Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Just say no to the 1%

By now many of you may have heard about Amazon's new power play. With their new "KDP Select" option, they have created a sizable fund to entice e-book authors away from organizations like Smashwords and give Amazon exclusive rights to their books. In other words, you would have to remove your book from Smashwords, Diesel, the Apple iBookstore, and every place else that sells and distributes e-books except Amazon. Cool, huh? Oh, wait. No, it's not..

I went on the Amazon site--to my own dashboard, in fact--and it was daunting. The first thing I saw was a large banner introducing KDP Select and showing a huge amount of cash in their "fund." They have even created a new column at the end of each of my titles asking me to Enroll in the program. I won't, and neither should you.

This is a bit more than just a shot across the bow of Nook and Apple. Although Apple's iPad allows the use of an app that enables the reader to purchase books in the Kindle format, books purchased from the iBookstore are in ePub. Ditto Nook and Kobo and other major e-bookstores. The Amazon Kindle machines read only books formatted in the Kindle (.mobi) format. If more authors decide to become Amazon-exclusive, fewer books will be available to those customers who own reading devices that use only ePub formatting, such as Kobo and Nook. So not only will Amazon realize more sales from books, but from e-book reading devices as well.

Amazon's first step is to get independent authors, such as you and me, to sign up with them for a 90-day trial period. But this trial period will be renewed automatically unless you can determine how to opt out. We can guess what comes next.
1.  Amazon will control more and more not only of the e-book publishing industry, but the even more lucrative e-book reading device industry.
2.  Amazon will require anyone publishing e-books on their KDP program to enroll in KDP Select, which will then become permanent.
3.  Amazon will begin charging authors and publishers a fee for allowing them to have exclusive publishing and distribution rights on our e-books.
4.  The royalty that Amazon gives to its authors will decrease over time.

This is speculation, of course, but I have seen Amazon move in this direction with its traditionally published books. They make more demands, have higher fees, and take more of a cut of profits than any other book distributor. Seriously, why would anyone or any organization want such exclusive control? How much money do they need? Is it just a game to them? If so, it will only work if we play. Let's continue to be proud of our independent status and support the companies that support us, such as Smashwords. It is just another example of saying "No!" to the 1 percent.

Afternote: A recent blog article by Smashwords founder Mark Coker, goes into detail about Amazon's new "KDP Select" option. Mark's post, which can be found here, attempts to make sense of what Amazon is trying to do.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

How much should I give away free?

One (more) reason to shop at e-book venues like Smashwords is that you are generally allowed to read free samples from whatever you are interested in buying. Amazon allows prospective buyers a 10% free sample for all books. Smashwords, on the other hand, allows the author to choose how much of their hard work to give away free. Most go higher than 10%, and they should. Here's why.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, I am an inveterate blurb reader. If the description interests me and it does not have egregious spelling or grammar errors (one recently published book had a spelling error in the title--not only in the title field, but on the cover), I will download the sample. Two recent books--Shifting, by Miracle Jones, and The Ex-Pacifist, by Sarah Wilson, passed the sample test early. So did the series of hilarious short stories entitled Ueda Sensei Solves Crimes of Depravity and Perversity, by Robert Crayola. I happily paid for the remainder of those books. Last night, though, I was reading the sample from a book of mystery stories that had both positives and negatives. The setup was clever and interesting but the narrator was kind of a dickhead. Unfortunately, the sample ended before the first story did, preventing me from knowing how the story came out and, more importantly, how good a craftsman the author actually was. I opted not to buy the remainder. Another five or ten percent in the free sample and I may have chosen differently.

Some authors may decide that giving away more than 10% of their book cheapens it. Quite the contrary. In my opinion, the more they give away, the better chance they have to make a sale. I have always thought that the first 20 or so pages of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone dragged a bit. Rowling was new to writing and probably fussed over those first pages a little too much. Marilynne Robinson's fine novel Housekeeping, begins with a 30-page preamble that is somewhat less than interesting, yet the book--also a first novel--as a whole is first rate. I don't see any reason why authors shouldn't allow up to 50% of free material, or even more. The more a reader has invested in the book--the time spent as well as familiarity with the characters and the plot--the more likely he or she will pay to read the remainder.

The length of a book may influence the sample size, although it shouldn't. For a 200,000-word novel, 10% is probably enough to allow a buyer to make a decision. That's after all, about 60 pages of a printed book. Still, 100 pages would be better. Conversely, I have seen some books that are so short that a 10% sample only covers the title page and license notes. A sample will work only if it actually samples the work.

A minimum sample size, in my opinion, would include the following:
for a novel: at least two chapters.
for a book of short stories: at least one complete story.
for a book of poems: a sampling of at least 10 poems, unless the poems are extra long.
for a play: at least one complete scene.
for a book of nonfiction: the introduction and at least two complete chapters.

Authors are encouraged to experiment on sample size, checking their own work and making sure that their sample includes enough material. If 20% gets to within a page of the end of a chapter, make it 21%.

So the more you give away, the more you get. That's a pretty damn good exchange in these times. In fact, I have actually convinced myself to go back to my own books on Smashwords and up the free samples. Maybe you should do the same.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Why are there so many typos in self-published e-books?

I began reading a very interesting sample from a young-adult science fiction novel I downloaded from Smashwords. It has fresh ideas, a well-thought-out universe, an exciting and unique plot, vibrant and interesting characters, and an absolutely stunning cover. What's not to love? Well, I hate to mention it, but there were four typos on the first page. In the second chapter there was a bad plot-line error, probably the result of the author planning to go in one direction and ending up going in another. I have continued to find sporadic typos but my interest in the book has not waned. I am anxious to read each new chapter to see what events and adventures will unfold.

Does this mean that it doesn't matter if a book contains errors? That we should be able to pass over misspellings and grammatical mistakes without comment? Of course it doesn't. Despite my enjoyment of this book, I would have liked it even more if I hadn't had to cringe over each mistake, if my concentration hadn't been broken by having to go back and reread an unpunctuated sentence or paragraph to make sure I got the proper meaning.

Those of us who publish our own e-books have a responsibility that traditionally published authors do not have and have never had--to act as not only the book's author, but as its only copy-editor and proofreader. No, your girlfriend or your mother do not count (unless, of course, they are professional editors).

I truthfully don't think that any author wants to be thought of as in any way illiterate. If we are talking about 2 tables, we mean two tables, not to tables. If someone finds a mistake like this in one of my own books and tells me about it, I will immediately--and somewhat shamefacedly--correct it. In fact, in a previous blog post entitled "The world is my editor," I encourage my readers to do just that.

But let's go a step further. Let's make it easier for our readers to let us know that our books contain an error or two. In the example I used above, I tried mightily to find a private email address so I could send the 29-year-old author a few of my comments without having to post them on her blog where everyone could see them. But there simply was no way--not even a message button on the book's facebook page. I regretted it, but I thought maybe the author would feel more gratitude for the comments than irritation that they were made publicly.

Here's my idea. Why not make it possible for readers who have purchased the book to communicate with authors from within the e-book itself? If you are reading along and see the word tomatos, just click on it, bring up an email window, and type, Hey, man. It's tomatoes. Yes, there is potential for abuse, but abuse is more likely to come in the form of a review, which, again, can only be done on Smashwords by people who have paid for the book they are reviewing. As both an author and a reader, I would favor this idea or something like it.

If  proofreading and copy-editing are to be necessary tools for today's authors, then let's see this as an opportunity to learn even more about our craft than yesterday's authors. Readers have new opportunities too; for the first time in history, they have the ability to actually help in the creation of  a work of literature. When I see fine new writing--like I see in the e-book I am reading--I want to do everything I can to help it succeed.

Monday, October 17, 2011

What's in it for me?

Recently, one of my formatting clients emailed me with some very nice compliments about my work and particularly about the way I am following up to make sure that her book is getting through the Smashwords and Amazon systems in good shape. Then she asked, "What's in it for you?"  So I'll tell you.

I've had many jobs in my life, but in most of them I have found myself around books and writing. I have worked in libraries, clerked in bookstores, owned a bookstore, edited not only educational materials, but literary magazines. I have even been a publisher--still am, in fact. Some of these jobs were unpaid, at least in green currency. No matter. Being around books and writers keeps me in the literary scene, inspires me to write my own works, and gives me hope for the future--something to strive for.

Owing a bookstore was a high point in my life until the megastores like Barnes and Noble came into town with the expressed intention of putting all other bookstores in the area out of business. I still loved going in to work, but something had changed. Instead of being a labor of love, it became a job. I am delighted that my bookstore is still operating--although under new ownership--but I feel no longing to have it back.

Instead, I feel an affinity with e-books, and when I learned about Smashwords and its policy of encouraging independent publishing, I learned all I could. I learned how to format e-books by formatting some of my own. The process was longer than I suspected because it required a lot of study and experiment, but I managed to get the books up in a way that suited me perfectly. It was at that point that I felt I knew what I was doing--especially when I compared it to what other people were doing. Yikes! Then I was fortunate enough to get on "Mark's List" of Smashwords formatters, which enabled me to format books for others.

And what a pleasure it is. I know most of you will doubt me when I say this, but I truly love formatting books. Poetry, fiction, nonfiction, it doesn't matter. I enjoy getting to know each new author and find out a little about the way they live and write. I have formatted books for authors in the U. S., Japan, England, and Canada and have enjoyed interacting with each one.

And I don't want to format the fruit of someone's hard work--sometimes their life's work--and leave them hanging between worlds, wondering what to do next. How much should I price my book? How do I get an ISBN? Should I make my book DRM? Why is my book still in Review? Why can't my friends see the sample? There are dozens, or even hundreds, of questions like this, and I know the answer to most of them. And if I don't, I am very likely to know exactly where to go to find out. Why should my clients have to wade through dozens of pages of FAQs or wait for days or weeks to get  replies from Smashwords or Amazon? Hell, they want their books available now. 

So do I, and helping them to make it so is fun.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Every story has a story.

More than twenty years ago, one of my co-workers at the Florida Department of Education showed me a photo she had taken of an old, abandoned church she had discovered in a wooded area near her home. It was a creepy picture, dark and viney, like something you might find in an Edgar Allan Poe story. You could almost feel the dried bat dung on the rope in the creaking bell tower. I remember her saying, "This would make a good setting for a horror novel, wouldn't it?"

For the rest of the day, I thought about that question, and that night I sat down and wrote part of the first chapter and a few ideas for characters and future chapters. I gave them to her the next day.

My co-worker was Anne Petty, who is now an established writer of dark fantasy novels and stories, a world-renowned J. R. R. Tolkien scholar, and the publisher of Kitsune Press. The book would be called Hell and High Water.

For the next six months or more, the two of us wrote on the book, little by little, meeting often in the conference room where we would spread out our chapters and notebooks and discuss motivation, direction, description, characterization. and all the other intricacies that make up a well-told story. We generally wrote alternating chapters, then discussed them and made constructive criticism. We didn't always see eye to eye but were always able to compromise on the language. And most of the time the compromise turned out to be better than either of our original suggestions.

The rigors of sending to literary agents and publishers got the best of us quickly, and the book went into our respective desk drawers and computer files (floppy disks, then). But that didn't stop us from continuing to write together. Over the next two years we planned and completed two additional novels connected to the first not so much by character, but by locale--the north Florida Gulf Coast, with all its myths and legends. The two additional novels in what we have always called "The North Florida Trilogy" are titled Museum Piece and Time Piece. They too, after brief tussles with agents, were consigned to invisible segments on a floppy.

Until now. With the increasing popularity of the e-book--and the fact that we're not as young as we once were--Anne and I realize that we finally have a chance to get these three novels out to readers. All three have been fiercely edited and rewritten over the years into a form we both are excited about. Hell and High Water is the first of the novels to appear in e-book form, and is available on Amazon and (where, when you purchase it, you own it (and all revisions) forever, in all formats. It is inexpensive (about a quarter of what you'd pay for a new paperback) and readable not only on e-book reading devices such as Kindle, Nook, Kobo, and iBooks, but on your computer screen as well.

Oddly, Hell and High Water did not end up as a horror novel. We call it, instead, literary suspense, as are Museum Piece and Time Piece, which are currently undergoing Anne's final review. They will appear at intervals in the upcoming months. We will, of course, let you know in our blogs and facebook pages, so stay tuned.

I think that, after so much waiting, the books deserve to be read.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Scary writing.

It has become a tradition for me to read a book of horror or ghost stories during October--the month of Halloween.  This year I have chosen 100 Ghastly Little Ghost Stories, edited by Stefan Dziemianowicz, Robert Weinberg, and Martin H. Greenberg. Some of the authors are famous in the genre, like H. P. Lovecraft, O. Henry, and Sheridan LeFanu, but most of the names are completely unfamiliar to me. As a former bookstore owner, an unknown author used to be a kind of a rarity. Just for grins I looked up a few of the strange names on Advanced Book Exchange and was only mildly surprised to find that many have no book publications. One author, Thorp McClusky--who has written the best story I have come to so far--has only one and it is a book on chiropractic medicine.

Looking at the publication history of these stories, I began to understand. Many of the stories were first published in cheap horror magazines with names like The Popular Fiction Publishing Company or Weird Tales--both of which were published in the 1930s. In other words, pulps. During the 1920s-1940s, pulps came in many genres--western, action-adventure, romance, and horror. They were purchased by the masses because they were so cheap and because they were sometimes so outrageous that tired working people could lose themselves for an hour or two and forget about the Depression or the conditions in the factory. But lots of magazines meant that there had to be a lot of writers and many young writers published their first stories in pulps--Ray Bradbury, for instance, and John D. Macdonald. Some, like these two, became famous later, most did not. In fact, I suspect that a great number of pulp writers published less than a handful of stories in their lifetimes.

The advent of the e-book is changing all that, yet I can see similarities between some of the stories I look at on Smashwords and those in 100 Ghastly Little Ghost Stories. For one thing, most of them are, well, ghastly. The fact that many of the authors in 100 Ghastly Stories do not have full-length books tells me that they were beginning writers who never made it. But the writing tells me the same thing--poorly thought-out plots, thin characters, and abrupt endings are the products of writers who don't know any better. The same is true with most of the e-book stories I read or sample, but with one difference: the paper-published stories have been gone over more closely by a professional editor and proofreader. Many of the e-book stories or novels or poems or whatever have not been gone through at all, except maybe by the author's brother--who is generally less educated than the author. But like I said in my last post, it is the duty of everyone who reads e-books to let the author know about silly misspellings, bad grammar, incorrect descriptions, or even stupid dialogue.

Although I am still halfway determined to get many of my novels into print via agents and editors, I am taking steps to make sure that all of my work--which includes 10 novels, three books of short stories, five books of poetry and more--will all be available as e-books before I die. That will ensure, to hopefully a greater extent than those writers whose only story was published in Weird Magazine sometime in the thirties, that my work--all my work--will be available to whoever is willing to search for it.

Hats off, then, to the editors of 100 Ghastly Little Ghost Stories, for doing their homework and bringing back to life so many forgotten authors. I only wish that electronic book publishing had been available for writers like Edith Lichty Stewart, Otto E. A. Schmidt, or Harold Ward, who continue to haunt the existing issues of pulp magazines and horror reprints, but nowhere else. What of the hundreds of stories that they wrote that ended up in an attic--or in the fire on a cold night? I wish I had them now.

Monday, September 26, 2011

The world is my editor.

For those of you who have not discovered Miracle Jones, he is an incredibly prolific and talented fiction writer who confines his writing to blogs and e-books. I sent him an email praising his two novels, Sharing and Shifting, both available on Smashwords (the first one is free). He replied graciously and wrote the phrase I have used as the title for this entry.

And it got me to thinking.

Although a carefully prepared, edited, proofread, and typeset book is to be greatly desired, most printed books have at least a few typos or other errors.  Maybe there are sentences that would have been better had they been shaped a little differently, or descriptions that just miss their mark. I was once asked on a radio show in Jacksonville if there was a time in the writing process when I knew when a poem was finished. I replied that I hoped it was finished after each edit, but knew that it was not. The radio show was in conjunction with a reading tour I was doing with Jean Monahan--our first books of poetry came out at virtually the same time and from the same press.

In the years that have elapsed since that radio show, I put my own book from that tour--The Secret Life of Moles--on Smashwords and Amazon as an e-book. But because the original book file was lost, I had to retype the entire thing and, you guessed it, I made well over a hundred changes to a book that had been gone over with a fine sieve when it was first published. Is it a better book now? I think it is, but there are two schools of thought here.

When Thomas Pynchon decided to publish his early stories, he made the conscious decision to publish them exactly as they looked in the original magazines in which they appeared. He thought that, although he might have been able to polish them up, a revised story would not have been true to the spirit of the young Tom. It's also possible that he was just lazy and didn't want to fool with them. On the other hand, Henry James insisted on revising his entire oeuvre for what is known as his New York Edition. Unfortunately, by the time Henry decided to do this, his use of language had developed to such a degree that his earlier books became verbose and overly complicated. Few people read the New York Edition, but for that matter, few people read Pynchon's Slow Learner, either.

With the advent of the e-book, however, maybe there can be a time when a work is finally finished. Think what would have happened if Henry James had put his New York Edition revisions out as e-books before they were actually put in print. Would the screams of the purists have changed his mind about the total overhaul? And would Thomas Pynchon have spruced up some of the language in Slow Learner? We can only hope.

For probably the first time in history, readers have easy access to authors through their blogs, websites, or social networks. If you buy an e-book on Smashwords, you have the right to review it on their site--another way of communicating with the author. Authors are rarely their own best editors, but by bypassing the megapublishers, writers are also missing out on the real talents of some of today's editors and proofreaders--the difference in professionalism between most of the e-book originals I have read and most books by the large print publishers is obvious and for e-book literature to thrive and grow, this must change.

That's where the world comes in. And I'll invite you right now--if you find anything wrong with my own books, shoot me an email. If I agree, I'll fix it with thanks. Remember that, unlike Amazon, once you buy a book on Smashwords, it is yours forever, in any format (another phrase from Miracle Jones, this time from his nonfiction blog). That goes for revisions, too.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

That's a lot of words!

Earlier this year, I determined that I had written over a million words. Not in emails or grocery lists but in finished works--stories, novels, books of poetry. Not all published, but all complete. Maybe that's why I'm interested in a statistic that Smashwords keeps on their page, updated continuously. It's the number of words they have published in their three+-year existence. And I am given to believe that these words are only counted from books that are currently in publication--not practice books that are published for a few minutes so that their authors or formatters can see how they look, then unpublished or archived.

I've kept a few notes and done a little figuring. On May 6, 2011, Smashwords authors had published two billion words. They reached the total of 2.8 billion on the afternoon of August 15. That's .8 billion in about 98 days, or .1 billion every 12.25 days.

2.9 billion was reached on August 29, so that's .1 billion words in 14 days, a drop off of about a day and a half per tenth billion. Today, September 10, 2011--12 days later--they reached the total of 3 billion. It seems, then, that the amount of words uploaded over the last four months has been pretty steady.In this case about a billion words in approximately 4.1 months.  I'll continue to keep tabs on it, though, and report back.

Congrats to Smashwords and to the authors who have made their books available through their services.

UPDATE, JULY 4, 2013. On this date, Smashwords crossed the 8 billion words threshold. That translates into about a billion words every 4.4 months, which is a slight decrease over the last time I checked, above, where it was a billion words every 4.1 months. I'll see if I can keep tabs on it until 10 billion is reached.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

How much should I price my e-book?

I read a whining article by a published writer about how she simply couldn't afford to price her e-books at less than $6.99 or so. That at $2.99 she would have to sell thousands of books to break even for the time she spent on writing them. For some reason, I took offence at several of her points. First, there are many writers who download their books on Smashwords and Kindle who will probably never sell a single book, regardless of the price. Second, this woman--who writes genre fiction--seemed to think that her books were more valuable than those of the rest of us. But mostly, I was disgusted at a creative artist actually figuring out the cost of her writing time. Fuck you, lady, and here's why.

I have put in far more hours writing than she has and most of them have been pleasurable. I love writing and I love what I create. I love the act of creating and if necessary I would have paid for the opportunity. The books I have written--the stories, the poems, the essays, and the novels--are my greatest accomplishment on earth. How do you put a price tag on that? Not every writer wants to be rich and famous, but most do. I do, in fact, but this seems to be out of my control. What is important is the writing, the characters, the stories, and the things that I learn from them. If other people can learn from them, fine. If people want to pay for them, even better. The advent of e-book reading has given every author the opportunity to get their words in front of a vast audience, so let's take advantage of it if we can.

So what should you charge? Here's my two cents worth. If someone charges $12.99 or even $24.99, there is a pretty good chance that people are going to pass it by--no matter how good or useful it might be. I know people who have started high (high prices and high expectations), then gone lower when the book did not sell. In increments. From $24.99 to $17.99 to $9.99 and so on. But why not do the reverse? Start out by pricing the book low--anywhere from 99 cents to $2.99. If it doesn't sell despite whatever vigorous marketing campaigns you might undertake, then it probably won't sell at all. If it does, you can always raise the price.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Do blurbs help sell books?

Of course they do, but in the world of e-books, they are essential. On Smashwords, for instance, e-book shoppers are presented with a cover and a short description of a book's contents--a blurb. If the cover looks interesting (and yes, many times you can tell a book by its cover), they will read the blurb. If the blurb is interesting and concise, they may decide to download a sample. If the blurb sucks, they will go on to the next listing. It's that simple.

So why do so many of the blurbs I read make me think poorly of the book? I find spelling errors, errors in grammar, typos, run-on sentences, half sentences, meaningless sentences, bluster, blather, biography, and horrible cliches. If the description of the book is poorly written, there is a good chance that the book will be poorly written too. But the reverse is also true--an interesting and exciting description will often hook someone fishing for books.

As a Smashwords and Kindle author and formatter--and because I am always on the lookout for exciting new literature--I carefully read hundreds of blurbs a day. Yet I haven't found an interesting one in months and I'm starting to despair.

This is not a mini-essay on how to write good blurbs. In fact, if I knew the secret to good blurb writing I would be a much better-selling author than I presently am. All I'm saying is that authors should pay special attention to what they put in their 400-word descriptions. If potential readers don't enjoy the description, they'll never get to the actual book.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

I'm on the List of Smashwords' Formatters!

I just got an email from Mark Coker, founder of Smashwords. He has accepted my application to become a Smashwords-recommended formatter. That means I am on "Mark's List"--a list Smashwords supplies to authors needing someone to format their manuscripts into e-book form. I specialize in poetry and drama, but am also proficient in fiction and nonfiction. Let me know if you need something done and we'll talk.

What's Happened To Our Reviewing System?

Lately I have downloaded three full-length e-books by authors who either chose not to go the agent-publisher route or who were rejected by same. One was a collection of very odd mystery stories, one a juvie SF novel, and the other a straight novel aboiut owning a bookstore. Although I got enjoyment from all three--and eagerly looked forward to my nightly chapters--there were obvious reasons why they would have been rejected by both agent and publisher. Because they each showed so much promise, I had the fleeting wish that I were a publisher so that I could help them fix those last little things that would transform their work from a flawed exercise to a finished work of art.

As someone who has purchased these titles on Smashwords, I have the option to review them, just as we all have the option to review anything we like on, anything we view on Netflix, or anything we purchase on eBay. But what rating should I give? Let's take a look at the book of mystery stories I downloaded. The book is a send-up of the Sherlock Holmes stories, set in California. The "detective" is a Japanese martial arts master and his assistant is his janitor. In turns hilarious, depraved, and just plain stupid, it is still engaging and brilliantly creative. But if the Sherlock Holmes stories get 5 stars (out of 5) and the Fu Manchu stories get 4, how can I give this flawed pastiche more than 3?

The juvenile science fiction novel has a high level of imagination and pages and pages of explanation about how the various ships and high-tech gadgets work. The characters are engaging but not as finely drawn as they need to be. The failure of the novel comes partly because the main character is a 53-year-old man. No young reader would be able to identify with him the way they might identify with the many young members of the crew. In addition, of the over 100,000 words, probably 60,000 of them come in a series of long, explanatory dialogues. The action--what little there is of it--is almost an afterthought. So if Harry Potter gets 5 stars and the second Tom Swift series gets 4.5 stars, how could I give this novel more than a 3?

The novel about bookstores is the closest to being complete, but even here I found many gaps and glitches that keep it from being what I would consider finished. It is comic, but also literary; that is, not in any real sub-genre like SF or Horror or Mystery or Romance or whatever. And literary works are rare at Smashwords so far. So kudos for effort, but if The Grapes of Wrath is a 5, how could I give this novel more than a 2? Let's go farther; if Riceyman Steps, by Arnold Bennett is the 5 or bookstore-related novels and Orwell's Keep the Aspidistra Flying is 4.5, how could I give the e-book I read more than a 3?

And that's where the problem starts. People buy things (or read things) based on ratings. It is hard to understand that 5 stars--to some people--mean that the work is among the best in the world. Four stars means that the book is excellent. Three means good, but not really special. Yet what I have come to realize is that people rarely look at books that have an average rating of less than 4 stars. Check out the major booksellers on Ebay or Amazon: they expect you to give them straight 5s for what may be only mediocre service--for books thrown into envelopes without padding or protection, or books sent out several days after payment. Some sellers won't even deal with buyers with less than a perfect rating.

Average has become the new meaning of 5 stars. I can't accept that. A book is excellent or it is not. It is finished or it is not. The characters are finely drawn or they are cliched. A 5-star book means that the book is excellent in almost every way. Yet giving a work only a 3 will probably doom it to obscurity, especially if other reviewers buy into the idea that if you like something you purchase it must be worth 5 stars. Or that the author will feel slighted at getting less.

Conversely, some readers take issue with an author's religion or political opinion or language, and will give a book only 1 star. Also not cool, even though there is a lot of stuff in the Indie e-book universe--probably close to the majority--that deserves only a single star. Still, there is no reason to show your superiority over these writers by crushing them; they won't believe you anyway--they'll just point to the 5-star ratings that were given to them by their friends or parents.

My suggestion is this. If you read an e-book and you like it, write a comprehensive review, mentioning the things you like and the things you think need work. If you recommend it, say so--with or without reservations. If you don't like it, ignore it. But know that you have the option to refrain from giving stars unless something is the best thing on earth or so disgusting that you just can't help yourself. Let the people who read your review decide for themselves on the basis of your words, not your numbers.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

What Is Indie Publishing?

I guess a better question would be "What Was Indie Publishing?"  Short for "Independent Publishing," it signified those publications not coming out of the mainstream publishing houses such as Knopf or Simon and Schuster, who hope to  make money by publishing titles that have a chance of selling huge numbers of copies or winning major awards (and thus selling huge numbers of copies). Independent publishing also did not include the university presses, such as Yale University Press or Pittsburgh University Press, who publish titles that they consider important to the continuation and increase of knowledge.

Indie publishing, then, like  indie records, is performed by small companies (or individuals) operating on a shoestring that have serious, new, unique, avant garde, ideas on what should be published and read rather than what the major publishing houses and universities are publishing. Independent literary magazines are examples, especially those operating outside of the university community. Then there are the small presses. One of the most famous examples of a small press--at least in its infancy--is City Lights books, publishers of Allen Ginsberg and many other beat and avant garde poets and artists. At first, this company was just an offshoot of a California bookstore whose owner, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, wanted to make this new kind of literature available throughout the country and the world.

The fact that one of the poets that Ferlinghetti wanted to make famous was himself suggests another group of writers that should be included in the independent group: self-publishers. A self-publisher, of course, is someone that publishes their own books, paying all expenses. Ferlinghetti was therefore a self-publisher, but so was Walt Whitman. So was Virginia Woolf, whose books were published by her own Hogarth Press. So were many other writers who have become household names.

But with the advent of e-book technology, the definition of "indie" publishing is changing. Smashwords, the ebook publishing giant, used to blatantly flash the motto, "Ebooks from independent authors and publishers." Well, although that message is not as obvious on their site as it was, it's still true; hundreds of never-before-published authors are showing up on Smashwords every day. But that's not everybody that shows up on Smashwords.

If you read my last post, "What Is a Full-Length Book?" you'll remember that I posited two reasons for the recent increase in full-length novels on Smashwords. First, because most authors formatted their smaller stuff first and second, because e-book publishing began to seem a happy alternative to sending out endless queries to agents whose interests are so narrow that it is almost impossible to get them to read even t a small sample of writing.  But there is a third reason.

In another of my earlier posts, I mentioned that Norman Spinrad had joined the ranks of e-book authors on Smashwords.  Popular with both mainstream and cult sci-fi readers, Spinrad was the first really famous author that I spotted on the Smashwords "New Releases" page. Since then I have seen many others. Laurence Shames, for instance, who writes quirky mysteries, many of them set in Florida, should be a hit on Smashwords--I know I plan to download several. They are worth it just for the covers. Are you a fan of fantasy writer Kristine Kathryn Rusch? She has dozens of titles on Smashwords. Robert Daley, author of Prince of the City is there; so is the book. The late best-selling author Irving Wallace has made a comeback due to his children publishing several of his books on Smashwords. Harry Mark Petrakis, A. A. Attanasio, Mike Resnick--they're all there. Any why not? Their old publishers are too busy trying to sell John Grisham books to pay much attention to keeping their old stalwarts in print. This way, not only do we get to read the works of these fine authors, but we only pay what we would pay for a used paperback and the author gets about 70% of the selling price.

So. Indie Publishing?  I'd say it's good for everybody. But with so many authors bringing their back titles from print publishing houses to Smashwords, it is a term whose meaning will continue to change.


What Is a Full-Length Book?

As a Smashwords author, I log into that site several times a day. I look at my own statistics, of course, but I also glance at the latest books to be uploaded. At first, I was put off by many authors uploading stories of 1,000 words or so and calling them books. Or novels of 20,000 words that are short not only on words, but on plot and characterizations. But over the last month or so, I've noticed that the percentage of full-length books is increasing. I'm sure there are many reasons for this, but I can think of two right away. First, it takes an author (or a paid assistant) longer to format 100,000 words than it does to format 1,000. Second, many authors may be tired of being constantly rejected by ever-more-persnickety agents.

Here's some figures. The Old Man and the Sea is about 26,000 words. In my opinion, that is right on the borderline between a short novella and a long short story. The Great Gatsby, on the other hand, at 47,000 words is most definitely a novel. In fact, I had never realized it was so short--not even half the size of Huckleberry Finn, which has about 111,000 words. Treasure Island comes in at 68,000 words and Tom  Sawyer has 78,000. Pride and Prejudice has 121.000 words, while Crime and Punishment has a whopping 208,000.

So let's call a full-length novel anything over 65,000 words. Go to the Smashwords Home page and check out the latest 10 books uploaded. It is rare if you don't find at least one book 65,000-100,000 or more words. What that tells me is that there are a lot of authors out there who have written stuff that has never been picked up by the regular book publishing industry. A more careful scrutiny tells me that many of these novels are parts of trilogies or other multi-volume series. I have purchased and downloaded several of these e-books and have enjoyed them as much as most of the stuff I can get off the racks. And after all, I can almost always read a sample of an e-book--usuually 20% or more. That's enough to let me know if it is something I am interested in.

And here's an interesting question. In asking how long a book is, most of us will turn to the back of a paperback and look at the last page number. That doesn't work for e-books because the page numbers are different for every e-book viewing device. In fact, they are different depending on whether you are reading portrait or landscape--which I do alternately on my iPad.

It is no secret--at least among those who know me--that I have written down every book I have read since I was 17. These are all books I have read from cover to cover, not just passages. I write down the title, the author, and the number of pages. At the end of the year I total up the books (usually at least 52--one for each week) and the number of pages. But what am I to do now when I read an e-book that has never been in an actual printed version?

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Welcome Norman Spinrad

     Welcome to Smashwords Norman Spinrad. A popular science-fiction author who is sometimes compared to Harlan Ellison, Spinrad wrote the very interesting Child of Fortune and many other novels and collections of stories. His take on interstellar travel should be experienced by all. His appearance as a Smashwords author gives new meaning to the term indie publishing. More on that in a future post.
     For what it's worth, I think his prices are too high, but $8 for a 195,000-word novel is really not that off the wall if you think about it. I would check out your local used bookstore first, though.

What is Smashwords? is a company that allows authors to upload and publish their e-books. It is a free service. They will not only convert your original manuscript file into various e-book formats, but will distribute your book to almost every major e-book retailer. You only pay a fee when your e-book is sold, and even then the percentage taken is shockingly small by book industry standards. If any of your e-books are sold (either at Smashwords itself or through any of the outlets such as Diesel, Apple, Borders, Barnes & Nobel, and others) you will receive up to 70 percent of the asking price. This is many times higher than what you would be paid by a publisher for a hard copy of your book.
     How much do e-books cost? As the author, you decide, but remember; unless you already have a large following, the cheaper the better. Many e-books are free. In fact, I published a small pamphlet of my late father's poems and made them free to anyone who is interested. Unknown authors who are not financially strapped can make their e-books free simply to garner an audience--many broke readers frequently troll through the "Free" section of Smashwords. I have seen at least one author who published his first book for free, then charged a fair price for the sequels. But most e-books are not free. Most titles on Smashwords run from 99 cents to $4.99, although I have seen some for as much as $9.99. They even have an option where you can allow your readers to pay what they think your book is worth. It is called "You set the price." On one hand, this seems to be an ideal way for the higher quality books to command higher prices, but my guess is that authors get pretty low prices for any of these, quality or no. It is an interesting concept, though.
     What does an e-book look like? Well, in most cases it is not going to be real fancy--e-book technology is still in its early stages--but it will look a lot like any physical book. You'll generally get Times Roman type and not much illustration, but it is different in different formats. Through Smashwords, you can purchase e-books in the following formats: HTML, Javascript, Kindle's Mobi, Epub, PDF, plain text, and a couple of palm-reader formats.
     Viewing e-books on JavaScript and HTML--which most people can already do on most computers--you are able to change the font, size of the type, line spacing, and even the background color. In fact, you can do this on most of the reading formats if you finagle enough. If you don't have a Kindle reader, or even if you do, you can download Kindle for PC to almost any computer. Likewise Epub, which is the industry standard e-book reader used by many outlets. My brother uses Epub to read books on his new iPad 2. Epub is a part of the Adobe empire (developers of Photoshop) and as such, a quality product.
     So most e-book customers have a choice in format. Visit and select any book in its library and experiment with the various formats. Samples are almost always available for any book, and samples are always free.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

I will convert your manuscript into an e-book

 I've spent a lot of time in the last few months studying the formats used in various e-book readers like Kindle, Kobo, Nook, iPad, and others. What you might not know is that your manuscript will look different in each format. And unless you get it right, it will look downright awful in some. Amazon's Kindle is the worst, despite being the most well known.
   If you have a manuscript you'd like to see as an e-book, I can make it happen. What I need is the manuscript in a Word file. I am most comfortable with poetry--a subject most other e-book publishers stumble over. What you will get is an e-book that will be available in almost every format, including those listed above. It won't be fancy--e-books really can't fancy be because of the various types and sizes of screens that they will be read on--but it will be clean and professional.
   I charge $100 for a poetry manuscript under 100 pages and $1 a page after that. For chapbooks of less than 30 pages, it would be only $50. Prose will be negotiable, but somewhere in the neighborhood of $50 for every 100 formatted pages. I take PayPal and checks, preferably the former. I'll give you more details and answer any questions when you contact me. In the meantime, look at the samples of my own poetry books listed in the post below this one. All are available not only at that link, but at most of the major e-book retailers, such as Diesel, Borders, and Apple.
   P. S. Watch out for Apple--their new iPad 2 is going to take away a lot of business from Amazon.

Welcome to this blog.

I originally started this blog several months ago to help a friend who was new to on-line activity. I posted a few throwaway comments just to see how they would look on the screen. I never intended to actually use it; after all, there is facebook for short comments and my website for longer discussions about writing or about my life here at Black Bay Farm.

Since then, however, I have been involved in the creation of e-books and also in the philosophy behind it. I have published as e-books four of my volumes of poems as well as a format guide for others to use in converting their poetryh manuscripts into e-books. To view samples of these, go to Note that each of my four books of poetry were originally published in print format by four different publishers. In fact, a fifth book--originally published by a fifth publisher--is only available in a print edition because the publisher does not like e-books and will not give me the rights to convert it.

So this blog will give me the opportunity to discuss some of the controversy surrounding e-book publishing versus traditional publishing or mainstream publishing versus independent publishing. Sound interesting? You bet. But it will also give me a chance to talk about other issues that strike me that are too long for facebook and not appropriate for my website.

Feel free to contact me with any questions or add your opinion to mine in the comments section below.