Monday, March 3, 2014

North Florida Trilogy

The recent publication of Time Piece, the third book in The North Florida Trilogy, puts an end not only to the series, but to the 30-year story surrounding the books. Here is some of that story.

In the mid-1980s, I was editing vocational materials for the state of Florida. One of my co-workers was Anne Petty, a woman who was just beginning to dabble in creative writing after publishing a nonfiction book on J.R.R. Tolkien. I had published a couple of handfuls of poems as well as a book of short stories. I also had three full-length novels completed and stored away in a drawer.  It was natural, then, that Anne and I became friends and we often talked about what we were working on at the time. Sadly, I was in a severe and protracted writing slump and had produced very little over the preceding few years.

One morning, Anne came to my office and showed me a picture she had taken the weekend before. It was a snapshot of an old, abandoned country church near her property in Crawfordville. You could almost hear the creaky front door, smell the mold creeping along the damp walls, and feel the dusty bat dung on the bell rope. "This would make a great setting for a horror story," she told me.

I agreed; in fact, as the day wore on, I became more and more captivated by the idea. Here at last was something new that I could sink my fangs into.That night, I went home and wrote five pages of the first chapter along with a several-page synopsis, complete with events and a preliminary cast of characters. I don't think Anne actually thought that anything would come out of her little photograph, but when she saw how excited I was about the idea, she became as enthusiastic as I was.  Somehow, over the next six or eight months, we crafted a novel around that little church featuring a shrimpboat captain named Carla Conway and a menagerie of rural misfits. Although no longer a horror novel (we agreed that the description "literary suspense" was more accurate), the novel is a rich and exciting adventure that tells many stories,not only about the characters, but about North Florida itself. But this novel, like most novels written by anyone before 2010, went into a drawer.

For a while we were content with this single novel; its creation had gotten us both off  our creative tookuses. But then we got to talking about a bizarre museum near Panama City that we were both familiar with. It  dealt in the most esoteric junk--widgets and postcards and knives; even a mummy and a cigar store Indian. Outside, a giant statue of a gorilla could be seen for miles on State Road 20. So, yes, we had to write another novel about this. The scene had changed from near Apalachicola to Panama City and the characters changed, too. This one featured P.I. Vicky Rankin, her husband Rick (a failed Western writer), and son Rusty (a teenage weirdo who liked fire and knives). It also dealt with Snag Black, a hunchbacked homosexual whose father owned the odd museum. Snag turned out to be the person who offered Vicky her first detecting job, one that would cause her to solve a 500-year-old mystery. The novel was finished and it, too, went into the drawer.

It was more than a year after Museum Piece that we realized that it and Hell and High Water should be part of a loose trilogy. But for this third book, we had to change the scene yet again, setting the novel in Pensacola, a bit west of Panama City. The main character, Melanie Truslow, had appeared as a minor character in the first two novels and in fact is the only character to appear in all three. She had moved to Pensacola to get to know her father, who had divorced her mother before Melanie was born. But his mysterious death left her alone in a strange city and a large  house, rife with secrets. I  had visited a Vietnamese Tent City near Pensacola at the end of the Vietnam war and we used some of what I had experienced there in the book. Anne used her experiences of having to put her mother in a nursing  home because of an unusual type of dementia. And then there were the watches. We called the book Time Piece, and I have always considered it the most literary and the most important.

And there we had it. We finished the last book in the late 1980s. I left my state job to open a bookstore and concentrate on poetry, which seemed easier to publish than fiction. Anne, too, went in her own direction, becoming fairly well known for her dark fantasy novels and Tolkien criticism. The North Florida Trilogy languished. Every few years I would take one of them out of its drawer and begin to submit it to agents or publishers, but nothing ever came of those efforts. And every decade or so we wold undertake a revision of each one. And after every revision, the works got tighter and tighter.

In 2012 we did a final revision of the trilogy and began our independent publication of the series with Hell and High Water. In 2013 Museum Piece was published and finally, this week, Time Piece became available. All exist in both paperback and e-book form. An interesting sidelight is that the books--which we wrote as contemporary fiction--have become historical. Much that we wrote about is no longer there.

Unfortunately, Anne did not live to see the last book in the series published. Cancer took her just after Museum Piece came out last year. I think, though, that like me, she was always proud of the series, the work we both put into it, and the experience we gained from it.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

A formatting invitation for lesbian mystery authors

I am a professional e-book formatter as well as a huge fan of lesbian mysteries. And, as I've mentioned elsewhere, I also have a vision impairment that prevents me from reading the relatively small type of normal,  printed books. I can, however, still read books in electronic format due to the ability of most e-book reading devices, like my iPad, to enlarge the print. Unfortunately, I have found that many--most perhaps--lesbian mystery e-books are either priced too high or do not exist in e-book format at all.

There is a reason--although not a good one--for the high e-book prices.Many authors of lesbian mysteries have let publishers do the work for them: formatting, bookkeeping, etc. Unfortunately, the publishers also claim the lion's share of the sales; that is, what is left after Amazon or the other e-book retailers take their cut. This is true not only for mainstream publishers but also for some of the independent counterculture presses--Bella is maybe the best example but there are several more. Bella regularly sells their e-books--backlog as well as new releases--for $9.99 to $10.95. In my opinion, these are ridiculously overpriced and are doing harm to the authors by not only keeping them to a small royalty but also a small readership. Those prices are simply higher than most buyers--even hard-core aficionados such as myself--are willing to pay. Although I am not privy to any actual contracts, I suspect that an author gets less of a royalty from a publisher selling their book at $9.99 than they would if they published it themselves and priced it at $4.99 or less.

But I am also saddened by the complete absence of e-books by some of the most interesting authors in the lesbian mystery genre. It's like they lave either been forgotten or are balking at giving themselves over yet again to a publisher who will control more aspects of their work than they feel comfortable relinquishing.

So here's my offer. I would sincerely like to help some of these authors without e-books get their work back out--not only to new readers, but to the world at large. I charge a small up-front fee of course (usually $100 or less for full-length works), but the formatted book would then be under the total control of the author, who can then decide what retail distributors to use, what price to charge, and the like. Most important, they will then be able to receive up to 70 percent of each sale. Believe me, nobody gives a flying fruitcake whether an e-book publisher is Simon & Schuster or Auntie Lute or a name that the author makes up themselves. Or no publisher at all. They all look the same on an e-book reading device.

I'm talking to you, Vicki P. McConnell. And to you Alma Fritchley and M.F. Beal and every other writer of lesbian detective fiction who does not presently have their books converted to an electronic format. Let's get your work back in the public eye, and let's do it in a manner that is professional and affordable and that will win you not only a little cash, but a well-deserved n audience as well.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Big-name recognition

The recent news that Robert Galbraith, author of the suspense thriller, Cuckoo's Calling, is in actuality a pen name of J. K. Rowling, took a lot of people by surprise. I'm an admirer of Rowling myself and can't wait to read the book. But in this post I want to examine the roles that high-profile author names--combined with the money and power of traditional publishing houses--play in the success of pseudonyms. Let's go back a couple of decades.

In the mid 1970s, a young and virtually unpublished author named Chuck Ross wondered whether his first novel was being rejected because it was bad or because he was an unknown, untried author. So he typed out, word for word, the text of Jerzy Kosinski's Steps, which had won the National Book Award a few years before. He then sent the manuscript, under his own name and without a title, to 14 publishers, including three who had published at least one of Kosinski's books. All rejected it; Random House, which had published the original work, used a form rejection. This experiment went a long way towards convincing him that the name was more important than the work.

But what about writers with big names--like Rowling--who write under pseudonyms? Let's look at a few. One of the most famous writers of this generation, Stephen King, used the pseudonym Richard Bachman for a series of novels. The reason for this was that his publisher felt that for an author to publish more than one book a year would saturate the market and decrease the anticipation. The Bachman books sold quite a few copies, but nowhere near the amount that King sold under his own name. And, of course, when it was revealed that Bachman was King, the Bachman sales skyrocketed.

But over thirty years before, another famous author had done something similar. Erle Stanley Gardner, author of the Perry Mason mysteries, decided to write another series--this time featuring the characters of Donald Lam and Bertha Cool. He used the pen name a.a. fair. Trouble is, he didn't bother to disguise who he really was. Look at some of the old covers and you'll see "By ERLE STANLEY GARDNER (in gigantic type) writing under the name of a.a. fair" (in small type). What Gardner's reason for this was we can only guess, but certainly his publishing company was not going to wait for several years--before someone leaked the information--to start making the big bucks off his name.

Skip forward again a couple of decades. In 1984, future Nobel laureate Doris Lessing sent a novel to her agent with the instructions to shop it out to various publishers as if it were written by a first-timer named Jane Somers. He did so and it was rejected by several of them. It was, however, enthusiastically picked up by a young editor at Michael Joseph, and it was published to little acclaim and few sales--until, of course, Lessing's name was linked with it.

So what do these books by Lessing, Gardner, King, and Rowling have in common? Did any of them become popular under the pseudonym? No. In fact, it is worth discussing whether any of them would even have been published if the author had not been first plugged into the big-time-author-and-publisher network. The Cuckoo's Calling was selling poorly--despite the fact that her publishers knew that Rowing was the author all the time and had put money and effort into promoting the Galbraith title. King and his publishers were in it together from the beginning, as were Gardner and his. The only one who really tried to keep anonymous was Lessing, but even she instructed her long-time agent to shop the book around for her. What if she had tried to shop it herself, under the name Jane Somers? Would any publisher even have looked at it or would they have tossed it, unopened, back out the transom through which it came?

This is not to denigrate any of these authors. All of them paid a lot of dues and richly deserved their popularity and success. As young authors, they went through the same thing that their alter egos went through later--many rejections before finally acceptance. It is the question of what would have happened if any of them had decided to go indie and published their work through CreateSpace or Smashwords or Kindle Direct. Like we do. And without spending thousands and thousands of dollars in advertising.

Even better, what would happen if one of them took one of our unpublished novels and given it to their publisher, saying that they were experimenting with a new style. Would we be famous too? Even if no one knew it?

Friday, May 17, 2013

Black Bay Books racks up at Indie Awards

Black Bay Books, a small, back-farm publishing house specializing in fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama dealing with Florida, horses, and rural society, is one of the big winners of this year's Next Generation Indie Book Awards.

The first novel in Iza Moreau's Small Town Series, The News in Small Towns, was a top-five finalist in TWO categories: Regional Fiction and Mystery. Not to be outdone, Sara Warner's fine first novel, Still Waters, not only was a finalist in the Thriller/Suspense category, but WON the General Fiction category and took home the GRAND PRIZE for all fiction and  $1,600 in prize money. This makes Still Waters the highest rated independently published novel in the country.  

The Next Generation Indie Book Awards, sometimes called the 'Sundance' of the book publishing world, is a literary awards program that recognizes and honors authors and publishers of exceptional independently published books in 60 different categories. "Indies" include small presses, larger independent publishers, university presses, e-book publishers, and self-published authors. The top book in each category is reviewed by literary agents for possible representation, and winners are promoted during the BookExpo America event in New York City that coincides with the Indie Book Awards prize ceremony.

Here are the numbers: There were 60 categories in this year's awards. Each category had a winner and four finalists. Although I have no figures on how many publishers submitted books--or how many books were submitted in total--eighty-five publishers were represented in the medals list. Twenty-nine other books were listed as either self-published or published by entities such as Smashwords, Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing, CreateSpace, or  iUniverse, which are technically speaking, publishing platforms and not actual publishers.

Of the actual publishers, only one had more top-five medalists in  fiction than Black Bay Books--six--and they achieved this with six books. One other house had five medals--one for each of five titles. Black Bay Books received five medals for only two books.

This speaks not only to the quality of the Black Bay Books entries, but also to the fact that, like many cutting-edge independently published novels, Still Waters and The News in Small Towns transcend genre stereotyping. And isn't that the point of Indie Publishing?

Monday, September 3, 2012

A new rating system

Just over a year ago, I posted an article called "What's Happened To Our Reviewing System?" It took issue with the current way we rate books, but without suggesting a way to improve it. I'll rectify that now.

Say you're a fan of horror novels and Stephen King's Carrie is your favorite book. If asked by Goodreads or another site what you would rate it, you would click on the fifth star without a second thought. A fan of British science fiction might do the same for A Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy; Dark fantasy lovers might bestow the highest ratings for some of Neil Gaiman's works. And if those books are your favorites, then giving 5 stars may be appropriate.

But how many stars would these same reviewers give Anna Karenina, Pride and Prejudice, or Ulysses? To say that Carrie or American Gods is on the same level as The Grapes of Wrath is simply silly. But this is what's happening. Ratings simply don't tell the whole story.

So here's my suggestion: Let the horror lovers give Books of Blood, Volume 1 5-star ratings if they love it that much. But let all ratings be by genre, not across genres. When something is given a 5-star rating, that should mean "Among the best of the genre," not "Among the best books ever written."

I recently gave Neal Stephenson's Anathem 5 stars. That doesn't mean that I think it is a literary masterpiece that will be taught in colleges for centuries. I suspect that very few people will even get through it, but I simply couldn't go any lower. It is visionary, scientific, futuristic, and philosophic (in fact, he invents his own philosophical system) with interesting characters, a riveting story, and an unusual twist just when you think you're on the home stretch. It takes science fiction to a whole new level--just as his Snow Crash did a decade earlier--and as his Reamde does to the Thriller genre.

But if 5 stars indicates "Among the best of the Genre," what would 4 stars indicate? Well, obviously, not  among the best in the genre, but still quite good. Kind of like, maybe Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series, which is both thought-provoking and exciting. Yet compared to the Harry Potter series, it seems lacking. Another neat thing about this rating system is this: if you think that Pullman is the better writer, you can give him the 5 stars and Rowling the 4. I would give four stars to books that  might not be among the best in the genre, but that I enjoyed immensely and would probably want to read again. Paul Theroux' Ozone and Kurt Vonnegut's Slapstick (to which Vonnegut himself gave only a 2) come to mind.

And what about 3 stars? Although it usually means "good" or "I liked it okay," it has become a rating that no one wants to be given. Although it isn't death, a preponderance of 3-star ratings might be off-putting to potential buyers, especially when 5 stars is so commonly given. I'll give three stars, too, sometimes. I gave one to The Great Gatsby, which I've never really found that interesting, but it probably won't hurt Fitzgerald's sales any. I would hesitate, though, to give 3 or fewer stars to an e-book by an independent author. Instead, I would give a short review stating what I liked about the book and what I didn't. And not issue any stars, avoiding that part of the rating system. Or I might simply avoid rating it at all.

Two stars? One star? I see no real point to issuing many of these. If the book is truly terrible, let someone else give the bad news. I've noticed that many of the very worst reviews are from readers with an agenda. Also, if a book is bad enough to get only a single star, why finish it? It is an opportunity, however, to get your ya yas out on things you were forced to read as a child, like The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew, in college (Nightwood.), or something you finished despite your better judgment or if you simply had nothing else to turn to (the Lemony Snicket books). But use these sparingly.

Here are some other genres (or subgenres), just in the category of fiction
Romance, not to be confused with
Paranormal Romance--a different subgenre entirely
Classic World Literature (War and Peace, for instance)
Classic American Literature (Huckleberry Finn). Not to be confused with
Contemporary American Literature, like Jennifer Egan's award-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad or the independent Still Waters by Sara Warner. Both these books, in time, might become part of Classic American Literature or even Classic World Literature, but let some time pass.
Mysteries, like The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes or The Thin Man. But this genre has its own sub-genres, like
Lesbian Mysteries (Iza Moreau's The News in Small Towns), or any LGBT mysteries, which seem to include aspects not found in straight mysteries (like more sex, for instance), and which have different agendas.
Science Fiction can be broken down into several sub-genres, including
Fantasy, which is not quite the same as
Dark Fantasy, which is, in turn, not quite the same thing as
And so on, which is another thing Vonnegut said.

Rating books is a serious business. And we are the main reviewers now, not The New York Times. Although you are expected to give writers that are your friends the maximum number of stars, be as truthful as you can with your actual written ratings. Include a short description explaining the number of start that you assign. And keep in mind--whether you are writing or reading the rating or the review--that the book is being compared to other books like it, not to literature as a gigantic and worldly whole.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Paper books will never disappear.

Thirty-two years ago I became a book publisher. In 1990, of course, electronic books were just random strings of code running around in the mind of literary teckies. Physical books made out of paper and ink were coming off presses in incredible numbers. Printers were relatively easy to find, so I negotiated with one in my area of North Florida. What I delivered was camera-ready; that is, I had designed the look of the book, typed it, proofread it, and assembled it. A friend designed a cover, so all the printer had to do was burn the plates and print it.

Now here's the thing. For a real paper-and-ink printer, preparation and setup are everything. Once preparation and setup are complete, it is just as easy to print 10,000 copies as it is to print one, but the preparation costs are steep. So the price of printing was tied to the number of copies. The book I delivered turned out to be just under 200 printed pages. If I would have chosen to get 100 copies, each one would have cost well over $20--an impossible proposition for a book whose cover price was $7.95.

I ended up ordering something like 5,000 copies of this book, which brought the cost per book down to just under $2, not including shipping which added another few cents to the total. And opening that first box and seeing the stacks of shiny red covers was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Yet, over 30 years later, I still have a good number of these books in storage, still in their original boxes with their original packing. Dozens of copies can be purchased on-line from stores across the country for under a buck.

Now we have electronic books, which have no physical storage problems. A huge debate is raging over whether or not the print book will eventually be totally replaced by electronic images of itself. But much of the same technology that gives us iBooks and Kindle has also created print on demand. Roughly speaking, print on demand simply means making a hard copy of an e-book. There are many of these print-on-demand publishers floating around the internet. Lightning Source, affiliated with library and bookstore distribution giant Ingram is one. CreateSpace, owned by greedy Amazon, is another. There are hundreds more to choose from. I chose CreateSpace because there are no set-up fees and because the book will automatically be listed and sold by Amazon.

One of my publisher friends recently suggested using CreateSpace, saying that it "wasn't rocket science." Maybe not, but getting your book--and cover--uploaded correctly to CreateSpace is not easy. I have now published three books through CreateSpace. For the last two, it took my wife and I several weeks to get things the way we wanted them in terms of book size, font style, margins, and the like. But their review process is extremely helpful. And designing a cover is always a pain, although CreateSpace will actually provide a selection of templates for free, as well as offering professional services in case you are not a do-it-yourselfer. This post, though, is for those who are.

The upshot is that I now have three books published through CreateSpace. Using their standard page and cover stock, each of the three books is about 100,000 words and all weigh in at just one pound, but there the similarity ends. Each has a different font, for instance, and different margins. They also have different sizes, which affects the price. Here'a a breakdown:
Book One, 6 x 9, 256 pages. Cost per book: $3.75
Book Two, 5.5 x 8.5, 304 pages. Cost per book: $4.49
Book Three, 5 x 8, 340 pages. Cost per book: $5.00

The "suggested" size is 6 x 9, which is what I chose for Book One. Larger pages translate into more words on the page and less pages overall. The larger the font, the more pages. And the higher the page count, the greater the cost. But all are attractive sizes and in line with sizes used by mainstream publishers for fine works of literature, which these are.

What's more, the price of these books is affordable to virtually anyone. For $5 you can own a great-looking copy of your masterpiece. And you don't have to order more than one to get that price. In fact, I don't think you have to order any at all--you can just let greedy Amazon sell it for you. But it you are someone who sells your own, you can turn a pretty good profit by taking a book you paid $5 for and selling it at the standard trade-paperback price of about $15. Even if you discount it for friends or promotions, you can double your investment.

So now we get to the reason for the title of this post. Although e-books will continue to have a greater audience and have a greater impact on our reading habits, print-on-demand publishers will ensure that many--if not most--of us will want print copies of our own books, even if we no longer have a need to litter our bookshelves with John Grisham or Stephen King tomes. And I don't think there's an author on earth that would pass up the chance to make that happen. I sure didn't.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Truth or fiction? Who cares?

When I'm reading book blurbs or movie announcements, there is one phrase that's guaranteed to send me scurrying to the next listing as fast as my little eyes can carry me. That phrase is: "Based on a true story."

If someone feels the need to tell me that their book is based on a true story, there is probably something seriously wrong with the work. Such as:
1. It is a quickly worked-up novel based on a sensational news story, whose author is hoping to cash in on the morbid rubberneckers in the audience. It tells me that the author was too lazy to create their own characters, plots, and situations.
2. It is a badly researched bit of history, biography, or crime drama that is called a "novel" simply for convenience (and maybe to attempt to avoid a lawsuit). It tells me that the author was too lazy to complete the research and get the facts right.
You can bet your boots that anything touted to be "based on a true story" is going to be an artless piece of trash.

But here's where things start getting tricky. Does that mean that all books based on true stories are trash? Of course not. Only the ones that are advertised as such by the authors or their publishers--the ones without literary value that appeal solely to the morbidly curious. One of the most famous pieces of "journalistic fiction" is Truman Capote's 1966 book, In Cold Blood. Dubbed by some critics as heralding a new form of crime reporting, it was labeled fiction by others because of changes Capote made in several scenes and for his re-creation of dialogue. Not to be outdone by his literary nemesis, Norman Mailer released his own piece of literary crime writing, The Executioner's Song, which chronicled the life and bad deeds of murderer Gary Gilmore. The book won the Pulitzer Prize in 1980 for--you guessed it--fiction. Capote's book entailed six years of research and thousands of pages of notes. Neither he nor Mailer had to rely on "Based on a true story," to win sales and accolades.

The famous novelist E. L. Doctorow wrote a fictional account of the lives of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg in his highly praised 1971 novel The Book of Daniel. His next novel, Ragtime, used a combination of fictional and made-up characters in his intriguing story line. Was it based on a true story? Who cares; it was a great book and I enjoyed reading it.

That brings us to copyright page disclaimers. You know what I mean: "This is a work of fiction and any resemblance between the characters and persons living or dead is purely coincidental." This is the actual text on the copyright page of Charles Bukowski's novel, Hollywood, which is a scathing roman à clef of the making of the movie Barfly. Is it fiction? Some of it probably. Is it based on a true story? Of course--everybody on earth knows this and no disclaimer can make it otherwise. There have been discussions of exactly how to word such a copyright disclaimer. What if only some of the things are true, what if the college is real but the basketball coach fictional? What if the stories are true but "the names have been changed to protect the innocent."?

Well here's a news flash. Every novel has at least a bit of truth, and most of them have more than a little. I've never written a novel or a story that doesn't have a great deal of myself in it, that doesn't use the mannerisms of someone I've met or observed, that doesn't use certain accents or colloquialisms I have heard from others, that doesn't describe living rooms or gardens of my friends and acquaintances. Again, any thinking person knows this. To have to add a disclaimer saying it isn't so, Joe, is just silly. It's a lie and everybody knows it's a lie.

Now I admit that it is wrong--and illegal--to write about a real person, either by name or giving that person a pseudonym, and insinuate that this person has committed a crime or done some other unsavory act without direct proof. And writing about real people can have consequences. When Thomas Wolfe wrote Look Homeward Angel, using thinly disguised versions of his family, friends, and home town, he was unable to return home for eight years due to the negative furor from those he wrote about. Worth Tuttle Hedden's marvelous novel Love Is a Wound is a similar effort. The biographical detail of the novel is part of its greatness and helps make it the culmination of her life's work.

So my advice to people who worry about exactly how to word their copyright disclaimer or their "based on a true story" blurb is this. Just hit delete.