And the experiment begins

I have two projects in the works right now, one a UF out on submission with my agent, and the other, a hardboiled romance, I’m debating what to do with. I bounce back and forth between wanting to try self-publishing with this title or pursing more traditional options. For the past year or so, I’ve been wanting to dig into the D.I.Y. elements of publishing that are now open to authors, and you can see by a post I made a couple weeks ago, that I’ve been pondering possibilities. Well, I’ve recently begun a piece of that possibility.

What I have written on Harbortown (about 50k) words to this point, I placed on Google Docs, invited about a half dozen reader/reviewer people I’ve connected with on twitter and feel could provide me with some honest feedback, and gave them the ability to comment directly in the document, much like you do with any Word document. The goal here is to work with a continuous feedback loop, using ideas/concerns/comments to develop the story into a stronger version than what I could normally on my own. I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t have a very objective eye with regard to my writing, unless it sits for a couple of months before I look at it. The far more immediate feedback helps not only spur ideas and keep elements on track, what works well and what doesn’t, but it’s also inspiring to write more, when you have people involved in your work.

Given the scope of this story (I’m on pt 2 of 5, and currently at 50k), I will be doing this for a while, and may add some more commenters to the loop, depending on how well this turns out. It’s not exactly crowd-sourcing, but having interested people involved in you work, who you know will give honest feedback is a fabulous thing to have when writing. I know that some writers don’t like anyone to see their work until it’s done. They have worries that it will distort their process or stress them out or whatever the case may be. My brain doesn’t work that way, for better or worse. I thrive on the interaction, so I hope that this experiment will prove fruitful and I can build upon it. We’ll see how it goes.

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Bloggers are killing literature? Um, no.

Bit of a head-scratcher in the twitterverse today as I discovered a link to a well-known literary critic (in those circles at least) who complained that book bloggers are causing problems for literature. Huh? You can read what Mr. Stothard had to say here: http://ht.ly/dZy8V. His premise is basically this: the proliferation of non-professional book critics via blogging is going to drown out the voices of serious, literary critics making it more difficult for readers to discover great works of literature.

Yes, I know. You can quit your snorts of laughter now. I’ll be the first to say that the vast majority of book bloggers do not provide critical analysis of literary fiction. A few do, I’m sure, and if you are actually looking to find them, I’ll bet it’s not too hard to find. The fact is, if you are looking for great, literary fiction, it’s not hard to find sources that discuss/critique those stories. There are bloggers out there who are not professionally paid literary critics, but have the background, interest, and where-with-all to tackle literary fiction. Most readers, however, are not. The general reading public reads for entertainment mostly. Do these stories require deep, critical analysis? Probably not. They do require thoughtful opinion though, and that is within the purview of most readers.

Book bloggers offer their opinions on books because of one thing, they love books. They want people to know about them. Let’s face it, there are way more good stories out there for you to read than you’ll ever be able to get to. Finding good ones can be difficult.  Are you going to find them among the literary critics? No. Popular fiction isn’t something they examine, which is fine. Honestly, it doesn’t matter if they look down on popular fiction or have the pretentious attitude that they aren’t worth reading. We all know they are. Literary works are too. Some books are works of art when it comes to language and/or expressing the human condition. Literary critics can continue to work in those circles. It’s worthwhile and useful. Will they be drowned out by the rest of the book blogosphere? No.

The thing is, people talk about books. A lot. People who read popular fiction also read literary fiction. Word gets passed around. Bloggers are interconnected. If anything , a proliferation of book bloggers will only enhance the ability for an artful piece of fiction to get notice. It will also get more good popular fiction noticed.  To those literary critics out there pretentious enough to think so, readers read more than one type of story. We read romances, mysteries, biographies, fantasies, and hey, even literary fiction. Why? probably because a trusted blogger resource heard from another blogger who heard from a blogger who read some lit critics analysis and decided to give the book a shot and then spread the word.  It happens.

So, lit critics, get off your high horse, if you’re currently on one. Not every book out there is or needs to be worthy of the Booker Prize or  Pulitzer. Nor are we immune or ignorant of your analysis and critique of said books. We hear about them. Word gets around. Just because your pond has become an ocean, doesn’t mean we don’t know where to go looking for the beautiful fish.

The Ways We Can Tell Stories Are Changing

Much has changed in the past five years in publishing, which kind of goes without saying. It has allowed us writers to think a bit outside the box when it comes to the content we produce and how it’s put out there to readers. I have yet to do much with self-publishing, but it is readily apparent that the boundaries of the playing field for authors has greatly expanded. We can put out short stories, novellas, and such to go along with novels that come out, whether legacy or self published. It’s an ability to go beyond the norm for the readers as well as a method to help ourselves with things like discoverability and extra income. Things like this, of course, get me to thinking on the possibilities.

I have two projects going at the moment, and one of them is a something of a hard-boiled/noir/romance mashup called Harbortown. It follows the rollercoaster ride of Detective Rachel “Rehab” Rollins and the guy she must train to replace her after she’s been forced to retire.  The story arc takes place over these final six months of her job. Now, I may end up writing this all as one, full length book. If my agent likes it and sells it, I’m more than likely to go that route, but it’s also spurred on some other ideas.

Like, what if I wrote it as a series of novellas, released over the course of that actual six month time frame, on the actual days that each novella begins, sort of like reading it in real time? There could be short stories during the in between times. Then the whole thing could be compiled at the end in one volume. I could have a blog that follows the goings on in the town during the entire six months, also played along in real time, bits of news, things about the town and characters, kind of like a daily/weekly news update. The whole idea here would be to have readers experience the story along the same six month time frame that the characters and town do.

Might be fun, yes? Might be colossal, epic fail. Who knows, but regardless, it is very, very cool that publishing is such now that it allows for this kind of pondering. The ways in which we bring our stories to the reader have expanded quite a bit in the past few years, and likely will even more in the future. It’s an exciting time to be a writer.

Music and Story: Setting the Tone

There are a number of authors out there who like to build music soundtracks for particular books they’re writing. I personally have yet to do this, until now. My (other) current work in progress is a crime fiction story, a rather dark, unapologetic tale of love, violence, and how personal demons can destroy. The heroine likes music. She has a secret thing for singing that nobody knows about. It’s not a big element in the story far as that goes, but it’s a character thing I like a lot, and due to the emotional makeup of this character, she likes to play music that represents how she’s feeling at any given time. If this isn’t a story to build a soundtrack to, I don’t know what is.

Like the story, this aspect is a work in progress. I keep my ear out now for things that tie back into the story or characters. I think music can be a powerful addition to story, much like in movies. As a writer, if you have something that plays to what’s in the story, it can actually effect your writing. It can be quite powerful, honestly, and I wish I had the where-with-all to do it for every book, but it’s also a fair bit of work, and I”m not one of those folks with an ipod full of music to search through. Anyway, if you’ve not tried writing to music or find it distracting, the trick is not necessarily to pick things you normally love to listen to, but to tailor them to what you’re currently writing.  Got a love song that encapsulates what’s going on between your two protags? Play it while you write. It will have an impact. Even purely instrumental works can do this.

When this story finally sees the light of day, I’ll build an actual soundtrack for it just for fun and for readers to enjoy if they so desire. In the meantime, here are two, the first being what the heroine, Rachel, plays on the way to an incident (she’s a cop) and the second speaks almost perfectly to the romance in the story, from the hero’s pov. Enjoy, and happy reading/writing everyone!

Paying for Reviews Robs the Reader

Haven’t had much to post about of late, but this week an interesting article popped up in the NY Times about the fact that some authors have used review services to bolster their sales. It’s caused a bit of a stir, mostly falling on the side of annoyance or downright anger. It’s basically a function of gaming Amazon’s review system to push sales and rank of ebooks. Sounds rather sketchy (and it is).

The primary example used was that of best-selling author, John Locke, a thriller writer who has made a name for himself in self-publishing selling $1 ebooks and doing rather well for himself by it. He’s managed to get a traditional publishing deal out of it as well. In that regard, good for him. He took what was given to him and made it work and found success. However, I think this speaks more to a faulty system than any mean-spirited trickery on the author’s part.

If you sell on the Kindle, your major route to success lies in hitting the top of various lists. Getting noticed in the sea of books is a self-published author’s goal. You have to get on people’s radar in order to get bought. It doesn’t matter how good your story is. If nobody sees it, the quality is rather irrelevant. The way Amazon works, spiking sales numbers will stick your smiling mug up on the top or near the top of any number of lists. There are a plethora of categories (more so than I would’ve thought possible, and allocated to books in sometimes odd and mysterious ways) that one can get noticed on. Mainly though, one wants to hit the more general lists. The less specific, the broader your reach to readers. A certain number of sales may garner you on the epic fantasy list. A few more and you hit general fantasy. Do really good and you make it on to more general overall rankings.

What John Locke did, and many I’m sure have tried to duplicate and perhaps have, is to pay people to get his book off of Amazon, read it and post a review. There are some fairly obvious problems with this model. The main one is that you get a book with tons of reviews with no actual validity. You have no idea if the person actually read the book. Getting paid to review, incurs a potential obligation or expectation to say something good about a story you may not have liked. You get sales rankings that are basically fake. These are not sales based on interest, word of mouth, or anything at all related to how good the story may or may not be. It’s akin to corporations playing musical chairs with their accounting to make themselves look like they’re doing better than they actually are.

There’s nothing illegal or against the rules about any of this.  It is deceptive. It’s not an entirely honest method for garnering readership. I can’t really fault Locke for doing this. If I had five grand to toss out there and pay 500 people $10 to buy my $1 book and hopefully read it and then post a review for me, I might be tempted. Because the thing with books is that sales beget sales. As a reader, I might see this book I’ve never seen before, suddenly at #3 on the thriller list that I’ve never heard of before. I’ll check a few reviews and see that they’re almost all positive. For a buck? Hell, I’ll check it out. I might even like the book. Is anyone the worse for it? If you’re duped into trying something you like, is there a problem with that?

You could say it’s just another form of what publishers have practiced for years. Let’s face it, reviewers generally review because they love books and love to talk about them.  If you get in with a publisher and get free books form them to review on a regular basis, that kind of rocks. Will they keep sending them to you if you dis on them all the time? Well, no. It’s kind of a “be nice to us and we’ll be nice to you” sort of arrangement. Again, not a strictly dishonest approach, but it’s also rather deceptive. Works for the author, the publisher, and the reviewer, but it fails the reader.

As a reader, I don’ take kindly to being tricked, duped or deceived. I want only one thing in a review, and that’s honesty. Thoughtful honesty. Read the book and give an honest, informed opinion of the experience.  If you tell me you can get paid or get kickbacks or whatever (from a pub or author), and not have your opinion subtly shifted in the direction of a more favorable response, I’ll cry “bullshit.” Psychology of the brain doesn’t work that way. Your objectivity is skewed automatically by entering into such a relationship. There is no switching off that influence.

For me personally, I don’t pay much attention to reviews of books (other than my own of course). There’s no trust in a system that lacks any sort of transparency about where the opinion is coming from or why. When significant stories like this crop up, it only reinforces that opinion. I’d like to know reviews are honest, but I can’t. It really can’t behoove the industry to have general, public opinion about reviews be that they are pointless because people are being paid to give good ones. We authors rely to some degree on having reviews help us with discoverability. When someone doctor’s the books in order to gain advantage, it’s disappointing. Don’t game the system simply because you can. It’s not cool.

I don’t know that I would’ve ever bought any of Locke’s books, but knowing he used these methods to influence his success, he goes on the list of never buy or recommend that author. And on that note, Amazon? Fix your damn review system. There has to be a way to minimize the impact of this kind of behavior. Don’t let the joke of one of our major avenues to discovery continue. It’s embarrassing. And that goes for anyone else who solicits opinion in a manner that skews objectivity. Is honesty of process really that damn difficult to deal with?

Would You Pay to Proof Someone’s Book?

Came across an interesting post about a debate that occurred at a conference recently, between a self-published author, named Stephen Leather and a couple of other publishing people. Apparently, it got a little heated, as these things tend to do,  around the notion of the $.99 ebook. This isn’t about that argument. The guy makes money selling books for a dollar. What other folks have to say about it to him likely isn’t going to have much of an effect. More power to him. I have my own opinion on dollar books which is beside the point of money, but I’ve discussed that before. It was something else he said that really got under my skin.

When the issue of editors, proofers, and such came up, and the obvious need for them, his stated (I didn’t hear him personally, so I can only go by what was stated in the post) opinion was that with a large fan base, some authors, who don’t need much more than light proofing, can rely on their readers to proof their books.

Yes, you heard me right. Readers can proof their books. While I don’t doubt that there are plenty of readers out there who are smart enough to be excellent proof readers, it isn’t their job to proof books. This is an absurd expectation, and frankly, disrespectful of the reader. It’s one thing to openly crowd-source a book, where you invite feedback on an unfinished story. Note the important word here: unfinished. This is a very different tack to take in producing a story (an interesting one to, mind you, and maybe for another post), but when you are putting out a book to the audience to read, the expectation and assumption is that it’s a finished product.

Why would I buy a book with this expectation? I have no desire to feel obligated to report back to the author about errors that need correction. If I’m paying you money for a story, my expectation is simple. This story is as good as you can make it. It is as error free as you are able to do. Now, the fact is, most authors, 99% even, do not have the skill set to proof their own work. Your brain is so wrapped up in the process and product that it’s just too easy to miss things. This is what good editors, copy-editors and proofers do. We pay them for their services to make our stories as good as the possibly can be. If we’re going to sell our product, it is the minimum we should be doing as writers. To lay any of this at the feet of the reader is having them pay a dollar and invest their time in catching errors that they shouldn’t have to be seeing in the first place.

I’ve stated it before, and it will always bear repeating. If you aren’t willing to invest in the appropriate services to make your book the best possible story it can be before you put it out there to readers, DON”T PUBLISH IT!

Nuff said. Happy reading/writing everyone.

Cloud Publishing-It’s Big Potential

Interesting post here by Mike Shatzkin (very smart publishing guy) on his blog related to a topic there’s going to be a conference on at the end of this month. It’s publishing in the cloud. For those of you who might be wondering, this is not a reference to the puffy masses of water vapor floating in the sky, but to the notion of having content centralized and accessible to all parties involved. For a book, this would mean my manuscript is located on a server somewhere outside of the publisher, and anyone involved in the process of putting the book together would then have access to it.

It’s not hard to imagine how this could be turned into a great thing for the future of publishing. For one, the ms never has to be moved. It’s always in one place, and anyone involved, from the editor to the publicist can tap into it at any time. Comments, questions, and feedback would be located in one spot. No more emailing around to various people to get needed information. It would streamline the production process ( how much I don’t know, but it would). This in turn would save time and money.

While great for publishing, I’m more excited by the prospects this would offer the writer. How fabulous would it be to have access to the workings of the book in progress? We could offer our own invaluable feedback through all aspects of the publishing process. Now, while it doesn’t mean our feedback would be used, the notion that we could be included in all of this and see the how/what/why of things getting done would be incredible. It could truly make the book a collaborative project. It almost makes me giddy to think about the potential.

Working in the cloud is an exploding industry right now. It offers huge benefits across the board for all kinds of work. Publishing tends to be slow to evolve with new tech, but I sincerely hope they are on the ball with this one. Even in self-publishing, I can see how this might become advantageous. A cloud-based freelance publishing network where a writer pays a fee to be hosted and then an editor, proofer, cover-artist, and formatter are signed on to work on it, taking their percentage of the fee. The author is there in the middle of it for the entire process, and the book ideally becomes a group project.

It’s going to happen, and it’s probably not too far down the road either. I’m looking forward to seeing how this all develops. Exciting stuff!