O Captain, My Captain

Say it isn’t so!

I read with dismay the news that Robin Williams has died of apparent suicide at the age of 63. This saddens me immensely, as he has long been one of my favorite performers. I still have fond memories of watching Mork & Mindy as a child (and the cultural phenomenon it spawned), and later laughing uncontrollably at his manic stand-up improvs. The man was a comic genius, a fire hydrant of hilarity. It’s impossible to watch one of his comedy specials and not be amazed at how agile his mind was, how playful and irreverent he could be, a whirling dervish of human creativity.

But for me, it was his unexpected turn as a dramatic actor that cemented his place as one of the all-time greats. From Good Morning, Vietnam to The Fisher King, from Good Will Hunting to Awakenings, Robin Williams has displayed a surprising depth and sensitivity that few observers of his early career would have ever guessed. After all, this is the same man who got famous saying “nanu-nanu” and “shazbot!” That he would go on to give some of the most inspired and touching performances I’ve ever seen will go down as one of the greatest career reinventions I’ve ever witnessed.

Dead Poets Society, in particularhas always held a special place in my heart. Long after watching it for the first time as a high school student, it has continued to have a lasting impact on my life. I make a point to watch it again at least once a year (in fact, I’m watching it right now). How can anyone view this film and not feel inspired? To be reminded that you don’t have to live a life of quiet desperation, that the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse.

Didn’t we all wish we had a Professor Keating in our young lives? A teacher who pushed you to be more, to dream more, to suck out all the marrow of life? Professor Keating (as so brilliantly portrayed by Williams) embodied all these things for me, an inspirational combination of humor and wisdom, of hope and possibility.

But there’s also a dark side to that film, an undercurrent of sadness that culminates with the suicide of one of Keating’s students. I suppose what I took most from that scene is that we must strive to fight on, to persevere, to gather ye rosebuds while we may.

Perhaps that is what I find most distressing about the news of Williams’ death today: that he gave up the good fight and surrendered to the darkness that so clearly haunted him. I don’t fault him or begrudge him for this; I’m just terribly saddened.

Rest in peace, Mr. Williams. May you find some comfort in knowing you did contribute a verse.

Posted in Uncategorized | 4 Comments

Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited – Good for Readers, What About Authors?

By now you’ve probably heard of Kindle Unlimited, Amazon’s new subscription service that’s being dubbed “Netflix for books.” Subscribers pay a monthly fee of $9.99 to gain unlimited access to an electronic library of 600,000 ebooks. There’s a 30-day free trial, so I decided to check it out.

The first thing I noticed is there are some bonafide blockbusters available: Harry Potter, The Hunger Games, The Life of Pi. These well-known titles are splashed across the front page of the website, but once you dig a little deeper, you’ll find that the bulk of the library appears to consist of independently published novels. That’s not a bad thing, mind you, but subscribers expecting to find all the latest hits from their favorite big name authors will be disappointed.

I often hear the same complaint about Netflix. Some new customers will go in expecting to find specific movies, as if they were visiting a video store (remember those?). They’re soon disappointed when they discover The Dark Knight, for example, is unavailable for streaming, and quickly cancel their service. Those same sorts of subscribers would likely be disappointed with Kindle Unlimited. 600,000 books is a lot of books, but it’s nowhere near all the books.

But despite all its nay-sayers, Netflix has thrived. Why is this? I believe it’s a combination of Netflix’s low monthly fee combined with subscribers’ willingness to just see what’s on.

Allow me to explain: I find it’s best to use Netflix as if you’re surfing channels on TV: Let’s just see what’s on. They have a ton of content that appeals to me, and as long as I don’t go in with preconceived notions of what I want to watch, I can always find something. Truth be told, it’s more content than I have time to watch, especially if you consider all the television series they’ve added. And if I still want to watch something specific, there are DVDs, Blu-rays, and other pay-per-view services to provide exactly that.

As a reader, I think Kindle Unlimited should be approached the same way. It’s unlikely to have the latest hit book you’ve been dying to read (you know, the one you wanted to read before the movie came out), but there is still a ton of content to catch your interest.

After initiating my 30-day trial, I immediately loaded up my tablet with a slew of novels I never got around to reading (starting with Wonder Boys), as well as some highly-rated indie series I’ve been meaning to check out. Will I be able to read enough books per month to make it worth my $10 per month? Probably.

I think Kindle Unlimited will be a great service for readers, and I’m sure over time the selection will grow. But the question remains: Is Kindle Unlimited good for authors? Let’s examine this point-by-point:

  • If subscribers can read an unlimited amount of books for $10/month, who will continue to buy ebooks?

Relax. I think the limited selection will ensure that ebook sales will be just fine. Readers looking for specific ebooks will continue to buy them just as they did before, perhaps using Kindle Unlimited as a supplement to their reading habits. After all, a lot of the same fears were directed towards Netflix when it first came out, and it hasn’t exactly killed the rest of the video market. There’s Redbox, Vudu, Amazon, Best Buy, and don’t forget movie theaters… It seems people can’t get enough movies!

So, no, Kindle Unlimited won’t destroy the book business any more than Netflix destroyed the movie business. Besides, much like their movie publisher counterparts, traditional book publishers are likely to withhold much of their content from Kindle Unlimited, or make it available only for a limited time, to “protect” their existing sales.

  • Will Kindle Unlimited result in authors earning less money?

This is a tough one. Obviously if existing books sales are unaffected, then authors who don’t participate in the program should also be unaffected. The fear, of course, is that Kindle Unlimited will take away sales from these authors, that subscribers will eschew purchasing individual books and just enjoy what’s available for their $10 per month. I suspect this won’t be the case, but time will tell. If anything, I would expect this program to increase overall readership, and not just take a precious slice of an ever-shrinking pie.

  • But what about authors who participate in the program, or are considering participating? Will Kindle Unlimited boost their income?

I’d say it depends. That’s not much of an answer, I admit, but hear me out. Kindle Unlimited will pay authors a share of the KDP Select fund every month. This is the same fund that pays authors when readers borrow a book through the Kindle Owner’s Lending Library (KOLL). Amazon has just added $800,00o to this monthly fund for July, bringing the total to $2 million to divvy up between authors.

What does this amount to in individual royalties? It’s hard to say. There’s a fixed pool to split, but no one knows how many books will be sold under this new program, including Amazon. I’ve seen estimates from as low as 13¢ per sale to as high as $2. If the Kindle Unlimited program becomes wildly successful and the $2 million fund should prove insufficient to pay authors a meaningful royalty, I believe Amazon will increase the fund. That’s just good business, for both the authors and Amazon. After all, if the royalty is too low, authors will pull their books from the program, and Amazon will lose subscribers.  In a few months we should have more data, but for now, let’s use the KOLL program as a target rate, which earns the author approximately $2 every time a book is borrowed.

But wait! There’s an additional caveat: Unlike the KOLL program, Kindle Unlimited requires the reader to read at least 10% of the book before the author will be paid.

  • What? A reader has to read my book before I get paid?

Well, yes. At least 10% of it, anyway. If you think about it, it makes sense. Unlimited subscribers have the ability to download an unlimited (imagine that!) number of books per month. I’m sure some of these subscribers will immediately download hundreds of books, if not more, though they’re unlikely to ever get around to reading them all. Obviously, Amazon wouldn’t be able to afford to pay for all these unread downloads (well, not pay very much anyway), so this restriction seems reasonable. Amazon is only paying for the books that readers actually read (or at least start to read), and the books will become unavailable if the subscription lapses. My takeaway from this policy? Make sure the first 10% of your book is damn good!

  • Okay, so now we’ve established how Kindle Unlimited authors will be paid, and roughly how much they will be paid, does it make sense to participate?

First of all, if you’re not self-published, you probably won’t have a say in the matter; your publisher will decide if your books are made available to the program (not likely).

For the rest of us, it’s the classic price versus volume argument: Is the risk of a potentially lower royalty outweighed by a potentially greater number of sales? If you’re an independent author selling your ebooks at $10 a pop and you’re doing great business, then the program probably doesn’t make good sense (or cents). After all, you’d be trading a $7 royalty for a $2 royalty, requiring you to sell 3.5X as many books to make up the difference. That’s a pretty tall order. But if you’re already selling your books for $2.99, for instance, you’re making about $2 per sale anyway, so the greater exposure the Kindle Unlimited program provides could well be worth it.

But like the KOLL program, there’s a catch. In order to participate in Kindle Unlimited, you need to enroll your ebook in Kindle Select, which means it will be digitally exclusive to Amazon. (Obviously Amazon has made exceptions to secure the non-exclusive rights for books such as the The Lord of the Rings series, but for the rest of us mortals, it’s Kindle Select or nothing.) Furthermore, as far as I can tell, there’s no way for an author who is enrolled in the Kindle Select program to opt-out of the Unlimited portion of it. As of this writing, if your book is enrolled in Select, it is enrolled in the Kindle Unlimited program.

  • Is this exclusivity worth it?

Tough call. Amazon is the biggest ebook marketplace, but it’s not the only ebook marketplace. Will the exposure of the Unlimited program outweigh the loss of sales and exposure through other outlets such as iBooks or Nook? Unfortunately, it’s impossible to say, but some big names such as Hugh Howey are jumping in on the topic, optimistic that Amazon’s service will be a boon for self-published authors.

Furthermore, it’s not always about the individual sale. Sometimes the exposure can be much more valuable, leading to a larger fan base that will increase sales further down the road, or resulting in sales of other books. If Kindle Unlimited becomes a huge hit, the question may become whether you can afford not to be in it.

  • The Bottom Line

Change is always scary, but that’s the nature of progress. Along the way it seems as if someone is always predicting an apocalypse of one sort or another, whether it be in the financial markets or book publishing. Rather than listening to such pundits, I would encourage self-published authors to embrace new technologies and new avenues to sell their books with optimism. We have an advantage in that we can adapt quickly to change, unlike traditional publishers, who try to keep the old systems that have benefited them for so long firmly in place. I doubt any of the big publishers will ever embrace Kindle Unlimited, preferring to keep their traditional sales models as well as their accompanying high prices.

To this I say good! The less books in the Kindle Unlimited program, the more visible my own titles will be. And the higher traditional publishing insists on pricing their ebooks, the more attractive my low prices will be. (Seriously, I think it’s in every independent author’s best interest for traditional publishers to resist change for as long as possible; the ability we have to price our books well below theirs is a huge advantage.)

To this end, I have enrolled my first book The Woodlander in the Kindle Select program, and thus it is now available in the Kindle Unlimited program as well. Whether this is a smart move, time will tell, but for now I’m cautiously optimistic.

Posted in Writing | Tagged | 2 Comments

Plotting Revisited

HanCarboniteI’ve written about plotting before, but over the past year my thoughts on the subject have evolved, so I thought I would revisit it.

When I first started writing The Woodlander, I was firmly in the “just wing it” camp. the main reason being I wanted to avoid the dreaded “paralysis-by-analysis” effect, where if I didn’t plan out every last detail ahead of time, I wouldn’t even be able to start writing. Far better, I thought, to just jump in and let the plot come naturally.

Fortunately, the plot did come to me, but that process (or lack thereof) also resulted in some substantial rewrites and edits! There were dead ends that had to be scrapped, new ideas that had to be seamlessly worked back in, themes that needed developing, and so forth.

Because of this, my first book took much longer to complete than I had anticipated. I’m very happy with the end result, but it’s clear that I need to write much faster if I want to put out a steady stream of books. (Not coincidentally, I think the primary key to discoverability is having a large collection of work available, so speed is of the essence.)

Still, there remains the problem of working out the entire plot before you even begin. For instance, as I wrote The Woodlander, I really didn’t know what was going to happen to poor John Grey, and even if I had tried to plot out the details ahead of time, I was worried that it would come out forced and contrived.

So, with this in mind, I’ve taken a hybrid approach to plotting with the sequel Grimm & Grey. It’s split into two story arcs: one involving John Grey and his continued quest from the first book, and the other following Lisa as she begins to attend classes at snooty Langley Prep, all the while learning she can’t hide from her past (read this last part in dramatic movie-announcer voice).

The first arc is very much in the vein of The Woodlander, an epic adventure with over-the-top action. I’ve already completed this arc, and I wrote it much like I did the first book – making it up as I go. Of course, along the way I had some some general idea of what was going to happen, but for the most part I just let it rip. I like writing in this fashion – it’s very liberating, and it gives you an opportunity to surprise yourself!

That’s all good and well, but now I had to write the second arc involving Lisa. This one is interwoven with the first through alternating chapters, so it was clear some planning would be necessary. Passage of time, for instance, needs to be consistent. I can’t have weeks pass by for John Grey in one chapter while mere hours pass for Lisa in the next. The two need to intertwine tightly, and come back together in a satisfying conclusion.

As trite as it might sound, I think the original Star Wars movies are a great model for this. Particularly The Empire Strikes Back, where we follow Luke on his quest to become a Jedi while simultaneously following Han and Leia as they run from the Empire. The two arcs come back together in a satisfying (if tragic) conclusion, with the gang reunited at the end (albeit sans Luke’s hand and Han’s carbonite-encased body).

One of the great advantages of this dual-arc approach is each story can have a different style and feel. Can you imagine an entire movie of just Luke learning to be a Jedi? It would be great for a little while, but how many objects do we need to see him levitate before we get the idea? As a stand-alone concept, it’s not nearly as interesting, but when you simultaneously have Luke’s friends getting captured by Vader, and suddenly Luke has to abandon his training to try and save them… well, now I have to know what happens next!

The challenge is getting these two arcs to come back together seamlessly. To that end, I have begun using Scrivener’s outlining features:

Screen Shot 2013-09-14 at 11.45.29 AM

Don’t worry, spoilers redacted!

Scrivener allows you to create a synopsis for each chapter and lay them out as notecards on a virtual cork board. You can then drag the cards around to reorder events as you like. I’m finding this feature extremely useful as I try to integrate Lisa’s story arc around John’s.

As I stated before, John’s half of the book is already complete. For each chapter in this arc, I created a notecard containing a synopsis of that chapter. I then placed blank notecards in between the existing ones to start plotting out Lisa’s own adventure.

The advantage here is I know exactly how many new chapters I need to write, how much time needs to pass in each chapter, and when I need to start wrapping things up to bring everything back together. I have to say, if I was just winging this part of the book, it would probably come out a mess, requiring extensive rewrites to blend it all back in!

So if nothing else, I’m hoping this new plotting process will eliminate a lot of editing, allowing me to get the book out faster. But there has been an additional benefit I hadn’t anticipated:

When you see the plot laid out on notecards, lulls in the story are revealed. Over the last year, I’ve become a firm believer in “always raising the stakes,” so it’s easy to see when a chapter ends without a compelling reason to go to the next. I’m not saying every chapter needs to be a nail-biting cliffhanger, but they should each leave the reader wanting more.

For example, I noticed a few chapters in Grimm & Grey that left me saying, “Well, that’s all very pleasant, but who cares? I just want to know what happens next!” While others are so chock-full of twists and turns that they could easily be broken into multiple chapters. By splitting/combining these, I should be able to make each more compelling in turn.

This is the sort of thing that’s hard to spot without an outline view. As much as it pains me to say it, creating a synopsis of each chapter is looking more and more like the smart thing to do. It really gives you a perspective on your work that’s hard to reproduce when you’re down in the weeds of your own prose.

Now, whether you create that synopsis before you’ve written a single paragraph or after you’ve completed the entire book is up to you. For me, I’m doing a little of both.

Posted in Writing | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

An International Collaboration between Authors

woodlanderByLanceOne of the great things about blogging is the opportunity you get to interact with lots of wonderful people from around the globe. One such person I’ve had the fortune of meeting is Anthony Lance, a fellow author residing in Sydney, Australia. I started following his I SPIDER blog last year, shortly after creating my own blog. At the time, Lance had just self-published his book I SPIDER on Amazon. Although I was still intent on pursuing a traditional publishing deal back then, the self-publishing process fascinated me, so I decided to check his book out. Here’s my flashback review:

I SPIDER is a darkly fascinating tale of a young man’s descent into murder and madness. As the story unfolds, you really get the sense that the protagonist is losing his grip on reality. It’s all told from a disjointed first-person point of view that captures the character’s sense of confusion and frustration. He soon becomes obsessed with the idea of killing a man, and his choice of weapon is most unique: spider’s venom.

Lance does a fantastic job setting up the story as he describes a spider-infested Australia. It’s a chilling yet believable world, largely due to the detailed anecdotes documenting our “hero’s” various encounters with spiders throughout his life. They’re simply everywhere. But despite the constant danger, he develops an oddly symbiotic relationship with the creepy crawlers, eventually cultivating them to carry out his own nefarious plans.

The story builds to a terrific climax with a surprise twist at the end. It’s exactly the kind of book you aren’t likely to get from a traditional publisher, so check it out!

Over the last year, Lance and I struck up a friendship. When my own book The Woodlander came out, he was kind enough to return me the favor of reading it. Not only did he leave me a flattering review, he then one-upped me in the nice guy department by creating the wonderful image above depicting my character John Grey. I have to say, he really nailed it! That’s pretty darn close to what I pictured in my head as I wrote that scene.

Anyway, the point of all this isn’t to tell you what great guys we are (I think that’s pretty obvious), but to announce a partnership. After reading a recent post on Lance’s blog, I left him a comment suggesting a “what if” scenario. I was halfway joking at the time, but Lance loved the concept (and maybe more importantly, his wife did, too). He asked me if I would be interested in collaborating on a book together.

Do Longhorns moo? (Yes… yes, they do…)

I jumped at the opportunity. Normally, writing is a solitary pursuit, so having the chance to bounce ideas off another author has been great. The proposals have been flying back and forth between the States and Australia as we try to nail down the plot. We’re not quite ready to announce the premise yet, but suffice it to say it will be a thriller with sci-fi elements, all loosely based on historical events. At this point, we’re still very much in the research phase, but every fact we uncover just seems to inspire more great ideas.

It’s been very exciting thus far, so wish us luck!

Posted in Writing | Tagged , , , | 6 Comments

Ebooks: Cheap, or Inexpensive?

ray

One year when I was a kid, my older brother received an electric guitar for Christmas. It was one of those cheap Harmony guitars, the kind you used to find in the back of a Sears catalog. It even came with a matching amplifier that would get all distorted if you turned it up real loud (which we loved, but I’m sure my parents soon regretted that purchase). For a young beginner, it was perfect.

Although it was officially my brother’s guitar (you know how important these distinctions are when you’re a kid), we both shared it. But as the following Christmas approached, I was spending more time playing it than he was, and it was clear that I would soon need a guitar of my own.

Around that same time, I had started taking lessons from a local musician at the corner music store. His name was Chris, and I remember he had curly red hair that ran all the way down his back. And he was always wearing an army jacket for some reason. I think professionally he played bass guitar in multiple bands, but he picked up a few bucks tutoring kids like myself on weeknights.

To Chris’s credit, he never did say anything about the cheap Harmony guitar I lugged to practice every week. Its frets buzzed like a fly caught in a screen window, and it would only stay in tune for about half a song. But when you’re a kid who’s just learning to play, none of that’s important. Honestly, even if I’d had a classic Les Paul Custom, I still would have sucked. It wasn’t the cheap Harmony guitar holding me back.

That being said, there does come a point where inferior equipment will hinder your progress. About a year into my guitar studies, I was approaching that point. Tuesday nights, while waiting in the music shop for my lessons to begin, I would sample the other guitars on display. The first thing I would notice is how much heavier they were. They made my brother’s Harmony feel like a toy, like it was made of balsa wood (it might have been balsa wood, for all I know). Then I would notice the smooth fret action, how much easier it was to form chords–all without that infernal buzzing! Yeah, even at that early age, I knew that Harmony was a pretty bad guitar. And being my brother’s, it wasn’t even my bad guitar!

As the year drew to a close, I knew I was going to ask for a guitar of my own that Christmas. Since I would be stuck with it for a long time, I wanted to make sure it was a good one. But my parents were not wealthy. They could not afford most of the fancy guitars on display in that music shop. So, I turned to my guitar instructor, Chris, for some advice.

“Chris, I’m wanting a new guitar for Christmas. I was hoping you could recommend one to my father.”

“Sure,” Chris said, brushing his stringy red hair from his face, “I could do that. What did you have in mind?”

“Well, I’m not sure. My parents won’t spend a lot of money on a guitar, so it needs to be something cheap.”

Inexpensive,” Chris corrected me, “not cheap.”

To a little kid, this was a zen-like moment of clarity, as if I’d just been Miyagi’d by my secretly-wise rock-and-roll instructor in the back of the music shop. It sounded very profound, at least to my young ears. Before that moment, I had always used the two words interchangeably. But now, for the first time in my young life, I heard a real distinction between the two.

That Christmas, I received a used Epiphone guitar that Chris had recommended to my father. Epiphone makes quality guitars with the Gibson look, but without the Gibson price. For an intermediate player like myself, it was  perfect–leaps and bounds above my brother’s Harmony. In fact, I still have that guitar today. It’s the best Christmas present I ever got. But perhaps the most valuable thing I received that year was not the guitar, but the words of wisdom from my guitar instructor:

Inexpensive, not cheap.”

The fact that something could be inexpensive without being cheap (like my Epiphone guitar) was a revelation. Quality for a low price. As a consumer, of course, this is the Holy Grail.

Which is all my long-winded way of bringing up the subject of ebook pricing.

Historically, authors haven’t been involved in pricing their books. This was always the publisher’s job, and to give them credit, they did a pretty good job of it. But recent innovations (i.e. the rise of ebooks) have threatened to disrupt legacy publication.

Leading the way has been Amazon, the number one ebook seller. Amazon has been able to dominate the ebook market through technology, efficiency, and perhaps most importantly, low prices. Amazon is willing to take a loss on items like ebooks just to attract customers and keep competitors away. From a publisher’s point of view, this creates a problem: the potential cannibalization of their physical book sales by inexpensive ebooks. Whether this fear is justified or not, they would like to see their ebooks priced higher, despite the reduced costs.

How did this situation come about? Well, you see, publishers had been offering their ebooks to distributors under the same model they sold paper books: the wholesale model. Under this model, the publisher sets a wholesale price. The retailer is then free to sell the book for less than this price, but they would still owe the publisher a cut based on the full wholesale price.

Sounds great for publishers, no? After all, whatever price Amazon sets on a book, the publishers were still guaranteed to receive their full cut. But what they didn’t count on was Amazon’s ruthless ability and determination to lower prices, even to the point of selling at a loss. Consumers, of course, loved this,  but publishers were dismayed. They quickly found their ebooks selling for much less than they desired (often $9.99), which disrupted their ability to set higher prices in other stores and threatened the sales of their physical books. Furthermore, Amazon was establishing a near-monopoly on ebooks, which put them in a position to dictate terms to the publishers. By 2009, Amazon’s share of the ebook market was estimated to be 90%. Publishers remembered what happened to the music industry when iTunes became the dominant music store and Apple insisted tracks be sold at 99¢. By the time the music industry realized what was happening, it was too late.

So, perhaps it’s ironic that it was Apple who came around with a new proposal that would severely hamper Amazon’s ability to discount prices, potentially disrupting their dominant position in the market. The publishers leapt at it. Apple and 5 of the 6  major publishers agreed to establish an agency model (Random House declined). This is a sales model where the publisher sets the price of a book, not the distributor. In effect, the publishers established a price floor on their offerings, making it difficult for retailers to undercut this price. The major publishers, eager to maintain their margins and protect their legacy business, quickly jumped on board.

There was just one problem: how is this not considered price fixing? The Department of Justice must have agreed, as they soon filed charges of collusion against Apple and the five major publishers. In the end, the publishers all settled with the DoJ, but Apple went to court–and lost! Now that the agency model for ebooks is dead and buried, Amazon is once again free to set whatever prices they like on ebooks, though their dominant marketshare has been somewhat diminished.

So, why do I still feel most ebooks are too expensive?

My sister recently recommended a new book to me on Goodreads. I clicked on the link and immediately balked at the price: $9.99. I’m not sure why–after all, ten bucks isn’t all that much to pay for the hours of entertainment a book could provide.

Perhaps it’s the rise of self-published books and their lower prices. The last book I purchased was Hugh Howey’s Wool, and it only cost me $1.99. Granted, it was on sale, but even at its normal price of $5.99, am I to believe that Wool is only 60% as good as this other book priced at $9.99?

If not, then how do you explain the price difference? Easy: one is offered by a traditional publisher, and the other is self-published. Now, I understand that traditional publication involves a lot more overhead (like executives, sales people, marketing, warehousing), and they need to set their prices higher in order to maintain profits. But as a consumer, how does any of that benefit me? Quite frankly, it doesn’t.

This is one thing that publishers don’t seem to understand, or maybe they just don’t want to admit it. As a reader, I don’t care who published a particular book. I just care about the contents of the book, and perhaps its author. The intricacies of the publishing business are not my concern.

Ah, you might say, but as an author yourself, you should care about maintaining higher prices. After all, writers need to make a living, too!

Well, I do care, so let’s examine that statement closer. Let’s say the traditionally published author’s ebook has a wholesale price of $16 (I don’t know if that’s accurate, but let’s be generous). That author gets a 15% royalty rate, so for each sale, they earn $2.40. Now, let’s look at the self-published author’s $6 ebook. For each sale on Amazon, they earn 70%, or $4.20. That’s a huge difference in the self-published author’s favor!

As you can see, the traditionally published ebook not only costs consumers more, but the author earns less per sale. So, if it’s not good for consumers, and it’s not good for authors, who is it good for? Again, that’s an easy answer: the publishers. And how do the publishers justify this? Experience? Marketing? Exposure?

Call me dubious. As self-publishing becomes more prevalent, traditional publishers are in serious trouble if they don’t adapt. They will be forced to cut prices and raise royalty rates at some point. But if they do, how will they be able to sustain their businesses?

I’m not sure they can. Reducing their own expenses would help. We’ve already seen some consolidation among the publishers (e.g. the Random House/Penguin merger, aka “Randy Penguin”), and there will certainly be more to come. But there’s only so much you can squeeze out of a lemon. At some point, the publishers will need to offer additional value that readers can’t get elsewhere if they hope to continue their current business practices.

What will that added value be? Well, I’d like to think they’ll do something innovative–something consumers will love–but I’m not holding my breath. For instance, what if they offered a digital copy free with every purchase of a paper book? That’s something that would interest me. It probably won’t ever happen, but we’ve already seen similar moves from record companies and comic book publishers (why aren’t we seeing more of this in the book world?). But that’s probably too consumer friendly for the big publishers. Besides, self-published authors could do the same thing if their books are available in print (all for a lower cost), so I’m not sure it would give traditional publishers much of an advantage.

More likely, traditional publishers will just keep signing big name authors to exclusive contracts to ensure they don’t self-publish. This will force readers to pay big publisher prices if they want the latest works from these big name authors. And that will postpone the inevitable… at least for a little while. Eventually, those same big name authors will realize that it’s their name that sells books, not their publisher, and they could be making even more money publishing their own work. When that happens, they’ll be leaving their publishers as well.

It won’t happen overnight, but it will happen. In the meantime, I’ll just keep browsing the “bargain bin” for ebooks from this rising class of self-publishing stars like Hugh Howey, and I’ll keep an eye out for the yet-to-be-discovered up-and-comers. If you look hard enough, you’ll find their books are just as good as the traditionally published ones.

As my wizened guitar instructor once told me: “Inexpensive, not cheap.”

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Elmore Leonard dead at 87

Elmore Leonard in 1983

I don’t usually post news articles like this, but I’ll make an exception for Mr. Leonard. Fellow writers, we have lost a great one:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/08/21/books/elmore-leonard-master-of-crime-fiction-dies-at-87.html

Readers of this blog know I mentioned Mr. Leonard frequently in my posts on writing. As a new author, I found his advice invaluable. I’m forever thankful he took the time to pen his “10 Rules For Writing,” even if I didn’t always follow them. He will be missed, not only as a writer, but as a mentor.

Rest in peace, Mr. Leonard.

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THE WOODLANDER | Animated Book Trailer

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks creating a trailer for my book The Woodlander. I’ve never done animation before (as if you couldn’t tell), but I did all the work myself, including the music. It was a lot of fun, but I’ll be glad to get back to writing, and getting some sleep!

Let me know what you think!

*Update – let me know if you’re having trouble hearing the bass line. It sounds great on my stereo, but not so much on my iPad, so plug in your headphones!

*Update 2 -Because the bass line wasn’t coming across on devices with small speakers (like laptops and tablets), I uploaded another version with different introductory music, so you should at least hear something now. Still, I’m sad to lose that cool bass line intro. It reminded me of Queen’s “Another One Bites the Dust.” Already compromising my art… *sigh*

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On prologues (with excerpt from The Woodlander)

 

pirateDepending on how you look at it, there are either a lot of rules when it comes to writing, or no rules at all. While I’d like to think of myself as an outlaw, there are certain conventions I do tend to follow, like avoiding passive verbs and minimizing adverbs. These are just accepted as “good writing.”

But one piece of advice I have ignored is to avoid prologues. Elmore Leonard has it at #2 on  his 10 Rules for Good Writing:

“2. Avoid Prologues. They can be annoying, especially a prologue following an introduction that comes after a foreword.”

The common wisdom here is that you should just start the story right in the middle of the action. If you need a lot of set-up, there’s probably something wrong with the story. Why bore the reader with a prologue?

While I have the utmost respect for Mr. Leonard, you have to keep in mind that he writes in the crime genre. These are stripped-down, fast-paced books that don’t need a lot of world-building. I’m not so sure his advice applies as well to the fantasy genre. George R. R. Martin, for instance, uses a prologue in each of his Game of Thrones novels, and those seem to be well-received. I like how Martin sets up each book with a group of throwaway characters that usually come to a grisly demise, giving the reader a glimpse of the ominous forces heading the main characters’ way.

In fact, I liked it so much, I patterned my own prologue after it.

So, I guess what I’m saying is that I’m taking Mr. Leonard’s rule #2 as more of a guideline. Without further ado, here’s the prologue for my book The Woodlander:

Want to read more of The Woodlander? The ebook is available at Amazon.

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Evolution of a Cover (with Poll!)

evolution2Now that The Woodlander is out, I thought it would be fun to look back at the different cover designs I went through, and let you vote on which one you like the best (there’s a poll at the end).

When I first decided to self-publish, I had my mind set on doing everything by myself: the writing, editing, formatting, and even the cover design. I liked the idea of complete control, even if I had no experience in some of these areas; it seemed very punk rock. To that end, I started designing my own cover. I didn’t have access to Photoshop, so I used the free program Gimp (Gnu Image Manipulation Program).

Here’s one of my first attempts:

Initial

Simple and Clean

I modeled it after those classic Penguin paperback covers like this one:

Classic Penguin

Classic Penguin

I really like the theme in the Penguin covers. My thought was to do something similar, with a different color for each sequel and a different shape (circle, square, triangle) to highlight the character. I decided the squirrel on my original cover was too busy, so I decided to try a more cartoonish silhouette. I also applied an overlay to make it appears as if it were printed on linen.

More Cartooinish

More cartoonish

I liked this one, but the first few people I showed it to said it reminded them of James Bond. That’s not really the vibe I was going for (John Grey is more of your everyday squirrel, not some badass action hero), so I decided the circle had to go. Instead, I put in a background:

Mountainous Background

Too dark

Hmm… that was kind of drab. Maybe a little more color?

Trees

And how about a spotlight effect?

Spotlight

And maybe some stars?

Seeing stars?

Nah, that’s too much. Here’s the final version of my self-made cover:

Cover16LargeCrosshair-small

I like this one, but it still looks a bit homemade. As I got closer to publication, I decided I needed a professional cover. I bit the bullet and reached out to Damon Za (www.damonza.com) to see if he could help me out. Damon is an artist in South Africa who specializes in book covers. After giving him a list of my requirements, he came up with four different designs. I asked him to make some alterations, and we eventually arrived at these:

The Woodlander The WoodlanderB2 The WoodlanderC The WoodlanderEbookA-small
Cover A Cover B Cover C Cover D

I really like all of these (I wouldn’t mind having them as framed posters in my home). I hadn’t asked Damon to riff on my original “spotlight” cover, but I guess he liked it enough to create three variants of it (A, B, and C). I think they’re all fantastic. The fourth cover (Cover D) was based on my description of The Woodlander’s  main character, John Grey. I think it’s really cute. I also like how Damon applied a texture effect to each cover. It’s clear he listened to my input and put a lot of thought into each design. Now for the difficult part: choosing one of the four.

The Woodlander The WoodlanderB2
Cover A Cover B

Covers A and B are very similar, but with different color schemes. My first instinct was to go with Cover B (the blue and green one). Ultimately, however, I decided it was too muddled as a thumbnail, which is how most viewers would initially see it on Amazon. The gold one (Cover A) just seemed to pop more, even if it’s not as realistic, so I put A on the top of my list.

The WoodlanderC

Cover C

Cover C is like a piece of modern art. The sharp angles and use of color is really striking. But in the end, I decided it was too Wile E. Coyote. Again, I’d love to have it as a poster, but probably not as a book cover.

The WoodlanderEbookA-small

Cover D

Cover D is great, but I worried it was too cartoonish. The Woodlander isn’t exactly a children’s book, and I didn’t want anyone browsing the Kindle store to get the wrong impression. I can just imagine the angry letters from parents who bought the book for little Timmy or Susie without reading the product description first (or even the first paragraph). Uh… no, thank you. Still, out of all the covers, I thought it was the one that stood out the most, and discoverability is critical.

It came down to a tough choice between covers A and D. I was leaning towards D, but my friends all preferred A. I thought D would stand out more in the Kindle store, but I suppose A is more conventional. In the end, I caved to peer pressure and decided to go with Cover A. But I also purchased Cover D just in case I changed my mind (I can always swap the covers out later).

The winner:

Cover A

Cover A

So, what do you think? Did I make the right choice? Vote below, and leave me a comment!

The Woodlander The WoodlanderB2 The WoodlanderC The WoodlanderEbookA-small
Cover A Cover B Cover C Cover D
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Crossing the Chasm for Self-Published Authors – Part 2 : Target Market Initiatives

In my previous post, I discussed the principles of Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm  and identified five different user categories along the product adoption curve. If you haven’t had a chance to read it yet, you can do so here. Don’t worry; we’ll wait for you to get back.

Back already? Read the entire post? Good. But just in case you’re fibbing, I’ll briefly summarize it:

  • Your product (book) falls somewhere along the Product Adoption Curve.
  • At different points along the curve, different types of users (readers) will be interested in buying your product.
  • These users are (in order):
    • Innovators (Dreamers)
    • Early Adopters (Visionaries)
    • Early Majority (Pragmatists)
    • Late Majority (Conservatives)
    • Laggards (Luddites)
  • Between the Early Adopters and the Early Majority lies the chasm. Crossing this chasm is your major challenge in achieving mainstream success.

That’s all very interesting, but how does that help me sell more books?

I’m glad you asked, because that is the topic of today’s post:

TARGET MARKET INITIATIVES

Look, you can’t be everything to everyone. At least not at the same time. As we’ve already established, different users have different motives for buying a product. At some point, they may all end up buying the same product (hopefully your book), but for very different reasons. Understanding these reasons is the key to successfully marketing your book to each user category.

What is a Target Market Initiative?

Target Market Initiatives (or TMIs) are highly focused attacks on a very specific market. In poker parlance, it’s going “all in” to win a user category by concentrating all your efforts on that one, and only that one, user category. The idea is to first “win” the users in one market before proceeding to the next with an equally focused attack.

So, how does this help me across the chasm?

In theory, it’s rather simple. To successfully navigate your way to the other side, you must first answer me these questions three…

What is your favorite color?

What is your favorite color?

Sorry, strike that… The producers responsible for the previous comment have been sacked.

Now, where were we? Ah, yes. To cross the chasm, you must win each of the first three user categories (in this order): the Innovators, followed by the Early Adopters, and finally, the coveted Early Majority.

The secret is that you don’t have to win them all at the same time. In fact, you shouldn’t even try. Instead, focus on the market at hand. Once you’ve conquered that specific market, you can then move on to the next.

With that in mind, let’s see if we can’t put together a Target Market Initiative for each of these three user categories.

Target Market Initiative 1 – The Innovators

If you’ll remember from my previous post, the Innovators are going to be your earliest readers. In most cases, these will be your beta-readers, and you probably won’t be selling them anything. (Not for money, anyway. In some sense, authors are always selling themselves). But just because the Innovators won’t be buying your book doesn’t mean they won’t be buying your ideas, so it’s still very much your job to sell them.

The key to selling any product is understanding the buyer. Or more precisely, understanding what the buyer is looking for in a product. So let’s look at an Innovator’s motivations:

  • Innovators are conceptualists. They love to shape new ideas. This is fortunate for you, because at this stage your book is probably more of a concept than a finished product.
  • Innovators are creative, or at least they admire creativity. Being part of the product development is very appealing to them.
  • Innovators are willing to take a risk on an untested product. The possibility of success is a greater motivation to an Innovator than the fear of failure.

Sounds like a fantastic customer, no? So, what’s the downside? Well, unless you’re name is Stephen King, you won’t have Innovators lining up around the block to help you finish your novel. You need to court the Innovators, and you just might have to give them something in return.

So, let’s get more specific. Just who are these potential Innovators?

  • Friends and Family – This is the obvious group for your earliest readers. After all, unless your friends and family hate you, they’ll probably be receptive and encouraging of your endeavors. The downside is that they might also be less than honest with you, so don’t rely on their feedback too much. But it’s a good starting point. Try to focus your efforts on people that actually have a passion for reading. (I wouldn’t go so far as to forbid your non-book-loving spouse from reading your novel, unless you have a very comfortable couch.) If you have a friend that’s always saying the wrong thing at the wrong time, try to get him or her to read your book. They’ll give it to you straight!
  • Writing Groups – Groups that meet in person or in an online community can be invaluable for providing objective feedback on your novel. Try to find a group that fits your genre (e.g. Sci-Fi/Fantasy).  They’ll be more interested (and more forgiving) in reading your rough ideas, and more experienced in the nuances of that particular genre.
  • Development Editors – These are paid professionals who help you craft and structure your story. The upside is that they are professionals (they should know what they are doing). The downside is that they are professionals (they expect to be paid).

Ok, now that we’ve identified some potential Innovators, let’s put together some TMIs:

Target Market Initiatives for Innovators

  1. Write an Appealing Book – I know it sounds obvious, but if you write something no one wants to read, it will be difficult to get anyone to look at it, even if it’s free.
  2. Collaborate – Let your early readers know that this is just a developmental draft, and you’re looking for detailed feedback to improve it. Not just “I liked it” or “I hated it.” Before you even give them a copy of your book, let them know the level of feedback you’re expecting. Provide them with a list of questions such as: “Did you like the characters?” “Did the plot make sense?” “Was the dialogue believable?” “What didn’t you like about the book?” The purpose of these questions is not just to get their feedback, but to let your Innovators know that their opinions really do matter. In effect, you are inviting them to be a part of your development team, and this is nigh irresistible to an Innovator.
  3. Stack the Deck – Only target readers who enjoy other books in your genre. I’ve said it before, but don’t expect your biography-loving uncle to like your paranormal romance.

Okay, now that you’ve won over the Innovators, they’ve delivered their feedback, and you’ve revised your draft, what’s next? It’s time to go after the next market: The Early Adopters!

Target Market Initiative 2 – The Early Adopters

Who are the Early Adopters?

  • Visionaries – Early Adopters are the wide-eyed optimists of the group. They’re willing to take a risk on an unproven product.
  • Trail Blazers – Early Adopters love to be the first to discover the Next Big Thing. Furthermore, they love to trumpet the fact they have discovered the Next Big Thing. You can use this to your advantage.
  • Collaborators – Early Adopters want to feel instrumental in taking a product to the next level.
  • Price Conscious – Although they are risk takers, Early Adopters expect a discount in exchange for taking a chance on an unproven product.

Now that we know a little about the Early Adopter’s motivations, let’s put together some TMIs:

Target Market Initiatives for Early Adopters

  • Refine Your Writing – The main purpose in getting the Innovators (early readers) involved in the previous TMI is to refine your book to the point that it’s now ready for the Early Adopters. So, work out the kinks, clean up the bad dialogue, and eliminate the plot holes. If you can afford it, hiring a copy-editor at this stage is highly recommended. Having a professional and objective third-party go over your writing line-by-line can really do wonders for your book.
  • Improve Your Discoverability – Discoverability is key to attracting the Early Adopter. Here are some things you can do to improve the discoverability of your books:
    1. Put On Your Best Face – I’m talking about your cover. Have a professional, attractive cover designed that suits your genre. Even Early Adopters will be scared away by a homemade cover. Invest some money in a graphic artist who specializes (or is experienced) in designing book covers.
    2. Nail Your Blurb – After your cover, this is the next thing readers will see. Try to make your blurb compelling without giving too much of the plot away. Let your readers know what your book is about, and try to throw in a hook or two to capture their imagination. A blurb should not be a synopsis of your book!
    3. Perfect Your Presentation – If your blurb and cover haven’t driven your potential readers away at this point, they just might click on the “Look Inside” feature. When they do, you don’t want them to find an amateurish mess. Take the time to format your book so it looks nice and professional. If you can afford it, hire someone to format your book for you.
    4. Pick the Right Shelf – I’m focusing on Amazon here since it’s the most popular ebook store. When you upload your book, you get to associate it with two categories. Make sure the categories are as specific as possible while remaining relevant. The smaller the category, the less competition you will have for eyeballs.
    5. Optimize Your Search Results – Again, at Amazon you get to associate seven keywords (actually, it’s seven phrases) with your book. Make sure these keywords are appropriate to your book and genre. Try to choose keywords that complement each other (e.g. “Victorian mystery,” not “romantic thriller”). If in doubt, use longer phrases that incorporate multiple keywords. If you’re still struggling to come up with keywords, go to the Kindle bookstore and type into the search box (e.g “fantasy”). As you type, Amazon will display the top 10 keyword searches that begin with the same letters. These keywords are popular with book buyers, so use them!
    6. Engage the Public (Social Media) – This includes Facebook, Twitter, your blog, Goodreads, KindleBoards (now KBoards), etc. The most important rule here is be a good netizen. Readers don’t come to these places to get blasted by ads for your book. Be friendly and professional. Only post information that is relevant and useful to the community. Make sure that links to your book are easily discoverable, but don’t push your book on others without solicitation. Believe it or not, most people are nice (even on the internet) and want to help their community out, so don’t be obnoxious. Give, and you shall receive.
  • The Price Is Right  – Like I said earlier, you probably won’t have much success with the Early Adopters if you’re charging $11.99 for your unknown ebook. I know the arguments that cheap prices devalue your work, but remember that we’re targeting Early Adopters specifically. They expect a discount. Once your book starts climbing the charts, you can play around with higher prices. But for now, we have a war to win. That being said, there are still a few different price points to consider:
    1. Free – This is the easiest way to get your book to as many people as possible, but there is a downside (besides not making any money): just because someone downloads a free ebook doesn’t mean they’re going to read it. Many people simply “collect” free books, amassing huge collections that they’ll never get around to reading. But if your heart is set on going free, there are a couple of ways to do it at Amazon. First, you should know that the minimum price you can directly set at Amazon is 99¢. If you want your book to be free, you’ll have to upload your book to some other bookstore for free and have Amazon price match it. The second way is by enrolling in Kindle Select. This allows you to make your book free for 5 days out of every 90, but your ebook must be exclusive to Amazon.
    2. 99¢ – This is the minimum price you can set through Amazon without using one of the strategies above. Also note that if your book is less that $2.99, you only get a 35% royalty instead of the usual 70%. This is Amazon’s way of encouraging higher minimum prices.
    3. $2.99 – This is the minimum price you can set through Amazon and still receive a 70% royalty.

Some thoughts on pricing your book to entice Early Adopters – There’s not a single best strategy on pricing your newly launched ebook. Some authors have had great success at 99¢, while others have reported that their sales actually took off after increasing prices. Check out other books in your genre to get a feel for current price trends. Feel free to experiment with different price points, but I would encourage you not to change prices too often. Sales are often unpredictable, so if your book is not selling at a particular price, give it some time before hitting the panic button. I would recommend at least a month.

One strategy you could employ is to launch at 99¢. The hope with this strategy is to attract 5 or 6 solid reviews from Early Adopters. At this point, you could enroll your ebook in Kindle Select (assuming you’re exclusive to Amazon). Kindle Select allows you to give your book away for free for five days out of every ninety. Use these days in conjunction with a book promotion service like BookBub to let potential readers know your book is free for the next X days (up to 5). Most of these services won’t promote your book if it doesn’t have some good reviews, so I would avoid using Kindle Select until that time. Of course, if your book has been languishing for months at its current price point anyway, there’s no harm in trying something different. (If you have a different experience, please let me know about it in the comments.)

Your entire goal in targeting the Early Adopters should be garnering reviews, not money. Once you have enough good reviews, you can attempt to leap the chasm.

Target Market Initiative 3 – The Early Majority

Okay, you’ve made it this far. Your book is polished, available, and receiving some respectable reviews from the Early Adopters. Now you need to reach for the golden ring: the Early Majority.

Who are the Early Majority?

  • Pragmatists – Unlike the Early Adopters, the Early Majority are more averse to risk. They’ll still take a chance on a relatively unknown product, but they want some assurance that the gamble will pay off.
  • Trendsetters – When the Early Majority see a trend forming, they want to be among the first to get in on it. They’re not trailblazers, but they’re not far behind. If the Early Adopters are Lewis and Clark, the Early Majority are the waves of pioneers that followed behind (and in much greater numbers).
  • Cost Friendly – The Early Majority are more willing to pay full price for a product that has proven its potential.
  • Herd Mentality – The Early Majority seldom move first, but once they do start moving, it’s likely to be a stampede.

Okay, now that we’ve gained some insight into the Early Majority, let’s put together some TMIs:

Target Market Initiatives for the Early Majority

  • Improve Your Discoverability – Like the Early Adopters, discoverability is still key for the Early Majority. But it’s a different type of discoverability. While the Early Adopters are willing to trudge through a massive catalog, looking for the unknown gems, the Early Majority will watch the best seller lists (and “Hot New Releases”), looking for signs of an early mover.
  • Pick Your Battles – Getting onto the Top Seller lists is not easy. One thing you can do to improve your chances is target a smaller category. For example, it might be difficult to break into the Top 10 General Fantasy list if your name isn’t George R.R. Martin, but maybe you can break into the Top 10 Fantasy->Arthurian subcategory. Try to categorize your book as specifically as possible. Don’t worry; if you sell enough Arthurian fantasy novels, you will top the General Fantasy list as well. But let’s take one battle at a time.
  • Win Reviews – Reviews are the “secret sauce” that the Early Majority can’t resist. Without it, your book will appear bland to them, having little appeal to their refined palettes. That’s why it’s so important to get the Early Adopters involved (see Target Market Initiative 2 above). You can’t leap across the chasm until you first reach its edge. The Early Adopters (with their reviews) can clear the path to your launch point. Which leads to the next strategy…
  • Actively Solicit Reviews  – At the end of your book, include a note asking your readers to review your book. Include a direct link to your book’s review page to make it as easy as possible. Remember, Early Adopters are collaborators in search of the Next Big Thing, so use this to your advantage. The reviews from these Early Adopters will really help you capture the Early Majority.
  • “Free Beer” Promotions – As mentioned above, once you have enough good reviews, you can take advantage of services like BookBub in conjunction with a temporary price drop to spike your sales. This will, in turn, boost your ranking on the all-important Top Seller lists. After the promotion is over, you can return your book to its regular (i.e. full) price, and enjoy the “free” advertising you receive from its newly prominent position on the list. After all, these are the lists the Early Majority are watching. If you catch their eye, you will be well on your way to mainstream success!

What’s Next?

At this point, you’ve leapt across the chasm and captured the Early Majority. You can now move on to the Late Majority, but quite frankly, these will be much easier sells. The Late Majority basically rides the coattails of the Early Majority, so there’s little marketing for you to do. Just being on the Top Sellers lists (courtesy of the Early Majority) does most of the marketing for you!

Then, of course, there’s the last user category: the Laggards. My advice with the Laggards is to just keep writing. Once you have an extensive back catalog and have been around for many years, the Laggards will finally come aboard, but there’s no use marketing to them. They’re immune to it.

Kindling the Fire

At some point, your sales will begin to lag. No one stays on top forever. This is when you release your next book, and you can use it to jump start the sales of your back catalog, but that’s a subject for another post.

Have questions or comments? Or just want to share your own experience? Leave me a comment! I’d love to hear from you.

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