An Insufferable Review

If writing is your passion – or your business – sooner or later you will attract a critic.  Critics serve a useful purpose: they filter artistic works to render their opinion, much as one’s kidneys filter the bloodstream.

A review for a contemporary romance novel my company recently published appeared a few weeks ago in a weekly community newspaper.  In the interest of propriety I will not identify the newspaper nor the reviewer.  I will not quote excerpts from the review either.  You’ll understand why after you read the rest of my comments.

It so happens that the author of that novel lives in the area where the newspaper is published.  She has written several very popular romance novels; books with explicit descriptions of intimate behavior and some admittedly “salty” language but targeted at adults and not the teenage “first love” audience.   Her books are not warmed-over internet literature.  All of her books have been praised for their gripping stories, engaging characters and realistic dialog.   In the interest of full disclosure, my company has worked with this author for more than four years and has released three of her romance titles so far with more in the pipeline.

The author was disappointed at the tone of the article written about her book.  She forwarded  a copy of the review to me for my comments.

The so-called “review” was more a commentary on what the reviewer obviously interpreted as scandalous and borderline pornographic writing.  The reviewer [an adult]admitted in the article to being unfamiliar with the romance genre and expressed in writing their unhappiness at being assigned to review this book.  In places, the article almost sounded like the complaints of a child reluctant to write a book report for school.

The rest of the article was a thinly veiled rant about the questionable literary value of the book as well as a step by step description of the plot, just so no one would have to suffer the same fate as the reviewer and actually read the book.  The review did not contain any direct comments about the author that might be libelous, but it was obvious that the reviewer would not welcome the opportunity to meet the author nor be subjected to another of that author’s books.

This review contained numerous statements of the reporter’s unsuitability for writing the review, but a casual reader could not help but interpret the structure and tone of the review as an unfavorable review.  It certainly has none of the elements of a positive review.  As the publisher, I would rather that the newspaper had not printed an article written by a reviewer  so averse to the idea of reading the book and preparing an article on it.

What is done is done.  It is ink on the page.  One may chalk this experience up to casting pearls before swine, and the lesson is to leave writing the reviews up to people without a chip on their shoulder.

Ann Lister, the author that received the awful [and in my opinion undeserved] review, has given an in-person interview to Desmond Haas at the Romance Radio Network about her newest adult romance “Without A Doubt”.  The MP3 of interview should be up on the site for downloading by the middle of July 2011.  Check it out if you get a chance.

All of Ann Lister’s books are available online in softcover and e-book form.  Ann sells the hardcover editions with her autograph through her website.

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Best Sellers For a Buck

If a hit song from any of the many legal music web-stores is $0.99, why aren’t best selling novels $0.99 as e-books?

I’ve heard [and read] this complaint several places, and on the face it seems innocent enough.  It would seem that many more people are involved in the production chain of a musical selection: the songwriter, the arranger, the musicians and singers, the recording engineer, the producers, and numerous other people critical to the success of a piece of music.  In contrast, a novel is the work of fewer people: the author, an editor, a book designer, and proofreaders — if one presumes e-books and ignores press operators, binders, and cover artists.

It would seem completely plausible that if I can buy the most popular song today for less than a dollar that I should also be able to buy best-selling books in e-book form for the same price.  After all, it costs about the same thing to store and transmit a four-minute MP3 selection as it does to store and transmit a 500 page novel.  Additionally, older titles and e-books by lesser authors could cost much less because they are in less demand.

Discussion boards on websites that sell books, introduce authors, and promote the sales of books ask this question from time to time.  As a person who reads lots of books, I would welcome a much lower cost, but as a publisher and author, I know the reality is much different than it appears.

From a pure economic standpoint, book sales and music sales are very different.  The cut of a $0.99 music selection purchase that reaches the performer is approximately a penny, and sometimes less.  A similar amount is paid to the songwriter.  Presuming there are one million legal downloads of a very popular selection, the performer makes less than $10,000 for a wildly successful recording.  That amount may be spread over many performers if a group was involved in the recording.  Likewise a composition may be written by several people – the famous Lennon and McCartney pairing come to mind – and they share the meager songwriter royalty.

Commercially successful e-books generate royalties for the author of approximately fifteen percent.  At first blush that sounds like a treasure trove … a veritable shower of cash.  In reality, most authors receive a more modest payment, and there are considerable overhead costs to the e-book retailers and publishers that lower the royalty percentage as the selling cost is reduced.   The fifteen-percent royalty on a $10 e-book may be ten-percent or less on a $6  title.  Fixed costs are the problem; for example, there are costs to store, backup and protect an e-book – involving not only hardware but employees to oversee the process.  The retailer must consider their administrative and selling costs.  The costs to transmit the data bits from the retailer to the user are relatively constant although they are subject to inflationary effects.  The publisher has fixed overhead that must be met in terms of book promotion, billing, legal and staff.  None of these costs are connected to the popularity or obscurity of a particular e-book.  In other words, those costs per copy are virtually the same for an extremely popular mega-seller and one that sells a dozen copies.

When a book is popular, the costs of preparing that title – such as formatting the pages, designing the cover artwork, proofreading, and editing – are spread out over more copies, just as the recording  costs of a piece of music are spread over more units for a hit song than a song few people enjoy.  Those are the costs that many people imagine are the predominant costs of an e-book.  By that logic, the most popular music and books should be virtually free after the one-time costs are spread out over millions of copies.

There are other factors that most people ignore.  Musicians regardless of their popularity do not make their fortunes from recordings.  Far more money is made by performers from live or televised performance than the sound recording.  The songwriters make money from each time their sheet music is purchased, each time their song is performed in bars, or played on stage or played on a jukebox or used in a broadcast.  With the exception of selling the rights to a story for a movie or television program, it is almost unheard-of for an author to make anything beyond the royalties from selling copies of the book.  When was the last time you packed a stadium or arena for an author to read their book aloud to you?

There is also the issue of releases.  It is rare for a musical performer to release one selection per year.  A successful music act may offer a half-dozen new songs in a year.  In contrast, authors often take a year or more to produce a book, and of the tens of thousands of e-book titles published each year, only a few dozen are chosen for movie or television adaptations.

So — there you have it.  Books are not music.  That is the sad truth about why e-books are so expensive.

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Thinking of Thought

I don’t watch much television, with the exception of local news.  I made an exception a week or so ago when IBM’s Watson computer system was a “contestant” on the Jeopardy! program for three nights.

I write a lot of speculative fiction and what I call “putative science” fiction, where what I imagine is clearly impossible, but wrapping the outrageous scenarios in the mantle of science mumbo-jumbo makes them a bit more palatable.  To do what I do requires a lot of research to find actual news articles about experiments that look like the first steps toward my highly advanced technology.  In that way, my readers can believe that maybe – just maybe – my extrapolated future is exactly how things will turn out.

I’ve been working on a new story that concentrates on the nature of human thought, and hope to release it this summer.  Watching Watson compete on Jeopardy! gave me a lot of new avenues to explore as I write the backstory that is the basis of the novel’s main plot.

I’m old enough that I was involved in the engineering of knowledge-based systems at one time.  I helped create computer systems that constructed a complex series of interconnected facts and queries, and (over time) the systems enhanced their own “knowledge” of a topic.  I’m dating myself by revealing that these were enormous room-filling systems that had as much as sixteen megabytes of memory and several hundred megabytes of disk storage.  Today the average teenager carries around several times more information inside their music player or smart phone.

Watson has terabytes of memory and the equivalent of 2800 interconnected computers to work on the responses it gave during the quiz show.  The algorithms for searching the vast library of information have been refined considerably from when I was involved in research, and each of the computers in Watson are thousands of times faster than the computer I was using, but the goal is the same: to find a subset of the stored information that most closely matches the input criteria.

Inside every human head is a remarkable thinking machine that contains the memories of countless sounds, pictures, faces, textures, words, smells, tastes, and emotions, as well as the tools for organizing, searching, and comparing those stored impressions.  Perhaps not as precise as Watson, and often quite a bit slower to link inferences, the amazing human brain is capable of many things that the tons of circuitry inside Watson cannot hope to achieve.  Our brains give us personality, our capacity to love, and our drive to understand the world and ourselves.

I was particularly interested in the failures of Watson – those times when the computer could not make sense of a clue and did not attempt to answer.  Many of those can be attributed to the customary complexity of the language in the clues on the program.  Then too, there were some spectacularly wild answers from Watson including the Final Jeopardy! answer on the second day of the first game.  The engineer in me wants to know how the system arrived at “Toronto” as the best response in the category “U.S. Cities.”

If we think about how far the information analysis technology has come and project that forward, systems even more powerful than Watson with more memory, faster processing, improved algorithms and a broader spectrum of raw information will be in our homes by the middle of the century.  By then, the enormous institutional knowledge engines operated by hospitals, governments and universities will be vastly more capable than Watson is today.  At some point we have to wonder: when will the day arrive that a circuitry and software mechanism becomes less fallible than our human brains?  And at that point will we consider an artificial intelligence more correct more often than ourselves?

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I Am The Goat

January was the month I had planned to write the sequel to the novel I wrote three years ago.  I had the outline.  I had the energy.  But it didn’t happen.

It turned out that January was a very bad month weather-wise, and when I wasn’t outside shoveling my driveway, or uncovering my car, or trying to find someplace to put the snow I was shoveling, I was inside shivering.

The economy has started to gather steam and I am really getting tired of knocking on doors to find people that want an electrical engineer like me on a temporary basis, so I’ve renewed my effort to find full-time employment, and have been putting in more than sixty hours a week on the job search and the few temp assignments I’ve been able to find.  If I ever find a permanent position, it can’t be as exhausting as what I am doing now.  So as you can see, there was no time to write a full novel.

I’m disgusted with my own lack of creative productivity in the writing oeuvre, but that activity does not pay my bills as well as does my technical skills, so I plod onward through a few engineering contracts and dream of the day when I won’t be so dependent on my job as a salesman – selling my own services – because I stink at it.

Not getting very far on my manuscript makes me the goat.  Sort of apropos considering my birthday was in January and I am a Capricorn, or at least I thought I was.

If you missed it, there was a major hullabaloo recently about the astrological signs not being correct anymore.  So I may not have ever been a Capricorn, technically speaking.

You may be asking–  how could the Zodiac change?   I’ll explain:

When a constellation in the Zodiac is behind the sun (and thus rises and sets with the Sun), that is supposed to be the Zodiac sign of humans born on that date.  The Zodiac signs for each calendar date were determined by the Babylonians more than 2700 years ago.  Unfortunately, as the Earth circles the sun, the apparent position of the Sun (viewed from Earth) has been gradually shifting among the constellations during the months of the year, because the Earth’s axis is pointing at an increasing distance away from Polaris – the North star.  The geometry of it is a bit much for discussion here, but the upshot is that for much of the calendar, the Sun is no longer within the constellations that those wise old Babylonian astronomers defined for each date in the astrological calendar.  Nowadays, almost everyone was born with the Sun in the sign previous to the one astrologer’s cite for a birthdate, so the Sun was in Sagittarius – not Capricorn – when I was born, and people who consider themselves Sagittarians were born when the Sun was in Scorpius and so on.  The Sun gradually moves backwards through the Zodiac year after year, and in approximately  2160 years the Sun will be in Scorpius on my birthday and Libra about 2160 years after that…and won’t be back in line with the constellations that the Babylonians saw in 600 BCE until 23,500 years from now.

Astrologers counter that the traditional dates determined by the ancients are what matters and not the sign that the Sun is in this year… that I am not a Sagittarius regardless of the constellation behind the Sun on my birthday; instead, I am a Capricorn, as the Babylonians intended.

That just reinforces my frustration, though…  and I am the goat.

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New Year, new dreams, new hope

The end of 2010 is here (or perhaps recently past depending on when you read this) and I for one will not be sad to see it go.  It was a time of bad behavior by celebrities, odd proclamations by politicians, disasters both natural and man-made, and turmoil in the world markets.

Many people – particularly in the United States – are unemployed or underemployed.  Many have lost their homes and their savings, and still see no light at the end of the tunnel.  I count myself among those who have not received a paycheck in two years.

Regardless of the situation we find ourselves thrust into, I have hope.  Hope that the clockwork of the world economy runs smoothly and that those without jobs have a brighter future.  Hope that, next time, we respond with a more effective solution to a looming ecological disaster.  Hope that everyone will mature a bit, stop thinking of themselves and consider how they might make a positive difference.

As a writer, I spend a lot of time exploring the corners of my imagination.  I dream of a world where everyone works together rather than encouraging emmity and seeking to undermine or defeat those perceived as outsiders.  I dream of a world where we have sufficient food and clean water for everyone.  I dream of a world where we further employ virtually unlimited natural sources of clean energy (geothermal, wind, solar, tides) rather than the consumption of finite petroleum and coal deposits.  I dream of clear skies, healthy children and a world population dedicated to advancing mankind instead of killing each other.

This year had some positive news as well.  There were some promising medical breakthroughs against cancer and AIDS, as well as advancements in research on transplants and slowing or reversing the aging process.  A few dozen Chilean miners were rescued from what would have been certain death a few years ago.  Private industry is now launching heavy payloads into space; a business that was once so risky and expensive that governments were the only ones doing it.

In more personal news, there was a wedding in my immediate family this year, uniting two loving and caring people.  That event in the face of all that happened this year also gives me hope for the future.

In the coming year, consider what you can do to make our world a better place.  Every little step, regardless of how small, is progress.  As citizens of Earth, it is our responsibility to safeguard the future.  We can do it, and indeed we must.  Our future begins now.

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Ramping Up to January Novel Writing Month

As I write this, Hannukah is over, Christmas and Kwanzaa are less than a week away, the Winter Solstice occurs tomorrow.  In less than two weeks the Julian Year 2011 begins.

The holidays of late October, November and December are a frenetic time, but as soon as they are over, something new arises to frustrate competitive writers: the January Novel Writing Month – or JanNoWriMo as it is more commonly known.  During the month of January, this event (inspired by Chris Baty’s National Novel Writing Month held every November) brings together aspiring authors attempting not only to satisfy their own crazed lust for putting words together into lengthy stories, but to outdo others attempting to do likewise.

The goal of JanNoWriMo (and NaNoWriMo) is to write a 50,000 word first draft of an original story starting on the first day of the month and finishing by midnight on the final day of the month.  JanNoWriMo offers two advantages of NaNoWriMo: writers are not discouraged from continuing a existing work they already wrote by appending 50,000 additional words to it, and they get 31 days of the boring month of January instead of 30 busy days of November in which to finish their task.

This year I’m writing an entire sequel to my published 2008 JanNoWriMo project.  This new book should stand on its own without requiring the reader slog through the first one….but maybe others should judge that for themselves when I finish it.  I’m in the outline stages, which is allowable before the writing month begins as long as I do not start writing the actual dialog, descriptions or action that will appear in the book manuscript before the stroke of midnight on December 31.

To be clear, on February 1, 2011, although there will be 50,000 or more words in the “completed” document, the manuscript will be in very rough form.  It will need the loving attention of an editor and a story consultant to polish it, a proofreader to fix all of the rotten syntax and grammar, a stylist to beautifully format the pages for printing, and a cover artist to design the shell of the book.  It may be a year before the manuscript is ready to go to press.  The finished book could be many thousands of words longer, and might be shorter that the 31-day-wonder manuscript — although that is unlikely.

If you think you have a book in you, and didn’t want to try to squeeze in several hours a day of writing between holiday baking and shopping and visiting, then give the January Novel Writing Month a try.  At the January Novel Writing Month website here you’ll meet other writers who share your enthusiasm for writing and the stress of trying to do it on a one month deadline. You’ve got almost two weeks to brainstorm before you start writing.

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So You Want To Self-Publish? [Final Part of Series]

It’s done.  You have your book released, and copies are either waiting for customers to order (if an e-book or a print-on-demand title) or you might even have a few thousand of them in boxes stacked to the ceiling in your spare bedroom.  The goal now is to get readers to notice your book then buy it so that you get some compensation for all of the work you did publishing it — not to mention the writing.

Marketing

Its called “promotion” or “marketing,” but what you will be doing is “advertising.”

You want to reach a large number of people and suggest your book for purchase.  There are very effective methods that are expensive, involving buying television or radio commercials, or pages of magazines and newspapers or a few billboards.  There are considerably less expensive methods at the other end of the spectrum – beyond doing no promotion at all – such as going door-to-door in your neighborhood or apartment building.  What you’ll learn from this blog entry is that there is a large spectrum of promotion opportunities in-between.

Book signings and author events

Many regional and local bookstores (and even some national chains) welcome local authors to schedule an appearance in their store to sign copies of their books.  The bookstore gets an event to attract customers into the store and the author gets an opportunity to spread the word about their book as well as to get their ego stroked at the same time.  Talk with the managers at each bookstore in your vicinity and ask if they will do this with you.  If your book is not already available at the bookstore in question, you’ll need to arrange to bring copies yourself and have the store cashiers ring up the purchases for each customer.   Some bookstores hold periodic “author days” where multiple authors are scheduled simultaneously in the store.  These author days allow little-known local authors to participate in an event that should draw a larger and more diverse crowd to the store than an individual unknown author could.  Again, check your local bookstore managers to determine if any have an author day scheduled, and if not, suggest their store hold one and perhaps offer to round up a few local published authors to participate.  By being an organizer, you gain a reputation as an impresario, which will make booking future events for yourself much simpler.

Tchotchkes

People like free stuff.  One extremely effective item for authors is a promotional bookmark.   For a relatively small cost, authors can order custom-printed bookmarks from a number of outlets in their region or online, although artwork must ready before ordering the bookmarks.   The standard size for a bookmark is 5cm by 15cm (2″ by 6″), but the artwork has to be a bit larger, and should be high resolution – 300 or more dots per inch.  Graphic artists can quickly produce a design for a small fee.  Some authors create double-sided bookmarks with one side promoting a current book and the reverse side promoting an upcoming title, allowing them to use one design for two book releases.  Authors give out the bookmarks to libraries and local book clubs.  Some give out their bookmarks at book signings as a thank-you for buying the book in the hopes that the bookmark will encourage future sales.  Let people know in online forums that your bookmarks are available – even let strangers get the bookmark by sending you a stamped and self-addressed envelope.

Local Media

Cable television providers have so-called “local access” programming – think back to the movie and SNL sketches for  “Wayne’s World” – which is frequently friendly to local authors trying to get the word out about their book.  Contact the local cable provider to find out if they have a program that welcomes authors.  If such programming is not offered, an author can purchase commercials to be shown on local cable for less than buying broadcast ads on regional or national TV.

Newspapers and regional magazines will often do a feature article on a local author.  Contact the newspapers and other publishers in your area and ask for the book section editor or features editor to inquire about getting a story about you and your book in the paper or magazine.  Send a complimentary copy of your book to the book editor at the newspaper, and this may result in your book being reviewed in the paper.  If you are in college or are a college graduate, your school likely publishes a periodical or magazine for alumni and faculty.  Send a review copy of your book and the press release about the book to your college periodical book editor, for potential mention in an upcoming issue.

You might find a friendly local radio host willing to interview you for a few minutes about your book, but with so few people listening to radio these days, that may not be time well spent.

Print up small handbills, essentially business-card-sized ads for your book, and give them out to people you meet.  Introduce yourself, mention you are an author with a new release, then proffer your handbill.  I always suggest that the handbill have a photo or artwork of the book cover, large lettering with the book name and author name, a brief hook like “a new thriller” or “the steamy romance” or “a delightful childrens book”, and finally a mention of who sells it: “available at Zonkles and bookstores everywhere.”  Obviously if the book is available from a particular website, the URL is important.

Off the beaten path

Some promotion ideas are very unusual.  You could hire a plane to tow a banner above a football game, parade or beach, or get an ad inserted in clips shown at cinemas before the main feature.  Depending on local regulations, you could put an magnetic ad on the side of your car or in your car windows.  You can wear clothing such as a T-shirt or cap with an ad for your book printed or embroidered on it.  You can offer clothing custom printed with your book’s name for others to buy at websites such as CafePress, although translating popularity of the name printed on a tank top into book sales may not be trivial.

Social media

The explosion of social media allows additional outlets for authors to promote themselves and their books.  Authors should mention their books on their own social media pages and feeds, and if possible get a separate “celebrity” account so that promotion and fan participation is not intermixed with info to and from family and acquaintances.

Start a blog.  Tell the world about your ideas and your writing.  Let them know what you are currently writing.  Mention any websites you may operate.

The only caveat is that authors should be careful to not be obnoxious – because people that dislike you won’t buy your book.  Avoid over-saturating a webpage or feed with a hard-sell.  Mention your book once every two weeks, but every so often mention your upcoming appearances at signings or in broadcast media instead(the website BookTour is excellent for this).   Mention any good press or reviews you or your book received.

Word of mouth

Finally, be sure that your relatives and everyone you know is aware of your book.  Urge them to spread the word, particularly if they enjoyed the book themselves.  Offer to sign books with a personal message and your signature for gifts if your relatives and acquaintances bring the books to you before wrapping them.   I’m sure you can think of ways you can encourage people to get your book for themselves or others.   In short, keep your imagination active when thinking about ways to promote your book and yourself.

Well…that wraps up my advice about getting a book released on your own.  There is a lot more that I didn’t say, but with this push in the right direction you will have an easier time uncovering the wealth of information available to you.  I hope this little series has helped a potential author or two.   We now return you to my usual boring blog entries.

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