The value of free ebooks - Part II

November 6, 2007

I made the decision to release Chion as a freely downloadable ebook on 13 September. In the 54 days between then and now, the novel has been downloaded 262 times. If you think that means 262 lost sales, think again. Only 28 of these downloads occured through my website. The other 234 happened over at my book reviews blog, where I decided to create a little free ebooks section. Because I was restricting my offerings to quality-guaranteed books backed up by written reviews, the page got noticed by, who publicised what I was doing. As a result, a lot of people downloaded the books I had on offer, and it shows no sign of slowing down.

The reason why this is not 234 lost sales is simple: If I hadn’t offered the book for free, these 234 people would not have known anything about Chion in the first place. Refusing to make Chion free would not have resulted in a single extra sale. Of course, it has to be asked: Am I selling less copies of Chion now that it’s a free ebook, too? Well, it continues to sell on eBay with the same frequency as before. What can I say? People like their dead tree books.

So, right now I’ve got my 300-odd paperback sales of Chion, plus 262 additional readers (increasing each day). The alternative was 300-odd sales and zero additional readers. I feel completely validated in my decision to make Chion free. How many copies of, say, Cell do you think would have sold, if the book had been released without the magic words “Stephen King” on the cover? Not the millions that did, that’s for sure. I’m learning to put priority on getting known rather than making money. That latter can’t be done without the former.

Self-publishing Q&A for The Writer Magazine

October 12, 2007

Freelance writer Jocelyn Kelley got in touch with me recently to help with an article she’s writing on self-publishing for The Writer Magazine. Her questions brought up some interesting topics, so I thought I’d share my responses with you …

It is well known in the publishing industry that self-published titles do not get mainstream reviews. Do you find this to be true? Is this why you decided to give self-published titles some attention?

I imagine it’s true. I’ve never actually submitted one of my novels to a major review publication. However, if I did, I’ve a feeling I might be able to sneak through, because as a self-published author, I use my own publishing imprint. If, on the other hand, my book had the word iUniverse, AuthorHouse, or Lulu (all recognisable self-publishing author services) on the spine, it’s not hard to imagine reviewers putting the book to one side - permanently. Every reviewer has probably had a bad experience with self-published works and has learned to distrust them. I don’t blame them.

In my own book reviews blog (, I feature some self-published works. I’m not specifically out to give a helping hand to self-published authors. I just happen to have had some good experiences: authors such as David Kilpatrick, A.P. Fuchs, Philip Henry - skilled wordsmiths whose work is clearly a labour of love. But I’ve read a few stinkers, too. I recently decided to revise my submission guidelines due to a particularly bad novel. I accepted the author’s review request because I liked the theme of the novel and was attracted by its cover art. Big mistake! The book was horrible. I now ask authors to email me a chapter before I accept their book. I can usually tell whether a book will be good or bad in the first chapter. The book in question was so bad that I could tell after one paragraph! There were three problems with that single vitally important paragraph, and if an author can’t get that right, what hope does the rest of the story have?

The stigma on self-published titles is that they are not up to par with work published by mainstream publishers. What did you find when reading/reviewing self-published titles?

The stigma is entirely justified. As a self-published author myself, I could argue that I’ve read some terrible books pumped out by mainstream publishers, but that’s a cop out. I would take an educated guess that the amount of poor quality titles in the mainstream is dwarfed by the tidal wave of slop that self-publishing services churn out. My favourite analogy is American Idol. In the early episodes, we watch all the would-be superstars give their best shot in the preliminary auditions, under the gaze of Simon Cowell and co. And more often than not, we’re either cringing or laughing, as countless deluded souls who think they can sing pass briefly across our screens.

Well, surely it’s bound to be the same story in the sphere of writing. There have got to be countless would-be authors who have never taken the time to learn the craft, who simply assume they can write like a pro. The only difference between them and the American Idol rejects is that modern printing technology has allowed them to claim a place in actual publishing. I really don’t blame bookshops for not stocking self-published works. Can you imagine walking into a music store, looking for some new talent, and having to wade through CDs by every American Idol wannabe? Imagine buying something on the fly, taking it home and listening to it for the first time, then being totally gobsmacked because it’s somebody strumming three basic chords on a guitar while singing out of tune, all recorded on a puny computer microphone. Thank goodness this situation isn’t real. Likewise, thank goodness bookshop owners are savvy enough to protect the public from the literature equivalent. Maybe it sounds strange for a self-published author to be talking this way. Well, if I’m to make any kind of success at this game, I need to be a realist. The stigma is a necessary thing, and if there’s any blame, it should be landed squarely on the backs of the many authors who release their work to the public before it’s anywhere near ready.

On a more positive note, I’ve discovered some self-published authors whose work I’m very glad to have read. These are people who know how to constuct an entertaining plot, who have taken the time to learn a great deal of the nuts and bolts of the craft, who have poured over their finished manuscript for countless hours in an attempt to track down every typo, every grammatical misstep, every punctuation error. I have to admit, though, that I’ve never managed to get through one of these good books without spotting a few things that make each one fall just shy of a professional standard. Nevertheless, I’m very glad to have been able to read them.

What is the consensus among self-published writers that you have dealt with regarding reviews/media attention?

Oh, I’m sure we would all love to see our books featured on Oprah. Who wouldn’t? But I think we’re happy enough to send our books out to various bloggers and genre publications. We rely mostly on our personal websites to promote our books. If we obtain a few glowing reviews, we can consolidate them on our sites. We have to live without the big reviews, but one thing that’s important in the smaller reviews is whether the reviewer can be tied to the author’s personal life. For instance, I have several really positive reviews of my novel Chion in these blogs: The Podler, Critical Mick, Podlings, and None May Say. None of these sites has any vested interest in blowing my trumpet. Potential readers who visit my site can trust them. On the flipside, it’s easy for any self-published author to tell his buddies to go onto Amazon and leave a five-star review. I don’t hold a lot of value in those.

Self-published author Scott Sigler turned out to be something of a marketing genius, whether intentionally or otherwise. Several years ago, he revived the old audiobook format by featuring his novel online in MP3 format, split up into episodes which were released weekly. It was completely free. Over time, he did this with three novels, gaining countless fans. And when he finally released a paperback of one of the books, he craftily asked all his fans to buy it from Amazon at a specific time on a specific date. He rocketed to the forefront of the charts and got noticed by a major publisher. He now has a three-book deal! Smart guy. Wish I’d had the brains to bring about a situation like that that for myself.

The biggest publicity I’ve had was a forty-five-minute interview on The host informed me that the interview was downloaded 1,000 times in the first week. At my end, that translated to two sales of my novel. That gives some idea of how hard it is to sell books. Without major publicity, none of us is going to be quitting our day-jobs. But then again, that was never the point. Well, occasionally, somebody crawls out of the woodwook with the delusion that he’s going to take the publishing world by storm. But for myself, I’m just having fun. On a small scale, I’m living out my dream of writing fiction and seeing it enjoyed by the public. Even though I’m only selling one or two books a week, it’s a worthwhile pursuit.

What is your overall feel of the self-publishing industry? Do you feel that it is a reputable form of publishing that is receiving negative attention in the media?

It’s reputable in some forms. Some of these self-publishing companies have come under fire for giving the false impression that they are closer to a mainstream publisher than they actually are. A phrase like “Availability to bookstores” doesn’t really mean that your book will be stocked anywhere. It merely means that a member of the public can walk into a bookstore and place an order for your book. An honest self-publishing company will state what it actually is: an author service - a means for an author to get his book in print and for that author to then sell his book on his own steam.

Most of the negative publicity that self-publishing has received has been justified. Authors needs to be clued up on the scams that operate; they need to be made aware of the difficulties and pitfalls of the enterprise. It’s also fair that the public be made aware of the general poor standards of self-published work. It’s up to the authors to use their own ingenuity to work around the stigma, rather than griping about it. I work around it by using a try-before-you-buy approach to marketing. Casual surfers who find my website can download a free ebook of my novel or listen to a recorded excerpt in MP3. I would never dream of encouraging them to part with their cash for a paperback without first convincing them that I can write well and tell a good story.

Someone may dismiss self-publishing in its entirety, simply on the grounds that no editorial process has gone into the publishing of it. This is slightly hypocritical, because such a system is not in place for other forms of art, such as independent music and film; it’s simply a matter of those with enough money can do it. If I give a digital copy of my fiction away for free, it should be allowed to stand or fall entirely on its own merit in the eyes of the public.

The sea of poor quality self-published fiction doesn’t really bother me, because it’s essentially harmless. A bad book can’t get good reviews, therefore the author won’t be able to market it successfully, therefore it won’t sell. And a book that won’t sell is no threat to the reading public. Any author who writes a bad book puts himself in his own catch-22. Good self-published fiction, on the other hand, is very hard to sell, but stands a chance in the hands of an author with a good head for marketing.

Obviously I love self-publishing, because it has allowed me to see my fiction in print. I’ve been doing this since 2001 and have sold around 1,300 books in total. Small potatoes. Professionals may feel that what I’m doing is laughable, but that’s only true if you insist on comparing me to professional authors, whose bread and butter is their words. I reiterate: getting famous and making big bucks was never the point. It was more about creating art, having an audience for that art, and maybe making a little cash on the side. Getting published in the mainstream will always be something to aspire to. Whether it happens or not, I’m enjoying what I’m doing.

When a reader is considering buying my novel, I don’t think it’s very important to him whether it’s self-published or not. He’s had a chance to sample it online, and I think his only consideration is to what degree he enjoyed it.

The value of free ebooks (here’s Chion, gratis!)

September 13, 2007

I’m coming around to the way of thinking that giving something away free is a good thing.

Against this attitude is the notion that every free gift is a lost sale. More than that, given the ability of computers to copy and share data with the greatest of ease, every free gift could mean countless lost sales. We all know about piracy. But the important question to ask is, when someone downloads your novel and enjoys a free read, would they have bought it otherwise? Speaking from personal experience, I’m willing to bet that the answer in most cases is no.

I once downloaded a free ebook of the novella Purity from Douglas Clegg’s website. Was I considering buying it? Nope. However, after reading it and enjoyed it a great deal, I was then on the lookout for Clegg’s work, and at one point I picked up Neverland in paperback.

One thing I’ve learned about self-publishing is that it’s about overcoming hurdles. The major one that sinks most indie authors is that they fall victim to releasing an overpriced paperback that few readers are willing to pay for. I managed to beat that one. But there’s another major hurdle that I’m only scratching the surface of: Hardly anyone knows who I am.

On a good day, I might get forty unique hits on my website. Some of those, statistically, will be brand new visitors encountering me for the first time. I’ve gone to the trouble of making my site as visually appealing as my skills allow. Visitors are encouraged to find out more about my latest novel, Chion. The book cover is on display; the blurb is listed; there’s even a decent-sized excerpt in both text and audio formats. You can do everything that you could do if you had found the novel on a bookstore shelf. Incidentally, I’m amazed at how many self-published authors don’t avail themselves of these benefits, especially with the bad rep that self-publishing has due to the torrent of unedited works for sale out there. Some indie authors expect the public to buy on the strength of a picture and a scrap of text. Forget it! But hey, there’s something I have to face: hardly anyone who visits my site buys my book anyway. Is this some failure on my part to hook the potential buyer? I honestly don’t think so. And I can back that up with a theory.

In stark contrast to the forty visits and zero sales per day my website receives, each copy of Chion (with a few exceptions), listed as a “Buy It Now” auction on eBay, sells successfully, and usually before the listing has accrued forty views. What causes this alarming difference in sales? The book is the same price, both on my website and on eBay, and is presented with the same hooks. So here’s my theory: You have to catch the web surfer when he’s in the mood to buy something. My novel sells on eBay because shopping is in the surfer’s mind when he’s there. Conversely, his credit card is probably the last thing on his mind when he comes across my site as a result of a Google search or a link.

Now, here’s a thought. How about I give an entire novel away free on my website? Chances are, instead of losing a sale that would never have happened anyway, what I stand to gain is a fan. Up till now, I’ve held the conviction that it’s enough to hand over a sizeable excerpt to readers, but now I’m not so sure. Friend and fellow writer James Maxon debates that there’s something far more attractive to the potiential reader about having the whole package. People will be more likely to begin reading an ebook if they know they have the choice to complete it. How much better is that than to have them think, “Well, it’s only twelve pages and then I have to stop. Don’t know if I’ll bother.” The problem is this: in order to motivate someone to read an excerpt, you have to already get them in the mood to buy the book. In the wrong mood, reading an unfinishable work will be considered time wasted. And as I’ve already illustrated, people are not usually in a buying mood when they visit a random website. I would never have have read Douglas Clegg’s Purity if there was merely an excerpt on offer, presented with a buy-it-if-you-want-to-finish-it option. There’s no shame in going about it that way; a worker deserves his wages. But it just doesn’t work.

It could be argued that I’m already giving away free complete fiction, in the form of short stories, and it hasn’t made much of a difference to sales. Actually, it’s worth noting that some people have told me they bought my novel on the strength of downloading one of my stories. But that’s beside the point. The purpose of free stuff is not to get a quick sale. It’s to crack the problem of hardly anyone knowing about you - to create as many people as possible who love your work and who check back often to see what you’re up to. Then, maybe years down the line, when the fanbase is large enough, you might be able to do some significant book-selling. To create that situation, you’ll need more than a couple of free short stories. Isn’t this exactly what Scott Sigler did? He released three or four novels over time in audio form, got really popular, then released a paperback and soared to the forefront of Amazon’s charts.

It all boils down to this: Don’t underestimate the value of creating a fan.

So, I’m going to throw caution to the wind. Here’s a free PDF file of Chion for a start. Read it, copy it, post it anywhere! Ulterior will follow shortly, as well as a massive flood of videos, courtesy of YouTube: the entire Midnight Pictures catalogue, no less. Brace yourself.

The Sloan plan for world domination

April 11, 2007

With the aid of Google Maps, Photoshop, and my own extensive record-keeping, I’ve put together map of every location in the world that I’ve sent a book to. The US/Canada side of the map is accurate right down to the estimated position of the reader’s town/city within his State (if you squint hard enough). On the UK front, I had to zoom in for accuracy, because I’ve sold a lot more books in the UK than elsewhere. You’ve heard me boast in the past about selling over 1,000 books; if the map looks a little sparse, that’s because I only have records of the books I’ve sold directly to readers using my website and eBay, without the intermediary of a bookshop.

I put this map together for my own amusement and encouragement. It’s heartening to see my books straying so far away from home, not only scattered across the United States, but in such far-flung places as Australia and Japan. In the USA, if you spot some of my dots being wider than others, that’s not a slip; it means that one reader close to another bought a book - by coincidence or recommendation who can tell. In the UK, there’s a beautiful burst of activity, and it’s particularly nice to see five books ending up on off-shore islands: Angelsey, Isle of Man, Isle of Lewis, North Uist, Shetland.

My main sales strategy is to offer a competitive retail price by eliminating the online bookshop from the equation. I don’t tell my potential readers to bugger off to Amazon, where they can scowl at an overpriced paperback. I sell my book directly to them, cheaper than the competition and autographed to boot. I think this map offers a good illustration that, for self-published authors, the simple author-reader sales model works.

A book cover experiment - Part II

April 3, 2007

On January 16 I invited readers to take part in a little book cover experiment. To reiterate: I asked you to visit Locus’s 2006 Cover Art Gallery and pick the ten most attention-grabbing book covers from the 557 on display, and we’ll see what we can learn from the results. Here are the three guinea pigs who took part (who shall forever remain nameless):

Subject #1:

Subject #2:

Subject #3:

The first thing I notice is that entirely different covers stood out for each person, which basically tells me that you can’t win ‘em all. I use the philosophy that a successful cover is one where something stands out and catches the eye of the casual bookshelf browser. The thing is, clearly, different things stand out for different people.

What’s interesting about the individual choices is that they reveal trends. You can tell that subject #1 likes fantasy and science fiction - military SF in particular. Subject #2 has similar interests, but I would dare to say that fantasy is a firm favourite over sci-fi. Subject #3 is fascinating because he’s the only one with a definite inclination towards darker fiction. There wasn’t much in the way of all-out horror on display, but this subject likes dark atmospheres, weird monsters, and kinky sex! I notice a distinct cyberpunk interest. Conversely, Tolkien-esque fantasy is completely absent from his list and made no impression on his choices, unlike #1 and #2.

The conclusion I draw from this is that people buy books according to the genres and sub-genres that appeal to them. I think the best marketing choice I can make, as a self-publisher, is to produce a cover that most accurately descibes the content of the book I’m selling. It’s pointless trying to appeal to a broad audience, and might even harm my chances of being noticed by the fans of the type of fiction I’m actually writing. So, when designing a cover, don’t be vague: let it scream zombies, fairies, detectives, or whatever it is your book is about.

Affordable cover art for your self-published novel

March 29, 2007

We self-published authors are on a tight budget, and we have to cut a few corners in the business of getting our books into print. More often than not, one major corner we cut is the cover: we can’t afford to pay a professional graphic designer, so we use our limited Photoshop skills to design our own cover.

I rarely plug another company’s work on my blog, but this time I’m going to make an exception, because I think the other indie writers who drop by here will appreciate this. Irish Eyes Creations is hunting for business, offering to design your cover for a mere $75. Technically, the company is offering to design film posters, but it’s the same difference. Have a look at the examples on the company’s site.

I’m giving serious thought to a reprint of my out-of-print novel Ulterior with a spanking new cover.

12 popular writing mistakes

February 5, 2007

I’ve read quite a few small press and self-published novels now, and I’ve noticed certain mistakes of punctuation and grammar cropping up. Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style has a great chapter listing many more common errors. But from my own reading, here’s a list of the most popular blunders I’ve observed, listed in no particular order. Take heed!

#1: I was born in the 1980’s. I saw several UFO’s last night. I use two PC’s at work.

What’s with the apostrophes folks? You all know that an apostrophe is inserted before the “s” in the sense of “belonging to” (e.g. the UFO’s lights blinded me), not in the sense of plurality. The 1980s, UFOs, and PCs, might look wonky on paper, but it’s correct.

#2: He dare not open the closet.

Assuming we’re dealing with typical past tense prose, the sentence should read “He dared not open the closet.” For example:

He did not die … He died not.
He did not murder … He murdered not.
He did not dare … He dared not.

#3: He was sat on the bench.

The word for the “state of being” regarding the verb “sit” is “seated”. You would never say of someone, “He was died,” you would say “He was dead.” To have died is to be dead; to have sat is to be seated.

#4: The man said, “I can see a sign.” On the sign the word ‘Portadown’ was written.

People have this erroneous idea that speech should be done in double quotes while all other uses of quotes should be single. The truth is that all quotes should either consistently double or consistently single, regardless of usage. Changing to the other style of quotes is what you do when you write a quote within a quote. For instance:

The man said, “I can see a sign. The word ‘Portadown’ is written on it.”

#5: `85 was a good year.

Your browser may not show this, but the error I want to draw attention to is the use of an “opening quote” rather than a “closing quote” for truncated words. It should always be a “closing quote” (more correctly referred to as an apostrophe in this context). Microsoft Word, with its wonderful gift for second guessing the writer, automatically thinks you’re opening a quote when you use apostrophes this way. You have to fiddle with your text in order to get around Word’s auto-formatting.

#6: Inconsistent use of regular quotes and smart quotes.

All literature should be printed with smart quotes (that is, curly quotes). They simply look tidier and more professional than straight quotes. I can almost forgive straight ones if they are used consistently. What I do not want to see is a mixture of both in the same book.

#7: “Hey John, how are you?”

If you can’t spot the error in the above sentence, then you are probably guilty of omitting a great many essential commas from your work. The comma is one of those odd punctuation marks that every author uses slightly differently, because there is some scope for personal style. Some authors think this gives them a license to use the comma in whatever manner they wish (usually by omission). It should not be forgotten that the comma does have specific uses that there can be no argument over. This is one such. Then sentence should be correctly rendered: “Hey, John, how are you?”

#8: He was the same officer that arrested Johnny.

Let’s stop referring to people as inanimate objects. He’s “the same officer who arrested Johnny.” Writers usually make correct use of “who” when referring to people by name, or in such cases as “the man who.” But when we start referring to people in terms of their occupation or other distinguishing trait, “who” often gets incorrectly replaced by “that.” If the noun you are referring to is a person, always use “who.”

#9: The family have always had their problems.

Although the word “family” refers to more than one person, the term itself is singular. Therefore the sentence should read: “The family has always had its problems.” Keep your eye out for other singular terms that refer to more than one person, such as “class,” “staff,” etc.

#10: The window which was on the upper floor had been left open.

This rule was an absolute pain for me to learn, but it finally clicked. The problem is when to use “which” and when to use “that.” I had always thought they were interchangeable; I was wrong. And the above example is wrong. The best way I can explain this is that if the subject of your sentence is “the window” in a general sense, use “which.” But if the subject is specifically “the window on the upper floor,” use “that.” “Which” is normally used in a parenthesis (an aside), in the following fashion (observe the commas): “The window, which was on the upper floor, had been left open.” The sentence reads as if there is only one window in the entire building. But if you render the sentence as “The window that was on the upper floor had been left open,” it’s clearer that you are referring to one specific window out of many.

#11: If he was able to fly, he would leave the country.

“Was” is the erroneous word here. The sentence looks grammatically sound, because you have a singular “he” followed by the singular past tense of the verb “to be”: “was.” But the professional writers write it like this: “If he were able to fly, he would leave the country.” For a long time, I was baffled by such grammar, wondering if so many pros could possibly be wrong. It turns out they were right. The reason why it’s “were” is because it’s a hypothetical statement. He’s not able to fly, but if he were … Get it? Now, if I were (see, there it is again) referring to someone who really could fly, rather than making a wish-fulfilment statement, I could say, “If he was able to fly,” meaning “Assuming he was still able to fly.”

#12: “Well, hello,” he smiled.

You can speak, shout, mumble a string of words, but you cannot smile them, laugh them, or frown them. Smiling is something you do with your lips, not with the words you speak. If you think the above way of doing it is a suitable shorter method, pay closer attention to the way the pros do it. Because the example above is just another mark of amateurish writing. Use either of these two renderings instead:

“Well, hello,” he said, smiling.
“Well, hello.” He smiled.

I came across a website today called First Chapters, inviting you to submit the first chapter of an unpublished novel. Forget the fact that it’s a competition; submit your work for the value of the many critiques that will result. It looks like a great resource for self-published authors to hone their work, at least between now and April, when the competition closes.

Self-publishing: Avoiding the pitfalls

January 26, 2007

The following might conjure up feelings of nostalgia in some readers (others will just be plain confused):

It’s dark. You can’t see a thing.

What now? inventory

You are carrying a box of matches.

What now? light match

The match flickers into life.

You are in a dusty cellar. Cardboard boxes are stacked against the west wall. A rickety staircase leads up to a door. On the bottom stair, a huge rat stares balefully at you.

What now? up

The rat bares its fangs and hisses, startling you into retreat.

What now? open box

You open the box. It is full to the brim with books, each one stained with blood.

What now? take book

You pick up a book.

What now? examine book

What you thought was a bloodstain is actually part of the book’s cover art. The cryptic word Chion is printed along the centre.

What now? light book with match

You hold the match under the book. Fire begins to consume the pages.

What now? throw book into box

Who remembers the likes of the above? I’m guessing you’re over thirty and you probably owned a ZX Spectrum computer (or similar) in your youth. The above quote is a made-up example of a style of game that I once found quite stimulating: the text adventure, or interactive fiction, as it is more commonly known today. The reason I’m drawing attention to it is because back in the late 1980s there was something wonderful that happened in the computer games industry which forms an interesting parallel with what I’m doing today as a fiction writer.

Most text adventures were written in one of three programmining languages: The Quill, GAC (Graphic Adventure Creator), or PAW (Professional Adventure Writer). These languages were a lot simpler than Z80 assembly language, enabling the average Joe with good grasp of logic and an imagination to produce competent games. Aged only fourteen, I spent many an evening coding in GAC, and even produced one full game, entitled Alien Complex (sadly now lost). Many of these games were released by well-known publishers such as Incentive and Firebird, but many more were self-published by the programmers themselves under their own publishing name. One of the most prolific of these home-grown publishers was Zenobi Software. To order one of these games, you would send a cheque or postal order directly to the author, and you would receive the game from him on a typical Memorex/BASF/Sony cassette tape with a home-made black & white photocopied inlay card. The reason these games were successful was because the popular computer games magazines of the day (Crash, Your Sinclair, Sinclair User, etc.) supported the enterprise. These magazines had adventure game columns, such as YS Adventures by Mike Gerrard, and the columnists treated the homegrown games with the same respect as the commercial games.

Sometimes I wish I had been slightly older during the 1980s, because it would have been a joy to be active in the homegrown adventure publishing scene. But I’ve just realised: i’m actually living out that same dream today in the arena of self-published fiction. In observing a parallel between then and now, here’s an interesting question or two: what is it that made those games sell? And why is it that so much self-published fiction today fails?

I can see two reasons why the games sold:

1. They got publicity, in particular publicity where it counts: reviews by respected reviewers in popular magazines.

2. They were cheap to buy, commonly £2.50 + postage.

By those standards, the self-published author today has a lot a lot going against him. On the issue of publicity, I don’t even read magazines with book reviews in them, and I don’t know anyone who does. In fact, I don’t buy magazines, period. The internet has replaced all that for me. This may initially seem like a blessing, since anyone can set up a website for next to nothing. But things look different when you consider the sheer amount of websites that are clamouring for the public’s attention. The best advice I can give is, make the best of it. Produce a good-looking website; offer free examples of your work; use any means you can think of to get visitors coming. Offer your book to popular review websites. Sell signed copies on eBay.

On the money side of things, you’re also in trouble. Most self-published authors use firms such as iUniverse, Lulu, Authorhouse, to publish their work, and these firms invariably put high retail prices on the books they publish. There’s a reason for that, and it’s not necessarily to do with bad business practice, just the way the pie has to be sliced: printer, publisher, wholesaler, bookseller, author. What I have to say on how an author can keep the retail price of his book low is an entire blogpost in its own right, so I’ll hold my tongue for the moment. Suffice it to say, I’ve managed to price my novel Chion at £3.99. In my experience, I consider that figure to be the sweet spot. We’re nobodies, we self-published authors, and unless we can offer bargain basement prices, few people will take a chance on us.

Self-publishing is a journey fraught with pitfalls. I think a lesson from how things were done in the homegrown games arena of the past might help us avoid the dangers. “Those who forget the past are …” No, I won’t say it. I’m a geek, but not a cliched geek.

A book cover experiment

January 16, 2007

Locus is featuring a gallery of science fiction artwork from books and magazines published in 2006 - 528 works in total. Since we had a recent discussion on the blog here about what makes up an effective cover, I’d be interested in doing a little experiment with you folks (if you can spare ten minutes).

Take a good hard look at the list from top to bottom, and make a note of any cover that makes you want to lift the book off the shelf to find out more (the quickest way to do this is to right-click on the image and save it to your computer). You will be impatient and quick; that’s okay (it’s the artist’s fault for failing to grab your attention). I want this to feel just like it would if these were all titles clamouring for attention on a bookshelf. When you’ve finished, narrow your list down to the ten most likely to make you lift the book/magazine, and email this to me privately (address on sidebar). I’ll correlate the results and see if there’s anything to be learned.

Having done the experiment myself, I tried to make my choices on my gut reaction of the artwork. The book title can also be a factor in your choice, but don’t choose based on author; try to pretend you don’t know who wrote the books. That’s essentially the position we indie authors are in. We can’t sell based on fame.

Effective editing

December 12, 2006

I’ve just finished editing my second novel, Chion, so I thought I’d share with you my thoughts on what I think is the best approach to the gruelling task.

1. Distance

If you choose to jump into editing your manuscript straight after you’ve written it, you won’t be able to spot all the mistakes. The problem is, you’re too close to the work. The memory of the prose structure is so fresh in your mind that you inadvertently jump to reading from memory while you’re reading from the page. Oh sure, you’ll catch plenty of mistakes, but you won’t catch anywhere near all of them. You also won’t effectively spot flaws in your plot, because you know it all off by heart. The only effective way to spot all your mistakes is with the eyes of a first-time reader. And you can achieve something close to that if you let the manuscript rest for a few months. Don’t read it, and don’t even think about it. Let yourself forget. Then, when you commence your editing, the story will seem fresh, and you will spot things you would otherwise have missed.

2. Knowledge

When editing your own work, chances are you don’t know everything there is to know about proper grammar. If your attitude is, “Ah, I’ve read so many novels, I’ve got an intuitive knowledge of what’s right and wrong,” you’re making a big mistake. I made this mistake with Ulterior. On retrospect, my grammar was still decent, and I didn’t make a mess of the thing, but having since read Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style, I realise that my first book could have been better polished. There is no excuse for not learning the craft. The fact is, if you don’t know what all the potiential mistakes are, then you won’t know when you’re making them.

3. Peers

It’s essential to get others to help you with your editing, because unless you are prepared to read through your manuscript fifty times, you will never spot everything. So get four or five persons to proof-read for you. Writer friends are best for this, because they will spot more flaws than the average joe, but make every interested party welcome. I allowed six persons to proof-read Chion. Two were aspiring writers, who made such a detailed analysis that I should call them editors. Another was a woman (who brought something different to the table, since I had a female lead character whom I wanted an opinion on). And the other three were non writers, each of which spotted many typos of the kind not spotted by a word processor (e.g. missing words, and wrong words such as “know” for “snow”). One person’s list of typos was never exactly the same as another’s, so all input was valuable.

4. Attitude

When seeking help from others, you need to do it with the right frame of mind. When you finish a novel, it is so easy to believe you’ve written something wonderful and to expect that your peers will like it, too. The first problem is, you’re making it hard for anyone to give you honest criticism. And secondly, you’ll get your heart broken, if somebody dares to give you honest criticism. When I ask someone to proof-read, I always give them a little speech that makes it clear that the only reason I’m giving them the manuscript is so that they can tell me everything that’s wrong with it. And when one of them tells me, “I didn’t like chapter twelve. It was unrealistic. Nobody would ever do that,” I rejoice. Because everything that’s broken can be fixed. My only worry is that I won’t see everything that’s broken. I love to see lots of red-pen marks on a manuscript. They don’t scream, “You’re crap,” they scream, “Come fix me.” The time to seek praise for your work is when you’ve done everything you’re able to do and you’ve got the actual paperback in your hands. (Notice I said “praise for your work,” not “praise for yourself,” but that’s another story.)

5. Persistence

On the flip-side, don’t let the fact that you’ve got outside help prevent you from personally reading over your manuscript several times. It’s not all about spotting mistakes; it’s about looking for ways to improve your prose. Restructure everything that reads awkwardly. Keep your eye out for opportunities to communicate with your reader more effectively. Polish, polish, polish.

6. Scrutiny

My final proof-read is the most gruelling of all. I read the manuscript to myself whilst pressing a pen-lid onto each word. It forces me to read slowly and carefully. One of the biggest curses of writing is how hard it is to spot missing words like “the,” “a,” “of,” etc. When we read, we naturally skim past these minor details. There’s an old trick you can play on your friends where you write down a sentence that contains several instances of the word “of” and you ask them to count how many instances of the letter “F” they can spot. Almost always, the person will skip the “F”s in the word “of”. So, pressing a pen onto each word helps me catch these lapses in concentration caused by our naughty brains taking shortcuts.

7. Perfection -1

The sad truth is that even with all of the above, the chances are you’ll not discover every single error. I was fairly thorough when editing Ulterior four years ago. When the book came out, I kept track of every error reported by readers. There were six or seven in total. However, when I scrutinised the manuscript again recently, with a view to publishing a second edition, I found four or five more. The best advice I can give you is aim for perfection, but settle for a little less. Otherwise you will be re-reading your manuscript until doomsday.

That’s it. That’s what I do. It’s not a routine that anyone taught me. It’s my own, and I think it works pretty well.

Fiction Idol?

November 30, 2006

One of the common gripes that self-published authors have is that bookshops won’t stock their book. Even though the title is properly ISBN-registered and available through the usual bookshop ordering process, the stores won’t buy it. As a self-published author myself, I’m going to say something that might surprise you: Fellow authors, there’s a good reason why it has to be this way.

I’ve heard it argued that indie bands get respect but indie authors don’t, for some reason. The argument appears to have a ring of truth, but when you look under the surface, it’s not valid. Imagine there was an internet business in place where any tone-deaf moron with a guitar and microphone could upload his songs, have CDs professionally mastered, and have them sitting on the shelves of HMV. Imagine, as a shopper, what it would be like going into the store and seeing a mixture of industry titles and self-made titles all sharing the same shelf-space. Imagine buying something new, getting home, putting the disc in your player, then hearing something that makes you walk out to the tool-shed for a hammer. Think I’m kidding? You’ve obviously never watched American Idol? Remember all those people in the early episodes who thought they could sing? Remember how you howled with laughter while Simon Cowell voiced his disgust?

Don’t get me wrong. I hate most of mainstream music anyway. Any intustry that can make people buy a song containing the refrain “A Pizza Hut, A Pizza Hut, Kentucky Fried Chicken and a Pizza Hut” has little to commend it. But ask yourself, would you honestly want to walk into a record shop and be confronted with every American Idol reject’s material in addition to what’s already there? I don’t think so. And you can be sure that the record shops would be quick in changing their stocking policy to eliminate those rejects, before they lose the majority of their customers.

Well, this is the gift that the POD (print-on-demand) companies such as iUniverse, AuthorHouse, LuLu, etc., have given the world of would-be authors: the ability to publish regardless of talent. You can bet that for every talentless singer who thinks he’s the next American Idol, there’s a talentless writer who thinks he’s the next Fiction Idol (if there were such a thing). Certain self-published titles do catch my attention, though, and I usually consult Google for reviews. My favourite comment was from a reviewer who referred to an apocalyptic horror novel (which shall remain nameless) as “a grammatical Armageddon.”

So, when it comes to self-published authors trying to get shelf-space in bookshops, the industry-savvy owners have the good sense not to bite. And you can understand why. Will you say amen, brother? Because I will. Even though I am about to use Lightning Source to self-publish my next novel, I will say amen.

How does a self-published author win, then? You find another way. With Ulterior, I found a way to cheat the system. I didn’t use the print-on-demand business model. Instead, I became a publisher, and I had enough money saved to pay for a print-run of 1000 books. And I made a success of it. This time, I recently invested all my savings in moving house, so unfortunately I have little cash to spare. This time I’m going to use POD. Heaven help me.

That said, I’m interested in experimenting with the idea of selling books online direct from the author. No publisher cut and no bookshop cut. I had moderate success with this approach during the final batch of sales of my first novel. This time I’m going to try and make online sales the bulk of my sales. Bjorn Lynne is a successful indie artist whose sole distribution channel is his own website. And why did I buy a couple of Lynne albums? Because I listened to his free tracks, and I thought they were terrific. I’m hoping the same approach will work for book-selling. I’ll mirror Bjorn by making it easy for the reader to determine whether my material is his cup of tea. I’ll give away some free stories and free excerpts; I’ll accomodate the reader by offering audio downloads as well as text. And with each new release, I’ll build on my existing fanbase.

If you’ve been waiting for Chion, you’ll be glad to know that I’m on the final sprint for the finish. And I’m doing nothing but Chion until it’s ready and released. No side-projects and no lazing about. Typo-detection, layout and cover-design are all that remain unfinished.

An affordable POD paperback? Surely not!

August 12, 2006

Yesterday I set up an account with Lightning Source, the printing company that almost all print-on-demand publishers use. Lack of funds at my end has prompted me to take the POD approach with Chion, rather than opting for a traditional print-run. The downside is that each copy of the book will cost slightly more to produce, but the upside is that the novel will never go out of print. Thankfully I’ve got the necessary skills in desktop publishing and graphic design in order to go straight to the printer, rather than using one of the existing POD publishers. Those publishers are doing a great service for budding authors, but they’re also part of the reason why the books need to be so overpriced: printing cost + publisher’s cut + author’s cut + bookshop’s cut = retail price. As for retailers, did you know that many bookshops demand 40% of the retail price? Ouch! However, for internet sales, a man in my position can easily restructure the equation thus: printing cost + author’s cut = retail price. This model is effective for sales that come directly to me through my website. Why tell your readers to go buy your book at Amazon? That’s throwing money away. If the author does all the promotion necessary to bring visitors to his website, why send them away to another? After all, when’s the last time you ever went to Amazon scouting for new talent?

It occurs to me that it will cost very little to put my first novel Ulterior back in print again using the POD model. However, I’m less than happy with the novel’s original cover (I’ve had a lot more Photoshop experience in the four years since publication), so I did a little digital sketching this morning and came up with something. This is by no means a final design, but I thought I’d share. Comments and comparisons welcome.

Chionophobia at the proof-reading stage

July 4, 2006

Got the ball rolling again with Chionophobia. After investing the whole of Saturday and most of Monday, I’ve completed my major edit. You know, any professional authors out there will have to pardon my ignorance, but I’ve never really put into proper practice the terms “rewrite” or “second draft.” What exactly is a rewrite? Is a writer supposed to say, “Okay, I’ve written my novel, but I know I can do it better second time round, so I’m going to start it all over again”? I can’t help thinking this is a piece of ancient terminology from a time when authors used typewriters; they had to type their manuscripts out a second and a third time, because there was no such thing as a delete key to fix mistakes and make improvements. Nowadays, we have word processors; we can change a word here, amend a phrase there, move whole paragraphs about. To me, the editing process is all tweak, tweak, tweak, on the first and only draft I write. I don’t subscribe to the idea that the first version of anything you write is always dreadful. And yet I’ve listened to interviews where writers talk about throwing pages upon pages of prose in the bin, because something’s not quite working. My motto is that if I plan well, I’ll write well. The idea for Chionophobia sat in my head for years before I put a single word down; I didn’t begin until I had the story fully formed.

I’ve now sent the manuscript off to six friends who are willing to proof-read: Alison Quin, Andrew Campbell, Andrew Harrison, Earl Keith, Mark Stevens, Chris Winter. You’ll notice there’s a lady on the team. I’ve heard that it’s hard for men to write women characters, and vice versa. An old girlfriend of mine once chuckled at finding some really “blokey” elements in my writing, so I’m counting on Alison to let me know if I’m making any blunders with my strong female lead character.

By the way, I’m still open to suggestions from anyone on a better title for this story about genetically-modified snow.

Podcast fiction

June 2, 2006

I’m feeling inspired by a bloke called Scott Sigler, the pioneer of the “podcast novel.” Audiobooks have been around for decades, of course, and they were never very popular, but I can’t help thinking that the current interest in iPods and podcasting might fuel interest in the format (you can hardly walk down a corridor in the school these days without seeing white earplugs sticking out of kids’ ears).

The original method of digital book publishing, the ebook, failed because no one invented a comfortable method of delivery that could supercede good ol’-fashioned paper. Maybe podcast fiction is in with a shot. In addition to Mr Sigler’s site, Escape Pod is also worth a listen. It podcasts sci-fi short stories regularly and boasts a download rate of around 7,000 listeners per story. That knocks the socks off all small press fiction mags.

As for my own online publishing efforts, the combined total plays and downloads of the four music tracks I’ve uploaded to my MacIdol page is currently over 2,400. And I did very little promoting to achieve that figure. As far as the MP3 format goes, online distribution is definitely not something to be ignored, especially when compared with all the hard work that went into shifting 1,000 paperbacks of my novel Ulterior.

I certainly won’t be abandoning traditional book publishing, but I need to give some serious thought to this podcasting lark. A good starting point might be to recite a short story for you, and see how the stats look after a month or two.

As for Chionophobia, editing has come to a standstill for a while, due to the house move, but I’m still aiming to keep my September deadline. Another project I’ve been keeping quiet about is this year’s film by the pupils at Clounagh Junior High. It’s called Cat Trap. It’s almost ready, and it’s the longest and most highly polished film we’ve made yet. Available for download by the end of June.

In defence of self-publishing

March 16, 2006

I’ve just read an article in Brian Keene’s World Domination 101 blog entitled “Self-Publishing Swine.” The title pretty much sums up Keene’s attitude to self-publishing. I’m a big defender of the self-publishing route, so I thought I’d give a rebuttal to Keene’s three main reasons for avoiding self-publishing.

Reason #1 not to self-publish: You need an editor

I agree with the point. Every author is his own worst editor. But there is nothing stopping any writer from paying a professional editor to give his manuscript the red-pen treatment. All right, I admit that most self-published authors don’t do this, and it gives rise to an ocean of sub-standard fiction, but the answer is not to avoid self-publishing. The answer is to get editorial input, make whatever improvements are needed, then self-publish. I have no doubt that Keene made this point because he observed that in 99% of cases a self-published work is an unedited work, but there’s nothing stopping any writer from being that other one percent.

Reason #2 not to self-publish: You need an audience

“How do you attract readers?” asks Keene. Well, you market your book, of course. That means you sit for an hour or two with the Yellow Pages in front of you and you phone bookstore after bookstore, and the next day you load up the car and make the deliveries. You contact your local newspapers and TV stations, and get them to do a piece on you. You do all the things that a publisher/publicist would do for you. Whatever it takes to get the sales moving. I’ll admit, 99% of the time self-published authors won’t do the work, or have unrealistic expectations about how much they’ll have to do. Like I said above, be the other one percent.

Reason #3 not to self-publish: You need to be taken seriously

Oh yes, I’ve heard about the stigma attached to self-publishing, that it’s not regarded as true publishing. But I’ve had very little experience of being at the butt end of this attitude - only self-inflicted experience. When I self-published my first novel, Ulterior, a few guest-invites for sci-fi conventions landed at my doorstep, and I turned them all down because I felt like a fake, even though no one was treating me like one. Nevertheless, I’ll admit that the stigma is real, and I’m not surprised it’s there, because, let’s face it, a lot of self-published novels are dung. But my experience of marketing my own novel has been universally positive. Nobody ever said, “Pah! You’re just one of those self-published writers.” It amazes me that you can be taken seriously as an independent artist or filmmaker, but for some reason there’s supposed to be something wrong with being an independent author.

In three years I sold my complete stock of 1,000 copies of Ulterior, an average of one book sale per day. Not exactly enough to make a living from, but then that was never the point. It’s a result, and it justifies everything I’ve been saying above. There are no shelves full of unsaleable books in my home. And I’m getting ready to do it all again.

The defence rests.