Too little, too late

I can’t think of a time in my life when I didn’t make up stories. When I learned how to write, I started putting my stories down on paper. When my cousin Clarice discovered I loved writing, she told me about her father. Uncle Herb had been a playwright but, raising a family during the Depression, he had given it up to make sure there was a roof over their head and food on the table. Uncle Jack had been a newspaper man like his father before him. Others in the family he written for enjoyment. It was Clarice’s first step toward encouraging me to follow my dream to be a writer.

For years, I dreamed of seeing my books in bookstores, of being able to sign my books at author events and of making my cousin proud. What I didn’t realize was that between those first few days of encouragement from Clarice to when I finally got serious about writing — yes, Sarah has very pointy boots — the publishing industry would change dramatically. Now, I can hold my books in print. Yes, there is a little thrill of excitement when a new proof copy comes in and I finally pull the button to put the print book on sale. But the reality is that the vast majority of my sales — just as the vast majority of my purchases — are e-books.

 

I have long accepted that my books would never grace the shelves of Barnes and Noble. After all, their feud with Amazon is well-known. B&N had made it clear it won’t stock books published by Amazon or made available through Createspace. So when I saw news that B&N was finally going to stock indie print books, I sat up and took notice. Could the bookseller finally be admitting that the indie market was large enough to take it seriously? If so, what did I have to do to get my books into its 640 stores?

The initial press release filled me with hope. Nook Press, B&N’s alternative to KDP, was going to offer a print side. Better yet, it would allow for hardcover as well as soft cover print books. Cool. I kept reading and that is when I started realizing there was a big “if” to it all.

Through the new print platform, eligible* NOOK Press authors have the opportunity to sell their print books at Barnes & Noble stores across the country on a local, regional or national level, and online at BN.com. Authors can also qualify** for the opportunity to participate at in-store events including booksignings and discussions, where they will be able to sell their print books and meet fans.

Oops. I’m not out of the first paragraph of the press release and there are already two asterisks that tell me the fine print is going to be anything but warm and welcoming.

The rest of the release talks about how wonderful the Nook Press platform is and what an opportunity this presents to those who take part. But those damned asterisks to look at.

Let’s look at what you have to do to be eligible. “Opportunity available for those print book authors whose eBook sales [of a single title] have reached 1,000 units in the past year.” Okay, does that mean you have to sell 1,000 units of a title before that title is eligible for the print program? (That is my take) Or is it if you sell 1,000 units of any title and all your titles can be eligible for the print program? I doubt the latter, figure the former.

I also have a sneaky suspicion that those 1,000 units of sales have to be on the Nook platform. So that is a big hurdle right there. I know there are some authors who have had success on the Nook platform selling e-books. But from personal experience, as well as talking with other authors I know, those who have sold 1,000 units of a single title in a year on B&N are few and far between. The reason I left B&N in the first place was because I was making very few sales there. My Amazon sales ran more than 10 to 1 and, with the start of KDP Select and then KU, well, there was no reason to go anywhere else. Not when I compared the numbers.

But, maybe it is time to reconsider if I can get my books onto BN shelves. So, I tried to keep an open mind and kept reading down to the second asterisk. Again, it leaves more questions than it gives answers. An author can qualify for in-store events if they sell fewer e-books (single title) in a one year period than is required to be eligible to be placed on the shelves. Does this mean the author or store will order print versions of the book and have them on hand to sell at these events? If so, what sort of hit will the author take for returns? Does the author have to buy the books outright or what?

All in all, it is something that looks good on the surface but that really isn’t doing anything to help win the average indie author over to BN. First of all, unless I keep my prices und9er $2.99, my royalties will be less from BN than they are from Amazon. With Amazon, I get 70% for my books, all priced between $2.99 to $4.99. With BN, I would receive only 65%. That isn’t much per unit but when you consider I would be giving up my Kindle Unlimited reads, which make up at least 1/3 of my income each month and is always in a minimum of the 3 digit range, it turns into a very big hit.

More importantly, I don’t see a guarantee that my print book would be stocked — or for long — in stores if I did have the magic 1,000 units sold in a year.

Oh, one more little thing I guess BN thought we would miss. To be eligible for this, it means your book has been out as an e-book for months, or years, before it will make it onto the shelves. Remember, you have to have sold 1,000 units in a year before it is eligible. We don’t know what the steps are from there (Full disclosure. I did a quick search of their site and didn’t find more information. It might be there but it shows another of my complaints with BN. Their sites are not well designed.) So, by the time the print comes out the initial push for the book is done and the author is on to writing another book and pushing it.

Timing, they say, is everything and in this instance BN is badly out of sync.

It will be interesting to see how this falls out over the next few months. I wish those taking part luck but I will not be moving away from KDP Select and KU anytime soon. Not on something that I have so many questions about. It really is, in my mind, too little, too late. And that is too bad.

 

 

 

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Villainy, the root of all heroism

Hur! Hur! Hur! (grunt, grunt ugh!)
Pillage, rape and then ahr…son,
Yer gotta do ‘em right, son!
Hur! Hur! Hur! (grunt, grunt ugh!)
Afore yer do yer worst,
Always remember which comes first.
Hur! Hur! Hur! (grunt, grunt ugh!)

Marching song from Fort Pha-harrish, Fighting Orc boot-camp.

I believe it’s a pretty soft boot camp these days. Luxury. I mean they get boots to eat. In my day we had demon toenail-clippings if we was lucky, and had to polish Mount Doom with our tongues…
Ah good ole days! But you tells the young orc o’ today…

Heroes. We all talk about heroes.

But a hero, it seems, is a plant that can only grow in a bed of villainy. To craft a great story takes more than just building a hero. It takes building that environment in which that heroism becomes visible, becomes a story.

It’s a structural issue from the writing craftsman’s point of view. It’s far more difficult than the character we identify with and hope our reader identify with. It’s something that requires getting into the head of a character/s the writer hopes will be disliked, or hated and feared. And doing that well means stepping a long way past stereotype villains, understanding what makes them tick, understanding how they would terrify people, and understanding the position they need to be in to make most stories work.

It’s a lot harder than the current standard trope which is a cross between dogwhistles and PC designated villains.

The first and most important thing to remember is very few readers have any real interest in your tale of how the hero shot fish in a barrel. The villain must, seemingly, have the upper hand –right until the last. The structural task the writer faces is to subtly prepare the ground for their defeat to seem plausible. That defeat will rarely if ever seem plausible to the villain or their henchmen or camp-followers. If it does – well the author has to use what is sure under these circumstances – the increase viciousness and brutality of those who fear losing their grip (we can see examples right through history both at a nation and proximal level. You’ve got everything from the accelerated murders in Nazi death camps to lawfare on so-called ‘hatespeech’ on facebook and twitter.) At which point the author is racing not against the odds – but against time.

The second key to structuring great villains is to remember that the villain rarely, if ever, considers themselves a villain. A dispassionate view may conclude: yes so-and-so is a villain. But the villain remains deeply rooted in the belief (or delusion) that they are right (and probably good), and despite the evidence, the other side are wrong. This need have nothing to do facts and this is a tool the writer uses to clarify in the reader’s mind, while maintaining the illusion of invincibility of the foe. To take a practical real-life case – We had Irene Gallo of Tor Books informing the world that the Sad Puppies were Far Right Wing Neo-Nazi, bad writers, homophobes, etc. etc. – the usual grab-bag of buzzwords for demonizing anyone not of her narrow little clique. (and this is merely one of a sequence of these libels from the Puppy-kickers. We’ve all been male, homophobes, misogynists etc. etc. so often that if repetition was all it took Sarah and Kate would have testicles, and drag-ons, and very puzzled, unhappy husbands.) Now, she knew from the moment she typed it, that it was a lie, an attempt to denigrate and belittle… but I am sure she – and her supporters rationalized her behavior as ‘for the greater good.’ Isn’t always? Had the boot been on the other foot – she’d have been outraged and demanding severe penalties for hate-speech. But hey, she was just doing it for greater diversity, more feminism etc. Completely OK. As the writer using someone like this as villain would then point out – by example, not by telling – that the same inner circle isn’t diversity etc. It’s an excuse.

It’s worth noticing that really, that besides point of view, the difference between heroes and villains in a good story seems to come down to this: They can both be wrong, misled, right royal assholes to an outside observer. Heroes, however, grow, learn, own responsibility, change. That’s really how so many much loved story-plots work, that it’s worth noting. In fiction at least, villains don’t. They won’t ever own their mistakes or grow- any change is for the negative. Even after the villains lost and the new order is vastly better for everyone – they still remain rooted in their belief. This seems true of real world – one merely has to look at unreconstructed Nazis and former East German apparachniks (and their kids – we have had to deal with one East German (adult) brat who still plainly yearns for the power daddy used to wield. Fiction imitates life.

Personally I have found the concept of cause (or government) being used as a justification, to what often boils down a purely self-centered desire for power – King Emeric, Elizabeth Bartholdy in the Heirs books, very effective.

On the other side of the coin: what doesn’t work? Besides the stereotype villain in scenes where we’re not supposed to know who the villain is. Scene from a typical Trad Publishing PC novel: with a black character, a gay male, a woman and white conservative Christian man, heterosexual…. You’ll NEVER guess who the traitor will be, would you?

One of the other problems I see so often with the stereotypical villain is what I call Bush cognitive dissonance. Remember it? ‘Bush is stupid’ AND ‘Bush orchestrated xyz fiendish byzantine plot’ that would have taken Macchiavelli crossed with Einstein, on brain-steroids to evolve and execute. I am so sick of stupid fiendish villains. Now, it is possible to have a villain with blind spots – but as a writer you need to prime the reader about this. It is possible for a villain to be both stupid and powerful (we see enough of that in modern politics). Large Empires – especially hereditary ones — tend to this all by themselves, even without author intervention. It is also likely that there will be corruption: corruption seeks power like a shark seeks blood in the water. Whether you talk of the cozy clique that evolved around the acquiring editors in publishing, or the camp-followers of Kim il Jung – that’s as certain as smelly baby having a ‘gift’ for you in its diaper, and possibly less pleasant.

Talking of villainy and just plain untrammeled evil (wot I learned back Orc boot-camp, between toe-nails and Mount Doom licking) let me put in a last encouragement to go and nominate for the Dragon Awards. You could – if you were short of YA suggestion – put up CHANGELING’S ISLAND.
It’s the last day to nominate, and no fees or memberships are required – just be a reader.

http://application.dragoncon.org/dc_fan_awards_nominations.php

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New Author Earnings Presentation!

Author Earnings just did an in-depth analysis of the romance genre, and presented it at the RWA (Romance Writers of America).

Those of you who are not romance writers, you should really, really go read it! Why?

1.) Romance is the biggest, and most competitive genre in fiction. If you want to see a marketing trend coming, it’ll hit romance 6-12 months before it shows up in Science Fiction & Fantasy. So pay attention to the cutting edge of the market!

For example, just as the post Tuesday asked about KU vs. Non-KU, vs. authors with some books in and others out… the report broke that down for romance. Other questions include breaking out how many books have to be in a series before a permafree first in series makes money instead of losing it, what price points are selling (inside & outside of KU), and how many books an author has to publish before they “break out.”

2.) Down in the comments at the bottom, both of the report itself and in the comments at Passive Voice, Data Guy provides breakouts for SF&F, and for Mystery/Thriller/Suspense, too!

for example…

You might be surprised… 🙂

US trad print SF&F sales (hardcover & paperback) = roughly 47M units a year:
– 34M of that is categorized as Children’s Science Fiction/Fantasy/Magic;
– 13M of it is categorized as Adult Science Fiction or Adult Fantasy.
Add the 15% or so non-Bookscan sales, and you get to 52M.

When it comes to ebooks, trad SF&F sales on Amazon.com are running at around 23M units for Kindle. Add in iBooks, Kobo, Nook, etc. and we’re talking about 33M or so total SF&F ebooks for trad.

So that’s 85M US trad SF&F sales annually for adult+children’s print+ebook combined.

OTOH, indie SF&F ebook sales on Amazon.com are at 32M units for Kindle, which, when you add in iBooks, Kobo, Nook, etc. will total out somewhere between 38M and 40M. Almost all of that is adult SF&F, not children’s (although Teen/YA makes the distinction murky).

Which means that more than half of all SF&F ebooks sold in the US — and nearly a third of all SF&F books *of any format* sold in the US, including children’s books — are indie.

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Pantsing the Research

I am a pantser. This is not to say that I gleefully jerk the shorts off my story leaving it standing there confused and vulnerable to the giggles of the crowd. No, instead that refers to flying by the seat of one’s pants, the point of contact between pilot and plane, the fundamental sensation of vibrations that will mean life and death to correct interpretation and translation to movement of the plane of travel. Over a mountain rather than into it, shall we say.

When writing, the corrections are not nearly as vital to me, but if I play them wrong, they can kill the story. So I have to constantly be aware of where I’ve been, and trying to figure out where I’m going. With the current work in progress this has been a slow journey, and the result is going to be a work that needs a LOT of editing. For instance, when I started it, I had a nebulous idea, which evolved into another idea, which in turn became… what it is now. I’m hoping, that at half-through the book, it doesn’t morph on me again. I have a pretty good idea of the plot from here to an end, which isn’t the originally planned end.

Last night, as I started writing again after a vacation break (4 days, 1800 miles, no real internet while driving), I asked my First Reader to take a look at the last chapter or two I’d done, because he’s often helpful in catching my ‘mental shorthand’ where I haven’t fully unpacked an idea onto the page. I took the laptop into the backyard to write, and he came wandering out soon after, to sit down and tell me that I was going to have to go back a chapter and make some major edits.

The gist of the story that I’m working on is a young man (age unknown) on a trading ship, sailing through the stars from planets or stations, and selling goods to them. His ship is large enough he can actually transport livestock, and one cargo hold has been permanently transformed into a garden. Last night, the First Reader pointed out that it’s like a South Sea schooner, in that he’s locked into this route, and to deviate from it would be essentially to sail against the wind. I looked up at him and said ‘I’m going to need to read more about that…”

So here I am, looking at researching while pantsing. I’d done some as I was working on the beginning of the book, but as I didn’t really know what was coming, I couldn’t do a lot… and I’m going to have to stop and do some reading now. Or keep writing ahead on what I know about the story, while reading so I can go back and fix the mess I made of the last bit. See, I have the young captain – who has been sailing alone, except for his dog – mildly incapacitated and in a gesture of thankfulness for his services in a search and rescue, the station he was on came aboard and cleaned and refurbished his ship. The First Reader pointed out that not only was that like his private home and place of business being invaded, but it could have legal repercussions, too. We discussed what I need to do to fix it (and I was writing in mental shorthand, so I didn’t put enough of the young captain’s outrage of feelings on paper to begin with).

Would having left this miscalculation in have killed the story? I’m not sure. I suspect many readers would simply have thought ‘how nice’ when they read the scene. But some would have winced over the invasion of the ship by even well-meaning helpful sorts. Now that I’m aware of it, I cannot simply leave it in place. I try to be a better writer than that. Actually, going back and fixing it will foreshadow the next development in my captain’s life: the need for a crew. The mental shorthand I have the (very bad) habit of doing tends to get in the way of foreshadowing properly, so this is a good thing. Even though I find myself annoyed at the need to go back and edit, it will make it a better story in the long run.

I’m very conscious of hard deadlines with this book. Since I depend on my writing income, I must finish, send to editors, and publish this novel as soon as humanly possible. Which means that I’m going to research, keep writing, and resign myself to backtracking and inserting when needed.  I’ve always written clean manuscripts that needed relatively little to make them ready for public consumption, and this one being so messy feels like a step backward. I’m trying to persuade myself it’s part of my learning curve as an author. I have a long way to go yet, and I’ll probably always be learning as I do so. But I can’t let it stop me from writing!

If you’re curious and want to read snippets, you can find Tanager’s Fledglings on my site, here. It is my first real attempt to write science fiction at novel length since The Eternity Symbiote, which was my first written novel (Vulcan’s Kittens was the first published). I am hopeful that I’ve become a better writer since that. My first love for writing was science fiction, the fantasy was sort of an accident, so I’m looking forward to seeing what the reactions are to this series.

Anyone know any good books on South Sea Traders?

 

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Open Season

I’m not sure who’s supposed to post today. But we’re all on vacation, so talk about anything, ask anything, advertise a story or book.

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Hugo Finalist Highlights – Best Novella and Best Novel

I’ll have to ask you all to forgive my relative incoherence today: I think I’m still vibrating after my naturalization ceremony today.

Best Novella (2416 nominating ballots compared 1083 last year)

  • Binti by Nnedi Okorafor (Tor.com) – This is the height of the year’s prose? It’s dull, the protagonist is all “different outside” but nothing remotely unusual inside. To those with the voter packet, I strongly recommend against reading the PDF version – something’s gone badly wrong with whatever conversion was used, with the result that almost every Th ends up rendered as a not-quite-bold T.
  • The Builders by Daniel Polansky (Tor.com) – This offering nearly broke me in the first sentence. Note to authors: you will not go far when you give a character with no discernable Spanish or Portuguese traits the name “Reconquista”. Especially when someone with more than zero historical literacy reads your work. The second-rate knockoff of the Brian Jacques Redwall-style stories does not help the cause.
  • Penric’s Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold (Spectrum) – This work got off to a reasonable start. I could sympathize with the protagonist and his problem, although I can’t say I went beyond moderate interest. I may go back and read the whole thing at some point when time permits.
  • Perfect State by Brandon Sanderson (Dragonsteel Entertainment) – There’s potential here, but it’s not being realized in this work, that I could tell. It’s well-written and an interesting concept, but I had zero interest in the narrator, which is rather a fatal flaw in a first person piece.
  • Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds (Tachyon) – For me this was the pick of this character: not only did it have an intriguing premise and an interesting protagonist, it was the only story in this category that I simply could not stop reading.

Best Novel (3695 nominating ballots compared to 1827 last year)

  • Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie (Orbit) – Sadly, it would seem that Ms Leckie has not improved. I found the part of the excerpt I read clunky, if competent, and quite boring, honestly.
  • The Cinder Spires: The Aeronaut’s Windlass by Jim Butcher (Roc) – This work started well, and has an interesting premise. I’ll probably return to it when this much-sought-after creature known as free time makes itself known. It wasn’t an immediate grab – as in I wasn’t hooked by the end of the first chapter – but I’ve read works that grow on me, and this has the potential to do that.
  • The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin (Orbit) – The best thing I can say about the sample of this work is that the prose shown makes Ancillary Mercy look like a polished gem. This is not praise.
  • Seveneves: A Novel by Neal Stephenson (William Morrow) – Some people may gain enjoyment from novels that start with a lengthy lecture. I don’t, and I wasn’t going to read on to be lectured further. Give me something I can care about, not a dry recitation, especially at the start of the flipping book.
  • Uprooted by Naomi Novik (Del Rey) – The start was a little – okay, very – obvious, in that there was no question that this was setup to lead to a screamingly obvious conclusion. It was still done sufficiently well that I kept reading, and sometime after that I couldn’t stop reading. The fantasy elements here are truly fantastical, and there’s an equally strong set of undercurrents touching on such things as what makes us human, and when is someone worth saving, as well as a slow burn secondary romance-ish plot.

Next week – the final post before voting closes – I’ll be looking at the Campbell Award and the Retro Hugo pieces. You’re on your own for Best Dramatic Presentation (long and short form): I don’t watch TV or movies, so I haven’t watched any of the finalists. Honestly, the last time I sat down and watched anything was several years ago, and I doubt that’s going to change any time soon.

As always, read the finalists yourself and make your own decisions about them. What I think reeks may be something you think is magnificent, and vice versa.

 

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One Way To Write A Review (one of the six and sixty ways to do a tribal lay)

by Michael D. Barker

Okay. I’m not saying this is the only way to write a review, that would be silly. But if you are fretting about what to put in a review, here’s some ideas about how to tackle it.

First of all, think about what you want to see in a review. That’s what you want to put in your review.

Second, what would you tell a friend about this book? That’s a good place to start.

All right? So basically, you are going to put down your opinion about the book. Some of the things you might like to include? How about:

1. Who would like this book? Who wouldn’t like it? And why, naturally.
2. What’s it about? Main character, plot, setting, genre, all that stuff. But avoid spoilers, just tell us enough to get us interested and give us a taste of the book.
3. What’s it like? Be cautious with this — I find it unlikely how many books are just like famous books, but it is a quick way to indicate what sort of book this is.
4. Warnings. Seriously, if there’s something that may bother people, explicit sex, overdone violence of the bloodsplatter type, or whatever, warn people.

One caution on the plot summary. I know some Amazon reviewers seem to think that giving a complete plot summary is a great way to do it. But too often, they include the final reveal or climax as part of that school book summary. Don’t do it! You’re just teasing us to read the book, not giving a book report for the teacher.

Incidentally, you might consider Orson Scott Card’s MICE: milieu, idea, character, event. Or setting, idea, character, and plot, if you will. The key notion here for reviewers is that books often have something outstanding in one of these four areas. You may want to pick out which one is most important for this book — great characters? Fascinating plot? Mind boggling ideas? Or maybe the setting is wild and wooly? Tell us what makes this book outstanding!

I suggest that you go ahead and list your ideas and comments, any which way. Then go back and think about the right way to present it. Consider that everyone is not going to read all the way through your treatise, so you want the most important points right up front. Organize it somewhat in journalistic style, most important stuff first, then trailing off.

You may also want to take a look at various writers’ advice columns about writing the premise or pitch. There’s a lot of advice around about how to take a book and put together a short pitch. That’s the kind of thing you should be doing for your review — give us a taste of the book, and leave us wanting to read it!

You may want to put a hook at the beginning, something to get the reader’s attention and interest. What happens when Martians land in a Kindergarten?

Oh, and consider ending with a nice, snappy statement of the whole thing. If you haven’t laughed in a while, buy this book. And enjoy a good belly laugh!

What about negative reviews? Personally, I suggest that if you don’t like the book, don’t review it. Yes, if the book has a flaw, something that nags you, you can include that. But as my grandmother used to advise, if you haven’t got anything good to say, don’t say anything at all. You don’t have to review every book you read. Worry about the good ones, and help guide other people to those.

So. Tell us who would want this book, and give us a good solid hint as to why. Don’t worry about it being perfect. As the saying goes, any review is better than none!

So now go ahead and write that review.

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