23 January 2013

The Modern Reader

With hindsight it is easy to see that the last thing to change in the e-publishing revolution would be the readers. Any lack of clarity in the chain of distribution between author and reader will lead to the reader finding a clearer channel of communication.

For this reason in the hotbed of new developments for indie authors the customer has stuck to the old channels of communication and continued to purchase traditional product in the traditional way. For most people this is not a problem and probably will not change substantially as time marches on. What's important though is that the lack of change will be perceptual, not actual. The reason that the average book punter will not perceive the change is because the change happens, if you like, "upstream" of where they are standing.

There's a scene in the movie (and possibly in the book that I have not read) The Devil Wears Prada in which the bitchy boss deconstructs the protagonist's blue sweater. In this example the protagonist of TDWP is the average book punter, any well-known author is played by the blue sweater and the world of publishing is played by the world of fashion.

Let me see if I can get a quote... ah here:
"...that sweater is not just blue, it's not turquoise. It's not lapis. It's actually cerulean. And you're ... blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves Saint Laurent... who showed cerulean military jackets... And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. And then it ... filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic Casual Corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and it's sort of comical how you think that you've made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you're wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room..."
Possibly you are already pointing to the work of folks like JK Rowling or Stephen King as examples to the contrary of 'being selected for success'. This is because those authors who are best known in the modern world are the breakaway surprise best sellers. They play by their own rules, so I will not be considering them here.

I'm not entirely sure that fashion has an equivalent for the breakaway surprise bestseller (which is any best seller by an author no one was previously aware existed) as I do not follow fashion. Unfortunately the breakaway bestseller model is how most people think of the whole of the world of publishing. This is not the case.

Many authors that people know of, I'm thinking of someone like Michael Connelly or Robert Crais here, got to their current position by the sweat of their brow and by finding out a particular group of readers. These readers, the equivalent of people who take a keen interest in not only items of fashion but also the workings of the fashion industry, are people who hunt out the new thing, who wish to proudly proclaim that they were into x way before everyone else even knew x was a thing.

Segue into the music industry. Our early adopter reader also has a little in common with the people who hang out in grungy clubs listening to a bunch of appalling noise in the hope of glimpsing the birth of the next rock god. At the moment the overlap is very slight. It's going to grow and grow in days to come.

There's a key difference between fashion and music. New designers quickly become 'legitimate' when they start to make a noise. The gap between being nobody and being a 'face' in fashion is infinitesimal. This is exactly equivalent to the paradigm of traditional publishing. Either you are published by one of the big houses or you are not. If you are not, in this paradigm, you are no one at all.

In music you may not be 'signed' to a major label but that does not mean that you are nobody. Indeed, in the world of music being 'indie' can be a badge of honour. Every so often a small indie fish gains traction and enjoys some success. There's a whole mess of stuff attached to success in music to do with 'selling out' or 'becoming commercial' possibly this will not infect the world of publishing... possibly it already has.

That's the delightful thing. Publishing is not music and publishing is not fashion. This group of hardcore indie readers will behave in their own way, possibly influenced by, but not exactly identical to, the way in which the dedicated followers of fashion or music behave.

The uncertainty in how they actually will behave arises from the fact that, at this stage, we just don't know. I am one of a small band of pioneers, I hunt for novels with no reviews, written by someone no one's ever heard of and I want to say 'I read so-and-so before they broke big'. That concept excites me, and I know I'm not alone.

The problem I face in this crazy world of indie authored ebooks in which we find ourselves is that finding 'the good stuff' is a bit of a challenge. Every book I have read recently has been "a little bit indier" than the one before it. In my quest I do feel somewhat alone, there are no book groups to visit, there is no channel to receive information that is on a level beyond the broadcast of indie-marketing blurb. I am sensing a lack of organised community. Indie writers are all telling each other about their work but I have not encountered many indie-only book enthusiasts; all that I have are lone rangers, blazing their own lonely trail into the world of indie-book culture.

This is a brave new world and all it really needs is some coherent notion of who should inhabit it. I look forward, eagerly, to discovering my fellow inhabitants of this indie-lit Arcadia.

17 January 2013

Blurry Lines

Just dropped by to update the work in progress sidebar. While I'm here I would like to make an observation. 2013 has started with a massive blurring of the lines when it comes to the difference between traditional and indie authors.

The chief place this is true is in quality. Back in 2006-ish there were very few self-pubbed books I read which could stand toe to toe with the stuff you might pick up in a bookstore. Since December I have read one book published by Momentum, a digital only imprint offering indie-comparable download prices, and one complete Indie offering and I would say that, although Dark City Blue had the edge IMO it was a close run thing.

I'm currently reading Devil's Hand by M.E.Patterson and it's really good (that's the short review of circa 25% of the book). So of the last three self-pubbed books I've read (the other being APE) I would recommend all of them for one reason or another and none of them look weak next to the more traditional offering. In addition the traditional offering looks more indie and I'm imagining the author of that feels like an indie author at the moment as this is his debut electronic-first offering.

The landscape of fiction publishing is definitely starting to flatten into what it will become. It will be a bumpy ride for certain.

12 January 2013

Review: Empire

The Book: Empire by Michael R. Hicks

Price: Free

Review Category: An enthusiastic tweeter and successful indie author I was keen to check it out.

The Blurb: EMPIRE is the coming-of-age story of Reza Gard, a young boy of the Human Confederation who is swept up in the century-long war with the alien Kreelan Empire. Nightmarish female warriors with blue skin, fangs, and razor sharp talons, the Kreelans have technology that is millennia beyond that of the Confederation, yet they seek out close combat with sword and claw, fighting and dying to honor their god-like Empress.

Captured and enslaved, Reza must live like his enemies in a grand experiment to see if humans have souls, and if one may be the key to unlocking an ages old curse upon the Kreelan race. Enduring the brutal conditions of Kreelan life, Reza and a young warrior named Esah-Zhurah find themselves bound together by fate and a prophecy foretold millennia before they were born.

Preview Available: Well, it's kind of free so...

Would I buy this (again)?: Given the price of titles in the series I probably will buy the others at some point so, yes.

The Product: A really well put together e-book and an example to others, well laid out for the reader with marketing folded into the closing pages. Really well done.

The Nitty Gritty: When I finished Empire I found myself having to ask my wife: If someone gave you a book that claimed to be a space opera what would you expect to happen in the story? She replied that she would have expected space ships, laser battles and aliens. By which count Empire scores 1 out of 3, it does contain aliens. In most other respects, however, this is not a space opera, rather it is a swords and sandals fantasy, in the vein of Conan the Barbarian, with space opera-y trappings.

What's even weirder is that the space opera sections are, by far, the weakest parts of the book. So I'm going to pitch it to you straight, this is a really really good blood and thunder melodramatic gladiatorial fantasy with action, adventure, lizard women and a fascinating, bizarre romance at its core. The slices of space opera bread in which this is the meaty, spicy, satisfying filling are dry, cardboardy and a little mouldy, don't let that put you off.

The story of Reza Gard, enslaved by the Kreelan Empire as part of a grand spiritual experiment is earnest, surprising and exciting by turns. After a couple of chapters of the fifteen year old Reza being obnoxiously wonderful in an orphan's colony the sudden switch to an environment where he is weak, frightened and not loved or respected by anyone is a welcome change. When Mr Hicks begins to dish out punishment to the precocious little snot I began to relax. Later on, when he begins to develop fuzzy feelings towards one of the blue-skinned, taloned, sadistic lizard women who surround him it definitely gave me pause for thought.

That's the hard nugget of mental engagement squirrelled away in amongst the torrid tale of survival, combat and forbidden love on an alien world as deadly as it is beautiful. This is heady stuff indeed, the two lovers in the centre of the tale are given depth by the situation in which they find themselves. Reza is more than just a two dimensional Buck McHeropants because he was a normal all-American human kid who got a taste for bondage and domination at the hands of blue lizards. His lizard companion Esah-Zurah because Hicks commits fully to the idea that this woman is like Red Sonja only blue and not as cuddly or loveable.

So often in fantasy tales female warriors are just vehicles for the expression of dodgy submissive fantasy and misogyny on the part of the author. Empire has the cheek to subvert that notion by extrapolating it to its ultimate end. Hicks is careful to communicate that the Kreelan warrior women are anything but desirable to humans. For a start any human that meets a Kreelan is way too busy watching their intestines uncoil to wonder about alien nookie. To take this unforgiving template and spin an interspecies romance is chutzpah beyond that which I possess. To take all the reasons why such a twist is insane, laugh in their face and then add fairly sophisticated alien political and spiritual complications into the already unlikely mix propels the narrative into a whole new sphere of crazy.

Maybe I am just a bit of a fuddy duddy when it comes to this sort of stuff but the most gripping aspect of this story was the feeling of buying into everything even as you wondered whether you were being an idiot for doing so. The story of Reza Gard is what keeps me interested here, and the adventures in the Kreelan Empire are an amazing ride. I must admit to misgivings about reading other books in the series as I am uncertain that I will enjoy them as much, but I will be giving them a chance when I have some room in my reading schedule (so some time in 2017 then?) simply out of respect for this gloriously lunatic alien fantasy love story.

11 January 2013

Selecting A Self-Published Book

I am pretty impressed with Guy Kawasaki's new book APE: How To Publish A Book,  I reviewed it at the beginning of December. I'm also impressed with Mr Kawasaki's unending energy in taking the APE message out into the world. Now it's time for me to be similarly impressed with his short presentation published in the Huffington Post advising readers on how to discriminate when picking an indie pleasure for their e-reader of choice.

I would, however, take issue with a couple of points that he raised. I'm talking from the point of view of a genre author, Mr Kawasaki from that of a non-fiction writer but there's a good deal of crossover. Many of my quibbles are to do with the different ways that fiction and non-fiction are sold.

On a technical note (so more the Huffington Post's fault than Guy's) I'm also not too pleased with the slide show having no option to read it as a short article. To mitigate the technical issue and add my thoughts here's a quick summary of the key points of the presentation:

1. Cover
Guy says: "While it is inaccurate to say that every book with a crappy cover is not worth reading and every book with a nice cover is worth reading, the cover is [your] first data point." 
The Monkey says: I have to say, I'd pretty much agree with this. I'd add that a cover needs to be appropriate more than anything.

Whacking a great piece of richly detailed art on a fantasy or historical may well be the way to go but thrillers and horror books are often more impressionistic. If someone hasn't even looked at covers of books within the genre they're writing then how seriously are they taking themselves as a commercial writer?

In my opinion, in the world of the indies there is a bar, and currently there are points for effort. If it's clear that the cover has been lovingly handcrafted in an attempt to engage, or generically designed enough to fit with all other similar titles, then I'd tend to give it a thumbs up.

2. Blurbs
Guy says: "An excessive amount of blurbs is a sign of poor quality."
The Monkey says: I have never really paid much attention to blurbs in fiction whatsoever. I think this is more of a non-fiction point. Non-fiction requires a definite authority to say; "This guy knows what he's talking about".

Fiction is far more a matter of taste. I have read loads of Neil Gaiman, I don't believe I have ever bought anything endorsed by Neil Gaiman, or, if I have, never because it was endorsed by Neil Gaiman.

3. Name of publisher
Guy says: "If an author cannot come up with a more clever name for his company than his last name, how imaginative and intriguing could his novel be?"
The Monkey says: There's another point here. The fact is that in order to get your book out into the world you have to take yourself seriously as a writer. To learn to be a thing one must first imitate the thing we want to be.

There are good authors who don't "pretend" to have a publishing house and that's not an indicator that they're a bad writer. It is however, an indication that they don't take the business of marketing at all seriously and, by association, they may not view delivering the product to the customer seriously either.

A book that has a lacklustre cover and loads into your e-reader at page one, chapter one, no title, no TOC may be fine, but it does say that the author had more fun writing than they particularly care about whether you will have reading.

4. Front matter
Guy says: "It’s not crucial that [the front matter conforms to the Chicago Manual of Style] but at least you can determine if the author cared enough to find out what the front matter of a book should contain."
The Monkey says: This just refines the point about how seriously you can tell the author takes themselves as an author. In order to have published a "real book" I want my work to resemble a "real book" to the extent that the casual observer cannot tell why my book is "not real".

Also showing an awareness of copyright notices shows you take the business side of what you're doing seriously, dedications are a nice touch, thinking about the structure of your book is about taking care of your reader. I don't go the whole hog but I do put in a copyright notice, disclaimer and ensure that anything I feel I should say before the main action begins is said in good part. In other words, I do believe a self-publisher should make this effort.

5. Copyediting
Guy says: "Read the first few pages of the book and if you see more than three spelling mistakes or instances of poor grammar, take the book out of your online shopping cart and save yourself a few bucks."
The Monkey says: To this day I still question what "good grammar" really is. In journalistic and non-fiction pieces sticking to the absolute letter of the orthodox grammatical law is essential. In fiction the question is, rather, "does it flow?" Do you understand the story? Do you care? The odd fragment sentence is sometimes allowed for style reasons. Your mileage will vary.

Spelling errors come in two flavours, bad spelling e.g. "I am loosing my mind" and typos e.g. "I am losing my mnid". Either should be rare but typos and even the odd complex homophonic (bear/bare, hear/here) substitution do creep into the best of books.

Mr Kawasaki's three alarm limit seems fair to me. The Amazon default preview is 10% of the book, if the book is hard to understand and poorly proofed to the degree that you check yourself three times in 10% of the volume you will potentially encounter 30 head scratchers in the course of the whole book, which is pretty excessive.

6. Fonts
Guy says: "As in cover design, the use of Times, Arial, and Helvetica is a bad sign."
The Monkey says: This is a reference to fonts used throughout the interior of the book. I would tend to disagree with this when it comes to genre fiction. In fiction books the use of Times New Roman is to encourage readers to find the actual text as invisible as possible.

I did read something once that stated serif fonts, such as Times were easier to read printed, where as sans serif fonts, such as Arial were easier to read on a screen. We've entered a time when what counts as "a screen" is somewhat harder to define, so this is no longer a hard and fast rule. What I would tend to say is that those artifacts that are used as books tend to benefit from serif text, those intended to be read off a vertical, non-portable screen, such as a monitor, from sans serif.

If a fiction book's text looks pretty boring that's probably a good thing, if it looks weird, crazy or if you're noticing the fonts while you're supposed to be wrapped up in the story that's probably a bad sign. In addition the peppering of a random crew of unusual fonts in a non-fiction book shows a cluelessness in typographic skills that should be a red flag.

So not what I would describe as a hard and fast rule.

7: Website
Guy says: "If you’re browsing online, take a quick look at the author’s website because a website is a window into her soul."
The Monkey says: This is a strange one, because it's just as true of a published author or any other person asking you to become digitally involved with them.

If someone's Facebook profile looks like a Facebook profile, their Twitter bio looks like a Twitter bio and their website looks like the kind of place you'd like to hang out then you know that the person is communicating effectively no matter how they're trying to engage with you. If you get the creeps looking at a public artifact someone left behind with the full intention of having random people look at it then that person probably isn't your type of person... so, a no brainer really.

9 January 2013

Self Publishing - State of Play

Let's start 2013 with a list of five thoughts I have running round my head regarding the general market environment for indie authors in the upcoming year:

1. I am finding the zeitgeist in my "Self Publishing" news stream has avoided the redundant "the bubble has burst" phase. This is probably because there was no real bubble in self publishing to speak of. The zeitgeist has now turned to "don't bother self publishing unless you're a masochist because it's a waste of time and nobody cares". Also "marketing is hard".

2. Marketing is hard.

3. The populace of the Western world really has too much expectation of their ambitions toward authorship. More than was even suspected prior to the advent of the electronic book.

4. The average quality of work bounced out of slush piles must be higher than slush pile readers report OR far more good writers were discouraged by the existence of the slush pile and hoopla surrounding them than was ever suspected.

5. You need far fewer avid fans to get by than you used to (due to higher royalty returns) BUT finding your fans is a hellish business.

BONUS THOUGHT: The Kilimanjaro-like peak of "building a platform" for the nascent indie author seems daunting. Tackling the long climb to "niche market base camp" appears a foolhardy endeavour. In fact, I believe, digital media just makes this forbidding, awe-inspiring mountain visible, and it is - de facto - more challenging to climb an invisible mountain than a visible one.

Take heart everyone and have a cracking 2013 won't you. (Now where are my crampons?)