Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Writers and Money Part 1

Not to start this post off on a downer, but my husband (the Travis whom all my books are dedicated to) is in the hospital. It's no longer life threatening, but I'm spending most of my days this week waiting in hospital rooms with beeping machines and occasional massive interruptions. Naturally, this makes fiction writing challenging to nigh impossible, so, in the spirit of feeling like I'm still getting work done and to distract myself, I thought I'd do a series of posts on the non-writing author topic I get questions about the most: money.

Money is one of those gauche topics everyone is curious about but no one likes to discuss. I can understand why. In a culture where people are more likely to tell you about their sex life and medications in casual conversation than their financial situation, money talk, especially money talk in public, can feel almost obscene. At the same time, though, one of the most popular mantras in author circles is that, if you want to succeed, you have to treat your writing like a business, but how can you really do that if the most business-like aspect of the whole affair--the money--is couched behind euphemisms and shame?

So, in keeping with the open spirit of my blog, I'm going to spend the next three posts talk openly and candidly about my experiences with the money-side of being an author. Because this is such a broad topic, I'm going to be breaking the subject down into three parts: traditional, advance paying publishing, self-publishing, and how to manage taxes/writing income. For today, we're going to talk about the most obfuscated and confusing of the three, Traditional Publishing.

Enjoy, and please let me know if there's anything specific you'd like to know about money and authorship in the comments below.

Writers and Money Part 1: Traditional Publishing


Thursday, December 4, 2014

Interview with SF author Jennifer Foehner Wells, all around cool lady and author of FLUENCY!

Sorry for the lack of posts! I have fallen down a writing hole. BUT, I have emerged blinking from my cave because the absolutely wonderful Jennifer Foehner Wells, author of the smash hit first contact Science Fiction novel FLUENCY (and hopefully many sequels to come), gave into my pestering and graciously answered some questions for my blog! Hooray!

For those of you who haven't yet read the book yet, FLUENCY (which is only $3.99 right now!) is a super fun, classic SciFi novel about a NASA mission to make first contact with a mysterious, seemingly abandoned alien ship floating in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Our main character is a civilian linguist who gets drafted to come along and help decipher any alien writing, and the whole story is just really exciting, creepy, edge-of-your-seat fun. I enjoyed it a lot, and I hope after reading this interview, you'll be ready to give it a try as well!

Now, *pause to put on jaunty interviewer cap*, on to the interview!


RA: Let's start with the super shallow question: YOUR COVER IS GORGEOUS! It was the first thing I noticed about your book and I'm super jealous. Can you tell us more about it and why you decided to go with a "space" shot instead of something more character or action oriented?


JFW: There’s an interesting story there. At the midpoint of drafting FLUENCY, I was already thinking ahead to how I was going to indie publish it. I’d been looking for artists on DeviantArt, and contacted one or two, but nothing had actually gelled into existence. One day I was looking at the National Geographic website and saw some gorgeous space art. I kept coming back to it. The art was just STUNNING. It contained a credit, so I googled the artist.

I figured he must be a professional if Nat Geo was using him. I found his email address and shot him a brief email, outlining what my project was about. I asked him if he did book covers. He did. He seemed to be intrigued by the premise of my book.

I asked him how much he would charge. When he told me, I felt defeated. I couldn’t afford it. At first I just let it hang like that. Then about 48 hours later, I decided to be polite and I sent a note saying that I would keep his name and come calling when I had made some money at writing. He replied, asking what I could pay. I named the largest sum I could manage that I hoped wouldn't insult him (I was a stay-at-home mother at the time, out of the workforce for a decade—I was using my family’s savings—at the time this felt INCREDIBLY RISKY).

Miraculously, he agreed to that sum, and a few months later, I had the painting you see on the cover. The artist’s name is Stephan Martiniere. He has done covers for many SFF greats like Sanderson, Stross, Heinlein and many others. His career has been simply amazing. Shortly after FLUENCY came out, I got to watch Guardians of the Galaxy, which Martiniere had done concept art for. (I mean…WOW!!!!)

I KNEW NONE OF THIS WHEN I CONTACTED HIM.

Ignorance, as they say, is bliss. I would never have presumed to ask him to do it, if I had known these details about him.

That was such a lucky break for me. Having great cover art is so important. People become enchanted by that first, and then read the blurb and reviews before deciding if they want to buy. So, that was pretty darn helpful.


As far as choosing what to depict on the cover—that’s interesting too. Because I never considered anything other than the ship I’d imagined in my head. I sent Martiniere the passage in chapter 1 that describes the ship and I told him the Providence could look something like SpaceX’s Dragon or the (at that time) defunct Orion capsule. He took that and went with it. There was no back and forth. He sent me a final and I squeed and bowed and chanted “I’m not worthy. I’m not worthy.”

RA: Wow. That might just be my new favorite cover story of all time! Not gonna lie, your cover was the reason I clicked on your book (I know, I know, shallow), but I was drawn to the pretty purple spaceship. Now that I know there's a story behind it, I love it even more!

Another thing that really drew me to FLUENCY was your decision to use NASA instead of making something up. I felt it really grounded the book in our world, which did amazing things for the first contact aspects of the story. What made you decide to set the book in the realistic near future as opposed to something more fantastic?

JFW: When I set out to imagine the premise and outline of FLUENCY, I thought about the elements that personally appealed to me in the SF that I loved. Most of my favorite SF was not set in the far future, but set in contemporary times, happening to average people. That made the fish-out-of-water element that much more visceral and evoked a wonderful “it could be me” sense that I wanted to be a part of my own work. It grounds the story and also allowed me to jump right in without having to explain a how a culture and society were set up—I would leave that kind of development for the aliens I would use in the story.

RA: I also really liked your heroine, Dr. Jane Holloway. I can't think of another book I've read in any genre where a linguist took center stage. How did you decide on her profession? Do you perhaps have secret linguist origins? Also, will she go all Ellen Ripley on us in book 2? 

JFW: Dr. Jane Holloway is NOT Ripley. I love Ripley and what she did for women in popular media, but Jane is not ever going to be that kind of badass warrior. She will remain a clumsy intellectual that gets more and more adept, I think, but never ninja-like.

By the end of FLUENCY Jane was overwhelmed and withdrawing, trying to appear to be strong for her peers, but inside we could see through her interaction with Ei’Brai that she was very scared. You will continue to see that kind of inner truth and vulnerability from her as she struggles to cope with her new role.

And also, Jane is not ME. I’m much more like Alan Bergen, actually, in attitude and…erm…sailor-speak. :P

I don’t have secret linguistic origins. I studied biology, actually. But I do love language, especially Latin. And English. Duh. : )

There were several reasons why I chose to write about a linguist. One inspiration was Daniel Jackson of the Stargate franchise. I loved that character with an embarrassing level of fangirliness. I’d already written some Stargate fan fiction about another linguist I invented (so I already had linguists on the brain). Then, when I was in the earliest planning stages of FLUENCY, I heard a piece about Dr. Dan Everett on NPR. I was immediately intrigued by his story and googled him for more info.
I found this article in the New Yorker and read it over and over. It struck me like a blow to the head that I needed a linguist in my story. After all, how did we expect to be able to communicate with aliens? Everett was talking about first contact with remote tribes and I realized that what he was describing—a monolingual field situation--was very similar to what first contact with an alien race would be like.
Everett is one of those very gifted people who can learn languages easily. I’d heard of people like him before and they’d always intrigued me. (Especially after my own maladroit attempts at communicating in Spanish when I lived in Costa Rica during college.) It turns out they are very rare and many people do not believe they are real. Which seems silly. We hear of math and musical savants all the time. Why not a language savant?
I decided to take elements of Everett’s story and ascribe them to Jane. So, basically, the language superpower, the trip to the Amazon, and pulling a canoe upriver while stricken with malaria—those all actually happened to Everett. The rest was my imagination.

RA: I absolutely love that! The whole "how do you communicate with zero common ground" angle was one of my favorites of the book. Also, YAY for Stargate fans! I was always a Sam Carter/Jack shipper myself. (What can I say? I love a no-nonsense lady and her badass commander trying to be professionals while dealing with UST.)

Speaking of UST, as we are both ladies who write SF with romantic elements, let's talk about luuuuuv. Did you always plan to mix the softer feelings with your hard SF, or did it just sort of happen? Also, how have readers reacted to the mix? I know for my Devi books, it was a love or hate deal with almost no middle ground. Has this been the same for you?

JFW: First, let me say that, yes, I planned the romantic subplot in this novel from the beginning. It was always part of the plan from the earliest conception of the work.

Yes, Rachel, it has been the same for me. I don’t understand the controversy here. Nearly every major motion picture and television show, SF or not, contains romantic elements. People in all walks of life become attracted to each other, enamored of each other, all the freaking time…um…daily.

It’s a pretty major element of the human condition. Throughout history, so much of our art—poetry, paintings, music, has been devoted to exploring, understanding and celebrating attraction, lust, and love. CONNECTING with another human being, on a deep and spiritual level, loving that person, body and soul, is something nearly every human craves. Why, then, is it problematic in this particular genre?

I think a better question is this: why does most SF deny the existence of this natural aspect of human interaction? Or: Why is sex used in some SF as a commodity instead of as a connection? Or: Why is rape trivialized so much in fiction? Or: Why does a romantic subplot make a book “girly” and unworthy?

The answers to all of these questions lie in patriarchy, acculturation, entitlement, and hubris. I refuse to kowtow to these elements. Carol Shields said, “Write the book you want to read, the one you cannot find.” That’s all I did. I’ll learn all I can from criticism of my work, but this is one area where I will not bend.

*lifts the mighty hammer of feminism and hoists it to my back*
:D
Next question. . .

RA: 
100% AGREE!

Almost brings a tear to my eye. WE ARE SISTERS IN THE FIGHT TO BRING ROMANCE TO HARDCORE SF!

(gathers her composure)

Ahem, let's move on to the inevitable shop talk. Can't be two writers talking without shop talk, can we? Now, as anyone who's cruised the genre lists on Amazon in the last month knows, FLUENCY is doing amazingly well! I'm betting it's a combination of your lovely cover, smart price, interesting blurb, and great opening pages followed by a good story. Other than those obvious beauties, though, can you tell us anything else about what you did to make FLUENCY such a break out hit? I mean, other than write a super awesome and unique SF book?

JFW: Well, I really think that my awesome Twitter following helped out. I’ve been following SF fans on Twitter for about three years now. Twitter is so much fun and I have started so many wonderful friendships there. The ability to find and connect with a very specific subset of people that share the same interests is the most amazing thing!


So, the day I announced that my book was up…well, tons of people bought it. Then the amazon algorithms took over and it got very visible. Amazon seems to favor new authors that are selling well. The Almighty Zon does like its unicorns.

I never expected any of this. It’s been a complete surprise and such a whirlwind. I feel very blessed to have done so well right out of the gate. I’m determined to keep my foot in the door and help as many SF writers through as I can. I answer questions daily across social media platforms about what I do, and how I’ve done this and I never hold back if I think I can help. I’m not in competition with anyone else. Readers read lots of books and if they like yours, they may like mine, and the next person’s as well. We are competing, not with each other, but with candy crush and flappy bird.

RA: Very true. I've had almost the same experience with Nice Dragons, though to a lesser degree. Congratulations again on your success! You deserve it. It's like I keep telling people: write a good book, give it a good cover and blurb, and good things will happen.

And while we're on the subject, let's talk publishing! We're always interested in the sausage making side of things here on Pretentious Title, so can you tell us a bit about how FLUENCY came to be? And on that same note, do you have any wise words for other SF authors who'd like to follow in your footsteps?

JFW: I initially planned to self-publish. When my local SF writing group read FLUENCY, a couple of members pulled me aside and told me that I would be selling myself short if I didn’t try traditional publishing. So, I decided to give it a try.

I did some Twitter pitch competitions, some blog contests and also submitted some queries. But the process was so demoralizing. Either I wasn’t even acknowledged as having submitted or FLUENCY was rejected (I bet some of those agents and presses are kicking themselves now!) and I just got fed up and decided to go forward with my original plan. That was the right decision for me.

It had taken a year to write the first draft of FLUENCY. I took another year to get some distance from my own prose and then to revise it. In the meantime I worked on another novel (now on hold for the moment—a superhero origin story called Druid). After I had completed all the revisions that I and my writing group thought the book needed, I hired a proofreader. Then I spent a month learning how to format and publish the book.

My wisest words for other writers:

Write every day.

Follow your gut and your own interests, not a trend.

Get lots of eyes on your work, but don’t ask for how to fix anything—ask for a reader’s reactions to it, in order to gauge if you’re getting the responses that you intended. Ask for feedback on things that were confusing, on sentences that tripped them up, on places where they felt strong feelings.

Be patient with yourself. Don’t race to publish or to submit queries. Relax. Let your work sit on a shelf for a while—as long as you can bear. Go back to it with fresh eyes and work to trim it, hone it, enhance it. I don’t subscribe to this idea that self-pubbed authors need to release a gazillion books to succeed. You need to release GOOD books to succeed. Produce the best you are capable of.
(Rachel interruption: THIS THIS THIS THIS THIIIIIIIIIS.)

Join a serious writers group—down to earth (not pretentious) but with high standards. Hold yourself and others to high standards in the kindest and most encouraging way possible.

Read about your craft. My favorite book about writing is: Story Engineering by Larry Brooks.

Keep writing. The more words you have under your belt, the better those words get.

If you decide to go indie: INVEST. Invest in your work by hiring good, professional support: cover artists, formatters and editors. It will make a world of difference in the quality you provide your readers. That matters.

RA: That is all excellent advice! Jennifer, thank you so much for taking the time to come onto my blog. I am absolutely delighted to see more female authors in my favorite genre (Devi was getting a little lonely). I might cackle manically over your success every time I see someone implying that hard SF books, especially hard SF books written by women, "don't sell." We're all in this boat together, and I for one am delighted to have you aboard! I hope you continue to write great books for years to come.

I hope you all enjoyed the interview, and if you haven't already, don't forget to check out FLUENCY! I'll be back soon with more actual writing posts. Until then, I remain your terrible orange font user,

Rachel


Friday, November 7, 2014

Nice Dragons Finish Last is part of the Kindle November Big Deal AND a cover art reveal!

Yes, NDFL is only $1.99 until the end of the month!


I had, of course, hoped to have the sequel out before this sale, but when Amazon invites you to be a big deal, you jump on it! So if you haven't tried NDFL yet, or if you have friends you'd like to surprise on the cheap, now's your chance!
BUT, while I don't have the actual finished version of One Good Dragon Deserves Another yet, I do have my cover art straight from my artist, Anna Steinbauer!


Yes, that is Marci and Ghost and their army of cats! This is the original art, so the framing and whatnot will be different on the final cover to fit the standard cover size and take the title into account, but I wanted to give you guys a sneak peek. 

Thanks for reading!
- R

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

A slice of NaNoWriMo

So as I mentioned in my last post, I'm doing my yearly thread over at the NaNoWriMo Fantasy forums. This is always one of the highlights of my year, mostly because people ask such interesting questions! 

This morning, for example, I got a question I loved so much I pretty much wrote a thesis on it just because I found the subject matter fascinating. I think you'll find it interesting as well, so, since I don't want to make people dig through forums, I'm going to repost the question and my answer here for easy access!

I hope you like it as much as I did! (And V. G. Medvekoma, I hope you don't mind me quoting you here. If you do, just let me know and I'll remove your part. Thank you again for such a great question!).

The Question:
V. G. Medvekoma wrote:
So I've been always wondering something: Why is fantasy oftentimes limited to a medieval setting?
I've jumped over to wikipedia's list of fantasy worlds (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_fantasy_worlds) and have chosen 20 completely random worlds/settings.
  • 14 were definite medieval (swords, archery, horses, castles, feudalism, guilds, ...).
  • 3 were contemporary worlds with a parallel universe where the characters could travel (Each of them had a medieval parallel world).
  • 1 was a contemporary world
  • 1 was late medieval (medieval with cannons and early muskets)
  • 1 was western world with parallel universes.
Now I'm not stating that medieval-ism is bad, I'm just curious for the reason and another thing: is this a cliché that inflences the publisher market? Would a publisher or an agent prefer a medieval world over an Elizabethan one?

Rachel's Answer:
(Click here to see the original post)

This is a super cool question, and I really like the list you made!

You're very right that vaguely European Medieval style worlds dominate the Fantasy genre, particularly the Grimdark and Epic branches. My own Eli books take place in a sort of magical, late-Renaissance France-Italy without gunpowder, so I can't even claim to be above it.

*Rachel dusts off her English Major cap and places it on her head at a jaunty angle*

You can't talk about where Fantasy gets anything without talking about Lord of the Rings, the grandfather of the Fantasy genre as we know it.

There are plenty of stories we'd now call Fantasy from before Tolkein, including historical ballads like Thomas Rhymer and the Queen of Elfland  and Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, which is where we get almost all of our modern Authurian legends (and is also really freaking cool!). Both of these belong to the "romance" tradition in English literature, which has been a very strong theme in our literary history pretty much from the beginning. Please note that the word "romance" here doesn't mean a book with a dominant love story, but rather a fantastical tale that's almost entirely made up, usually very loosely based on folklore or history.

This love of creating new stories around the old Folk Lore tradition led to the Literary Fairy Tales of the Enlightenment that swept all of Europe. Retelling Fairy Tales, definitely not a modern invention! Anyway, I'm glossing over a lot of history, but if you're interested in the history of Fantasy, which is a very cool and rich history indeed, there's a great Wikipedia article on the subject.

Now, the idea of romantic (little r) literature was a very broad one that encompasses almost all of what we would now call "genre fiction." The works of Sir Walter Scott, which we would now call "historical fiction," were famous examples of romantic stories. So it's not just fantasy.

This is where Tolkein comes in. His Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit were, if not the first, then definitely the most popular and enduring romantic stories to be set in their own secondary world, which we now expect from modern Fantasy. Now, of course, in Tolkein's mind, he wasn't writing Fantasy, but rather continuing the previously mentioned English romantic tradition of retold/re-imagined Folk Lore. He just made his own based on Scandinavian myths. But even thought Tolkein's stories were popular in their day, they didn't really reach their current lofty peak as the Source of All Fantasy until Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson used Tolkein's world and style as the inspiration for a little role playing game called Dungeons and Dragons.

It is impossible to overstate the impact of D&D, and through it, Tolkein's world, on modern Fantasy. All of our standard Fantasy cliches: brutal orcs, beautiful immortal elves, intelligent gold hoarding dragons, dwarves with giant beards who sing and live in hollowed out mountains, necromancers, etc. Come to us from Tolkein by way of D&D. The Dragonlance series, one of the first huge Fantasy hits, was a novelization of a D&D campaign.

Looking at the above, it's clear to see how our current Fantasy tradition of non-gunpowder, highly magical, Euro-medieval secondary worlds can be traced directly back to Tolkein and D&D, but why did it stay around? Well, as always, the answer is reader demand. Modern Fantasy's first hayday was the 80s and 90s, and its readers were overwhelmingly the same audience that was attracted to the D&D roleplaying system. They LOVED their books full of elves and orcs, and so publishers and authors provided. For almost two decades, Tolkenian Fantasy worlds were Fantasy, and it's only recently that we've started really branching out and maturing as a genre into other kinds of secondary worlds and stories.

So that's why so many Fantasy novels are medieval, because for a long time, that was the definition of Fantasy and what readers expected. Readers, not writers, dictate the direction a genre takes. An author can write anything and call it Fantasy (and have been doing so with mixed success for a very long time), but unless the Fantasy readership agrees, those genre-breaking books sink into obscurity. And even now, when we're actually starting to see a large body of Fantasy work set in places other than Tolkeinian worlds, the biggest Fantasy bestsellers--Game of Thrones, The Wheel of Time, and so forth--are all set in unique variations on the same vaguely medieval, European, pre-gunpowder, ancient magic, lost empires, Tolkenian inspired setting that's always been the backbone of the genre.

So yeah. Medieval-set Fantasy? Not going anywhere for awhile.

What does this mean for you as an author? Not much, actually. Despite everything I just said above, there are plenty of great selling, highly acclaimed Fantasy novels that don't fall into the D&D/Tolkein rut. NK Jemisen's 100k Kingdoms is a fantastic modern example of a not Euro-centric, totally unique Fantasy that was a success by any measure (and is also super good!). In fact, I think publishers and agents would prefer a unique setting to yet another Tolkein-clone just because it gives them something new to pitch. That said, a well told, well written story of any sort will always find its audience.


Wow, that got long, but also really fun! Hope I didn't murder you all with my wall-o-text! This was a super interesting question. Thank you so much for asking it, and I hope I gave you an answer you can use somewhere in there. :)

***

And so you see what I spend my time on the NaNo thread doing, waxing rhapsodic about Fantasy history! And yes, I know I left a TON of stuff out, but I'm still really happy with this.

The lines of genre are drawn so deep and dark these days, it's easy to forget that what we call Fantasy today is just an extension of a rich, literary tradition of secondary worlds that stretches back for centuries. Writers have always created their own fantastical worlds, and the modern Fantasy genre is just another step on that journey. Personally, I'm really looking forward to what the genre will become when we finally get away from the Euro/Nordic-centric settings and become truly global in our literary appropriations.

What stories we will have!

Happy NaNo, everyone!

Friday, October 31, 2014

The Good News, the Bad News, and then Good News again!

First, the good news! Tantor Audio has bought the audiobook rights to THE SPIRIT WAR and SPIRIT'S END!!! And, they'll be hiring the original narrator, Luke Daniels, to finish the series!

 

WOOOO! This will finally complete Eli Monpress in audio book after 3 years of waiting! I don't have a release date or links yet since we just signed the papers, but when I do I will let you know ASAP.

Hooray!

So that's the good news, now for the not so good. The next book in my Heartstriker series, ONE GOOD DRAGON DESERVES ANOTHER, isn't going to be done in time to come out this year.

I know, I know, that really sucks. No one is more pissed about this than I am, but the plot as I had it planned was simply not executable, and so, rather than put out a bad book (which I will NEVER do), I'm doing a rewrite.

That said, the rewrite is going very well so far, and fingers crossed, ONE GOOD DRAGON DESERVES ANOTHER should be out early in 2015. I'm very sorry for the delay, and I hope you'll forgive me and hold on to read the next book when it comes out. I'm trying to make it extra amazing to make up for the time lost, and I really hope you'll enjoy it!

In happier news, I'm doing my yearly open NaNo thread on the NaNoWriMo Fantasy Forums! This is my fourth year doing this, and it's always a blast, so if you're participating in National Novel Writing Month, or if you just have questions about writing or the writing business in general, please stop by and ask. For the month of November, I'm all yours!

See you all soon and again, I'm super sorry about the delay. I promise it won't be too much longer!

Yours sincerely, and happy writing,
Rachel

Monday, October 27, 2014

My Halloween Costume and a reading rec!



Don't I look dapper? But seriously, how do men deal with beards?! SO HOT!

In the spirit of the joke, though, I'd like to draw all of your attention to this book I just started called FLUENCY, by Jennifer Foehner Wells.

NASA discovered the alien ship lurking in the asteroid belt in the 1960s. They kept the Target under intense surveillance for decades, letting the public believe they were exploring the solar system, while they worked feverishly to refine the technology needed to reach it. 

The ship itself remained silent, drifting. 

Dr. Jane Holloway is content documenting nearly-extinct languages and had never contemplated becoming an astronaut. But when NASA recruits her to join a team of military scientists for an expedition to the Target, it’s an adventure she can’t refuse. 

The ship isn’t vacant, as they presumed. 

A disembodied voice rumbles inside Jane’s head, "You are home." 

Jane fights the growing doubts of her colleagues as she attempts to decipher what the alien wants from her. As the derelict ship devolves into chaos and the crew gets cut off from their escape route, Jane must decide if she can trust the alien’s help to survive. 

Full Disclosure: I haven't read the whole thing yet, so it could still go off the rails, but what I have read so far has been solid, old school exploration SciFi. Most important of all in the current context, however, this is classic SF WRITTEN BY A WOMAN, and until Amazon shoved this book in my face, I'd never heard about it. And that's freaking weird since Fluency is currently #7 overall in the Kindle Store right now with a 4.2 Amazon rating from over 1100 reviews. It's got a more mixed but still decent 1000+  reviews over at Goodreads as well, which strikes me as a pretty big hit for a debut SF novel that's only been out since June.

How did I miss this book before now? Here we are, desperate to bring female voices into SF, and this lady with her hard SF debut novel about a female doctor of linguistics making first contact is quietly becoming a hit off the radar. That's incredible!

So Jennifer, if you're reading this, mega congratulations on your success and on your book. I can't wait to finish it! Most fun I've had with hard SF in a long long time. And for the rest of you, check out Fluency! Hopefully you'll be as pleasantly surprised as I was.

Friday, October 3, 2014

Nice Dragons Deserve Numbers -- Sales Report, the Thirty Day Climb, and Kindle Unlimited

ETA: It has come to my attention that some of you hate reading white text on a black background, so I've also compiled this post into a normal, black text on white PDF to make reading easier if that's your thing.

My favorite thing about the indie publishing community is its transparency. I could not have made my decision to self-publish without the sales numbers and analysis posted by the authors who came before me. As all of you who read my blog regularly know, we are big big fans of paying it forward here at Casa de Aaron/Bach, and so it was a foregone conclusion that I would do the same once my own numbers started coming in.

Below, you will find the complete sales numbers/Kindle Universe borrows for Nice Dragons Finish Last followed by a few conclusions and observations I've drawn from my self pub results so far. Please know that I am not doing this to brag. While I did admittedly have a fantastic, amazing, beyond my wildest expectations two months, I'm still nowhere near the top of the publishing heap for either the traditional or self-pub side of the fence. These numbers are provided purely for the edification and benefit of the community of independent authors who have always been so generous with their information. Seriously, y'all rock.

Before we get going, though, a word of warning. I apparently had a lot more to say about this than I realized, because this post is one of the longest I've ever made (5400 words!). That's a lot to ask someone to read on the internet, and I seriously thought about splitting it up into multiple posts for easier consumption. After reading it again, though, I've decided to leave it intact. It was written to stand as one post, and that really is how it works best, so for those of you I'm about to give eyestrain, mea culpa.

I promise it'll be worth the long read! There's some pretty cool stuff in here if I do say so myself. That said, I totally understand if giant, numbers-heavy self-publishing analysis posts aren't your thing. So if picking apart Amazon algos sounds boring to you, why not go read about dragons instead? I won't be insulted!

And now, for those brave souls who are still here and ready to talk serious numbers, let's let this cat out of the box!


Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Your Book is Not a Special Snowflake

I know I promised not to talk about the Hachette/Amazon thing ever again, but it just keeps dragging on and on, and when things drag on and on, ugly things get exposed. The latest of these is a letter to the Amazon Board of Directors from Authors United, a group of authors who've banded together to stand up for the Everyman/woman writer whose books are caught in the middle of the corporate struggle.

To be clear, I have no problem with this in theory. I think authors should have a voice in the business side of their livelihood. In practice, however, Authors United's efforts to be a voice for all authors have been, shall we say, highly disappointing, and this letter is the worst offender yet. Just take a look at this choice paragraph:
We all appreciate discounted razor blades and cheaper shoes. But books are not consumer goods. Books cannot be written more cheaply, nor can authors be outsourced to China. Books are not toasters or televisions. Each book is the unique, quirky creation of a lonely, intense, and often expensive struggle on the part of a single individual, a person whose living depends on his or her book finding readers.
Casual racism much? I'm pretty sure China has many, many talented authors who might take umbrage to the idea that their stories are only important as a cheap replacement for American novels. Also, note how the needs of authors are so much more important than the needs of the people who make razor blades and shoes. Clearly, exploitation of foreign workers is totally cool with Authors United, so long as those workers are not authors.

There's more, of course, but Courtney Milan has already eloquently torn into all of this, so I'll just point you to her post and add "Ditto." My personal bone to pick here, however, is the assertion that books are somehow different from other commercial goods.

This is hardly the first time the "books aren't like all that other stuff, books are SPECIAL!" argument has cropped up in the Amazon/Hachette morass. Even all around cool dude John Scalzi writes "[Readers] do not see books as an interchangeable commodity with a garden rake, even when they aren't bestsellers." But while I agree that novels are not interchangeable, that every story represents the sweat/blood/tears/time/etc. of its author, that books have the power to touch people more personally and profoundly than any garden rake (hopefully), they are still marketable items produced to satisfy wants and needs, which is the very definition of a commodity.

The whole business of book selling is based around the treatment of the book as product. For years, the widest available book format was the Mass Market paperback, whose commercial, commodity nature is right there in the name! Books act like commodities, too, just look at the numbers. My own novel, Fortune's Pawn, is currently discounted to $1.99, and sales correspondingly shot up because that's what sales do when there's a discount. Likewise, publishers will sometimes give a book a different cover if sales are low, as happened to my own Eli books. Why? For the same reason cereal makers keep redoing their packaging: things that look better/newer/more exciting sell more. It's the same pattern you see with hair dryers or rakes or any other commodity.

If books were truly unique, non-commodity works of art, there would be only one copy. New works would be sold in book galleries, and classics would hang in a book museum for people to stand in front of and read as a unique book experience...and it would be HORRIBLE. There's a reason the printing press is hailed as one of the most important inventions in human history. It took books, which had previously been unique, hand copied works of art available only to the rich, and made them reproducible, vastly expanding the number of people with access.

It is precisely the cheap, abundant, easily accessible, commodity nature of books that makes them such a huge part of our lives. Clearly, Authors United thinks so, too, because one of their primary complaints is that Amazon has stopped discounting their books, a move they claim has made sales go down "by at least 50 percent and in some cases as much as 90 percent." To be clear, this is a valid complaint. By ensuring Hachette books have a relatively higher price to the rest of their stock, Amazon is intentionally hobbling sales. BUT OH MY GOD, PEOPLE, you can't say "Books are special! Books are not commodities!" in one breath and then complain that Amazon isn't treating your book fairly as a commodity the next.

So look, Authors United, I get that you're mad at Amazon and that you don't appreciate being used as pawns in a larger corporate battle, but y'all need to get a grip. No one's saying you have to wholeheartedly embrace the cold, commercial side of publishing, but you do have to acknowledge that it exists. You have to accept that you're not a unique unicorn with magical bookmaking powers and that the basic rules of economics do, indeed, apply to you and your work. Books are commodities. They behave like commodities, function as commodities, and they're going to be sold like commodities. If you have a problem with how Amazon is treating the sale of your commodity, that's fine, but don't try to argue that the rules should be different for you because your book is a special snowflake. It's not. You're not. The rules apply, and perpetuating the lie that they don't helps no one, least of all authors.

Someone designed that rake, too, you know.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Ice Bucket Challenge - A Non-Cannon Devi Morris Short (Shot?)

The entire crew of the Glorious Fool, minus one, huddled around the table in the middle of the lounge, talking in hushed voices. Down the stairs in the cargo bay, their victim sat on the floor with her armor spread out around her, humming a Paradoxian marching song as she lovingly inspected each piece, completely unaware of gathering taking place behind her, or the bucket of slushy ice water at their feet.

"I'm not going to do it," Rupert said, crossing his arms firmly over his chest.

"What are you afraid of?" Basil squawked. "You're an unkillable alien super solider! She's not even wearing armor."

Rupert cocked an eyebrow. "You think that will slow her down?"

We should make Nova do it, Hyrek typed, holding his handset out so they could all read. She won't hurt Nova.

"Oh no," Nova said, shaking her pale head. "No matter how good the cause, I could never disrupt Deviana's harmony like that."

Hyrek heaved a long, raspy sigh. I thought this exercise was about improving people's lives, but it seems it's going to end one of ours if we go through with it.

"Wait, isn't she supposed to dump it over her own head?" Mabel asked, tapping the condensation-beaded bucket with her toe. "Not that I object to dousing her, but we just got the hull fixed."

Rupert shook his head. "I asked her about it earlier, but she said dumping a bucket of ice water over your head for charity was, and I quote, 'a sissy Terran version of the real Ice Bucket challenge from Paradox where they throw you naked into the northern sea and make you swim for it.'" He frowned. "I'm not actually sure how that helps charity, but I think there's betting involved."

"Backing out is not an option," Caldswell said, reaching down to pick up the bucket. "We already agreed. One way or another, this bucket's going over her head. So who's it gonna be?"

His crew all looked at their feet, and the captain sighed. "Fine. I'll do it."

"You're a brave man, sir," Rupert said.

The captain shook head. Honestly, he'd rather bait a bear than Devi Morris, armor or no, but the author had already made promises, so Caldswell hefted the bucket in his hand and started down the cargo bay stairs to do what must be done.

By the time he reached the bottom, Devi had stopped working. "You're a lot less sneaky than Rupert," she drawled, her hand drifting toward her gun.

"Wasn't trying to sneak," Caldswell said, stopping behind her. "Hands off the gun, Morris. You know we gotta do this. ALS is a terrible degenerative disease that's going to keep making innocent people's lives hell until we find a cure. If turning you into an ice cube can convince even a few people to donate to the fight to make a universe with ALS, then I'm prepared to dump the ship's entire water supply over your skull."

Devi set her jaw stubbornly--its permanent position, so far as Caldswell could tell--but she let go of the gun. "You really think this'll help people?" she asked, standing up.

He nodded, and she heaved an enormous sigh. "Fine, do your worst. Just give me a sec to put up the sensitive electronics."

Caldswell stepped back to give her space as she swept up all the pieces of her armor and refitted them back into their case. When cargobay floor was clean, she moved over to the drain and fixed him with her killing stare.

"On three," Caldswell said, raising the bucket over her head. "One....two...."

He dumped it.

"Holy shit!" Devi screamed as the torrent of icy, slushy, one-degree-from-frozen water poured over her head and down her back. "What happened to three?!"

"Quicker this way," he said, trying his best not to laugh as she danced around, whipping her soaked hair back and forth in a vain attempt to knock out all the pieces of ice.

"Did you put salt in this to make it colder?"

"Among other things," Caldswell said. "Too cold for you?"

She bared her teeth at him and whirled around, stomping toward the stairs. Rupert was waiting at the top with a towel, which she snatched it out of his hand. "Did you know he was going to do that?"

"It's for a very good cause," Rupert said, but Devi was already storming away toward the showers.

"Don't you want to call anyone else out?' Caldswell yelled after her.

Devi's reply was long, profane, and mostly in King's Tongue, but it roughly translated down to "Just pay them the (string of expletives) money."

Should we tell her we already donated? Hyrek typed.

"And miss this?" Caldswell said, grinning wide. "Not for anything."

His crew didn't seem to know what to make of that, but being a captain meant never having to explain yourself, so he just pointed them toward the mops and ordered them to clean up his cargo bay.

And thus I participate in a fad for a good cause! Thank you (I think) to author Sandy Williams who had her own badass lady McKenzie Lewis take the Ice Bucket Challenge and call out Devi Morris to do the same. Honestly, I mostly did it because I wanted to dump ice on Devi's head, but it really is a good cause that's been struggling in obscurity for a while now. I hope you'll considering pitching in a few dollars (or a few ice cubes), if not for a cure,  then at least to keep the icy insanity rolling a little longer!

Also Devi wants you to know she totally would have dumped that bucket over her own head like a stone cold boss if her author hadn't wanted to make the others do it for comedic effect.

Thanks for reading!
-Rachel

Friday, August 15, 2014

How to Write a Great Blurb

This week, I finally read Blake Snyder's Save the Cat!, the screenwriter's classic How To Tell a Story book. As a non-screenwriter, I still found it very interesting, but the part I liked the best was definitely the chapter about loglines.

So a logline is basically the one sentence description of a movie you used to see in the paper back when people actually looked at news papers for movie times. Things like:

"The fight for the future begins when a computer hacker learns the world exists in the sophisticated alternate reality of a computer program called 'The Matrix'"

"A 17th Century tale of adventure on the Caribbean Sea where the roguish yet charming Captain Jack Sparrow joins forces with a young blacksmith in a gallant attempt to rescue the Governor of England's daughter and reclaim his ship."

"Toula's family has exactly three traditional values - "Marry a Greek boy, have Greek babies, and feed everyone." When she falls in love with a sweet but WASPy guy, Toula struggles to get her family to accept her fiancée while she comes to terms with her own heritage."

These are loglines for The Matrix, Pirates of the Caribbean, and My Big, Fat, Greek Wedding respectively, though I probably didn't even have to tell you that. We know these stories, because these were all loglines that sold movies. In the business part of Hollywood, that's a logline's job: to sell a script.

In this area, at least, we novelists have it WAY better than screenwriters, because we have blurbs. Unlike loglines, which have to be short enough to pitch in that proverbial elevator, blurbs (or query letters, which are basically blurbs personalized to an agent) are allowed to take up entire paragraphs. Compared to the loglines above, that's an embarrassment of riches in terms of space to lay out our stories, and yet we still struggle to fit it all in. How do you convey what your 100,000 word book is about in two paragraphs? That's barely enough space to lay out the main characters and a basic sketch of the plot.

Well, you're in luck, because telling the story isn't what blurbs are for! A blurb, like a logline, isn't meant to be a synopsis or a report or anything so heavy. Instead, it is the answer to the question, "What is your story about?" And as any author who's admitted their profession in public can tell you, when someone asks "What is your story about," they're not signing up to hear a book report. They just want to know what's the genre, and why should they care.

Once you understand that, you've taken the first step toward mastering the blurb, because blurbs, like the loglines above, aren't there to tell the story, they're there to sell the story. They're meant to hook, to tease, to excite, to get whoever is reading them to want to read more. That's it, that's the entire point, and once you realize that, writing blurbs becomes very simple.

Not easy, of course. Blurbs still have to be short, witty, tantalizing, and full of hooks, which is hardly a walk in the park. But with a few guidelines (and the knowledge that you're writing ad copy, not a book a report), blurbs can stop being things you hate and become fun writing exercises.

Years ago, when I was haunting the NaNoWriMo forums, I came across the best single line hook for a novel I've ever read. It was one of those "boil your novel down to one sentence" challenges, and the entry was "He broke the world, can he fix it?"

That's a hell of a hook. I think I actually asked out loud "I don't know, can he?!" If there'd been more, I would have read it right there. Now, having read Save the Cat!, I think I understand why I was so immediately snapped up. In his book, Snyder mentions that the two essentials for every logline are irony and mystery. "He broke the world, can he fix it?" is just these two things in their purest form, a giant, unbreakable thing has been broken by an individual (irony), can he fix it? (mystery)

This two pronged approach is most easily visible in loglines where the enforced brevity leaves no room for anything else. Looking back up at the logline for The Matrix, we see that our real world isn't real at all (irony) and that we're going to be fighting machines to get back (inherent mystery, can we win?). Blurbs, being longer, are a little different. They still rely on mystery and iron, which could also be called the ingredients for a good hook, but they have the space to pack in more: more characters, more intrigue, more hooks. The canny writer will use this to her advantage.

Take, for example, the blurb for Magic Bites by Ilona Andrews:
"Atlanta would be a nice place to live, if it weren't for magic… One moment magic dominates, and cars stall and guns fail. The next, technology takes over and the defensive spells no longer protect your house from monsters. Here skyscrapers topple under onslaught of magic; werebears and werehyenas prowl through the ruined streets; and the Masters of the Dead, necromancers driven by their thirst of knowledge and wealth, pilot blood-crazed vampires with their minds. In this world lives Kate Daniels. Kate likes her sword a little too much and has a hard time controlling her mouth. The magic in her blood makes her a target, and she spent most of her life hiding in plain sight. But when Kate’s guardian is murdered, she must choose to do nothing and remain safe or to pursue his preternatural killer. Hiding is easy, but the right choice is rarely easy…"
This is a fantastic blurb on all accounts. There's requisite the irony (how could a city with magic not be a nice place to live?!) and mystery (Why is there magic? Will Kate catch the killer?), but there's also about ten billion other amazing cool hooks waiting to grab us--magic and technology switching places! A ruined metropolis crawling with magic! Necromancers who mind control vampires! A kick-ass heroine! A killer on the loose! How could you not want to read this book?!

This is the power of a great blurb. The paragraph above tells us almost nothing about the actual plot. There's only one named character (Kate Daniels) and a single recognizable location (Atlanta). We don't know why magic came back or what the world is like or even what Kate actually does for a living, and yet I want to read it all RIGHT NOW, as do hundreds thousands of other people going by her regular appearances on the NYT Bestseller List. We all want to read because this blurb does a great job of selling the setting, characters, and voice of the book.

That last bit is really crucial, and one of the reasons why authors should never farm out their blurb writing. Unlike loglines for movies, blurbs are more than just a sales pitch. They're also a sample of the writing we can expect inside. If a writer can't write a good blurb, or at least an interesting, engaging one, I have to wonder if they can write a novel. Blurb writing is hard, yes, but it's still writing. When I see an overworked blurb full of awkward sentences, predictable turns, and cheesy stock phrases ("the fate of the world," "toughest challenge she's ever known," "Character's perfect life falls apart when"), I can't help but wonder if the book isn't just as bad. That's never what you want people to wonder! You don't want them to wonder at all, you want them buy/request sample pages with squeals of delighted glee!

So, if you're sitting down to write a blurb or a query letter for your book, or if you already have a blurb/query letter and you're not getting the responses you want, take a step back and ask yourself if your blurb is doing its job. Is it highlighting what's best and most interesting about your work? Is it only telling people what they will read, or is it showing them why they want to read it?

Again, blurb writing is not easy. I can write 1000 words an hour, but I've spent two days on a 200 word blurb and still not been completely happy. That can feel a lot like failure when it hits, but your blurb is worth that level of effort, because the blurb is the most important bit of writing in your novel. The blurb is the first impression, the foot in the door. It's the very first thing anyone will read of your work, and if that blurb can't convince a reader or agent to keep going, your novel will not be read. So never be afraid to take your time and never settle for a blurb you don't love. It might take dozens of tries, but a good blurb is always worth the work in the end.

I hope this has helped you get a bit more insight into the World of Blurbcraft! I wanted to put up a really terrible blurb as a counter example to the Ilona Andrews one above, but there's no writer I dislike enough to embarrass them like that. Besides, you know a bad blurb when you see one. Everyone does, which is why they don't work. So use that same gut instinct on your own blurb. It might hurt, but I promise it's a good, becoming-a-better-writer kind of hurt.

And that's my post on blurbs! As always, thank you for reading, and remember to pile those hooks high!

Happy writing!
Rachel