place online, you have the option of seeing your raw sales numbers.  Unless your agent loads your work through his account.  And in this model, you don’t even have the option of an expensive audit.

I know this new service agents are offering has been tempting to many authors, especially those with a large backlist they would like to offer electronically.  But before you commit to that path, make sure your gains outweigh your losses.

Publishing: Traditional vs Indie -or- House of Cards

“If there’s sharks in the water,
Don’t swim where it’s deep,
For the taste of success
Can be bitter, and sweet.”

–House of Cards, Elton John & Bernie Taupin

Batten down the hatches, folks, this time I’m sticking a toe into water I have deliberately steered clear of for a long time.  There be sharks here, mateys.

I’m not even sure where to start.  I suppose everything started with an author interview I did recently.  One of the questions–a question I’m seeing more and more of–is, why did you choose to self-publish?

I don’t usually talk about that much.  It can be a contentious subject.  But I’ve read some rather alarming things on some very reliable blogs lately, and I don’t feel comfortable keeping silent any more.  I run a website for writers, and the people using my website are the very people who could easily run into trouble if I don’t help point out the rough waters ahead.

“Traditional publishing” is not a term used much outside the self-publishing (or indie publishing, as has become popular to call it) industry.  Once upon a time, the term was invented by vanity presses seeking to downplay the role of the dominant publishing model.  These days, the term has been adopted by those who choose to self-publish.  Traditional publishing merely refers to publishing as we all learned it–go out and land yourself an agent, who’ll represent your work to a publisher, who will polish it up, package it, and get it into bookstores, which until very recently was the only venue in which to make money selling your books.

If you’ve been around my website much, you’ll notice I don’t talk much about that side of writing.  There are no tips on how to land an agent, no articles on crafting compelling queries.  It’s a rather glaring omission.  It’s also deliberate.

I don’t have any experience with agents.  I query my magazine editors, but I have never worked with a big publishing house.  I made a decision not to move in that direction, and not to encourage others, by the content of my website, to move that direction either.

It seems to me that the writing has been on the wall for traditional publishing as we have known it for quite a few years now.  Big-box chain bookstores, Amazon, and the practice of “ordering to the net” have gutted the midlist, where it used to be possible to earn a comfortable living, even without ever breaking out into bestseller territory.  And this was before the rise of the eReaders, and the shift of the market towards eBooks that progressed–and is progressing–orders of magnitude faster than anybody expected.  Amazon tells us that Kindle books are outselling paperbacks and hardbacks combined–for every 100 paper books that are sold, 105 Kindle books are sold.

You may have noticed that big publishers can’t compete with independent authors in the eBook arena.  Independents can sell their books for $2.99, $1.99, or even $.99, and still make money.  A big publisher still has all of their usual overhead to make up–especially with big bookstores going bankrupt and paper copy sales dropping–and they can’t meet those expenses with that type of pricing.  Big publishers are fighting tooth and nail for higher prices, and for control of prices, and this is why, I think.  As more of the market shifts to eBooks, and market forces push towards the lower range prices, big publishers will have to make some pretty dramatic changes to remain profitable.

This is not to say that you can’t pitch a book to a big publisher through an agent right now, and close a deal.  Of course you can.

So, if I had the Music Mage series completely finished and edited and ready to go out tomorrow, what would I do?

Boy, that’s a tricky question.  But right at this very moment, I think I would self-publish it.  I would hire any work I needed done at a flat fee (not a percentage of my royalties!) and publish the finished product myself.

Why?

I’m hearing some scary things happening out there, folks.  Blatant rights-grabs in publishing contracts that used to be safe, agents setting themselves up as publishers (can you say conflict of interest?) and agency agreements with truly terrifying clauses in them.

There are sharks in the water, guys, water that used to be safe.  The industry is in flux, and everybody is searching for their place in it as the changes continue.  It’s a chain of people set up to make their living off of the content writers generate, and it’s feeling kind of unstable these days.  The house of cards analogy might not be far off.

Not to say there aren’t opportunities out there.  There are.  But you want to be careful.  Get yourself an IP attorney, and watch your step.  Content is king, as they say, and there will always be a place for a writer, because there will always be people who want to read.

Just make sure you know what place you’re being offered before you sign anything.  That advice was good twenty years ago, and ten years ago, and it’ll be good next year as well.  For almost all other advice about the business side of writing–I would be checking the expiration date.

Dream Sequences and Formatting

If you’re like most writers I know, making your words look pretty on the page is kind of an obsession of yours.  Formatting text so that it looks nice is a habit of yours, sometimes a rather time-consuming habit.  There are times when you even take formatting to a whole new level, using it to highlight or emphasize artistic choices you have made in your text.

If you are a self-published author, formatting is a whole new can of  worms, because you have final control over how your books look, on the inside as well as the outside.  It’s liberating, but it’s also a double-edged sword, because formatting done badly can turn a reader off a book pretty quickly.

One thing that tends to turn up fairly often in my work is dream sequences.  Dreams are fascinating, and can be one way to introduce almost paranormal elements into work that isn’t actually paranormal.

Two of my currently available works, Concerto and The Crystal Cave, both feature dream sequences.  The dream sequences are important, even necessary, to the story.  One problem we face as writers, is how to make a dream sequence apparent as a dream.  One way I chose to do this is with formatting.

In The Crystal Cave, one of the first scenes is a story-changing dream sequence.  To help indicate to the reader that something different was going on here, I used a combination of formatting and tense change.  Crystal Cave is told in past tense.  But for the dream sequence, the narrative changes to present tense.  We experience the dream as it happens, in real time.

But just the sudden change to present tense would, I felt, be confusing.  To set the text apart from the rest, I also chose to italicize the dream sequence.  Are there rules about this sort of thing?  Not that I am aware of.  But I think the finished product works well, and it is immediately apparent where the dream begins, and where ordinary reality resumes.

In Concerto, on the other hand, there is no special formatting, no tense change, to alert us to the dream sequence.  It’s a different situation there, and resulted in a different approach.

Concerto opens with a dream sequence.  Now I personally hate it when a narrative begins with a dream and sucks you in, before letting you know several pages later that, oh, by the way, none of that was real.  It feels like a trick, and it gets you invested in situations that turn out to be false.  I was in a quandry–the nightmare was important, crucial, to the story, and it had to be the opening.  On the other hand, the last thing I wanted was to trick my readers.  How could I open with a dream without it coming across as a trick?

First, I used my chapter headings.  Concerto has a very few chapters, and they are named after the parts of a classical concerto.  But each chapter also has a subheading.  So I used the subheading of the opening chapter to indicate that this was a dream sequence.  My chapters:

  • Ritornello: The Nightmare
  • Movement One: The Nightmare Continues
  • Movement Two: On the Trail of a Madman
  • Movement Three: Prelude to Destruction
  • Finale

Second, I changed my opening line.  Instead of opening in the action of the dream, I opened with “The dream was always the same.”  The opening line tells you, straight up, that the sequence you are about to read is a dream.

Are there other solutions to these problems?  Of course–there will be as many answers as there are writers.  The important thing is that, at some point in the process, we all take a step back and look at our stories as the readers will see them, and consider how we might make the journey easier for them.

Free Reading -or- The Value of the Non-Seller

Earlier this week I posted a brand new short story on Smashwords.  It also has a page on my website.  It’s gotten quite a few hits.

It’s also generated some questions.  Why, some wonder, would you post a story for free when you could charge for it?

Two reasons.  First, Dorrin’s End is a short-short story.  It’s between 1000 and 1100 words–in some markets, that’s just barely over the flash fiction limit.  It’s still a good story, an interesting story, but not the kind of thing I would feel comfortable asking someone to pay for.

Second, it’s a way of getting my name out there in front of people who may never otherwise come across it.  Dorrin’s End is a fantasy short.  My hope is that someone who reads it, and likes it, might later check out The Crystal Cave.  It’s like built in sampling, by author instead of by title.

Besides, I like the story and I would like to think people might get some enjoyment out of it.  Dorrin’s End and Crystal Cave are birds of a feather, in some ways.  Both of them were shopped around to fantasy magazines.  Both of them received personal notes from editors with lots of praise–and both of them, due to financial reasons, were passed.

I think that kind of experience has value, even if the work ultimately does not sell to a magazine.  It helps you to build confidence in your own instincts; it helps you to become better at judging whether your own work is good.  And that is a skill that I think we are all going to need more of in this changing business.

Oh, the dreaded Back Cover Text!

One of the benefits of indie publishing (yes, there are benefits!) is having total control over the entire process, and the appearance of your finished product.

Of course, this leads us to one of the drawbacks as well.  Major publishing houses have copywriters who do back cover copy, and do it very well.  Most authors are not well-prepared to write their own copy, and many are too close to the work to do it well.  As an indie-published author, back cover copy is also something you have total control over.

Can I just say it?  That can sort of stink.  I’ve pulled my hair out a time or two over back cover text, and never been really happy with any of it.  In fact I became so completely unhappy with Concerto’s back cover copy that I recently decided to rewrite it.

Of course, the book is out there.  I’m done with it, and unless I decide it’s worth pulling it off the market for a few days to update the cover (Edited to add: which I did :), the original back cover text will remain.

But in attempting to rewrite it, I had to take a step back and think about what back cover copy really does, and how it should be written.  We’re writers.  There’s no reason we can’t write decent back cover copy, along with stories and books and everything else we write.  We just need to know what the rules are, because it’s very different from writing a novel.

I’d like to share with you what I learned.  You can use my results to decide whether my method is worth bothering with for yourself.

So to start, my original back cover text, with my apologies:

What if…
…you could work with the greatest violinist
in history?
…the greatest violinist in history was also
the chief suspect in his wife’s murder?
…a violent stalker terrorized you just outside
the reach of the law?

What if…
…the only person who could stop the stalker
…solve the murder
…and save your life…

…was you?

Join Chrispen Marnett on the journey of a lifetime as she unravels the layers of the past…
…love…
…lies…
…music…
…murder…
…to discover the truth about the Newton Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra and its international celebrity concertmaster, Alexis Brooks.

Okay, so there are some problems here.  Even I could see that, though I wasn’t immediately clear how to fix it.  It seems to be composed simply to take up a lot of space on the page, but its problems go deeper than that.  I think one of the reviews on Goodreads says it best:

…the synopsis on the back cover did not promise much…

Is she right, or is she right?

So I took a step back.  When you look at a book, probably the first thing you look at is the cover.  I like my cover, so we’re good there.  What’s the next thing you do?  If you’re like most people, you flip it over and check out the back cover text.  What are you looking for there?

This is an important question, though it seems obvious.  Missing this question is why my back cover copy was such a mess.  I had no grasp at all on why a person reads back cover text in the first place.

Back cover text needs to convey five basic things to be successful.

  • Who
  • Why
  • Where
  • What
  • How

I love these questions.  If you read my recent posts on Ideas, then you’ve seen my fascination with them.  They work here too.

Who–you must introduce your main character, and at least reference your villain.  You may also reference other supporting characters, like love interest or sidekick, depending on how strong a part they play in the story.  My main character is mentioned only in the last paragraph.  I suppose we assume the violent stalker is the enemy.  And there is a famous violinist in there somewhere…nothing is very clear about any of these characters, though.

Why–this is your primary conflict that drives your story.  Why is this story happening?  I suppose I would assume the primary conflict in the copy above is our protagonist vs the violent stalker.  Hard to be sure, though, since it’s somewhat hard to tell who the protagonist actually is.

Where–your setting.  Give a nod to where all this is happening, it makes a difference to your reader.  How much emphasis you want to give this really depends on the book you’ve got.  Setting can play a pretty major role in some genres.  If Concerto had been a fantasy or sci-fi novel, the setting would have required more explanation.  But in this blurb above–I feel like the setting is absent entirely.

What–it’s hard to explain, but this should reference your genre.  It’s the “what” happens to make it a romance, or a western, or a whatever.  This is where you put some spin on the ball, to angle it to your target readers.  I don’t know that there is anything in the cover text above that would angle this very strongly to suspense readers, or any other kind of reader, really.

How–this is your hook.  It’s how you are going to hold your reader’s attention–if you can’t hold them to the end of your blurb, you will never keep them all the way through your book.  Cite the danger, risk, or threat that raises the stakes and keeps the pressure on.

Keeping these things in mind, I took another stab at writing back cover copy for Concerto. I know I’m biased, but I think this is a more effective blurb:

“I see you.”

Three simple words from her telephone in the dead of night send violinist Chrispen Marnett’s life spiraling in directions she never imagined.  The chance to work with the greatest violinist alive drew her to Newton, but nothing could have prepared her for what she found there.  Terror lurks in unexpected places–a ringing phone, a late-night rehearsal, unexpected flowers.

And what could have prepared her for Alexis Brooks: symphony concertmaster, international superstar, and accused murderer?  Withdrawn and moody, Alexis is cut off from everyone around him; his colleagues in the symphony, his fans, even his own father.  Everyone from her mother to the Newton Police has warned Chrispen against Alexis, but as her own danger increases, he may be her only ally.

Join Chrispen on the journey of a lifetime as she fights for her sanity, her happiness, and her life.  To survive, she must unravel the layers of the past and learn the secrets the Newton Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra hides.