Wednesday, June 19, 2013

New Self Publishing Course to be Offered

As you might have noticed in some of my previous posts, I'm a might disturbed by "consultants" and others who are ripping off authors interested in self publishing by charging for services most competent authors can do themselves. Well, I'm going to do more about it than complain. I've decided to offer a course called Ridiculously Simple Self Publishing

This course will teach you everything you need to know to publish your book to Amazon as a Kindle ebook. These techniques are transferable to most other online publishers as well. Although, we'll discuss why you might want to stick to Kindle exclusively at least for awhile.

Some Topics Include:
Format Your Book in a Half Hour or Less
"Freedom of the Press
Belongs to Those Who Own One"
A.J. Liebling 
Setting up a Kindle Account
Understanding your Kindle Dashboard
Setting up your author page
Free tools to use to prepare your document
How to create a cover like a pro without using Photoshop
Self-Editing techniques
Doing it all for Free
Setting your price point
Optimizing for the Kindle Search Engine
Basics of Social Media Promotion
 ... And More

When the course goes live July 15, the registration fee will be $20 (still a lot less than just hiring someone to do one of the things we teach) but for those who want to pre-register before the launch, the price is just $10.

The course will include 10 video lessons that you can work through at your own pace. I want this to be accessible and affordable for anyone interested in this exciting new field. I've been told that I'm not charging enough, but if I charged much more, I'd be like those other people taking advantage of indie writers.

Click Here to find out more and to register for the course.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

About Story, Craft, Context and "Bad" Writng

A couple of days ago someone on a writer's email loop lamented that a lot of "bad" writing was very popular. They mentioned several examples. I responded with this. Someone suggested I post this to my blog. So, here it is. 

Actually, "bad" writing, all too often, is considered "bad" simply because we don't like it. The problem with that approach is that it ignores the fact that other people do. For them it's "good" writing. 

"Quality" itself (as academics, critics and esthetes define it) is not enough for a novel to be compelling enough to be popular. "Craft" is not enough either. Being able to find the exact right word or following all the "rules" about avoiding passive voice, wordiness and adverbs. So, then, what does make a novel compelling enough for a significant number of people to read it? 

It begins with a story

First, writing tells a story. If the story is compelling, and, if we can care about the characters, we will forgive the occasional foul up. Look, we forgive Shakespeare for having a clock in ancient Rome or aging Hamlet something like 10 years in a couple of days. Why? Because the story is so incredibly good. Dickens' long expositions and coincidences would be panned
mercilessly in most modern critique groups, but those characters like Fagan, Scrooge, Pickwick, Fezziwig and Little Nell keep us reading. 

A story is not simply the sum of its parts. Indeed, it is not even just the creation of the author. A reading experience exists at the intersection of the author, the text, the reader and the social context. In that sense, there is not one story but six billion possible stories. 

The Importance of Context

The same story, read by the same person separated by a number of years can produce a entirely different experience. It's not fiction, but the example that comes to mind is Robert Frost's famous poem about the "Road not Taken." That last haunting stanza:

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence
Two roads diverged within a wood and I
I took the one less traveled by
And that has made all the difference. 

I first met that poem in high school where many roads with many intersections were before me. At that time, it was a cautionary tale, something to consider as I made the choices in front of me. 

In other words, I lived that poem in the first stanza. Now, 50 years later, most of those roads are behind me. I have "trodden black" most of the leaves on those roads, and taken my fair share of those "less traveled by," and I am living in the last stanza. My experience of that poem is not anticipatory, but nostalgic. It is a different poem for me now than it was then. 

The same can be said of Poe, Asimov, Wells, Verne, Clark, Simak, Tolkein and all the other literary loves of my youth. Even some of the books I, now, look at and wonder how they ever got published were precious to me then. The craft may not have been there, but the story was and it took me somewhere other than the dismal place I lived. 

I may not like or even approve morally of something like Dan Brown's conspiracy theory based books or the explicit 50 Shades of Gray, but they do speak to something within a person that evokes a sense of wonder and adventure. Once we replace story with "craft" we lose our audience. Ideally, we should have both, but story must always come first. And if the story does not take us out of the ordinary, it will never sell. 

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Professional, Activist or Hobbyist

Recently, I've been discussing various issues related to indie publishing. I've been thinking about them because I am preparing a course called Ridiculously Simple Self Publishing. I hurt someone's feelings I think when they made the comment that they intended to pursue indie publishing "professionally" by outsourcing everything except the writing (which they nearly outsourced by having content editors and book doctors help rewrite). However, they added, that they spent a lot of money, and would not recoup their expenses, but they were proud of the professional job done.

Sorry, folks. It may be a quality job (or not). It may be a polished job. However, a professional job produces a profit. If you are not showing a profit, you are not pursuing a business, you are pursuing a hobby.

There is nothing wrong with doing something for the sheer enjoyment. Nor does it imply a low quality item just because it's produced as the result of someone pursuing a hobby. It doesn't mean someone isn't serious about what they are doing. My mother crocheted afghans that will outlast anything I've bought in stores. She was very concerned about the quality of the materials and the work. However, she never sold any of her work. If she had, she probably would not have been able to get a price that would have adequately compensated for the time and materials she had in the product. She was a hobbyist. A very skilled, very serious person who did a craft for the joy of the craft itself.

Many writers are like that when they decide to go into indie publishing. I say, God Bless them. If they can afford to take a loss in order to turn out some piece of art, that's great. However, they should not deceive themselves or others that they are more "professional" than those of us who watch our costs and produce a product that first the reader can afford and second will turn a profit.

To be professional means you make money on what you do. It doesn't necessarily mean your product is better. Indeed, it might not be as polished. A handmade cabinet done by your grandfather in his shop that took two years to complete, is probably much nicer than one produced by a furniture company. However, his costs would make it a product only a few could afford to buy and unless he lived in a high income area, he would probably not show a profit if he did that type of work all the time.

I know it sounds very noble to talk like we are artistes above the concerns of commerce, but, whether we like to admit it or not, books, even ebooks, are products. If you are an indie publisher, you are a manufacturer of books.

If you are only interested in writing for the sheer joy of it and can afford to outsource all the various parts of your project, more power to you. If you are an activist with a cause to pursue or a message to get across, likewise I wish you well. However, I do have a problem when those who are doing this at a loss advise others who may be pursuing a profession as an indie writer/publisher to do the same. That's bad business advice.

I have been writing a series (and I will return to it this weekend) about self-editing. Why? Because this is one area where an indie publisher can save some money. Even if you do eventually outsource the final proofreading, it reduce the work your editor has to do and, thus, save you money.

If you, like my friend, prefer to "just write" and are willing to take a loss, that's great. I honor that. I just ask that you not make those of us pursuing this as a business to try and do things your way.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Of scribes, scriveners, printers, publishers and self-publishing consultants

One of my own passions is history. I'm particularly fascinated by ancient history and the development of writing. Up until very recent times, being able to read and write gave a person a good deal of power. The scribes of ancient Egypt were the most powerful class outside of the royal family. In some ways they even wielded power over the pharaoh since, if he wanted something written, he needed to call a scribe. During the First Century, literacy was a bit more wide spread, but even in
Photo credit dalbera
those better times, in Israel, the scribes, the ones who wrote down the Torah and also did things like contracts and letters carried a great deal of influence. So much so, that Jesus was often faced with opposition by the "scribes and pharisees" since he was challenging their claim of exclusivity on the interpretation of the Law.

During the middle ages, scriveners in the monasteries preserved the literature of earlier days as well as the writings of the times, but they also controlled the access to literature, and many works of antiquity were lost because they were deemed heretical.

A.J. Leibling observed that "Freedom of the press is only guaranteed to those who own one."  Well, today, anyone with a computer owns a press. However, every time the availability of publishing written work became more widespread, society was disrupted. It happened with the printing press. It is happening again with the internet.

For many there is a vested interest in restricting access to the means of fully participating in what Milton called "the free marketplace of ideas." This is not because of some nefarious conspiracy. No, it is quite simpler than that. They are losing their sense of being "special." Therefore, while acknowledging or even embracing indie publishing, they continue to try to make it seem mysterious, complex, expensive and something you certainly cannot do on your own.

Of course, many of these voices for "quality" products also have a financial interest. Frequently, people will send me links to blog articles about how you need to hire all sorts of specialists to create your book. Editors, cover designers, formatters, publicists and the list goes on. Then they list costs ranging from several hundred dollars to thousands of dollars. And I always notice - surprise, surprise - they offer those services or sell space on their blogs to people who do.

And the mantra they keep chanting is "Quality Sells." Okay, let's butcher that sacred cow once and for all. A McDonalds sits next to a high end steakhouse. Guess which one has more customers and makes more money every year.

Now, does anyone seriously think McD's sells millions of burgers a day because they are of a higher quality than that served in the high priced steakhouse? Of course not. They sell something that is tasty, filling, forgettable and cheap. People go to the steakhouse on special occassions if at all. People go to McDonalds on a regular basis. Now, is anyone going to brag about having dinner at McD's? Not likely. But they are very likely going to spend more money every year under the Golden Arches than at the steakhouse.

Now, the home of the Big Mac could produce a higher quality product. They could grind their own hamburger from top sirloin steak, hire chefs from leading culinary schools to staff their restaurants, cook each burger to order perfectly and slowly and serve them on fine china. However, you would not get a McChicken Deluxe for $1.79.

If you need a top quality product to be successful, why is it, that, the most successful brands are those that make things that just work, but are probably not top of the line. Indeed, the closer you get to the top of the line, the fewer buyers you have.

Does this mean, you don't spend any time on your book? Of course, not. However, spend the time where it counts - writing the book. If you want to spend money, take some good quality classes in story construction, characterization, and basic writing.

Go back to McDonalds. They don't spend a lot of money on high priced stuff, but they spend millions on research into what people like to eat. They produce something that appeals to that taste. It might not be the best for you, but it is something people (not everyone, but a large number of people) want to eat. They also know that people want something they can afford and get in a hurry. In other words, they spend time and money on the content more than the packaging.

Their "quality" is in giving people what they want at a price they can afford. However, these consultants and gurus want self-publishers to spend thousands on things that, the average reader would not even notice, or if they do, it doesn't impact them enough to not buy the book if the price is right.

The problem with this is that every dollar you spend on production has to be made up somewhere. That means raising the price. Indie publishers have an edge over traditional publishers because we can work with low overhead. They can't. However, many are squandering that advantage by buying top sirloin and hiring cordon bleu chefs. Is someone going to be willing to spend the same amount of money on one of my books, if I'm unknown to them, as, say, Stephen King? Probably not. However, if my book is half the price of a novel by Stephen King, say about the price of a loaf of bread instead of that of a meal at a fast-food restaurant (I must be hungry), then they may be willing to take a chance on me. And if they have read my books and like them, they might download several books instead of just one.

In other words, like McDonalds, by controlling my expenses I not only keep a good profit margin, but I can also offer more value to my reader. Is my novel that I edited myself absolutely error free? Probably not. Neither would it be if I had it edited professionally. I might catch 98 percent of the errors. The pro might catch 99. If the story is good, and the number of errors are low, then the reader will come back for more.

I can make a good cover by spending 20 bucks or so at a stockphoto site finding a single image that conveys the idea of the story and add some text to it using a program like GIMP, which can be downloaded for free. Going to a professional cover artist might get me a cover that is a little bit better, but will it be enough better to justify the cost. Always think in these terms: "Will this cover/editing/formatting/etc. produce more sales than if I did it myself? If so, will it produce enough extra sales to cover the cost and show a profit.

If you spend $100 for cover design, $500 for editing, $200 for someone to format and upload your book (all of which you can probably do if you are willing to work) and you are selling your book at $2.99 on Kindle select, you will need to sell close to 400 units before you even see a profit. Do you honestly believe that spending that amount of money will produce 400 sales you would not have had otherwise? From a marketing perspective, that 800 dollars would be better spent on advertising.

So, lets lay this myth to rest right now. Quality, in the sense of spending a lot of money producing a slightly more polished product, does not sell, unless you can achieve it economically enough to give the buyer a good deal. The better the product does not necessarily mean the greater the sales.

If indie publishing is mostly a hobby or a way to publish, and you are not concerned about making money, then spend thousands and either take the loss or deal with  having fewer readers who will likely not even notice all the great editing or cover designs.

On the other hand, if  you consider this a business, you are more likely to show a profit in a shorter period of time if you only outsource those things you know you will mess up big time. Otherwise, do as much as possible yourself. That is one of the reasons I'm giving you a series of lessons on self-editing which I will continue next week.

Saturday, June 1, 2013

Brownie Cameras, Tin Lizzies and Self Publishing

I've been reading a bunch of stuff about the "costs" of self-publishing, and, if I didn't know better, I would be discouraged. I see numbers bandied around from $500 a book to over $5000 for a "quality" product. As I read through these writings, I realize that these authors might be good craftsmen, but they lack some basic business sense.

Let's look outside of literature for our inspiration for a moment. Ford did not
Photo by beckstei
make the first automobile. There were other auto manufacturers around the world. His innovation was the Model A, sometimes called the "Tin Lizzy." It was a car built on an assembly line using cost-cutting measures in such a way as to make it affordable to the average working family. He didn't start with the Lincoln Continental. In fact, if he tried that, he probably would have gone out of business like many of the other "high end" car manufacturers did.

Another good example is the Kodak Brownie camera. It was cheap, it used low-cost materials, and it was uncomplicated. It was point-and-shoot simplicity, and it made photography accessible to everyone. Not only did Kodak sell a ton of these "inferior" cameras, they also sold billions of feet of film.

So, what does this have to do with self-publishing? As I read these authors, it looks like what they are saying is: "Until you can build a Cadillac, don't build anything."

The problem with all of this is a very basic principle of business.

Profit = Price - Cost

Now, with ebook publishing there is virtual no cost in terms of materials. In that sense, the royalty paid by Amazon, Barnes Noble or Smashwords is pure profit. However, every penny you spend on the "essentials" touted by the "experts" (most of whom are associated with businesses providing one or more of these services) such as hiring a developmental editor, content editor, proofreader, cover designer publicity expert, manuscript formatting specialists, graphics designers, etc. reduces your profit substantially.

Okay, I've only been at this in a major way for about eight months, but I went from 15 sales a month to an average of 400. I'm at close to 3000 sales at this point. The most I spent on any one of these books was about $50 for a picture from iStockphoto for cover art and $20 or so for Facebook advertising. Many I did without spending a single dime.

Now, are my books perfectly edited? No. (But then I'm reading a book now from a mainline publisher, and I find a few errors in each chapter. It may shine a bit better than mine, but I paid $14.00 for it. My readers pay $3.99 and less.) Let's go back to the cars and cameras. A Brownie isn't as shiny as an expensive camera. The pictures it takes are inferior but they are affordable and sell way more units than the expensive cameras. The Cadillac has more features and fancier upholstery, but it also costs several thousand more than the Model A Ford.

Here's a simple fact of life. The more money you put into a book, the more you will have to charge for it. The more you charge for a book, the less likely a new reader is to take a chance on your book. Are you really that well known that people will pay $4-5 dollars per unit more for your books than mine in order to have a slightly more dramatic cover design or a couple of fewer comma splices?

I'm not saying you should present a shoddy product, but you can produce a basic product at a price that makes you a profit and reduces the reader's risk.

So, how do you do this? Well, do a lot of things yourself. Cover design, for instance, is pretty easy. Go to a commercial stockphoto site plug in your keywords, find a single picture that conveys the main idea of your novel, and then add your title to it using a photo editor. has a good online editor that can do this. If you prefer working offline, you can download GIMP, which is basically a free clone of Photoshop.

Kindle now has a cover creator. You can use their designs with your photos or use their graphics.

If you got a decent grade in high school English, you can probably check your own work for spelling, punctuation and grammatical errors. You can start with the grammar check tools found in MS-Word. It doesn't catch them all, but it catches many of them making your life easier. (BTW, I left out two commas intentionally in the above portion of this article. Did you notice? Did it make you stop reading this article or make you want to never read any of my work again? Unless every line contains an error, most of your readers won't notice the occasional missed comma or grammatical whoops. And if they do, you can go in and correct it.)

Use beta readers and critique groups for feedback on the story, writing style, etc.

Offer to trade services with other writers. Offer to read their work and edit it, if they will read yours.

No, you won't have the Cadillac or Nikon of ebook publishing, but you will have something that you can sell at an attractive price, build a fan base, show a bit of profit, which you can later use for that Cadillac you have on the drawing board.

In upcoming posts, I'll discuss some basic issues as self-editing, cover design and manuscript formatting.