___WORDS FROM ME_____________________________________

experiments in e-books (i)

So you’ve written your novel, your novella, your short story, your short story collection. Maybe you’ve written more than one novel. Maybe you have short stories coming out of your ears. And perhaps you’ve had some luck finding homes for the stories and even the odd novel. You’ve flirted with mainstream publishing – by which I mean an established publisher of books, rather than a guy producing his own imprint out of his bedroom (honourable and noble enough though this is of him) – and it didn’t lead to a lifelong romance. You still love writing. You still love books. Your heart’s not broken, but possibly it’s bruised.

You’ve got a novel that’s not seen print. Maybe more than one. You’ve a hundred thousand words or so of short stories that never really found a home. That novella, who was ever going to publish it anyway? I mean, come on, realistically. It would be commercial suicide on a publisher’s part. And besides, you didn’t really know whose door to knock on to help get it into print in the first place.

So . . .

At some point the lure of the e-book gets to you. If it’s not at the top of your list of publishing ambitions, then somewhere further down – take a glance below “Winning the Nobel Prize for Literature” and search somewhere around “Getting At Least One Person To Buy Your Book At A Book Signing” – you’ll eventually find it. Straight-to-e-book, like the good old days of straight-to-video.

But is it a good idea?

I think the only answer to that is “it depends”.

Depends on how much work goes into it, depends on how much work you want to put into it, depends on who’s publishing it, depends on what your expectations for it are, depends on what exactly it is you’re publishing.

For the sake of brevity (and because it’s something I have a clue about) we’ll stick to publishing fiction.

The first and finest course a book can take to print is still through a mainstream publisher. Some – many – self-published authors who’ve had some success may dispute that. They’ll talk about how much more they’re earning by selling directly through Amazon or Smashwords etc, how they wouldn’t give away their back catalogue unless they had a bigger stake in the royalties than any publisher will offer, creative control in promotion, and a bunch of other things up to and including someone to pet their poodle while they use the lavatory. (I exaggerate, of course, for comedic effect. But only a little.)

It’s interesting to hear them talk. To a point.

Because mostly all they seem to talk about is the money. Every self-published e-book author you read interviewed or talking on the net usually starts off by telling you how much money he’s making. He tends to gloss over the actual writing and craft. Read some of the stuff that comes through into printed books after it’s found success electronically and you could believe that the quality of the writing was hardly ever a concern in the first place. At least not to the writer.

Often all it would take to fix those books is someone casting a sharp, critical eye over the manuscript and offering suggestions to improve things here and there. Like making the lead character’s name consistent throughout the book or pointing out that it’s quite a feat of biology to “shake his hand with a warm smile”.

There are things every writer needs, from the initial sympathetic (or stern) feedback from early drafts, to editing, copy-editing, proof reading, and even to someone saying “Hey, you know, this sucks. But if we delete this chapter and move this one here…” I won’t pretend all mainstream publishers give you that. The industry has changed from what it once was and there are now writers who’ve never met an editor in person and have just seen the Word file sent to the publishers printed and bound and out on the shelves. But for the most part, your chances of getting the things you most need to make your book better than it was come from being published by professionals.

The next question up is how can you tell the professionals from the hopeful amateurs?

The answer is it isn’t always easy. Especially in the case of small e-book publishers, which is what we’re concerned with here. Some e-book publishers are taking on plenty of half-decent and good works (often from writers who’ve fallen off the track of mainstream publishing) in the hope that one of them goes viral and starts selling in big numbers. And that’s fair. It’s commerce, which is what they’re interested in. But is that good for you?

Swings and roundabouts.

Although some of these e-book publishers will take the drudgery of producing the books and setting them out in the correct(ish) format and provide a cover, and they may even offer some feedback and editing, it’s doubtful that they’ll invest in you as heavily as a publisher sinking money into actual print copies. You’ll be listed on their imprint’s homepage, promoted in newsletters, linked to from their site. But beyond that… Well. Lap of the Gods stuff.

But you will have had one very important boost if you are picked up by one of these e-book firms. Someone will have read your work (unless the whole thing’s a con act, like old vanity press publishing) and deemed it worthy to see print. And that is satisfying indeed and gives a certain sort of stamp of approval. It legitimises what you’re doing. Takes away that whiff of desperation self-publishing often carries with it.

Something worth considering, then.

But what are your expectations? And how are they limited by opting to try your luck with a small e-book publisher?

If you want to put the books up on Amazon at the lowest list price (local sovereign currencies around the world will automatically adjust to the 99 cent lowest list price offered in the USA), an indie imprint e-book publisher is unlikely to help you there. Most indie imprint e-books sell for 1.99 to 4.99, depending. If you want to run promotional offers, or discount coupons, then the same issue is going to arise. And what if you’ve a variety of e-books you’d like to put up, in various genres? So far indie imprints seem to be as conservative, in their own way, as mainstream publishers who’d baulk at you handing in a crime novel after a science fiction thriller after a love story.

Maybe self-publishing is the way you’ll want to go if that’s the case.

It’s what I’ve tentatively decided to do with a few things that, for one reason or another, I’ve never really been all that confident will find a safe home elsewhere.

And so, as an experiment, learning as I go, I’m putting up on Amazon a 15,800-word novella or novelette, whatever you want to call it, depending on where the ever-shifting distinctions between the two are at right now, to see what will happen.

It’s called What I Wouldn't Give, and I’ll talk through the stages of starting out from nowhere – beginning with the writing – to the end point and actually coming up with product descriptions and listing the book on Amazon. I guess I’ll learn about the marketing as I go.

Stick around. Could be interesting.

no such thing as a free e-book


Reading shouldn’t be elitist. And yet so few of us can read. The statistics – variable, of course, because they’re statistics – suggest that only something like 20% of the world’s population can read.

Think about that. Only 20%. And in the 21st century (by Western calendars, anyway) too, when there should be spaceships to the colonies on Mars and robot butlers catering to our every whim, energy beamed down from solar arrays, tight white one-piece auto-cleaning suits, and oddly retro futuristic electro music in the air.

By reading a single morning newspaper you’ll have devoured more conceptual information in written form than most of the world’s population, since history began, will get or have come across in a lifetime.

For a long time the delivery mechanism for words has been pretty simple.

Paper. Alphabet. Words. Sentences. Paragraphs. Print.

But that’s changing. The payload’s pretty much the same, only the delivery system is different. That’s the part that’s changing. Electronic publications. Words and whispers of words through the e-ther. Computer screens. Pad screens. Tablet screens. Mobile phone screens. E-reader screens.

The stray sheet of newspaper print, blown like tumbleweed down a street to wrap around someone’s shin, is turning into an anachronism. Printed media’s circulation numbers is shrinking all the time. The trees might be happier for this. Forests might heave an oxygenated sigh of relief that the larger presence of Gaia herself might be thankful for. But while something is gained there, something is lost elsewhere.

It makes reading ever more elitist.

Where once there was the chance for the most lowly to trace a finger across a line of a badly bruised second-hand (or loaned from the library) book or newspaper or magazine and work lips to shape words, soon there will be only words behind glass screens, museum pieces that are never quite understood or explained to the poor. Museum curators may have to give explanations as to what everything is behind those screens, because a culturally stricken people who never had the chance to truly learn to read and value books – probably they’re not in the museum either unless it’s to duck out of the rain, because poverty narrows horizons and results in the worst near-sightedness – won’t know, and will be scared by the prepossessing air of entitlement that the higher classes, the educated, possess. Books, fiction and non-fiction, will be treated by some with the wrong kind of reverence.

But this change seems almost inevitable. Even now there are those who think closing libraries is not a disaster. It’s only a percentage of libraries being closed anyway, they argue. And look, who goes to the library but those who already read and have a lot of books in the house? If you can’t afford a book from the shops – assuming there will be any bookstores on the high street – then you can always download a free e-book. There are loads of them. Hundreds. Thousands. All those books that have fallen out of copyright . . .

Except . . .

Except there is no such thing as a free e-book.

You need an e-reader, which costs money. You need broadband internet access, which costs money. You need electricity, to power the e-reader and the internet access, and that costs money. And you need an acceptable credit or debit card to open an account at your online bookstore of choice. And that means you need money, because the banks don’t give away those cards without some money from you to begin with.

And in twelve months you’re probably going to need a new e-reader or tablet or pad or graphenescreen or whatever new tech is out there, because your old reader’s going to be out of date and unable to download the latest bestseller. And that costs money . . .

Whatever it is and whatever it’s going to be in the future – and in many ways it’s welcome, freeing up information, getting pre-existing readers to read more, encouraging others to write more – the e-book isn’t free.

We’re just not sure what the true cost is yet.

hour of the black wolf -- a review

There's some rather nice words about HOUR OF THE BLACK WOLF up on the Western Fiction Review blog, right here. Thanks to Steve for writing that. He flatters me, so do be warned. A guy could blush.

publishing and how to avoid it

It’s really not what I thought.

When I was a kid – and a not very smart young adult – I thought all you did was write your book, type it up, and then take it down to the local library.

You’d hand your weighty tome across the counter. Some helpful librarian would regard you with stupefied awe because you’d actually Written A Book. And then said librarian would take your precious manuscript into the bowels of the building (actually, as a kid, my local library was a narrow, mid-row terrace with both its small downstairs rooms knocked into one and shelved with books, no real room for any bowels, though it did possess a legend about its cellar and secret tunnel used by a local highwayman, but that’s a story for another time) and once in those bowels printing presses of mysterious metals and grim inks would be charged up and a book or ten made and put on the lending shelves.

If the book was taken out enough, then maybe the library would go on to print enough of them to sell in WH Smiths, where people went if they wanted to buy a book and not just borrow it.

If you got really lucky, enough people bought it and made you rich and you got one of those jackets with leather elbow-patches and eventually sunk a swimming pool in your back garden.

That was my thinking.

It took me a while to figure out that things didn’t work like that. Slowly the shuttle weaved in and out and my mind began to pick up the thread of how publishing actually worked. Unsolicited submissions. Rejections. Small Press print. Rejections and acceptances. Vanity Presses. Always acceptances – for a fee. Agents. Rejections and acceptances and then despair when the books can’t be sold. Publishers. Rejections. And then an acceptance. Editors. Rewrites. Copy Editors. Arguments. Oh, you know. The whole kit and caboodle.

And somewhere amongst all of that it’s easy to forget that a book has to be written, rewritten, refined and found to be of commercial value. And that last is the real kicker. Commercial value. Meaning it has to fit in. It has to make money, or be thought likely to make money. Just because it’s good enough to be in print doesn’t necessarily mean it will see print. That one in particular was a hard lesson for me to learn when two agents who were interested in my stuff reluctantly came to the conclusion they didn’t think they could sell it. 

So in some ways I prefer my naive version of publishing. It seems nicer, more geared up towards writing and what we might, just now and again, call art.

I suppose the advent of the e-book, in particularly Amazon’s Kindle self-publishing facility, is making my old and naive notion of what publishing is about a reality. For good or ill, regarding the quality of the work. You write your book, type it up, then show it to the world and see what happens.

But there’s a crucial difference. Libraries were open to everyone in my world. You didn’t need to find a hundred notes to buy an e-reader or have to be able to afford broadband internet access... My naive notion of publishing wasn't that elitist. 

Commerce. It gets everywhere.

PS – Did I mention my book’s available to buy here?

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