Amazon, Formatting manuscripts, self-publishing

Filling the Amazon belly

behenmoth

My daughter used to work for a French stationery company – hardly a flourishing sector when handwritten letters are practically museum items now. One of her tasks was to get their products listed with Amazon, so a meeting was organised in which she expected to negotiate as she did with supermarkets. Not a bit of it. The Amazon people sat down, handed out their document and said, ‘Those are our terms. Take them or leave them.’ Naturally, she took them.

One effect of the current crisis is that Amazon is set to consolidate its already very firm grip (Who needs crisis government when you’ve got Amazon?) on the retail sector as a whole (this brief history of Amazon explains the various tactics used to bring thatabout).

As for books, that grip is now impossible to loosen. It’s easy to forget that the Bezos behemoth only began life 25 years ago, but in that time it’s established itself as by far the world’s largest bookstore, selling 560 million ebooks (89% of the market) and 807 million physical books (42% of the market) in 2018. Furthermore, they know exactly what we’re reading, when, for how long, and any highlighting or searches we undertake (How Amazon tracked my last two years of reading). In short, the Amazon strategy is clever, ruthless and effective (Amazon’s plan to take over world publishing).

The Kindle was launched in 2007, and now has 84% of the e-reader market. I have one myself, though I rarely use it – compared to an iPad, it’s clunky, not very user-friendly and has a low battery life. Ebooks will never replace physical copies – in fact in the past few years physical books have made a comeback (How ebooks lost their shine) – but one thing is sure: as a tool for self-publishers, the Kindle is here to stay. While traditional publishers often set their ebook price dissuasively high (Are ebooks too expensive?), self-publishers make full use of the competitive pricing Amazon encourages.

We’re all targeted as consumers by Amazon, and they’ve set themselves up as champions of consumer rights. But how about as writers? For a self-publisher to ignore Amazon as about as daft as a pole-vaulter disdaining to use a pole. And on the whole, they do a pretty good job of making it as easy as possible. Publishing a book these days is done in a matter of minutes. As we all know, selling any significant number of copies is far harder, but Amazon will help you here too – at a price. I haven’t yet used Amazon ads myself, but I think one day I’ll need to if I want to vault any high (for an overview of how Amazon ads work see here). In the meantime, I try to make sure my Amazon author page is OK, though there’s no doubt more I could do (Optimizing your author pages).

A recent addition to Amazon’s panoply of tools is the free app Kindle Create, which I used to format the ebook of Truffle Trouble. It’s easy to use and the result was fine, but it’s not flexible enough if you want to use different fonts or customise other aspects. And conversion of the file for a print book is still better done using Word, so in the end it didn’t save me any time at all. For an overview of Kindle Create, see here, and a comparison with Vellum (for iMac), see here.

Kindle Create, of course, being a tool that aims to lock authors into Amazon, only converts to mobi, so if you want to go wide, you’re better off converting a Word file with Calibre or Draft2Digital. But do you want to go wide? Again, Amazon entices you not to by offering advantages if you give them exclusivity through Kindle Select (a review of the differences is here). As regards this question, two of self-publishing’s major gurus, Mark Dawson and Nick Stephenson, have different approaches: the first is exclusive to Amazon, the second goes wide. So there’s no obvious answer here except to try for yourself and see what you feel most comfortable with. Personally, I’ve only used Kindle Select once, not because it makes better sense commercially to go wide (80% of my sales, such as they are, come from Amazon), but because I can’t quite reconcile myself to letting the beast swallow me whole.

 

 

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blogging, book promotion, Publisher's Advice, publishing, Uncategorized, Writers Co-op

How to Publish a Quality Anthology… and Survive!

– by DW Brownlaw and PC Darkcliff

The cast of characters: P.C Darkcliff and DW Brownlaw, Indy writers and critique partners since 2018 – plus forty six other Indy Writer friends.

DWB: In April 2019, PC suggested the idea of publishing a collection of stories written by us and some of our writing community friends as a good way for us to ‘get our names out there’. We finally got DRAGON BONE SOUP published in mid-December. These reminiscences of what happened in between shows what we got right, what we got wrong, and what we learned from publishing arguably the best quality anthology of fantasy and light sci-fi stories.

PCD: In summary, the process involved the following steps:

> Setting up a group on Facebook.
> Coming up with rules and deadlines.
> Accepting stories and dealing with authors.
> Choosing the best stories and announcing the winners.
> Editing the stories.
> Doing author interviews to post on social media and at the back of the book.
> Formatting and publishing the anthology.

DWB: We found we had complementary strengths apart from being good editors. I was prepared to deal with administration, finance and design, while PC had the recognised name, contacts and experience with book formatting and publishing.

PCD: We started a Facebook group and invited a few friends. The idea was a small, selective group of about sixteen writers, with each contributing one story. But as the group was initially open, our friends invited their friends, who invited their friends… and overnight, the group had fifty members, all asking questions for which, at that time, we had no answers.

DWB: Rather than turn people away, we decided to invite submissions from the fifty and run a selection process. It took us weeks (mainly due to other commitments) to agree how to do that and get started. We spent the whole of July reading & discussing 30 submitted stories and whittling them down to the required 16. (To show you how fair this process was, I rejected my own story!)

PCD: Although we braced ourselves for a backlash from those who hadn’t made the cut, there have been no hard feelings or grudges. Thank you all for being so professional!

DWB: PC and I talked about what to do with the revenues from sales and neither of us felt comfortable about making money off our friends’ efforts. We agreed paying our authors would be a powerful incentive to attract the very best writing, but deciding how we would pay them wasn’t so easy. The ‘obvious’ solution was to pay them a share of the royalties, but we abandoned this when we realised we would have to administer the share-out for many years to come.

DWB: We opted for an up-front token payment… which reminds me of my biggest–and most expensive–mistake. I was advising a member of our Facebook group when I accidentally quoted the payment offered by top magazines, double the token amount that we’d previously promised. While it delighted our members, it certainly means I will never get my money back. Luckily, I never saw this as a money-making exercise.

PCD: Since each story had a title, byline, editor’s intro, and an author bio, formatting the anthology was a nightmare. What made it even more difficult was that each contributor sent their stories in different fonts and with different spacing and margins. Some of them even used tabs, which I had to remove manually. It made me understand why many professional editors impose very strict formatting rules on their contributors.

DWB: Surprisingly, one of the longest tasks concerned the cover art. We first tried asking for art submissions, but we slipped up in not specifying that we were looking for original work. Consequently, we got about 6 submissions (all from the same person) that we found existed elsewhere on the web, some being used for multiple books. Eventually, we opted to design our own cover and pay an artist to realise it. Andjela Vujić, PCD’s usual artist, liked our concept and I sent her a mock-up made from stock images slapped together in an art package. What we got back from her was breathtaking. Of course we wanted changes, but she was very obliging.

DWB: With all these delays, we finally published DRAGON BONE SOUP in mid December 2019, which was too late for catching the peak of the Christmas market. Despite this, we sold more copies than we anticipated and gained some five star reviews. We think the book will continue to sell modestly for years to come.

PCD: During the eight or so months of working on the anthology, I often wanted to kick myself for getting it started. But now when we’re done, all regrets have disappeared and I feel proud and happy.

DWB: They say you learn more by trying and making mistakes, and consequently we learned so much!

> To produce a quality anthology takes professionalism and planning. We just dove in and muddled through.
> Making & correcting mistakes is an effective way to learn anything, but the project took far longer as a consequence.
> Numbers count. Don’t expect to make money from any anthology, collection, magazine or journal until (a) you have a recognised name as a publisher, and (b) you have several on sale. Luckily, making money was never our intention, or that could have caused problems between us.
> Get involved deeply with the design of the cover; don’t leave it entirely to the artist. The cover is both the branding of your book and the first point of attracting your readers, so its design is critical. Most artists are happy to discuss your vision for the cover and give you exactly what you want. If you come across one who gives you the ‘hard sell’ (we had one), just walk away.

About Dragon Bone Soup:
Sixteen fantasy and light science fiction stories. The best indie writing talents from three continents invite you to peer into the dystopian future and enter their worlds of dragons, witches, spirits, elves, trolls, and magicians.The contributors are: Carmen Baca, Brandy Bonifas, David Bowmore, Steve Carr, P.C. Darkcliff, R.A. Goli, Shawn Klimek, Mark Kodama, Giuseppina Marino Leyland, Zhen Liu, Lynne Phillips, Sam M. Phillips, Daniel Craig Roche, Copper Rose, L.T. Waterson, and G. Allen Wilbanks.

Order your copy online here.
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Dragon-Bone-Soup-showcase-international/dp/1673703976

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Uncategorized

The Corona Diaries

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– by Mimi Speike

Yeah, we’ve stocked up, but we’re running through our carton fast. Next time my husband ventures forth, he’d better buy two cartons. Or three.

I’ve been home here, working on my story and my art since November 1, when I was laid off. Now I have a new daunting project.

Someone on medium.com showed me how to display my site as it will sort out on a phone, and, damn! It’s a real mess. What a jumble! Things I need displayed are absent. Things I could do without show up. I have to totally rethink it, create a second mobile-friendly site. I guess it had better be my entry point, from which to direct eyes to the full site that I really don’t want to redesign. I am told that sixty to seventy percent of web traffic takes place on a phone-device.

I have created a story-telling site. I have intro material, and seven chapters of Sly, and it’s set up rather like an illustrated book, with art-heavy sidebars (on the background, an additional challenge for a mobile-device), and miscellaneous pull-quote-style comments. I love the way it looks, but it won’t do for a phone. (In my ignorance, I thought the background art would drop away for the phone-display. I was very wrong. I have no smart phone, and I never got around to finding someone who does.

I just created a new phone-dedicated site, and it looks like I have no choice but to use the new edit-tool, that I have avoided on my original site. I have found it super-annoying, but that may be because I haven’t learned how to use it.

The choices I see for building your presentation on the new site–they don’t give you the option of reverting to the old method–will probably better service a mobile site. Who knows about this? Who has a site tailored to phone-display?

I sit here morning to night pounding away at one of my projects. I’ve started four new illustrations. I’m going to give my Robin-Hood-Sly paper doll a Maid-Marian-Sha-Sha, and I have collected material for a Pirate-Sly and his Port-o-Call dock-side wench. Most of the stuff is 72 dpi, pulled off Pinterest, and will need a lot of fixing-up.

I have no problem keeping to home. I haven’t left the house more than three times since November. My husband does the food shopping and I’m happy to let him do it. My company did me a favor laying me off. I got my money out of the 401K only weeks before the dive in the market. My husband is – cautiously – looking for buying opportunities, but it sits in cash at present.

Talk to me! What is everyone else up to? How are you holding up?

 

 

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About Writers, book sales, editing, inspiration, Literary critique, publishing, Stories, Uncategorized, Writers Co-op

My First Story

 – by Adam Stump

When I chose to start writing fiction professionally (if that’s what you could call what I do–professional), I didn’t do so because I thought that I’d make money (I’ve made about $12), and I didn’t do it because I thought I was a good writer (I have yet to win my Pulitzer). I did it because I had stories to tell. If anything, I’m a storyteller, not a writer. I only write when the storytelling muse abducts me (usually at 2AM), and I feel like I have a story worth sharing. These stories usually percolate in my subconscious for months or even years before I write them down. When I finally do write them down, they come out mostly complete and usually pretty good.

As such, after my decision to write a story to be published (by someone else), I chose a story that had been rolling around without any clear definition in my brain for quite some time. I used a lot of elements from my childhood in upstate New York as well as a story I had heard while I lived in Pittsburgh. I remember furiously clacking away on my keyboard as the story poured onto the screen of my laptop.

The recipe for that story was: One part nostalgia, one part adventure, and one part terror. I produced a story that I thought was one of the best that I had ever read. It truly was one of the best I had ever read, because it was exactly what I wanted to read.

That first story taught me a lot about writing. I was so proud of it that I sent it to several friends because I thought that they would enjoy it. They, in turn, tore the story to shreds (in my mind, anyway). As I picked up the proverbial pieces of my story (and morale) from the floor, I was in shock. I didn’t know how anyone else wouldn’t find the story to be the best that they had ever read.

Then, I re-read my story and saw that the critiques (that’s really what they were, not attacks) that my friends made were accurate, valid, and necessary. I performed my first ever critical revision on my first ever story. I shaved a couple thousand words of nostalgic description, I increased some characters, rewrote a few scenes, deleted some scenes, and (most shocking of all), I changed the name of the story.

The story was originally titled “The Storm Drain.” Can you imagine reading a story with a title like that? I can’t. My best friend and inspiration for writing, N.D. Coley, told me to change the title. I wanted to scream, I wanted to cry, I wanted to punch a hole through the wall. But he was 100% right. I changed the name of the story to “Keep Off the Grass.” It’s a line in the story, and he told me that the story had named itself. In retrospect, I agree.

After learning that I’m not the best writer in the world and that I need critical feedback and revision and even title changes, I produced a decent version of the story and began shopping around for a publication to publish this electronic packet of blood, sweat, and tears. I got rejection after rejection after rejection. I knew that I could self-publish, but I thought that this story was good enough to be accepted by someone else for publication–others would view the story as something worth sharing with their readers.

Every rejection letter that came back was virtually the same: “This story is just an homage to Stephen King’s Stand By Me,” a book I’ve never read and a movie that I’ve never seen. I didn’t even know the premise of the book/movie. I’ve since googled it and can see that the comparisons are valid. However, it doesn’t negate the fact that “Keep Off the Grass” is a good story. I’d also say that, for all the valid criticism, there are only so many plots out there when it comes to general fiction. I happened to stumble upon a plot that Stephen King stumbled upon, as well. The plot doesn’t belong to him or to me, but to the consciousness–the ethos–of storytelling.

Fast forward a few years and countless rejection letters to today. I opened up my email and the first thing that I saw was an acceptance letter from an editor who wants to share my story in his magazine. He didn’t say anything about Stephen King or Stand By Me. He said that it was a good story and he wanted to feature it in the upcoming issue of his magazine.

I wasn’t prepared for the emotions that would follow from reading that email. I literally wanted to scream and shout. I wanted to pound on pots and pans and run outside screaming that I had been published. I felt even more elated than I did when I actually received my first acceptance letter way back when. Why? Because this is my first story, and it’s part of my story. It’s still nostalgic for me, even if it’s been heavily edited and gone through a couple critical revisions since the first time I sat down to my laptop to capture it in writing.

The purpose of this post, though, isn’t just to give you some history of my writing, but to encourage you the reader. Have you written a story? Has it been rejected, but you still think it’s a good story? Keep at it. If you truly believe it’s a good story, keep sending it out. Don’t give up! I thought this story would be my first published story. It’s not. It’s a few years old now. If I wrote it today, it would probably be a different story. However, it is what it is. And it’s a success story. It certainly didn’t start that way. If you’re discouraged with your writing, don’t be. If it’s really good stuff, others will recognize it. As authors, we might have little control over the body of the story–maybe it’s the muse or maybe it’s the editorial team dictating the story–but we still control how the story begins and, ultimately, how the story ends!

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About Writers

On Leaving the Safety of the Self

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We live in a self-regarding – some might say narcissistic – age. The combination of digital cameras, selfie sticks and social media allows us to display as much of ourselves as we want to as many people as care to look at it. So it comes as no surprise that writing too is affected by this trend. As author Rebecca Watson puts it in this article, “Internet ubiquity has bred creativity. It has encouraged us to perform: to use our life material for effect. It’s not a coincidence that the rise of blog posts and Reddit threads has aligned with the rise of autofiction – where the author self-consciously feeds details from their life into the construct of a novel.” The technique was carried to an extreme by Karl Ove Knausgård, who to great acclaim turned the minutiae of his own life into My Struggle, six volumes totalling more than 3500 pages. A similar approach was taken by Ben Lerner, of whom Watson says that he chose to write autofiction “not out of passion for the genre, but out of an aversion to the ‘great American novel’, where the highest goal is to achieve a state of universality through a supposedly omniscient voice that believes it encompasses all experience. Lerner’s form is born of kindness. It admits that he, as a white man, can only write what he knows, that he cannot presume to know what he has not lived.”

Fair enough. But how can we not agree with Philip Roth: “Fiction is a way of asking… what if I was different than I am?” It’s a way of exploring other possibilities, other people; infusing them, I dare say, with traits and foibles and fantasies of our own, but freeing ourselves from the confines of the narrow world we inhabit. As Zadie Smith – who incidentally is a great admirer of Knausgård – puts it “what insults my soul, is the idea… that we can and should write only about people who are fundamentally ‘like’ us: racially, sexually, genetically, nationally, politically, personally.” At the risk of laying myself open to the charge of cultural appropriation, I can, if I want, write about a sweatshop labourer in Bangladesh or a Chinese multi-millionaire. Or as Jeanine Cummins did, arousing much controversy in the process, about a family of Mexican migrants.

So what stops me? Actually, as I grow older – and bolder – less and less. In fact the Chinese millionaire is a central character in Mystery Manor – I had great fun writing about his childhood in Guizhou province, where I’ve never been (though I spent many hours researching it).

We’ve touched on this topic before, notably in the comments to a recent piece by George Salis, Falling in the Name of Research. What interests me here is how far your own boldness goes. Assuming what you write is intended to be plausible (i.e. not fantasy, magic realism, paranormal etc), how willing are you to risk the leap into another person’s culture and experience? How far have you gone already, and do you too find yourself getting bolder? Is it simply a matter of self-confidence? My own conviction is that if you do enough research, you can go anywhere. But I’d have to think a lot before deciding that the character I need is worth that amount of research – and perhaps, after all, there are cases where no amount of research can be enough.

 

 

 

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