Friday, April 23, 2010

Are e-books the future of publishing?

A few months ago writer Lisa Hinsley put her thriller/horror book Coombe's Wood on Kindle. I asked Lisa to share her experience of self-publishing through Kindle:

1) What led you to decide to publish through Kindle and what have you learned from the experience?

"I took a very long time trying to decide how I was going to self-publish and if I was going to self-publish. I was very aware I was losing the first rights to my novel, and I still dreamed of being picked up by an agent and stepping up behind Stephen King as the next horror/thriller god. I eventually made the plunge into Kindle at the end of October 2009. I had just gone through another round of submissions, just received another round of no’s, but this time I had a few full reads, and comments along the lines of: This wasn’t quite right for me, but it’s good. On the back of these comments, and with an increasing queue of books behind Coombe’s Wood waiting for their moment, I uploaded my novel onto Amazon. Here are my basic sales stats: October - 1, November - 3, December - 9, January - 9, February - 6, March - 143, April - As of today 201. I have learned that I should have gone Kindle a long time ago. I am now looking into publishing Coombe’s Wood in paperback, hoping I can ride the Kindle wave to success there as well."

2) What are your future plans? (More Kindle books, paperbacks, querying, etc.?)

"At this moment in time, I have no intention of going the traditional route and acquiring an agent/publisher. I am earning more per copy sold than I ever would under a contract. I have freedom to choose my own covers and write the way I see fit. My one concession is to use an editor before any of my books go public. In my opinion, this is an area that cannot be skimped on. Readers are not going to return to authors with error-ridden books. Presently, I am finishing the edit to my next book, Sulham Close, with a view to uploading to Kindle in a couple of months. In July, Amazon are changing their royalty policy, and if Sulham Close enjoys the same success as Coombe’s Wood, I might actually be able to quit my day job based on current book sales. After Sulham Close, I have another book waiting to be edited. I would want to get this out as soon as possible. I am receiving some very good feedback from readers, and they want more of my books! The last thing I want is for them to forget me while I get the next one ready. Best things that have happened to me with Kindle: 1. I discovered I might actually be able to make a living writing. 2. I have fans finding me and emailing to say how much they enjoyed Coombe’s Wood. 3. I am now officially an Amazon Kindle bestseller. I have not left the charts since the beginning of March, and bounce between 1,000 rank overall Kindle books and 5,000. Considering there are half a million books on Kindle, I am very pleased with my overall position. Thank you, Gemi."

Lisa's experience brings about a timely question in this rapidly changing age of publishing: Is it possible for an author to earn a decent wage by directly releasing books on Kindle or other e-readers like the Nook or iPad? J.A. Konrath in this post on Galleycat, Writers: Making a Living off Kindle?, says you can . . . and he indeed does. His daily sales of self-published e-books is about 180, sold through Kindle alone. Keep in mind, however, that he already had an established career as a novelist through a traditional publisher. Still, he now earns more on his self-published e-books than he does on his higher priced e-books put out by his publisher.

Konrath is very frank, in that he says he much prefers writing to the business of peddling his books. He maintains an active blog, participates in various forums and does an insane amount of book signings at bookstores. It yet remains to be seen if a new author could establish and build a lucrative career beginning by publishing with Kindle or other e-book formats, but the possibility certainly exists.

With print-on-demand technology, e-books, and opportunities for marketing via the internet, a whole new world has opened up for writers to blaze their own path to building readership. Traditional publishing is probably not going to die anytime soon, but it is changing. If, more and more, publishers are being forced to be more selective about plucking new talent from the slush pile - are paperbooks on bookstore shelves the only way anymore for readers to discover new writers? Perhaps not.

About a year ago, someone mentioned Smashwords on a writers' forum I belong to. Smashwords is a distributor of e-books. Books listed on Smashwords can be downloaded to your Sony reader, iPhone, iPod Touch, Amazon Kindle and will soon be available on Apple's much-talked-about new iPad device. When I checked out the site in its earlier stages, there was a limited selection of historical fiction available. A more recent visit to the site, however, revealed new titles being uploaded daily. While there is no vetting for quality, readers may sample part of the book before purchasing it. Smashwords believes that the books of the highest quality will gather a following and rise to the top, while those of lesser quality will simply not sell and sink to the bottom. They also give indie authors and publishers the option of setting their own prices ($.99 being the minimum) and deciding how much of the book to offer for free viewing.

One thing is clearly happening here: e-books are being offered at lower prices than their paper counterparts, the intention being to create higher volume sales. Some authors are even going directly to e-book sales and bypassing paperbooks altogether. I myself readily admit that I've foregone buying a hardback book, even by my favorite authors, because of the high sticker prices. I do sometimes ask for them as Christmas or birthday gifts, because they are so durable. But more often than not I either wait for the paperback or borrow it from the library. And when it comes to trying out new authors --- I would most certainly be willing to plop down a few bucks to read a book on my PC or e-reader.

For an overview of the evolving model between publishers and e-book distributors like Amazon, Apple and Google Editions, check out this (rather lengthy) article in the New Yorker: Publish or Perish - can the iPad top the Kindle and save the book business?

One thing's for sure, publishing in the 21st century will not be at all like it was in the 20th.

Until later,

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Interview with Peter Johnson

I’m pleased to introduce Peter Johnson, the author of Grant’s Indian. After reading the book, I corresponded with Peter and learned that he had an interesting story of his own to tell about his path to authorship and what the publication of Grant’s Indian has meant to him. I would like to share our discussion with all our blog readers as part of this week’s Featured Author spotlight:

How did you become interested in Ely Parker and what inspired you to write the book Grant’s Indian about him?

I probably first heard of Parker when reading about the Civil War as a kid. We had lots of Civil War books in the house, Grant's Memoirs among them, and Parker appears in several of them. But he's usually a footnote or an afterthought. Once I started writing novels, he became a natural character for me to focus on. The idea was to tell the story of the Civil War through the eyes of an outsider - in this case an American Indian. But he soon became the main character. There are a number of unanswered questions in his biography that only a novel can wrestle with, including (especially) how an 18-year-old Washington society belle came to marry a middle-aged Indian and (even more especially) how and why the Indian missed his own high-society wedding. My speculations about these questions are the emotional heart of the novel.

How long have you been writing and what made you want to write historical fiction?

I started writing novels as a sort of dare to myself in the early 1980s, when I was (as I still am) a professional actor spending a lot of time in regional theater, which lends itself to a lot of time on one's hands. I wrote a couple of mysteries that weren't terribly mysterious, a political thriller that failed to thrill, a baseball novel that whiffed and a coming-of-age novel that was identical to all other coming-of-age novels. For most of these I got agents but no publishers. Further, by the time they got into publishers' hands, they were dated -- actual world events made them no longer timely. I decided to write historical fiction because events in the distant past are unlikely to go out of date. A novel about the Civil War is as publishable (or not) today as it will be ten years from now, so it doesn't matter when a historical novel reaches a publisher. Timeliness & relevance are irrelevant.

Every author has a unique path to publication. Can you tell us a little about yours?

Sure. I got an agent for an earlier version of Grant's Indian some years ago, then more or less forgot about it while I did other things, like practicing law full-time. (I got my law degree at age 50 & passed the bar the day my first grandchild was born.) When I quit my law firm in 2003 I revisited the book and decided it was only half a book (It began and ended with the Civil War). So I finished it, shopped it around to agents and was encouraged by one agent to write another novel, which I did & which she now is shopping to publishers. Meanwhile the opportunity arose to publish an audiobook version of Grant's Indian. I've narrated audiobooks for 25 years, and a studio I was working at offered to produce it. So I narrated the audiobook and got it published by, the download-only audio publisher. Then, since is owned by Amazon, I took advantage of Amazon's print-on-demand feature to publish a print edition as well. So the audiobook has an actual publisher, while the print edition is self-published. Neat, eh? I could have waited a bit & got a legit publisher for the print book, but I wanted to get it in print for my father's 90th birthday in the fall of 2009, since he features prominently in the Writer's Note at the end and is responsible for my interest in the Civil War (his grandfather fought for the North & his father collected the Civil War books I now have custody of). I'm glad I did so. Dad died suddenly in February 2010. He kept a list of the books he read over the last 20 years (about 50 annually) and Grant's Indian was one of the last. (Though I don't think it killed him.)

What other books have you written? What is your current work in progress?

As I indicated above, a bunch of unpublishable genre fiction, all quite witty, but dated. I have a historical novel circulating among publishers. It's about a 19th-century actor who is also an amateur sleuth, embroiled in foiling his fellow actor John Booth's plot against Lincoln. (He fails.)

What makes this a book that people must read and why?

It will keep people entertained and off the streets for a few hours. Actually, I'd prefer that people listen to the audiobook, which allows them to read and be ON the streets at the same time. The audiobook is 16 hours, good for a number of long walks.

What authors were your early inspiration and who are some of your favorite current books or authors?

The direct inspirations for Grant's Indian are (1) George McDonald Fraser, whose series of Flashman novels puts a historical nobody at the center of all the important events of the 19th century and (2) the Nero Wolfe mystery novels of Rex Stout, in which the legman Archie Goodwin recounts the sleuthing of genius detective Nero Wolfe. I think of Parker as Archie to Grant's Nero Wolfe. My favorite current authors are mostly mystery and thriller authors: Robert Parker, Lee Child, Michael Connelly, Reginald Hill, P.D. James. They remind me that a plot, like a shark, has to keep moving or it dies. Since I teach law school, I also read a lot of Supreme Court and other legal opinions. Justice Stevens writes well & is usually right. Scalia writes brilliantly & is often wrong. I look forward to Justice Sotomayor's future opinions. I had a copyright case before her as a District Judge & her opinion was very imaginative. The best legal writing is good practice for fiction, because the writers have to organize factual material quickly & efficiently into a coherent & persuasive narrative. Justices Holmes and Cardozo will likely make appearances in my next couple of books, so I'm reading them as well. Cardozo likes inverted sentences ("Murder let us call it then, for murder surely it was."). Holmes likes to shock ("Three generations of imbeciles are enough.")

What has been the biggest stumbling block in your writing? Can you share some advice which may help others get past similar problems?

The biggest stumbling block is that nobody much cares whether I write something or not. The way to get past it is to realize that, if I don't write the story that's in my head, nobody else will. Also, my head will explode.

Where can readers find more information about you and your books?

What would you like our readers to know about you and your writing?

I'm not important. The books are. There is another historical novel out there looking for a publisher and two more in early draft form.

Many, many thanks for sharing a little about yourself and your book, Peter. It was a pleasure for me to read Grant’s Indian. I gained a whole new appreciation for the era during which the U.S. expanded so rapidly and underwent so many changes. I’m looking forward to your next book!

Friday, April 16, 2010

Review of Grant's Indian

Grant’s Indian, by Peter Johnson, follows the life of Seneca Indian Ely Parker through the rich and turbulent period of mid to late 19th century American history: from the boom of towns in the East and the stifling bureaucracy of Washington, to the decimating battles of North vs. South in the Civil War, and to the grasping westward expansion of the white man that inevitably forced the Indians of the Great Plains onto reservations. Engaging from the first page to the very last, Grant’s Indian brims with memorable characters, entertaining dialogue and an unlikely love story that is sure to enthrall.

Ely Parker emerges from his Seneca roots in upstate New York as a young man determined to learn the white man’s tongue. Very soon, he is sent as a translator for his tribe to Washington, where he quickly learns the futility of the crawling pace of government, yet still manages to delay the loss of his tribal lands by greedy land companies. Never idle, Parker gradually rises from ditch-digger, to engineer, to army general.

Parker ‘s relationship with Grant is the keystone to much of this story, as it carries both men from the battlefield, to Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, to the convoluted inner workings of government and diplomacy. Although Parker may never have risen to the level of professional success that he did without Grant’s patronage, one also wonders who Grant might have relied upon if Parker had not been so faithfully at his side at critical times. Throughout his life, Parker accomplishes much, despite the limitations imposed on him by an often intolerant majority.

An unexpected gift in this story is the arrival of the precocious and charming Minnie Sackett, who challenges Parker with her lightning wit and outspoken nature. Less than half his age when they first meet, Minnie captures Parker’s attentions. Their engagement becomes a scandal among the social elite and a source of media fascination. Ultimately, it is Minnie who gives Parker’s life dimensions beyond his professional accomplishments and Minnie whose wisdom rescues him from despair.

Grant’s Indian is an absorbing and well-told story that reaches beyond the rote repetition of historical dates and events to a more human level. Although Johnson leaves no doubt as to how thoroughly researched the background for this story was, it is never bogged down with dry, unrelatable details. If U.S. History classes were taught with half as much realism and energy as is found in Grant’s Indian, more people would take an interest in America’s past and have a far better understanding of it. Grant’s Indian should be a recommended read, not just for those who have an interest in the Civil War era, but for anyone who seeks a deeper understanding of the foundation on which America was built.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Marketing your work: How far will you go?

Today's post was inspired when a writer-friend shared this link on British writer Stephen Bentar. To summarize, Bentar's work has been critically lauded and even though he's been published, his work has often not succeeded in finding a wider audience. At some point, Bentar decided to push his books, literally, into the hands of would-be buyers. The result, after decades of slogging away, is that eventually one of those books ended up being read by New York editor Edwin Franks. Bentar is now doing readings in New York City.

When Bentar was asked why he went to such great lengths and was so persistent in trying to reach readers, he said he does it because 'he wants to be read'.

For him, it was never about making mountains of money or the desire to become famous. For any creative sort, if those are your motivation, then you're probably in the wrong pursuit, because art in any form is seldom profitable in the financial sense. He wrote to share a story - and the more who were touched by his work, the better.

Here's a great article by Henry Baum over at the Self-Publishing Review, The Pain of Promotion, that talks about selling your work. Writers, if they want to be read, have to make sure someone knows about them.

All this brings about a hard question: If you're a writer, to what length will you go to market yourself and get your work out there in front of others? If you had scads of money, it would be easy to hire a publicist, buy some ads and sign a few checks. Most of us, however, will have to find more creative (read: cheaper) ways to get the word out. Hawking your wares in person like Bentar does is one way of doing that, but there are many possibilities. As a parent of two active teenage kids, devoting my evenings and weekends to approaching strangers, when I could be cheering my kids on at the track meet, is not very appealing. In fact, it's not me at all. But, that isn't to say I would never do it.

For now, I'm reading the following two books (below). I'm now giving thought to re-vamping my web site for better SEO (search engine optimization), building a media kit and writing a press release, locating my target audience, and blogging regularly and with informative content. Many of us who dreamed of being writers while growing up, or even those who came to it later in life, were drawn to it because we are somewhat reclusive - we enjoy those long quiet hours alone with our thoughts, carefully choosing words to convey a picture, an action or a feeling.

But these days, whether traditionally published or independently so, if we don't extend a hand to our potential audience, we risk never being read at all. When I attended the Historical Novel Society Conference last June, I was surprised when traditionally published authors talked about the time and money they personally devoted to marketing their work. For them, it was a matter of necessity if they wanted to keep their careers afloat, although I'm sure most of them would much have preferred to be using those precious hours writing, hanging out with the literary crowd, or spending time with their families.

As a writer, what lengths are you willing to go to in order to make yourself, and your work, known?

[Edited to add a link to this great post, What is Your Marketing Plan?, by Karla over at Indie Publishing on the Cheap. If you want a step by step approach that will take this mystery and aimlessness out of marketing your book, this is excellent!]

Until later,

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Grant's Indian - Contest announcement and giveaway

Here's your opportunity to WIN a fantastic book: Grant's Indian, by Peter Johnson! Hope on over to The Historical Novel Review blog, here, for more details. My review of Grant's Indian will appear shortly. Then later this week there will be an excerpt from the opening pages, followed by a fascinating interview with the author himself. The contest runs from April 6th-9th, when the winner will be announced.

This book brings a richness to 19th century American history that I, for one, never knew existed before. I have a far greater understanding of the forces that shaped the U.S.A. during this time of westward expansion and dynamic social and political forces - and all the while I was being entertained. I so wish Peter Johnson had been my high school history teacher - I wouldn't have fallen asleep in class so often then. He makes U.S. history truly interesting and brings so many historical figures vividly to life.

Until later,

Thursday, April 1, 2010

On writing biographical historical fiction...

When I was a kid, we had a set of Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopedias. Somehow, I absconded with them and claimed them as my own, I suppose because nobody else in the house used them. They sat on my largest shelf, in my closet, and whenever I was bored or curious, I'd pull one of the volumes down and read about faraway places and events of long ago. Sometimes I'd lose myself for hours in those musty pages. The advantage to this odd hobby of reading reference material for entertainment later resulted in me becoming part of the high school quiz team and someone who was, for awhile, mildly obsessed with Trivial Pursuit because it was the one board game that could hold my attention.

More than anything, I became intrigued with historical figures: Richard I, Louis XIV, Napoleon, Cleopatra . . . When I discovered Jean Plaidy's historical fiction and her series on the Plantagenets, I was in heaven. Later, much later, I decided to write fiction revolving around prominent historical figures. I find it utterly fascinating to take known facts, read a variety of interpretations by non-fiction writers, and then develop my own understanding of what motivated them, what their fears, hopes and dreams were. You begin to realize that it's not always easy to comprehend why they did what they did - and a big part of that is because morals, gender roles, social rules and expectations and politics and religion were so vastly different in the past from what they are now.

Since putting some of my writing in public view, what I've further come to discover is that tackling biographical historical fiction is a tricky business. Some people love it. Some don't like it at all - maybe they find it boring, overdone, or they approach it with expectations that are so rigid, that it would be nearly impossible for any writer to deliver a proper rendition that would please them. I've occasionally heard that it's difficult to do biographical fiction well. But how is this any different than writing about a completely fictional character? Either the story is engaging to the reader - or it isn't.

Previous portrayals of a historical figure - be it in books or movies - can affect people's opinions of that person. And that can be a high wall for any writer to overcome. I'm constantly challenged by readers' perceptions of Robert the Bruce, as many people believe he betrayed William Wallace, which he did not. I honestly didn't realize when I began writing about real people how strong those preconceived opinions can be. Or how vocal some history buffs can be about them. No matter what light you paint a real person of the past in - or even a group of people or a particular event- it's bound to get someone's dander up.

I'm curious to know how some of my blog readers feel about this. Do you read biographical fiction or prefer not to? Does it depend on the writing? Do you go into it with an open mind? Have you ever put a book down because it contrasted too much with what you believed that person to be? Have you ever read a novel that totally changed your understanding of a real person?

Until later,