Friday, July 29, 2011

Focusing on What's Important

A Twitter chat session with the folks at Book Country, including former literary agent Colleen Lindsay got me to thinking about the focus of my blog here, and what I can do to make it better.  Of course, that's exactly what the session was designed to do, and the hosts certainly gave out some excellent advice on the matter.

Colleen shared fourteen points on making an author's blog better, and I thought I'd share those points with my readers here.  They're well worth repeating, as they tie into not only producing a better quality blog, but into marketing oneself as an author.

There has been some concern about the ability of authors to successfully market themselves, and that is a topic close to my heart.  After all, if I can't successfully market myself, I can't find the audience to read my books.  I'll have turned myself into that metaphorical tree in the forest.  If I make a noise, will anyone hear me?

In fact, one of the arguments against self-publishing is that authors don't know how to market themselves, and as such will get lost in the masses.  But there is a completely opposite point of view out there, and with the success of a noted number of independent writers, they do have a point.  Really, the whole business is much too young yet to understand what is going on, where we're headed, and the actual individual factors for success.  There are definite indicators, but it's still largely a wait-and-see issue for some of the largest players, and their moves will definitely impact how things evolve in the future.

I think a more critical issues is the fact that a large number of them are marketing themselves to the wrong audience - to other authors, and not to readers.  Granted, authors are potential readers as well, but if one is blogging about writing, the blog will appeal to writers and not readers of the material one writes about.

So that brings me to the points Colleen Lindsay brought up last night in the Book Country chat.  They're all pretty self-explanatory, so I'll simply list them and you can form your own opinions.

Practical tip #1: ALWAYS have contact information on your website or blog (and not one of those contact forms).

Practical tip #2: Create a downloadable press kit for your site, w/ high-res photos, book jackets, bio & press clippings.

Practical tip #3: Don't make it hard for readers to leave comments and engage you in conversation. Allow use of Open ID, etc.

Practical tip #4: Have a separate area on your site for appearance information, and make sure it's up-to-date.

Practical tip #5: HIRE A DESIGNER. Make an effort! It's not super-expensive these days to hire a blog designer.

Practical tip #6: Don't be afraid to take control of your comments and delete the assholes. It's YOUR blog.

Practical tip #7: Make sure your agent and publicist's contact info is on your blog/website.

Practical tip #8: Avoid graphic-heavy landing pages; they add nothing and just piss off people with older browsers.

Practical tip #9: For the love of GOD, don't put auto-play music on your blog or website!

Practical tip #10: Make sure you add links to all your (public) social media presences on your blog/website.

Practical tip #11: Add your bibliography, in the order that the books were published, so new readers can read in order!

Practical tip #12: List any and all awards you've won, whether you're a NYT, USA Today bestseller, etc.

Practical tip #13: Write about other writers you love to read. Pay it forward, especially if you have a strong platform.

Practical tip #14: If you're going on vacation or need a break, ask a friend to guest-blog for you so content stays fresh!

Excellent tips, all.  A big thank you goes out to Colleen Lindsay and the rest of the great hosts and contributors of the chat!  They do this on a regular basis, on varying topics, so if this is the type of advice you're looking for, I highly recommend tuning in to them.  The next one is scheduled for August 11.  @Book_Country has the latest info.

So now, looking over these tips, there are a few things I see I'm doing right, and some I'm not.  The thing that concerns me most is not reaching my target audience.  I'm a writer.  I write science fiction, horror and fantasy.  Readers of these genres are the folks that should be reading my blog.  I should be sharing great news, stories, pictures and information relating to these genres.  Starting in a bit, I will be.

For fellow authors out there, I'll still share content that interests you, and I'll continue to add to the links and resources I've put on here.  But my main focus will shift, as I feel it should, to a more appropriate forum.  So for you sci-fi, horror, and fantasy buffs, stay tuned.  Great stuff coming your way soon!

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Exciting Times to be a Writer!

The world of books as we know it has turned upside down.  For those living under a rock lately, Borders is officially done.  Barnes and Noble, while not done (yet), has been in trouble very recently.  Unless they turn their strategy around, they could well be following in Borders' footsteps.  Regardless of what happens, the fall of Borders is seen as a boon to Barnes and Noble.  For now.  Folks have been saying Barnes and Noble did it right, while Borders did it wrong, but that too can change quickly.  Especially for a struggling company that received an artificial shot in the arm for business.

Further shake-ups could be likely.  Books-A-Million tried to buy out the inventory for 30 of those Borders stores, but couldn't do it in the end.  More buy-outs or attempted buy-outs will probably happen.  In the end, it will be death by attrition and survival of those who adapt to the changing times the quickest.

Some are bemoaning the future of reading, that it's the death of new writing for some reason.  Whatever will we do if we don't have books?  Well, it's never going to be that bleak.  Books have been here to stay since their inception.  Their form may change, and the opportunities for writing them may ebb and flow, but they'll remain as strong as ever.  People may lament the fact that e-books don't give them that same special feeling that "real" books do, but it's not about feelings.  It's about numbers.  And the bottom line for publishers involves numbers, not feelings.

Enough bad news.  Remember, I said it was exciting times to be a writer, and I truly believe that.  The shake-ups have only begun to begin and there's more than we could ever imagine just around the corner.

We've already seen figures for the first half of this year, and digital books are going through the roof while other forms are in decline.  The comparison between the two shows just how fast the digital revolution is happening in the world of books.

E-books are here in a big way, and they're here to stay.  Self-publishing was once looked at as nothing more than an ego-boosting outlet for hopeless hacks but is now a viable option with e-books.  More and more agencies, such as BookEnds, LLC, are coming to terms with self-publishing, and are forming strategies to adopt it into their business plan.

And many more new opportunities are springing up - new, interesting forms of publishing that until a few short years ago were completely unheard of.  One such example is University of Michigan's foray into digital publishing by serializing two novels for free on Facebook.  Interesting concept.  Whether it will take off into something viable is not really something I care to debate.  The fact that it is happening, and adding to the shake-up of the publishing world is the important part.

For a talented writer, there is always a market.  Yes, it's always going to be tough.  There will always be competition for publication and readership.  There will always be naysayers and holdouts to whatever has been tradition.  But there will always be those on the cutting edge of the industry.  Authors would do well to be a part of that.  After all, it's their future.  Our future.  And I'm happy I'm a part of it.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Social Media: Publicity, Exposure, and Devourer of Time

Exposure is everything for an author.  Always has been and always will be.  If no one knows about your books, no one will read them.  Whether good or bad, that is a simple fact of life in the business of writing.

In today's digital world, this is even more the case.  Today we tweet, we blog, we socialize, we surf, and we connect.  The digital world out there is gargantuan, and yet we usually only come in contact with a small fraction of it.  Even before Google+ came up with circles, they appeared as indigenous elements of the Internet.  Sites would attract like sites, which would in turn link back to the original sites.

The problem this poses for authors is how to gain further publicity and exposure of their work.  Word of mouth is still the best source for viral growth, but it usually takes a tremendous amount of time and effort to accomplish this.  Nearly identical websites or blogs can have very different results with regard to growth and popularity.  One may take off at a tremendous pace, while the other does not.  And while some reasons are apparent, the exact causes and their effects on virility could be material for a PhD thesis.  This is where social media can make all the difference in the world.

It's official.  I am completely immersed in the world of social media.  Since you're reading this, you obviously know I blog.  I also post from time to time on sites like Absolute Write and the Kindle Boards.  And I'm on Facebook, and Google+, and now - finally - Twitter.  Yep, I've taken the plunge.  I'm all in.

This is great for exposure.  It's great to build a following of people that will (hopefully) buy my books.  Regardless, it's great to have a large support system out there comprised of others who write, who are trying to get published, or who just share my love of fiction.

The problem is, it's a time sink.  I don't have the ability to travel time like some of the characters in my latest science fiction project do.  Like they say, time is money, and even someone without a nine-to-five job eating away at it, time is pretty precious.  It slips away from you before you know it.

By the time I put out a blog here, and update the various social media outlets I have, it's time to keep up with what's happening in the world of writing and publishing, and lately, that's been an awful lot.  Then there has to be some time allocated for frequenting some of the forums I do, and commenting on topics I find interesting or at least in need of my two cents.  I have a list of blogs I follow, and I try to do that with some sort of regularity.  Then it's on to the various household and garden chores that need to be done, as well as busing kids back and forth to their daily summer activities.  And I'm in the process of putting the final (and this time I mean final!) edits on Separate Worlds, the novella I'm readying for e-publication.  Doing it right takes time, lots of it.  And by then, the day is usually winding up, and it's time for supper and a little relaxation with the family before bedtime.

Oh, and I almost forgot.  Writing.  There has to be time for that, and therein lies the problem we've run into with social media.  With so much to do and so much to keep up with, a writer has to prioritize time to effectively be able to socialize for needed exposure and still find quality time for writing.  After all, that's the whole point of being an author.  An author, by definition isn't someone who chats on social media or frequents blogs and forums.  An author is someone who writes.

It'll get easier.  Setting things up is the hard part.  Figuring out how to steer Twitter without crashing over the handlebars is harder than throwing a quick tweet out for the world to see.  Once everything is running great, it's not nearly as time consuming, or at least it doesn't have to be.  And as long as I remember that, I can effectively do both.  And of course, here I am, pouring my thoughts into blogging instead of my latest work in progress.  Heh.  Back to the ol' word document for me!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Sneak Peek: Separate Worlds

The cover for my novella, Separate Worlds is done, and as promised, it's magnificent!  It was created by graphic designer Todd Bréda, and meets all my expectations for a cover.  He's set the bar high, and it's up to me to make sure the content matches what the reader expects when viewing the cover.

The story itself is a fun story.  It's not terribly upbeat, nor is it comedy or satire.  It's fun because it offers alternate views of an alien encounter - one from the perspective of space travel to a distant inhabited planet, and the second from that of a society facing a sudden alien invasion.

The two views contrast our own space race and constant search for intelligent life out there in the void with the legends of ancient Atlantis and the magnificent city that might never have existed.  Hearkening back to those legends, the story assumes that neither world has quite forgotten the encounter, and as such, the tales of it on each are drastically different.

At approximately 14,000 words, it's not a novel.  It's not a short story either, which is why e-publishing seems to be the right venue for it.  Few stories are published at this length, as it's neither cost effective to publish as stand-alone hard copy books, nor short enough for inclusion in most periodicals.

While it's not a terribly long read, it is entertaining.  It doesn't force you to think about any deep philosophical subjects or question why were here at all, but it lets you if you so choose.  It simply takes a few what-if questions about the myths of Atlantis and relates a tale based on those questions.

It's still in editorial stages, but it's getting closer to publication.  I hope to have it available as an e-book within a month or so.  It was tremendously fun to write, and I only hope it will be as fun for you to read.

Update:  It's finished.  Details and links to where it is available can be found in this post.  Enjoy!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Learning the Other Side of Writing

This venture into e-publishing has already been an adventure, and it's only getting started.  I'm starting to see the business side of things.  You know, the parts that aren't just you and the story, sitting there together in total solitude, hammering out how it's going to end.  The parts where you interact with others who have an impact on the story too.  The parts that make it more than just your own personal baby.

It's all a little scary, but like a roller coaster, it's also a lot of fun.  It's scary because at this point, there's no backing out.  I've already committed to doing this, and I know I need to get it right.  I need to get it right at least for my own sense of accomplishment, according to my own standards, no matter how well it sells.  Selling it of course it the ultimate goal here, but I understand how the business works.  I realize that it's a tricky one, often influenced by factors outside anyone's ability to control.  There are things that can be done to increase its chances, but there are also a lot of intangibles.

Although I'm experimenting with e-publishing Separate Worlds on my own, I can see where certain aspects of the business would be the same, no matter how it was published.  I'm starting to see the interaction between all the people necessary for it to be released to the public, and I know this is only the beginning.  I can see once this is finished and available for sale, I'll have a lot of experience to share in the area.  I won't be an expert, not by a long shot, but at least I'll be able to talk coherently on the subject.

I just signed off on the final design of the cover. My cover artist and graphic design genius, Todd Bréda, was wonderful to work with.  He took my ideas and crafted them into a great looking cover that really displays all the concepts I was looking for in a very professional way.

I wanted to start out with a background portraying space travel, other galaxies and planets, and especially the other world where the story takes place.  Setting it against a backdrop of space would automatically give it the feel of a science fiction story.  I also wanted the concept of space travel and a rift between galaxies on it.  That's a lot to ask, but after a little work tossing ideas back and forth, Todd came up with something that very subtly did both.  And it worked within the constraints of the area we had to work with on the cover.

I also wanted the title, subtitle and author byline font to let the reader know this book was science fiction, so I sent a half dozen images of some of the pure science fiction covers out there for him to use as inspiration.  What he came up with melds classic science fiction with a more modern touch, and it does so very nicely.  Together, the elements work perfectly.  The cover cannot be mistaken for anything other than that of a science fiction tale, and it very accurately portrays the story I've written.

Ironically, while I was in the middle of this, fellow author David Gaughran blogged about his own experience coming up with a book cover.  And although we didn't do things in quite the same way, there have been definite similarities.  It was very interesting to read his experiences, especially as someone who was doing the exact same thing at the time.

One of the differences between David's experience and mine was the input from others he got during the process.  So far, the only others who have seen the work aside from Todd and me are my immediate family.  I've gotten some good critical advice from them, and they approve of the final copy, whether they needed to or not.  I could have sent it to more people and gotten advice along the way from potential readers, but I chose not to.  I don't think I needed to.  I felt that between Todd's abilities and input, and my own artistic sense, we could come up with something that would work beautifully.  And we did.  The cover will be up on the blog before too long, and you'll be able to see for yourself.

It may seem like I've put the cart before the horse in finishing the cover before I get the story professionally edited, and indeed I've thought that a time or two.  But I don't think so.  For one thing, it allows me a longer lead time to promote the story with a beautiful piece of cover art before it's finally out for consumption.  Another thing it's allowed me to do is tweak the story just slightly as I'm doing my final edit to more closely mirror the picture the cover puts into the reader's mind.  Doing it this way allows far more artistic license to meld the story better with the cover art.  I wouldn't have nearly the ability to do this otherwise.

I'm now in the final stages of perfecting the story.  It's polished and edited a number of times - I've kind of lost track by now - and it's ready for one final, professional edit.  I've chosen a couple of editors I feel I'd be comfortable working with, and I'm confident that whichever one I end up working with will do a marvelous job.

I still have to work out the technical aspects of the story, but I'm not as worried about that.  That is simply a matter of formatting files correctly and uploading them as required.  That's just a bit of research and some careful attention to detail on my part.  I think I can handle that part.

All in all, it's been incredibly interesting and educational to say the least.  It's a gamble.  I'm not only investing monetarily in doing this, I'm also putting my work out as published, risking myself as an author in the hopes it will be successful.  Like I said, it's a gamble, but it's less about that than it is about the educational experience of it.  It's already taught me more about authorship and the publication business than ever before, and that has to be worth something in the end.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Progress on Publication

I've been working on publication for a long, long time now.  I believe my first short story rejection is dated sometime in the 80's.  Yea.  A long, long time, indeed.

There have been hiatuses from time to time, when I either didn't feel anything was good enough, or I was between duty stations in the Navy, or I was just plain too busy or away too much of the time to constantly send things out in the mail.  This was especially hard before the advent of e-queries.

I've also recently been thinking a lot about epublishing.  It certainly seems to be the way of the future.  I've been doing copious amounts of research on the subject, and it's frankly quite intriguing.  The royalty margins are better, that's for sure.  I also have more creative control over what I'm putting out there, and while that may not always be a good thing, at times even the pros don't get it as right as they could.  And, perhaps the most enticing part, it allows publication of stories that might never otherwise see the light of day.

It's a lot of work, though.  If I'm to do it right, there's no cutting corners.  There's no putting out a less than quality work.  If I'm in, I'm all in.  And that means editing it and refining it until I'm sick and tired of it, and then handing it over to a pro to do the same.  Then back for additional edits and tweaks.

And it means getting a professional cover for it, one that will hopefully set it apart from the other self-published stuff, and help it compete with the big boys.  Which brings us to the progress I noted in the title.  I'm pleased to be able to say last night I got a sneak peek at what the cover for Separate Worlds is going to look like.  I won't give away too much, but the digital designer who's doing the cover mailed me the initial base from which he's making the cover, and I was much impressed!  It's a work in progress, but so far it looks excellent.  It's going to be a great one, and a critical part of the publishing process.

I've said before there are only a few things needed, besides a great story of course, to propel book sales.  Marketing is an obvious one, and we'll talk more about that later.  Another is the jacket blurb.  That's often the only real snapshot of what's inside the book a reader gets before buying it or putting it back and walking away.  I'm working on that part.  The other thing is the cover.  People are drawn to professional-looking covers, because it suggests a professional book.  And even if the book isn't produced by one of the big six, having a professional cover does a lot for it.  Not only is it harder to tell it wasn't published in New York, it suggests that care and professionalism were put into the book.  It suggests the author took the time and effort to put out a quality product, and that's what readers are looking for.

So it appears I'm well on the way to solidifying one of those areas with exactly the professional quality I was looking for.  We'll see about the rest.  For now, things are looking good.  I have a long way to go, but in the end I will be confident about the product I'm putting out.

Friday, July 8, 2011

A Trip into the Future

My last post got me thinking a little about what stories will be like in the future.  The future you and I probably won't be around to see.  Of course, we might still be around, as scientist Aubrey de Grey predicts.  Technology is moving at a blinding speed nowadays, and is only speeding up as time goes on.

I've already written about Hollywood's massive recycling efforts and the maddeningly huge number of remakes, series reboots and sequels being churned out there in the name of money... er, art.  It's really no surprise.  After all, there are only a handful of basic plots out there.  They're bound to have to recycle after a while.

But what's going to happen fifty years from now?  How about a hundred and fifty?  My latest work in progress is set in large part in the year 2186, which is obviously not a time we'll see any time soon.  Most of the thought that went into it focused on the technology of the time, such as communication, transportation, and other aspects of life that will most certainly continue to meld with the virtual world.  A major part of that technology drives entertainment, and already entertainment makes up a huge part of the virtual world.

But what will that entertainment look like in that future?  What will it evolve into?  We already see signs of how rapidly technology changes things even when it's not the intention of the story.  Just watch a few movies from the 1980's.  Watch long enough to see someone whip out a cellular telephone the size of a cinder block.  Or watch long enough to see someone carrying around a gargantuan boom box.  Even movies made a few short years ago are already outdated by the technology they show.

Even watching the movies themselves has changed a great deal.  The first movies were made without any sound at all.  Then they figured out how to sync them with a soundtrack, and then the actual words the actors were saying.  Then they added color.  Then high definition.  Now it's 3D, and even 3D is changing.  There's what, three or four different versions of it out there?  They're even making 3D graphics you don't have to wear those stupid glasses to see correctly.

Books have undergone a similar, if slightly less dramatic change.  We used to have books printed from carefully hand-constructed typesets.  Now you can zap a book into your Kindle or Nook in the blink of an eye and read it digitally.

But where is that technology taking storytelling in the future?  What will the interfaces be in 2186?  My guess is they'll follow suite with what has been happening all along.  Everything is getting smaller, more portable, more convenient, faster, more personalized.  By then, it could all be wired directly into your optic nerves and be written to be fully interactive.  For all I know, you and I could walk into a theater, sit down together and watch a completely different version of the movie.  Of course, I don't think movie theaters will even be in existence anymore.  We'll have moved past them.  They'll be obsolete, an odd relic of the past.  There will be no reason to go to a certain public place, surrounded by inconsiderate strangers and stepping on sticky, popcorn-littered floors just to watch a movie.  The story will come to us, when we wish, and as we wish.  We're already more than halfway there anyway, if you think about it.

I don't think children of the future will ever debate whether the twelfth version of Casablanca was better than the eleventh.   I don't think they'll argue if the latest bestseller was a great book or a cruddy one.  I think they'll relate how the story was told to them, and how it differed from how it was told to their friends.  What ending works for you probably doesn't work for me.  Everyone's tastes are different, and the stories in the future will have to address that.  Give technology that much time to develop, and there will still be something new under the sun; it will have a different twist to it because it's personalized by the viewers themselves.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Conformist Thinking Outside the Box

You know the quote.  Nothing's new under the sun.  That saying goes back a long, long way, which makes it all the more true now.  When the movie Avatar came out, it was hyped as one of the most groundbreaking movies of all time.  Well, they certainly weren't talking about its originality, that's for sure.

Most things coming from commercial entertainment sources - Hollywood, book producers, video games, television shows - are simply repackaged, canned cookie-cutter retreads of something that's been done before, and often better.  I Am Legend screwed over the original ending and completely schwacked the entire point of the movie, all to make it more commercial.  Since then, they've packaged the original ending as a special "alternate ending".  The box office is completely filled with remakes and sequels nowadays, to the point where the International Union for Conservation of Nature is considering adding originality to their list of endangered species.  And how many clone cop/court/investigator television shows are there now?

It's the same with books.  YA has exploded to huge popularity.  Just the other day in the book store, I saw Ender's Game repackaged and reprinted as YA.  It's always appealed to a younger audience as much as an adult one, but was never marketed as such.  I guess they have to grab their share of the market while they can.  Hell, if you're not writing about zombies, sparkly vampires, teen school angst, or even better, a combination of those, your chances for publication drop considerably.

But everyone is still looking for that outside-the-box original idea.  The next new thing to hit.  Something that's different from all the rest of the commercial slush out there.  If you've got that idea, you've got a good chance at success.  And seeing it turn into commercial slush just like all the rest of it out there.  Once something is out there, the model for its success is copied and honed to perfection until it's originality is perfect - just like everything else.

They won't plagiarize, but as Avatar mutely attests to, they come as close to it as humanly possible to mimic the pattern of success they know works as a business model.  Publishing is the same way, and it isn't going to change until an outside impetus jolts it from the cycle.  Your main character is too young?  Turn the story YA or rewrite to make him older.  Didn't finish with that happy ending?  Unless it's blatantly horror, you've got to change it.  Even if it's horror, a rewrite might be suggested.  Subject matter outside the boundaries of normal commercial fiction?  Sorry, we're going to have to pass on this one.  Best of luck elsewhere.

So what is that impetus?  What can bring about the change from this blatant commercialized process of rubber stamping all the cookie-cutter clones for the masses?  The indie market, whose authors aren't bound by someone else's decision of what's going to work?  Society, whose ever expanding sense of normalcy simply screams loud enough for something well off the beaten path?  The pros themselves, in an attempt to outdo each other for that latest avant garde success, or to stay viable amid the fears of an ever-growing independent push?

Hard to say.  Maybe it won't happen at all.  Maybe things will continue to get churned out for the masses and dumbed down to the point where entertainment is purely mindless escapism.  It's almost there now, after all.  I'd like to think originality has a chance.  I hope it does.