Sunday, January 25, 2015

#EthicalAuthor discussion: reviewing other people's books

One question I’m always coming up against is whether, once you make the transition from just-reader to author-who-reads, you should continue reviewing other people’s books. I’ve seen many different answers to this question, so I thought I’d write down my own thoughts and hopefully get a discussion going.

First, I want to make a couple of things clear. This isn’t going to be a discussion about how reviewers should behave in general. It’s my thoughts on how authors who are also reviewers should approach reviewing. Once you become an author, it becomes tricky to voice your thoughts on reader (or book blogger) etiquette without sounding adversarial, and in my opinion the day I became an author I forfeited my right to tell readers what to do. (OK, that’s conjuring up a picture of my reader-self refusing to do what my author-self tells her because I’m not the boss of me, but you get my drift.)

Next, if you’re an author and the very thought of reviewing books makes you curl up in a little fetal ball of fear and loathing, don’t do it despite anything you may hear about the benefits of reviewing. That oft-repeated (by me) advice that you should get on Goodreads and similar sites as a reader is no use to you if you hate writing about other people’s books, and if that’s your case then I’d advise you to blog or do Pinterest or Instagram or Quora or whatever you like doing. Or none of them if you just flat out can’t stand social media. (Of course if your publisher’s insisting you go on social media, you may need to hire someone to do the nasty job for you. You’re not going to be successful on Facebook if you fear and despise Facebook and all it stands for.)

Finally, I’m pretty sure I’ve made almost all the mistakes I’m outlining below at some time or the other. Sorry about that, and this post is about what I’ve learned by screwing up from time to time. I didn’t spring onto the scene completely formed as Saint Jane The Ethical or anything like that. I’m far from being the shiniest Girl Scout on the planet. I just think ethics are something authors need to discuss, and I’m willing to engage in that discussion.

Truthful reviewing doesn’t have to be all sharp pointy bits

Many, many years ago I was an editor in a large European law firm where all the young lawyers had English as their second or third language. As English was our working language, this meant that a lot of editing had to be done to make the documents we were producing readable. Also, these were baby lawyers still making basic mistakes like mixing up the party of the first part with the party of the third part.

In my job as editor, I found it was more productive to go easier on the newest lawyers, acting in a sense more like a writing coach and mentor. The more experienced attornies could withstand a tougher approach, although they usually didn’t need it because they’d learned from their mistakes and grown in expertise and confidence. After I left, I was told by slightly distraught former colleagues that my replacement was a brash New Yorker who reacted to the badly-written newbie documents by throwing them back with a snarl of “This is crap! Rewrite it!” I’m not at all sure this approach was helpful in ensuring the clients got their legal writings in good time.

Nowadays, I only make sure my teeth and claws are well-sharpened when dealing with authors who’ve been around long enough to know better and whose publishers should also know better. And even then, I do recognize the dilemmas that crop up in the book world—a publisher can’t, as a business, pass up on an author who guarantees them a hefty profit, no matter how bad the book, and authors are frequently rushed into deadlines that don’t allow them to do all the work they’d like to do.

When it comes to debut authors, I remember reading that back in the days when reviewers were an elite body of literary critics who really could make or break careers, they had a tradition of going easier on debuts—possibly because they were mostly authors themselves who went just a little cold all over when they thought of their own first efforts. The “tsunami of crap” that’s flooded the market due to the boom in self-publishing is composed largely of debut authors, and it’s quite possible that these aren’t just the first books those authors have ever published—they’re the first novels THEY EVER WROTE. If they’re debut authors who’ve made it into traditional publishing, they’re almost certainly not getting anything like the editorial support and mentoring they might have received twenty years ago.

There’s a way to be truthful and incisive as a reviewer (and remember, I’m talking to author-reviewers) without overdoing the snark. I’m not saying don’t criticize—I firmly believe that the literary world is healthier when we can critique each other’s writing without fear of the critiquee (does that word exist? If not, I just coined it) throwing a wobbly about it, and I do believe that if you put your writing into the public sphere, you have to grow a thick enough skin to withstand public criticism. What I’m saying is, don’t use your reviewing platform as a space from which to launch large ballistic missiles of unkind jeering and sneering at your fellow authors. Don’t be the “This is crap!” lady. It’s unproductive and professionally discourteous.

If you find you’re selecting novels to review BECAUSE they’re crap, consider your motives. Why are you reading crap? Are you trying to make yourself feel/look better as an author by laughing at what else is out there? Or are you trying to save the literary world?

You can’t save the literary world

This is very closely related to what I just said, but I think it’s worth making it a separate thought. You’re not going to be the author who single-handedly saves Literature from the Tsunami of Crap. However many craft books you’ve studied, however much blood you’ve expended in mastering your craft, and however many creative writing degrees and MFAs and heaven knows what else you’ve paid thousands of $$$ to acquire, the only writing all those wonderful achievements are going to improve is yours. Laying down the law about what makes good writing doesn’t result in a good review. You might, on the other hand, consider teaching writing courses or critiquing unpublished work, and thus make your hard work pay off AND help other writers grow. Or simply put all that knowledge and wisdom into your own books (but learn enough about marketing and business to ensure you can achieve some visibility for that wonderful writing).

Reviews aren’t essays or lectures—they’re not there to showcase your brilliance or put other people right. You’re offering up your own subjective reaction to a book in the hope that it’ll persuade other readers to try it (if it was good) or tell them the good and the bad that you found in the book so they can decide for themselves. If you find you’re getting really prescriptive in your reviews, you might consider writing craft books. Perhaps you’re just a born teacher rather than a reviewer.

And never—ever—EVER—

OK, those were my warmup remarks. What I’ve been discussing above is more a matter of common sense and courtesy than ethics. The real problem, ethically speaking, with reviewing as an author is that you might end up rating or reviewing a book as a means to an end. Examples:

  • You give a friend’s book five stars to boost their ratings.
  • You give an author’s book one star because you think she’s a bitch.
  • You give an author’s book five stars because a reader unfairly gave him one star and this “evens things up.”
  • You agree with a bunch of authors to give each other’s books five stars.
  • You agree with a bunch of authors to give another author’s book one star to teach her a lesson.
  • You get your fans to go give an author-friend’s book five stars.
  • You get your fans to go write negative reviews about someone else’s book because she’s said something nasty about yours.
  • You write a glowing review about your friend’s book even though you didn’t like it all that much because hey, he’s a friend.
  • You rate an author’s book five stars because that blog you like says she’s being bullied and bullying is bad.
  • You rate an author’s book one star because that blog you like says he’s a bully.
  • You know your spouse/best friend/writing group are doing any of the above on your behalf and you do nothing to stop it.

And I could go on . . . . Look, it doesn’t matter what readers or bloggers or other authors are doing. You’re a professional and you’re not going to do any of these things, right? Don’t review with an ulterior motive. And for crying out loud, if you’re reviewing a book because you’ve been asked to, disclose the fact. If the other author’s a friend, disclose the fact. Don’t write a review as if you’re just another reader, because the day you put your name on a book as its author, you’re representing more than yourself. You’re representing your brand, your publisher, your genre and the organizations you belong to.

So what do you think? What other advice can you give? Do you agree with my thoughts, or do you think I’m wrong in any way? I’m prepared to listen and to learn.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

#EthicalAuthor case study 1: Reviewers, be nicer to me

Every few weeks (sometimes, every few days) the internet hands me a reminder of why I started talking about ethics in the first place. Today’s example is pretty typical of a blog post I’ve seen more times than I can count.

Update: the author of the original post has taken it down, although I still have it on file if you need it for serious journalistic purposes (hey The Guardian Books Section, I'm right here!)  In any case I never wanted to aim this post at this particular author—she’s representative of a certain kind of author who’s likely to post a variant of this lament within the first six months of publishing (traditionally or indie) for the first time.

She’s had her first negative reviews, and it hurts. Most authors who’ve been out there for a while are hardened to the inevitable one- or two-star reviews (a three-star review is POSITIVE, people) and have done sufficient research to find out that negative reviews don’t have much of an impact on sales. (If you’re an author who’s been on the block for more than five years and you’re still getting upset about your reviews, you’ve got a problem.) Seasoned authors either learn not to read their reviews, to read the negative ones and learn from them, or to cry on their best friend’s shoulder if they’re having a bad day.

In case the linked post disappears, I’ll just summarize the gist of her lament:

- writing is hard work
- reviewers shouldn’t post less than a four-star review for fear of discouraging the author
- telling the author your opinion privately is kinder than posting a negative review
- reviewers are mean, power-crazed, egotistical hobbyists

You might remember that the Ethical Author Code is based on the principle of putting the reader first. So let’s look through a reader’s eyes at these statements:

Writing is hard work

Yes, writing is hard work. You know what else is hard work? Work. Jobs like the ones your readers have, which may involve more difficulty, danger, responsibility or drudgery than you have ever known. Many of your readers would love the time and the opportunity to write books instead of doing whatever it is they do. Having the time, the space and the education to write a novel puts you in a relatively small and privileged category, for all it feels like the world and its grandmother is writing a novel right now. I’m not saying that writing isn’t hard or that it’s not a real job or anything like that—just that in the scheme of things, you could be doing a worse one.

Reviewers shouldn’t post less than a four-star review for fear of discouraging the author

When a reader posts a review, she isn’t thinking about the author. She’s thinking about the book. Most of the time she doesn’t know if it’s your first book or your fiftieth; she doesn’t know or care if you’re self-published or with a Big Publishing imprint; she may well not know the rules of your genre or is trying something completely new. How you feel about her review is not her concern, and rightly so.

Telling the author your opinion privately is kinder than posting a negative review

The reader is not your editor or beta reader or critique partner or best friend. Those are the people who give you private opinions of your work. Publication implies that you have placed your work in the public sphere, to be critiqued publicly. You must be prepared for that. Plus, given the number of authors who’ve moved on from complaining to verbally abusing, stalking and even physically injuring their reviewers, readers are becoming wary of making that private contact.

Reviewers are mean, power-crazed, egotistical hobbyists

Yes, there are reviewers who enjoy reviewing badly-written books, and sadistic reviewers existed long before the current reader-reviewer system. Only way back then, there were fewer reviewers and the mean ones had way more power to make or break an author—now, reviews are aggregated so the more reviews you get, the less the impact of any individual review. It’s not the reviewer’s fault if their negative review is the only one—it’s your job, dear author, to get as many reviews as you can. The reader-reviewer system is an incredible boon to authors because it frees them from depending on just a few review sources and, over time, gives potential buyers the most balanced view possible of your books. Love it, use it well, and repeat after me: a review is just an opinion.

These are all fairly standard rebuttals to the everlasting complaints of those newbie authors (and, alas, a few seasoned ones who should know better.) Now let’s look at this from the point of view of the Ethical Author Code again. Granted, it’s not strictly unethical to moan about negative reviews. My problem with the thinking illustrated above is that it sends a hostile message to readers (your customers, in case you’ve forgotten) and that believing you’re somehow entitled to four- and five-star reviews is the first step toward finding those ever-helpful people who’ll cheerfully provide you with a five-star review in return for a small payment or a reciprocal arrangement—and those ARE unethical when, as is customary, they are posted with no mention of the arrangement made.

Moreover, the belief that reviewers are mean bullies out to get you and any other author—and this is a notion I very often see being discussed, on Facebook in particular—is not only insulting to readers who simply want to express their opinions, it’s a step away from intimidating the reviewer by commenting aggressively on their negative review—and yes, it IS intimidating to many readers when the author does that. Even some long-term book bloggers express their doubts about continuing to review under the constant barrage of abuse from authors. I recommend not commenting on reviews at all until you’ve built up some real trust with your readers, and even then only sparingly.

However nicely expressed—this author doesn’t come over as aggressive and was polite to her commenters—these blog posts are like throwing gasoline on a fire in the reader community. Not only has the author antagonized her potential readers, she’s given reviewers another reason to avoid certain categories of authors—YA authors, for example, or self-published authors, or all living authors (no kidding).

These are completely avoidable mistakes, if only the authors did a little research on how to behave online BEFORE they write these posts. My advice is, stop following your friends’ blogs and look for the better writer advice out there (my Twitter feed @janesteen has plenty of links); get on Goodreads or Booklikes as a reader, and spend some time getting to know your readership; and take a good look at the Ethical Author Code, which is there primarily to help new or newer authors with a few simple principles to get your writing career off to a good start. An understanding of author ethics and etiquette should be part of your writer’s toolbox just like those craft books you’re reading (I hope) or the advice you’re seeking on book covers, pricing, and editing.

And if you do make a mistake, just apologize. Say you got it wrong and ask for forgiveness. We’ve all learned from the dumb things we did in the first flush of Being An Author. If people are telling you you’re wrong, give their advice careful consideration instead of arguing with them and then telling everyone you’re being bullied. One of the odder features of this particular case is the fact that the author’s blog uses the same template as the infamous and discredited Stop The Goodreads Bullies site, which is sending shivers up quite a few spines—an indication of how beaten up many long-term reviewers are feeling. And they’re telling her she should change her template—they’re giving her good advice on this, as well as on several other points. At the time of writing she seems to be starting to listen and I really hope she can turn this situation around.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Asking too much: Is crowdfunding a viable replacement for the publishing advance, and do we even need one?

The latest in a seemingly never-ending series of online rows involving fiction writers, bloggers and readers isn’t just about one writer’s expectation that her readers should be prepared to pay her mortgage. Stacey Jay’s Kickstarter disaster—the YA writer attracted a storm of criticism and a huge number of tweets both for and against her when she asked for living expenses as part of a Kickstarter campaign—is a textbook example of how the fragmentation of the book market brought about by online bookselling, one-step self-publishing and POD has caused a shift away from the way authors have earned their money for the last half-century without providing a replacement with which everyone’s comfortable. Unless, that is, you’re one of the increasing number of author-entrepreneurs who use business models rather than imitate the older idea that artists need patrons.

One of the perceived advantages that traditional publishing’s had over self-publishing—and, come to that, an advantage that big publishing’s had over publishing via a small press—is the arrangement known as the advance. This is a sum of money that, in theory, allows the author to pay the mortgage and feed the family while writing their book or, if a finished manuscript already exists, while it’s being edited and produced for the market. The practice originates, I imagine, in the much older tradition of artists receiving handouts from rich patrons—a social institution that conferred high status on the patrons themselves and allowed them a certain amount of influence over the artist.

If you’re a traditionally published writer and you just read “allows the author to pay the mortgage,” you’re probably indulging in a hollow laugh or an extra sip of whiskey. But I did say, “in theory.” The reality is that most advances don’t even get close to what a writer needs to live on for three months, let alone the year it might take to research, write and edit a book. In addition, advances are typically paid in stages—you might get half on signing the contract and the other half when the manuscript is submitted and approved, or the advance might be split into smaller increments paid when you reach different milestones. So unless your advance is particularly large, it might buy you some time to write but will certainly not replace your day job.

As a very rough measure of what “replacing your day job” entails, the US Census Bureau’s report on income and poverty in the United States reveals that the median income for a man with a job is currently around $50,000, while a working woman will on average earn $39,000 (yes, ladies, I noted that too.) The same report puts the poverty threshold for a single person under 65 at around $12,000, so theoretically an advance of that size would allow you to live for a year. I’m not sure in which part of the United States you could live on $12,000, but it’s certainly not in my neighborhood.

The ever-reliable Jane Friedman, while crunching numbers for a gender-based study of advances, informs us that 46 percent of male and 42 percent of female debut authors  receive advances in the range known in the US publishing world as a “nice deal,” which means anything up to $49,000. That’s rather slippery of the publishing world, since “up to” includes no advance at all, and from what I’ve heard, amounts in the $5,000-$10,000 range are not that uncommon for a debut author. Even award-winning authors struggle to earn a wage, and most authors live in dread of falling sales figures—the result of that increasingly fragmented market—which could doom them in the eyes of their publisher, who won’t (can’t, if they’re to stay in business) agree to a new contract for an author who’s not bringing in sufficient revenue.

By her own admission that was the experience of YA author Stacey Jay, who found herself “fired from New York publishing” in early 2014. Like many traditional midlisters faced with unemployment because of falling sales she apparently first turned to self-publishing, bringing out “ten romance novels under yet ANOTHER pen name, all of which have sold well and have been well-received by reviewers.” Whatever “selling well” means, Jay has undoubtedly found that self-publishing is hard work in all respects, and that the upfront costs of bringing out books on your own are a serious investment.

A self-confessed hack writer who makes no bones about money being a driving motive behind her 2,000-4,000 word a day output, Jay then decided to launch a Kickstarter campaign to support the self-publication of the sequel to her novel Princess of Thorns, shortly after its December 2014 publication by Delacorte Press. And it was the thinking behind her “ask” that led to the social media kerfuffle.

Crowdfunding is one of the latest trends to filter down through the indie author community, where typically a few brave pioneers try out a new idea, followed by a massive rush when it’s successful, followed by, usually, a change in platform rules either to fight off the screaming hordes or to profit from them—followed, eventually, by a stream of reports from latecomers that the idea’s no longer a good idea. The general practice in crowdfunding books is that writers ask for money specifically to pay for production costs, although their requests are rarely backed up by figures showing that they’ve done their research. Writers who five years ago would perhaps have been content with self-editing and a Photoshopped cover now feel the pressure to hire a professional editor, cover designer and ebook formatter, a process for which I’ve seen estimates of $2,000-4,000.

The cost of producing my own book broke down to approximately:

$1,000 for cover and interior design
$600 for editing
$200 for ebook formatting
$250 for a block of 10 ISBNs, not all used for this book
$50 for setting up the POD files and distribution
$250 for cover photography

and I should disclose for completeness that the designer, editor and photographer are all friends who charged me less than they’d have charged most clients. That money came partly from savings and partly from sales of the ebook; I estimate that producing the next book in ebook, print and audio editions at once—my preference—will set me back a good $3,000.

A couple of examples of successful Kickstarter campaigns run by members of the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi), of which I’m also a member, illustrate how authors have been making use of the best-known crowdfunding platform (Pubslush, Indiegogo and Patreon—which all have distinctly different funding models—are also popular with ALLi members.) Sandy Osborne funded Girl Cop in Trouble to the tune of £2,186 (about $3,500) for professional editing, typesetting, ISBN/barcode and cover design through Silverwood Press, an assisted self-publishing company. Marisha Pink got £5,821 (around $7,500) to launch her debut novel Finding Arun, expanding her ask to cover marketing costs and, apparently, a “swanky” launch party in London (which some might see as an unnecessary extra, but it seems none of her backers minded.) I asked Pink about her claim that she’d quit her job to write the novel, and she confirmed that she’d also sold her home and, at the age of 30, moved back in with her very supportive parents.

So why did Stacey Jay’s Kickstarter campaign kick up such a cloud of tweets and blog posts?

On the face of it, Jay did nothing wrong or unethical or underhand. I can’t fault her in light of the Ethical Author Code. She was completely honest about why she wanted the money, estimating the usual $2,000-3,000 to cover “editorial expenses and cover design.” Where she stepped over the edge of the cliff was the next sentence: “The remaining 7 thousand will be enough to cover mortgage, groceries, and gas for my family during the three months it will take me to write the book.” She immediately defended herself by explaining that she was asking “less than half” of what she received for Princess of Thorns from Delacorte (for which, presumably, her advance was around $25,000) as if, somehow, the fact that she was taking a pay cut was a point in her favor.

Commenters and bloggers were quick to point out that Jay wasn’t comparing like to like. An advance is a business proposition in which the publisher in effect buys the rights to a piece of intellectual property and assumes the risks and, with a bit of luck and a good sense for the market, the benefits of the deal. Nobody minds an author spending their advance on anything they like, because they’ve sold something to get it.

But crowdfunding is, essentially, free money. Even the rewards that the author promises will be funded out of the money the campaign generates, leaving, the author hopes, a substantial profit which is spent at the author’s discretion. It’s an honor system: in the words of Kickstarter’s FAQ, “Backers should look for creators who share a clear plan for how their project will be completed and who have a history of doing so . . . If a creator has no demonstrable experience in doing something like their project or doesn't share key information, backers should take that into consideration.” (Given the number of 23-page “books” composed of articles lifted from Wikipedia the self-publishing gold rush has spawned, I shudder to think what’s going to happen once the spammers and scammers apply their brand of entrepreneurship to crowdfunding.)

A debut or newer author with a vaguely-worded statement about how the money they raise will be used seems to be precisely the kind of creator targeted by Kickstarter’s gently-worded warning, and yet authors Osborne and Pink had no trouble finding supporters—helped, I’m sure, by their underlying authenticity, professionalism and creativity on social media and elsewhere. Yet when you begin thinking about it—as potential backers in the book world surely will as the crowdfunding craze escalates and the inevitable doubts begin to creep in—the handing over of money on faith is a far cry from the business arrangement represented by an advance. There the advantage is ultimately on the side of the publisher, who invariably insists on a strenuously-worded contract that ensures the house wins should the book in question do as well or better than they expect. With crowdfunding the advantage is firmly on the side of the author, with little or no risk to them—and if Stacey Jay had succeeded in turning her request for support into a partial replacement of her lost advance, the entire midlist might have immediately defected from traditional publishing with cries of a new Golden Age for authors.

So where does this leave self-funded authors like me? I’ll admit I’ve been casting an envious glance or two in the direction of authors who’ve simply asked for and received injections of cash when they needed them. But like many of my generation I’m uneasy about asking people for money, even though I spent some time in fundraising and know that an ask can be viewed as giving people an opportunity to be generous when they’re both able and willing. Yet there seems to be a huge gulf between asking for money on behalf of a non-profit and, say, the young couple on my Facebook who financed their trip home for Christmas via a crowdfunding platform. A self-published author seeking cash to publish a work of fiction seems far more like the latter example than the former, and I honestly think I’d only whip out my credit card if the author in question was such an unexampled genius that I felt it would be a crime against mankind not to support them.

As ALLi member A.W. Exley pointed out to me during a lively Facebook discussion on the organization’s group page, most self-published authors (which Stacey Jay now is, if not by choice) regard the cost of producing a book as a business expense and expect to bear it themselves, waiting and saving up if they don’t have the cash at hand. A business that’s expanding faster than its cashflow has, furthermore, the traditional options of applying for a bank loan or seeking an investor, although I’ve read many a tale in writers’ memoirs of furniture being sold to keep going for just one more month until that book’s finished. The crowdfunding model appears to propel the risk and sacrifice away from the author; British writer Jane Turley’s feeling was that “some people don't like taking risks - so they're basically putting that risk elsewhere. I do wonder if any of these folks who are trying to raise funds have made real personal sacrifices to fund their work. I bet a lot of them still go on holidays etc etc.” Will the generous impulse that has made crowdfunding possible for authors sour if a writer who’s asked for living expenses is seen buying designer coffee?

I’m grateful in a way to Stacey Jay, for raising some questions that need to be asked as more authors, of necessity, make the transition from the traditional publishing world to the independent side. They bring with them expectations of nurturing creativity that used to work well—could still work well—but are increasingly being challenged by the new breed of author-entrepreneur who draws on business rules rather than the older publishing model for inspiration. I’m grateful to her for pushing the envelope a little too far—for asking too much, or asking in the wrong way at the wrong time—and giving us a better understanding of what our readers want of us. I hope she’ll recover from her misstep and not let bitterness about the experience dampen her entrepreneurial spirit.

In this new publishing world we’re all on shifting sands, trying to find ways to make a living doing what we love. I might still crowdfund my next book, but I’ll be looking for ways to make it a solid business proposition for my backers rather than an ask to support the starving artist. All in all, I believe that the better way forward for a self-published author is to be a small business—find seed money, produce the product, market the product, take your business to the next step once you’re able, and work very, very hard. It’s quite likely that the crowdfunding model will sour once it becomes packed with authors anyway, and becoming dependent on waiting for people to give me money to write is not something I want to do.

Note: at the time of writing, Stacey Jay has deleted her social media accounts and closed her blog for comments. I would welcome her thoughts on the above, but I respect her wish to avoid any more attention and did not try to contact her.

Some nice points about crowd funding and author income are made in the following posts:

Don’t Do This…Ever?: (an advice column for writers): “Crowd Funding” edition by Jenny Trout
Stacey Jay And The Question No One Has Asked by Mahala
Stacey Jay, Crowdfunding, and the Business of Publishing by Livia Blackburne
Stacey Jay, Kickstarter & Jayne Cobb from Firefly by Dawn Metcalf
Suffering for (and with) Our Art by Justina Ireland
In Defense of Stacey Jay at WiseInk
Stacey Jay and Kickstarter at Reading With A Vengeance
Stacey Jay, Veronica Mars and the Kickstarter Controversy by Marni Bates
Publishing Isn’t a “Real Job” by Karen Kincy

Monday, October 20, 2014

The one marketing ploy authors need to walk away from*

*Yes, I KNOW the correct grammar for that sentence. But if I used it, I’d sound like a stuffy elitist dinosaur. So if you hopped onto this page to correct me, I hope you’ll read on.

All kinds of crazy

There’s all kinds of crazy going on in the book world right now. Huge corporations engaged in battles with other huge corporations about who controls book prices. Publishers suing book bloggers. Mud-slinging of all kinds between authors of different stripes who have a problem with authors whose stripes go the other way. Frenzied accusations of bullying. All these kerfuffles lead to avalanches of tweets and forum posts where the argument gets increasingly off-topic, people get increasingly upset and very few people seem to understand either the original issue or what the last poster just said.

I don’t generally talk about specific instances of kerfuffling, a) because I want to be a writer not a campaigner, b) because in order to deliver a considered opinion I’d have to get the facts right and facts tend to get a bit slippery during a media storm, and c) because all of these matters are generally trivial and icky when you sit down and think about them. But I do note them and occasionally chat about them online with a friend or two, until I reach the point where I start having half-baked opinions of my own and then I try to shut myself up.

Some crazy is more deliberate than other crazy

BUT this week I want to talk about some specific instances that might be evidence of a growing trend. They are, in chronological (I think) order:

  • The Anne Rice petition crazy (multi-published author about to launch her latest book—the first in some time—lends very well-publicized support to a petition asking Amazon to ban book reviewers from using pseudonyms)
  • The Margo Howard crazy (multi-published author complains that Amazon Vine reviewers sabotaged her latest book which, by the way, was just published)
  • The Kathleen Hale crazy (debut author with first book launched this year writes at length about her reaction to a one-star review, which included obsessive tracking of the reviewer both online and in real life)

I deliberately haven’t inserted any links in the above, because frankly, most of you who are going to go on and read this article know what I’m talking about. I would advise the rest of you not to go there, but if you do, try and read several posts/articles/roundups to get a balanced view. If that’s possible.

What I want you to notice is the fact that all of these authors are published by major traditional publishing houses, and all of them have a new book out.

Not all train wrecks are accidents

This is a different kind of crazy from the typical self-publisher/minor traditional author crazy, which usually starts with an author doing some dumb thing like suggesting a review ring or rigged voting in a forum or on Facebook, leaving nasty comments on a review, or having a good whine on his/her blog or a Facebook page. In those cases, a rookie (usually) mistake from which the author could have easily recovered by backing down and apologizing turns into a big mess of recriminations and denial because the author won’t back down, and usually ends with the author becoming an adherent of a certain discredited website.

In some ways I’m a little more sympathetic to this frequently reenacted scenario, because it stems from an ignorance of basic business principles, an uncertain grasp of ethics and a culture that regards humility and backing down from an asserted position as weakness.

The pattern I’m seeing above is more disturbing. This is not the case of an author putting her foot in her mouth in a spur-of-the-moment blog post or comment. The Howard and Hale articles were published on major media sites, New Republic in Howard’s case and The Guardian in Hale’s. Rice’s petition effort and the articles it generated received widespread coverage.

In Rice’s case, the coverage didn’t just happen—it would have been the result of a press release written by the author or her publicist or assistant, and brought to the attention of the right editors. In Howard’s and Hale’s case, the articles would have been pitched to an editor and a date chosen for their release—I’m not altogether familiar with the process, but I’m guessing a substantial exchange of emails would have taken place over, say, two weeks.

And—worse still—my guess (and, remember, it’s only a guess) is that this wasn’t a case of either Howard or Hale going rogue and agreeing to those articles behind their agents’ or publishers’ backs. (In Rice’s case, who knows—the Queen of the Vampires doesn't seem to mind what anybody else thinks.)

You want visibility? Get the bait out

As all authors know, writing the book is one thing and getting people to notice it is another. Visibility is the key to success, particularly online—with co-op space in bookstores shrinking, achieving that all-important initial burst of sales through online marketing could be what propels a book into the sweet spot in terms of Amazon algorithms and bestseller lists. Marketing ploys for authors around the time of their book launch include author interviews (yawn), giveaways (overdone), blog tours (uh-huh) and heck, if you have a great story to tell about yourself, now’s the time to pitch it to a features editor or two.

And if you REALLY want to get your name around, attack the book blogging/reviewing community. There’s a culture of loyalty among book bloggers and top reviewers that pretty much guarantees a nice fizzy reaction to any post that directly attempt to discredit or demean any one of them. The right of reviewers to anonymity is a hot-button issue, as is their right to state a negative opinion about a book (I support both rights, incidentally, as long as the underlying purpose is to provide an honest review.) Push those buttons, and you get a reaction that spreads like a wildfire in the community of avid readers most likely to influence other readers. Visibility problem? Solved.

I'm a media what?

But who wants that kind of publicity? I hear you ask. Who wants a reputation as one of THOSE authors? Well, I certainly don’t—I don’t necessarily need people to love ME rather than my writing, but I’d rather my writing came with a reputation for professionalism attached to it. And yet in terms of sales, visibility trumps professionalism. Completely hypothetically, let’s say you wrote a book you might expect 1,000 people (bloggers, media reviewers, etc.) to notice. If you can create a kerfuffle that gets your name, and your book’s, before 100,000 people instead, perhaps 70% or 70,000 might be turned off by your behavior and swear off ever reading any of your books ever again. But the other 30% or 30,000 who feel neutral or favorable toward you will boost your visibility immensely and could result in sales that will kick your books up the Amazon charts and the bestseller lists.

From a purely business viewpoint, it’s hard to argue against the power of any publicity that’ll get you into major media outlets. Furthermore, both Howard and Hale had an ‘angle’ that makes them more attractive to the news media than the average author—Howard is the daughter of Chicago advice columnist legend Ann Landers, while Hale has had success documenting some pretty bizarre episodes in her personal life. Anne Rice is, well, Anne Rice. Do I need to elaborate?

Their edge makes it easier for all three of these ladies to get a story into the news media than it would be for most writers, as most writers are pretty boring. Ergo, this is a marketing ploy that looks like a slam dunk in the short term for any one of them. It may not work as well for all authors.

Hard to ignore, aren't they?

My original title for this post was going to be something like Walk Away From The Crazy, and I was going to attempt to persuade the book-loving community to ignore the next author who goes on the attack in an attempt to drag their name (and their latest book) into the spotlight. But I don’t think I’ve got a snowball’s chance of achieving that, especially when said authors launch their missiles from highly respected media outlets with a large circulation. Instead, I’m going to end by asking those authors and readers who’ve supported Rice, Howard and Hale to think, really think, about who benefits from this kind of media kerfuffle, and analyze exactly what these authors—and, possibly, their publishers—are doing.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The best apps for productive writers

I have a firm conviction that if only I could find the right app for every occasion and link them all together, all I’d ever have to do is write and the productivity would take care of itself. I’m not there yet, but here’s a quick run-down of the the apps I always go back to in order to make my writing life and writing business run more smoothly, plus a couple of newbies that I have great hopes for. All of my suggestions are for the Mac, but Windows versions are often available or you can google “Windows substitute for——“ to find the closest counterpart in the Microsoft universe. I include the platform I use the apps on.

The old faithfuls (capital letters denote major software that has satellite softwares)

SCRIVENER (Macbook): It’s where I write. Once I got past the initial learning curve, Scrivener’s flexibility and writer-oriented mindset had me hooked. I particularly appreciate the fact that it autosaves, that I can rearrange folders and documents or move them from one Scrivener file to another so easily, that I can collect odd bits of research there, and that it’s so easy to output into just about any file format I wish. When the long-awaited mobile version comes out my life will be complete.

Aeon Timeline (Macbook): syncs with Scrivener. I’m a big fan of timelines in fiction writing, because even a vague timeline helps keep your story on track and gives your fiction a more grounded feel. And since I write historical fiction, I need to plug in actual historical events so I don’t miss anything major that my characters should know about. Aeon is the best timeline software I’ve found, and has useful features like telling you how old your characters are at the time of an event and making it easy to measure the time between two events. Once you’ve settled on your timeline you can import it into Scrivener as index cards, and voilà! You have a plot outline.

Index Card (iPad): syncs with Scrivener. Once the Scrivener iPad app comes out this one might not be necessary, but in the meanwhile it’s a great way of writing and rearranging index cards to work out a plot without the actual paper.

Scapple (Macbook): syncs with Scrivener. I love using mind maps to brainstorm ideas, and Scapple is a very simple, free-form mindmapping software. You can import your mind map into Scrivener in the form of index cards.

EVERNOTE (Macbook, iPad, iPhone): this is a bit like an electronic filing cabinet where I store articles I find on the internet, and sometimes photos I take or items I scan in. It’s a massively powerful, flexible app that can search for text (even handwritten), lets you organize your stuff into notebooks, and you can even share or publish notebooks if you wish. I swear I’ve saved about 1,000 trees by using Evernote rather than printing stuff out.

Penultimate (iPad): syncs with Evernote. When I go to meetings, I scribble my notes directly on Penultimate using my stylus, safe in the knowledge that they’ll be stored in Evernote where I can find them easily. No more meeting notes littering my desk! Penultimate is very useful for taking notes at writing conferences - I will also take a snap of the workshop presenters so I can remember them at the next conference, and paste it (virtually) into the notebook.

Skitch (Macbook): syncs with Evernote. I use Skitch mostly to take screenshots, although you can also add arrows, lines, words etc. so it’s a quick way to produce an annotated picture. And it saves in Evernote, so it doesn’t lose anything. Not a hugely important app, but I do find myself using it quite often.

Feedly (Macbook, iPad): my blog reader. I find it much nicer to sit in my armchair to read blogs, although I do use the online version on my Macbook sometimes. Feedly’s got some nice features, such as swiping between posts, sharing post links, bookmarking, etc. The Pro version saves directly into Evernote.

Flipboard (iPad): a great tool for flipping through all of those social networks I don't use constantly, just to see what's going on. I don't use it enough and haven't explored its ability to collect saved posts into a "magazine" yet, but I can definitely recommend it as a time-saver (or time-waster, depending on your point of view!)

GoodNotes (iPad): Can be used as a notebook, but I prefer Penultimate because of the Evernote syncing. I use Goodnotes to scribble on PDFs—books sent for review in PDF format, drafts from writer friends, etc. I prefer to annotate documents this way, as long as the author specifically doesn’t want me to use Track Changes in Word.

Moleskine (iPad): another notebook, but this time I use it for research (it’s based on the famed Moleskine notebook). It’s not the easiest app I have and can be a bit bug-ridden, but I love the fact that I can write, highlight, type or pull in pictures onto the page. I can also clip text from websites and paste it in. It suits the way I research, which is messy and disorganized.

Self-Control (Macbook): I use this app to disable certain distracting sites (Facebook, Twitter and Goodreads, I’m looking at you!) for a set time (usually an hour) while I’m writing or otherwise working. It leaves the rest of my internet connection open so I can still do research. And then I turn my phone face-down so I can’t see what I’m missing. I’m red-faced about the number of times I go to check social media when I’m working—I know SelfControl is helping me cut down on that insidious habit.

A couple of apps I don't use much, but you might:

WritingJournal (iPad): This was until recently known as WordTracker, and that's how I found it on Google. It's a very basic app that keeps track of your word counts and writing rates, but it depends on me remembering to stop and start it and I have trouble with that. In my opinion it's high time Scrivener incorporated more efficient word count tracking, with daily word counts, project word counts, words per hour and so on. Because we nerdy writers NEED TO KNOW.

MagicalPad HD (iPad): Another app I haven’t used a lot so far, but it’s a highly powerful app for organizing your thoughts and materials and I suspect I may use it more in the future. They just released a version for the Mac OS. The drawback is that it's relatively costly (I got my iPad version during a free promo period) so I hang back from going all in on it until I'm sure I need it. Might be just the thing for you, though.

Two new-to-me apps I think may have great potential:

Toggl (Macbook, iPad, iPhone): My new favorite toy. It’s a time tracker, and surprisingly sophisticated and feature-rich for a free app. It’s helping me see where my day goes, and makes me more productive by making me more aware of how I spend my time.

Trello (Macbook, iPad, iPhone): a flexible project management system. With four WIPs needing to be written, edited, produced, published, curated and marketed, I’m trying to find a way to keep track of what has to be done. Trello seems like a fast and flexible way to come up with the big-picture overview of the tasks that lie before me, and to keep track of what I’m doing.

Last but not least, I get surprising value out of good old Microsoft Excel. I have Microsoft Office on my Mac simply for compatibility with my Windows-based friends, but I find I use Excel for tracking all sorts of things: word counts, income, book publishing, etc.. It’s a hugely powerful piece of software that’s designed for analysis, and once you start taking writing seriously as a business, analysis goes hand in hand with planning.

There are hundreds of apps out there, and I recommend experimenting with as many as possible to see what works for you. I’ve tried and discarded at least as many apps as I currently use, probably a lot more, and watched two of them (Scrivener and Evernote) grow from newbies to giants in the writing world. Most of the apps I list above are low-cost; some are free, often with a Pro version that costs money. The trickiest commitments are the ones that charge a monthly subscription fee for the pro version—this is happening more and more with social media apps, but therein lies a whole new subject.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Historical Novel Society's 2014 Conference

London . . . rooms full of writers of historical fiction . . . wall-to-wall book chat . . . are you envious yet? I just got back from the Historical Novel Society’s London conference bursting with enthusiasm for my favorite genre and not quite sure how I’m going to encapsulate the whole weekend in one blog post. But I’m willing to give it a try.

The above was the view from my window in the University of Westminster’s central dorm building—the line of skyscrapers pretty much follows the River Thames, and the very prominent tower is the BT Tower, one of the world’s more glamorous arrays of satellite dishes and radio antennae. Below me was street after street of Victorian red-brick buildings—the University is sited opposite Madame Tussaud’s waxworks and just around the corner from Baker Street, hopping with tourists and busy people in general.

I should explain that the HNS holds its conference in London every two years, the alternate years being an American event (although the first Australasian conference is also going to happen in March 2015—sooooo tempting). The London conference tends to be a more back-to-basics event than the American one and this conference was even more spartan than the last, but it’s also one of the cheaper writer’s conferences around and well supported by a number of movers and shakers in the genre so great value for money.

No Diana Gabaldon this year since her schedule appears to be pretty much owned by TV right now, but Margaret George, Conn Iggulden and Elizabeth Chadwick were in attendance—Margaret and Elizabeth are huge supporters of the HNS and attended every session and coffee break. I heard from Margaret George that she’s writing a novel about the Roman emperor Nero (known for his patronage of the arts and a tendency to slay Christians) and from Elizabeth Chadwick that next year marks the 25th year in print of her first novel—I’m hoping there’ll be an anniversary edition to mark the occasion. I was delighted to see Lindsey Davis there—she’s a big name in the UK (although less well known in the States) and is known for her wit and strong opinions so she’s always fun to listen to.

A couple of newer authors caught my eye—I swiped Laura Purcell’s only copy of her novel Queen of Bedlam (only to find it was already on my want list!) because, Mad George III and his six daughters who weren’t allowed to marry, what’s not to like? And then I found myself sitting next to James Aitcheson, who piqued my interest not just because he’s a young male author amid a sea of women but also because he writes about the Anglo-Saxon resistance after the Battle of Hastings, and with three books out already is evidently going to be one of historical fiction’s powerhouse producers. A few minutes spent chatting with him convinced me that his books might be worth a try.

These two younger authors represent, to me, two exciting less-explored eras that may be the next big reader obsession. The Hanoverians, particularly Georges I through IV, were every bit as opulent and weird and dysfunctional as the Tudors or Plantagenets and take us nicely from the Enlightenment through to the dawn of the Victorian era so they could be set to provide plenty of soap-opera material once the earlier dynasties are played out. And there’s definitely more interest in guys in armor because of Game of Thrones (as confirmed by the publishing industry panel when I asked that question) and I can see fans getting pulled in by the theme of resistance to an invading army and the clash of language and culture brought about by the Norman conquest. TV producers take note...

One thing you notice at the English HNS conference is that the Romans are HUGE in the UK—in fact there were way more Romans than Tudors (in terms of books, I mean) this time round, a sign perhaps that the Tudor goldmine is beginning to peter out. If you’re a writer looking for an era to write about, by the way, my advice is to get out there and create your own niche because all the industry people said they were looking for fresh and exciting ideas WITH A GREAT COVER (heavily emphasized!) Perusing the Waterstones book tables, I noticed a predominance of very bright colors with far fewer headless women than in years past and a heavier emphasis on graphic design using silhouettes, patterns and symbols rather than photography.

Alas, self-published authors were barely, if at all, represented on the panels but the indie table was getting a fair amount of attention, with the HNS’s indie advisor Helen Hollick doing a great job representing self-publishing and Silverwood Books, which seems to be one of the more solid assisted self-publishing companies out there, well in evidence. Several attendees (including yours truly) were also members of the Alliance of Independent Authors, and I felt I was part of a community of savvy and dedicated historical fiction writers who had a lot to say about the genre and their own ideas about self-publishing.

Self-publishers got their big moment right at the start of the conference, when Elizabeth Chadwick awarded the prize for the indie novel of the year. Elizabeth blogged her speech if you’re interested in seeing what criteria she used for judging, and the winner was Virginia Cox for The Subtlest Soul. It was pretty interesting to look at the covers of the final selection of novels, which ranged from good (meaning perfectly acceptable to the average reader) to on a par with those from traditional imprints. It’ll be interesting to see where indie covers go as the industry matures.

The other prize was the HNS Short Story Award, won by Lorna Fergusson for Salt. This one came with a substantial money prize attached, while I’m not sure if this was the case for the indie award—a shame, because self-publishers are always in need of bucks to finance the next book! Although Lorna IS a self-published writer, so hey...isn't it great that the indies are doing so well in this genre?

Another feature of this conference was a strong presence of academics, some of whom were also historical novelists. I find it pretty interesting that historical fiction is a genre that really blends well with academia, as many historical novelists start out as historians—either that or the process happens in reverse, with novelists who have written repeatedly on a particular era becoming more knowledgeable about their subject than most professional historians. And any gathering of historical novelists will inevitably lead to discussions of history—the mere mention of Richard III during one panel sent a ripple of emotion around the auditorium, and panel members were frequently interrupted, or corrected, by knowledgeable audience members.

One of the academics I met there was Dr. Jerome de Groot, who writes for the UK magazine History Today and described himself as an anthropologist of historical novelists.

One of my favorite discussions (in a breakout session) was that of the notion of the feisty heroine—did you know that “feisty” originally came from a German word meaning to break wind, and passed through the meaning of dog or bitch before it came to be applied to characters in novels? I’d never really thought about how gendered such a word is until Professor Diana Wallace talked about it. And the other word often applied to heroines in novels, sassy, may be even worse as it apparently has racist overtones. I guess it’s true that nobody ever points out that the male characters in novels are strong, but people are always talking about a novelist’s use of strong female characters. I resolve never to call a heroine feisty again. I was interested in some of the things Jessie Burton said about her portrayal of women in late 17th-century Amsterdam: her novel, The Miniaturist, caught my eye but I was determined to keep to my BUY ONE BOOK rule (because the size of my TBR pile and my reviewing commitments are a heavy burden to bear) and had already gotten Laura Purcell's.

One last mention—I’d never heard of the online historical fiction magazine The Historical Fictionist, but it’s free and looks interesting so go ahead and subscribe if HF is your favorite genre. I did, after they hosted a hilarious quiz battle between the audience and the panel (the audience won).

I’m helping to organize next year’s conference, which will be held in Denver, CO so if that’s a possibility for you, look out for more details on the conference website (where you can sign up for the email alerts). There was a feeling around the conference that we may be heading for a golden age of historical fiction with some very strong writers entering the field, and if you’re a writer or avid reader of HF you could do worse than join the Society and/or come to future conferences. As you can tell, the HNS is all about good books first and foremost and if I sum up the kind of person I found there, I’d say “serious enthusiast” or possibly “glowing-eyed fanatic with more knowledge of history—and books—than is possibly good for them.”

One thing I disagreed with was when someone said you don't fall into writing historical fiction by accident. I did−I started out with a location from the past, a story formed in my brain about it and the next thing I knew I was writing a historical fiction series. And while I'm talking about me, paperback copies of The House of Closed Doors are up for grabs in Goodreads and LibraryThing giveaways, so go get some free books!

Monday, September 1, 2014

A bit more on ethics, from other people (mostly)

My two posts on author ethics (for the Alliance of Independent Authors—ALLi—and on this blog) seem to have hit one of those waves that sometimes happen to writers, and I've spent much of the last couple of weeks meeting like-minded people online, dealing with the comments from people who don't agree with me, and feeling like I'm all over the internet like a rash (although in truth I've probably just reached a few thousand more people than usual--hardly a full-on double rainbow viral moment).

It was a fun fifteen minutes of very limited fame, but the best thing about it was becoming part of a wider dialogue—which was the whole point of the posts in the first place. Other writers either wrote their own posts or linked to a recent one. So I thought that for completeness’ sake I had better write one more post on the subject to let you know what people have been saying.

Panda-obsessed artist and writer Anne Belov wrote about how she marketed her panda cartoons one reader at a time and how well this strategy worked for her. She opined that the “ick-factor detector” should come into play when you’re trying to increase your readership:
I think we must continually ask ourselves how we respond to marketing appeals by others as we try to figure out how to sell our work. Everyone has different threshold levels of what is offensive or annoying, but if it offends me, why would I do it? I’m still trying to figure it all out, and if I listen to my gut and avoid doing things that make me uncomfortable in the marketing of others, I think I am on the right track. 
The sands that publishing is built on are shifting. As more people publish their work independently, we have to figure out how to be ethical, not only in the actual writing, but in how we tell the world about it. We are all on our own, trying to figure out just how we going to continue paying the mortgage, but we are also in it together.
I agree: I’ve unfriended more people on Goodreads and Twitter than I can count for spamming me, and knowing how I feel about book spam as a reader is a great guideline to author etiquette.

Henry Martin focuses on the thorny problem of paid reviews:
The e-book revolution brought with it a new industry - an industry catering to authors. There are now companies that offer paid reviews, as well as companies that manipulate sales ranks. This, as one poster recently mentioned, prompts the question: Is there anything real anymore? 
In an era where an author with a few hundred dollars to spend has the ability to manipulate the sales rank of their title AND purchase dozens of five-star reviews, where does that leave the reader?  
Personally, I have absolutely no respect for any author who engages in any such activity. 
But Martin has found many authors who act ethically:
There are authors who, although self-published, take their craft seriously. There are authors who take pride in what they do. They may not have high sales ranking, may only have a handful of reviews, and not sell a lot of books. But I can almost guarantee you that they sleep well at night.
Of course once you start talking about ethics online, you quickly run into people who think the authors who sleep well at night are naive idiots with no sense of entrepreneurship. Why shouldn’t you pay for a review, they cry? Traditional publishers do. And they don’t see that the two activities just aren’t comparable for the most part. When Random House starts paying fiverr reviewers for votes and pre-written reviews instead of exploiting their clout with the editors of literary journals, THEN we’ll be acting just like the Big Five.

Australian writer and top reviewer Iola Goulton has some practical advice for authors trying to find their feet when giving and receiving reviews. She points out the differences in site culture that you have to take into account:
  • Retail sites (e.g. Amazon): don’t interact with reviewers
  • Reader sites (e.g. Goodreads): you can thank reviewers, but don’t criticise reviews
  • Reader blogs: it’s nice to receive a comment from the author on a review, and I think readers like the interaction . . . authors should absolutely visit and comment if they have requested the review or been interviewed. 
  • Social Networks (e.g. Facebook or Twitter): it’s fine to like or retweet positive comments or reviews, but best not to mention critical reviews.
Iola’s article is worth checking into just for the links she includes.

The liveliest reactions came when respected industry observer Porter Anderson picked up and retweeted many points from my two posts, and then asked me to send him a few points about which areas I’d like a discussion of author ethics to cover. He did a great job summing up the problem, and noted that
Steen knows that the old stigma against self-publishing authors can’t be fully lifted until practice, not just product, is seen to have been professionalized.
Anderson’s article went out on Thought Catalog (a lively site if there ever was one) and drew some attention, and since then the subject of ethics and its relationship with quality has popped up a couple of times on the ALLi Facebook group (which is, alas, members-only) and on its blog (which is open to the public).

I feel like I’m riding this wave right now because this is a discussion authors have been waiting to have. I’ve seen many isolated posts about ethics in general or specific examples of unethical behavior, but what we’re lacking is an industry-wide consensus about what exactly constitutes ethical behavior in this brave new world of self-publishing. As our “industry” is composed of tens (hundreds?) of thousands of individuals from different cultures and with varying degrees of business or legal or ethical knowledge, pinning down any kind of consensus is going to be a herding-cats exercise.

But in my opinion it’s worth trying. If you’ve got thoughts on the subject of what is ethical behavior and what’s not, or on the value of ethics in our diverse and complicated business (pro or con), I urge you to get on your own blog or other platform and express those thoughts. I’d really like one of the many authors I encounter who object to other authors telling them to be ethical to come up with a compelling argument as to why their ethics—or lack thereof—are none of my business. I'd like to see more pushback like this article, to help me and others define their positions. I’d like to hear from some of the massively successful self-publishers out there (I define massively successful as paid unit sales in excess of 5,000/month) about how they walk the line between marketing and spam, because these people are generally incredibly good at self-promotion and I feel that many of the self-publishers who cross the line into spam are simply imitating these role models but getting it wrong somehow.

Over to you...

Monday, August 25, 2014

SelfControl and toggl: mastering my time

Photo credit: Ducks in a Row by whitepines on

Every so often I go on a productivity bender, where I start obsessing about how unproductive I am and how I Need To Do Better. This inevitably results in the acquisition of apps, because in my nerdy brain nothing helps creativity more than surrounding yourself with time-wasting technology. I’m beginning to wonder whether my productivity benders are in fact a magnificently twisted form of procrastination, invented by a brain that has decided to work against its owner’s best interests for reasons best known to itself.

And yet I keep trying, because every so often one of my productivity ideas sticks and becomes a valuable part of my life process. Like the 365K challenge, which has led to me writing over 256,000 words so far this year, mostly in the form of fiction, reviews and blog posts that will actually be used as the basis for future output (I’m going to analyze what I wrote at the end of the year and give predictions on how much of it will be worth publishing).

I’ve tried the Pomodoro Technique and similar time-chunking methods, like my critique partner’s 10 Minute Writing method where you do your writing in ten-minute bursts, followed by ten minutes of chores. These techniques work very well for me when I have a deadline and MUST work on one particular project for most of the day, for example. But most of the time I prefer a slightly more organic, or perhaps I should say holistic, approach to time management.

Time-chunking techniques work by imposing order and structure on an otherwise chaotic day: in a sense, you take control of yourself by issuing commands to yourself about how much work you’re going to do. And that works for me for a while, but then failure starts to creep in and I abandon the method until the next time I decide to give it a try.

So I started thinking about the causes of that failure, and realized that they had to do with the way my life works. My schedule just isn’t all that predictable—it may jog along in a fairly routine pattern for a couple of weeks, but then I’ll get a week crowded with meetings or one of my commitments will need extra attention and all my carefully structured time-chunking routines go to pot. Not to mention the fact that I spend a lot of time in England these days. Given that it can take longer than a month to form a habit, what’s a writer to do when her schedule refuses to stay constant for longer than about two weeks?

So I decided to tackle the problem the other way around, by observing the ways in which my life uses up my time. On my bad days I’m known to whine to my family that I spend way more time doing stuff I don’t want to do (meaning for their benefit) than I spend doing the things I actually WANT to do, i.e. writing and doing writerly things. How true is this, I wondered? Also, I’m nastily aware of the fact that I don’t spend much time building up my writing business, which as a self-publisher I MUST do if I’m ever going to achieve my very modest income goals. I realized I needed to do the following:

  • Track the time I spend doing house/family-related tasks vs. time spent on my own pursuits
  • Find ways I can increase time to work on my business
  • Monitor how much time I spend on social media and work out just how productive that is

The last item, of course, is a very vexing one for many writers. Yes, you need an online presence and platform. You also need to be real and authentic when online, because if you only go on social media to ask people to buy your book, their reaction will be to ignore you or block you. So a certain amount of posting cat photos (or your personal equivalent—mine rarely involve cats) is necessary. How much time is productive for ME, i.e. beyond how much time spent on social media am I no longer productive? Where can I find balance?

So I decided I needed a way to track my time both on and off the computer, and then fortunately someone mentioned toggl in a blog post. I like the fact that it syncs across my phone, iPad and Macbook, so I can track offline activities via the phone (it will accept entries when offline and sync them later, if necessary, so you can use it with a wireless-only device, which is what my iPhone becomes when I’m in England).

After the initial learning curve, which was short, I realized that I could track individual tasks separately and use color-coding to see where my time went. I’ve grouped the activities I record into broad categories: writing production, writing business, family & house (tasks that involve doing things for other people) and me time (exercise, reading for fun, lunch with a friend). I don’t tend to track things like eating dinner and watching TV, because my purpose is to concentrate on how I use what I regard as my working day. Each broad category has a color code—social media is a separate category, colored red, as I’m targeting that for possible reduction.

At the same time, I’ve recently started using the SelfControl app (Mac only; there are Windows alternatives) to cut down on my jumps into social media when I’m working on something. I put Facebook, Goodreads, and Twitter on my blacklist, and set it for an hour at a time—my concentration wanes sharply after about 40 minutes, so more than an hour would be counter-productive. When I turn on SelfControl, I also turn my phone face-down so I can’t see those notifications and be tempted to continue the conversation on a mobile medium. Knowing it’s only for an hour is a big help, because seriously, I can wait THAT long before rejoining a conversation.

I’ve been using these methods for about a month now, and have confirmed that my estimation of how much time I needed to run this house and be Orangina’s executive assistant is fairly accurate. I’ve greatly improved my grip on my to-do list over this last month, too, and the combination of toggl, SelfControl and efficient lists are helping me to reduce the number of procrastinated tasks in the “urgent” categories. My ultimate goal is to move away from a to-do list, which is reactive, toward a planning list, which is proactive.

So the next step is to carve more time out of my day for the “not urgent but important” tasks, which is pretty much where all of my writing business tasks lie. I am, toggl shows, spending less than two hours a week on business tasks, and that’s way too low. So that’s the habit I have to work on next! And I have an app for that…

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Ethics: self-publishing's elephant in the room

Image credit: Banksy art exhibit "Barely Legal" in Los Angeles, 16 September 2006.
Reproduced under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

Instead of posting on my usual Monday slot, I waited a while to see the outcome of this post I wrote for the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi). The short version is that I believe self-publishers need to talk about ethics as often as they talk about the quality of their writing, editing, and production standards.

Self-publishing has a terrible reputation

For many influencers on the publishing scene—book bloggers, for example, or high-profile reviewers on sites like Goodreads—self-publishers have a reputation for being unethical jerks who produce badly written books full of typos and with terrible covers. According to this reputation, you can’t trust any of the good reviews of their books because they’ve been bought or obtained via a reviewing ring. If you do decide to read a self-published book and have the presumption to leave a less than glowing review, well—watch out because the author’s going to harrass you! You don’t want to accept a friend request from a self-published author either, because the next thing you know they’ll be spamming you with BUY MY BOOK messages. And they’ll vote their own books onto the lists you’ve created, and crash their way into groups just so they can promote their books there.

And yet most self-publishers care about ethics...

I hope, if you’re a self-published author, you’ll be yelling “I DON’T DO THAT!” by this point. Because an awful lot of us don’t behave that way. Certainly I believe that ALLi members are, as a rule, writers who care about the quality of their work and who are too smart to jeopardize their own brand by engaging in obnoxious behavior toward their readers.

But those of us who care seem to be outnumbered by those who don’t. Often, in fact, the offenders are simply naive—new writers or writers who simply have little business experience and make bad decisions based on emotions and an eagerness to grab a piece of the (perceived) pie. The “who dares wins” attitude of American-style capitalism, which praises entrepreneurship and is still—nearly thirty years on from the Wall Street movie—telling us that greed is good, blinds new authors to the long-term implications of today’s bright idea.

So what do we do about the problem?

I wrote my blog post for ALLi as an opinion piece, a temperature-taking exercise. I got pretty much the result I expected—some pushback from authors with a highly individualist approach to self-publishing, but on the whole agreement that ethics are important.

So then what?

Well, I suppose I got a few people to acknowledge that there’s an elephant in the room, and that’s a start. But the trouble with ethics is that it’s a very LARGE elephant—a problem so vast and risky to tackle that most of us stand around for a while scratching our heads and looking at the thing, before deciding to get back to our own work and worry about our own ethics rather than other people’s. That, I think, is why there’s plenty of talk in self-publishing circles about printing options and editing and storycraft and assisted self-publishing and marketing and social media and graphic design and formatting and any number of other concerns, but very little about what we can do, as self-publishers, to improve the overall image of self-publishing as an endeavor.

Traditional publishing is the BMW showroom to our used-car lot

The traditional publishing industry sorted these things out long ago. Publishers learned how to affect reader choices and even opinions by carefully thought out marketing ploys that control everything from where a book is placed in a store to its position on bestseller lists. An industry grew up around publishing’s needs: there are publicists, distribution agreements, genre magazines, conferences, advertising options and review opportunities galore, and those entering the publishing world (including authors, through their agents) are trained in how to interact with these resources to produce the best result. The system’s been dented in recent years by the upheavals in the publishing world, including those caused by the boom in self-publishing, but it’s been around for a long time and isn’t going to disappear overnight.

But these options are not generally open to self-publishers. Publicists won’t handle us even if we can afford them; bookstores and libraries often don’t want to know; magazines, conferences and review journals are geared toward the traditional path and probably still will be for the next five years or so until enough despairing midlist authors have jumped ship and self-publishing is the norm for most writers. We don’t have the opportunities, and even if an opportunity is open to us, we often don’t have the budget.

Hence the rise of the cheap and shady option. The reviewing ring, the voting consortium, the sock puppet account, the people on fiverr who’ll vote your books onto a list or post a review you wrote yourself. The second- or third-tier ecosystem that bears about the same relationship to traditional publishing’s marketing options as a tacky used-car lot does to a BMW showroom.

And that has pretty much the same reputation as Uncle Joe's Great Cars.

I need you to help me carry this conversation forward

The only way we’re going to rise above the image projected by that ecosystem and those who use it is to stop ignoring self-publishing’s elephant in the room—ethics—and start writing about it. If you have a blog or website, or are a regular contributor to a publishing forum of any kind, I have a request for you:

Write about ethics. If a response to my words is forming in your mind as you read this, don’t just leave a comment and pass on. Give what I’ve said some thought, and make your views available to your readers in some way. If you’re a speaker on the conference circuit, plan a workshop on ethics. If you have a podcast, talk about ethical issues.

I've told you guys that I don't want to be a crusader for any one cause. But when there's an elephant in the room and it's messing up the carpet, I can at least try to light a fire under it. If enough of us fan the flames, perhaps we can get the beast moving.

We've already seen the consequences of keeping quiet, and they stink

The alternative is to keep quiet, as authors generally do. One of the commenters in one of the conversations I’ve been having about my blog post said (I’m paraphrasing) that self-publishers don’t talk about ethics and that makes her think it’s because they themselves are not behaving ethically. So what have you got to lose by listing the behaviors that you refuse to indulge in? Mentioning your distaste for fake reviews? Talking about the latest plagiarism scandal? Take the risk of approaching the elephant in the room and acknowledging its presence. We may not make much impact right now, but the price of keeping quiet so far has been the tarnishing of the best opportunity writers have ever had to build a career doing what they love. It’s time we spoke up.

Monday, August 11, 2014

The House of Closed Doors Giveaway

It’s here at last . . . and it’s been a long time coming. It’s taken me way longer than I intended to get a print edition of The House of Closed Doors up and running, but the buy links are finally populating their way through the internet. The paperback is available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble so far on the US market, on Amazon UK and Waterstones in the UK, and on Fishpond in Australia, with faster delivery, apparently, than in the UK. I’m watching this slow propogation with a certain fascination—I used Ingram as my printer/distributor and they promise 29,000 distribution channels, but I have no idea what they are! And I think the time of delivery is determined by whether Ingram has a local POD (print on demand) facility. Some of those 29,000 outlets should, logically, include your local bookstore, into which you can theoretically march and request that a copy be ordered.

You’ve probably gathered that this whole process is not under my control. Indeed, I’m still wondering what payment from Ingram is going to look like (their service geared specifically to self-publishers, IngramSpark, is fairly new and I haven’t seen examples anywhere on the internet, PLUS it apparently takes 90 days to work your way into their lists so I won’t be seeing any money for a while). I’m planning to do a big post on getting paid, comparing and contrasting different media, once I get my first IS statement and can produce images for you.

Be that as it may, I now have two cartons of books in my office, 25 of which are reserved for Goodreads and LibraryThing giveaways starting September 1 (I’m a little less confident about the LT giveaway actually happening for reasons I won’t bore you with, but am pretty sure about Goodreads).

And in the meanwhile . . . . 

Drumroll . . . .

Here is The House of Closed Doors Super Giveaway, consisting of:
  • A paperback copy of the novel, signed in any way you wish (or left unsigned, I’m easy)
  • A beaded reticule, for that nineteenth-century touch
  • A pendant key-shaped watch, in the hope that you find a lock to fit it into
  • A special super secret prize or two

How do you win?

I know that some people have huge problems commenting on this blog, so I’m going to take advantage of the fact that Facebook now allows me to run a contest through a simple post on my Facebook page. Yay! Here’s the link. And here are the rules:

1. The contest will run from today (August 11, 2014) to 9 a.m. CDT next Monday (August 18, 2014). All entries received after 9 a.m. CDT on 8/18/14 will be disregarded.
2. You must be 13 or older to enter. The House of Closed Doors would probably rate about a PG-13, but standards vary so check the reviews if you’re unsure about its suitability.
3. To enter, you must Like and comment on the post. Your comment should answer the question: What is your favorite kind of book? and be in the form of a complete sentence.
4. The reason why I require a comment is to weed out obvious spammers. If you include a link to anything in your comment or anything about your comment looks fishy, it’s going to get deleted. It’s my Facebook page and I reserve the right to delete comments, plus I really want the prize to be won by someone who actually reads books.
5. The contest is in no way sponsored, endorsed, approved or administered by, or associated with, Facebook, and you can’t hold Facebook responsible for anything connected with the contest. I have to say that under Facebook’s rules.
6. You’re going to have to supply me with a residential address if you win the contest—no post boxes or business addresses. I won’t share your address in any way.
7. I will tag you in the comments if you win, or you can check back on this page after 8/18/14.
8. The contest is worldwide, but be warned, I’m going to use the cheapest shipping method possible.
9. Under Facebook’s rules I’m not allowed to require you to Share the post to win, but you’re free to Share it with book-loving friends.
10. I’ll pick the winner via a random number generator.
11. I won’t be sharing or using names or any kind of data that comes my way as a result of this contest, except to count how many people join in. I’m holding this contest for fun and in celebration of making it into print at last, although I’ll admit there’s always a “soft marketing” aspect to things like this.

So there you have it. I hope the contest works OK—first time I’ve tried doing a contest via Facebook! And I’d love to hear from any of you who decide to buy the paperback about the purchasing experience, especially if you’ve tried to purchase via a bookstore. I try my best to make the book as widely available as possible in as many forms as possible, at the most consistent pricing possible, but this is turning out to be an unpredictable journey. A couple of friends on Goodreads have said they’ve asked their local libraries to purchase a copy—this is definitely a win for me, as it still represents a book purchase AND possibly gets my name and writing in front of a few more people.

One more thing—not only does Blogger (or Google) make it hard to post comments on this blog, it doesn’t tell me when comments are posted. It’s beyond me how I can fix this. You’re probably better off visiting my Facebook page or even my personal Facebook profile (which is public) if you want to engage with me over anything I say in this blog. I’m a chatty person, as you probably noticed, and I love having intelligent discussions, so if I don’t reply it’s simply because I haven’t seen you. Alas, Google.