Category archive: Vampire Road

Title and Cover Woes

The Great Gatsby is one of my favorite novels.  Fitzgerald can write description that is so effortless to read that a whole page of it with no other action is still captivating.  But I have to wonder if Fitzgerald’s great work would have made it to a second printing (it barely did) if it had been called The Incident at West Egg.  That’s the original title.  Not horrible, but certainly not as engaging as The Great Gatsby, and I think the novel really is more about Gatsby than the “incident” at the end of the novel.

My friend and fellow writer, Jill Edmondson, had a blog post about several novels that almost ended up with such mediocre titles.  Another example is Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men, which nearly ended up as Something That Happened.

So when I noted that sales of my novel, The Book of Bertrand were nowhere near the sales of Vampire Road, I had to take a deep breath and ask friends and writers what they thought of the title.  You guessed it.  I found two fans but the rest totally panned the title AND the cover, even though they loved the novel.  The most common comment: sounds too much like Sunday school and looks too much like a bible.  Boring.

I had to decide whether I’d stick to the title I’d had in my head for years or try something new.  The original title is actually a bit of an inside joke until you get to the fourth novel in the series, so it means way more to me than it does to a reader browsing through Amazon.

When in doubt, go for a 19 kilometer run.  Okay, I don’t actually do that very often (the 19k) but the marathon is on May 6th and I’m well into training.  During the run I had the inspiration that you can only have when fasting or exhausted beyond all reason and still running.  It’s a shaman/spiritual journey thing I guess.  I realized that my novel is not just about three people trying to survive the apocalypse.  It’s also about three people leading a revolution against a government that is actively perpetuating the apocalypse.  It’s about clashes with riot police and the rippers that support them.

So the new title is Apocalypse Revolution, and my brilliant wife suggested that before I change it I should name the other novels in the series to ensure that all the titles would mesh nicely.  Since I’ve already outlined them all, that turned out to be less challenging than I would have thought.

Next challenge was the cover.  I’ve hired a professional cover artist but he’s buried in other work for at least three weeks, so I decided to do a quick and dirty cover myself.  That didn’t go so well.  After three hours of cursing my way through Photoshop and hating the results–there’s a reason I’m not a graphic artist–I sent my feeble efforts to a pro and in no time at all he turned out the great cover that you see at the top of this article.  He also created the cover for The Book of Bertrand, but it was all my idea, so its failure to generate interest is mine.

I fully admit that if I had a traditional publisher or agent they probably could have warned me that the original title and cover weren’t going to sell, but the great thing about eBooks is that an author can change these things if necessary.  It is important though to have it all locked before doing the CreateSpace P.O.D.

Will all this help my sales?  Who knows, but I’m happier with both, so I’ll keep you posted.  Which would you buy?

The Secret Reason I’m Trying KDP Select

The literary world is in an uproar.  Again.  Amazon, the company that publishers love to hate, is trying to steal all the–wait for it–self-published books.  I had to do a double take at this Huffington Post piece by Mark Coker, the driving force behind Smashwords, to believe what I was reading–especially the bit when he compares indie-authors to farmers during the Irish Potato Famine.

Amazon wants books for its lending library for its Prime customers, and it has put together a big pot of money, $500,000 per month, to be split among the authors whose books are borrowed through the Amazon library.  The big catch: your books can’t be available for electronic download anywhere else.  And it’s a three month commitment.  Paperbacks and hardcovers aren’t part of this exclusivity clause, those you can still sell anywhere.  We’re just talking eBooks here.

I like Mark Coker because he has been an ardent supporter of indie-pubbed authors and has worked diligently to get their work up on as many platforms as possible.  I certainly don’t blame him for decrying a marketing tactic that is clearly aimed at undercutting his business.

But I think he’s wrong to worry that indie-pubbed authors will abandon Smashwords wholesale.  What’s more likely is that authors will launch a book with Amazon, choosing KDP Select, but will drop out of the program after the three month period ends.  It’s not a lifetime commitment here, and authors will want to see their novels available for the iPad because it’s the coolest device ever invented, let alone all the other eReader platforms.

Coker has some good points about losing sales rankings if you pull your novels, which is why I’m not enrolling Vampire Road in KDP Select.  It took months for this novel to appear in the search at B & N and others, something Coker has promised to try and speed up, so I won’t be pulling it out of Smashwords now that it’s finally available everywhere.

But the prequel, The Book of Bertrand, will launch on Friday (if the editor and cover artist deliver on schedule) and there is absolutely no hope that Smashwords can get it to the other platforms before Christmas.  I know because they gave all us indie-pubbed authors a November something deadline for Christmas distribution.

Amazon says they’ve been selling a million Kindles a week for the last couple of months, and some of those will be going to Kindle Prime members, who are going to want to borrow a book because they’ve blown the budget on Christmas, so why not get The Book of Bertrand in front of them?

But now for the big secret: Summer of Bridges, my anthology of coming-of-age stories, the ones that were first published in Storyteller Magazine, turned out to be a perfect candidate for KDP Select.  While I love these stories, I hadn’t got around to loading the anthology onto Smashwords, so I figured I’d enroll it in KDP Select to see what happens.

Someone borrowed it the very next day.  Now this anthology hasn’t been selling well, I figure because they’re short stories and they’re very Canadian.  The very name of our country induces yawns from most other countries–not a bad thing.  But here’s the surprise: the sales ranking on Amazon popped up as if it had sold a copy.

Which got me thinking: the higher the sales ranking, the more I sell.  Any chance that I can pump TBofB’s sales over the Christmas to New Year’s buying week is a good thing, especially if I also get a piece of a $500,000 pie to boot.

I also think that the most money to be made from the KDP Select program will be in the early days, when Amazon’s still fighting to lure authors into the program.  Remember that the money is split between participating authors, and a lot of authors will be reluctant to pull down work already for sale elsewhere.  I bet the biggest pay outs will be in December, January and February.  After that, word of mouth about good payouts will cause a stampede, and then the payouts will drop when they have to be spread to more authors.

It’s good to be ahead of a stampede, but you’d better run fast.

Why I Chose Not to Get into a Fight at an SF Convention

What most people don’t know about science fiction conventions is that a lot of them are not about actors or TV shows but about SF writers, and the discussions at the panels are educational, lively and provide a lot of insights into the publishing world.  But yesterday I discovered that sf cons are not immune to the controversy over eBooks and indie publishing.

I attended a panel about “The Business of Writing” at SFContario in Toronto.  The con was winding down, and I settled in expecting to hear the usual advice for want-to-be authors: get an agent, write short stories, and don’t pay reading fees to agents.

But instead author Robert J. Sawyer inadvertently dropped a bomb on me.  When asked what the biggest business mistake a newbie writer could make he replied, “self-publishing or self-ePublishing.”   He might as well have said, “Michael McPherson has made the biggest mistake of his career.”  While Sawyer recognizes me at cons and remembers that he has mentored me in the past, he probably has no idea that I’ve indie-published.  The comment was not just directed at me.

What he said (forgive the paraphrasing) is that only outliers have been successful in self-publishing either in print or electronically, and that you will have “vanishingly few sales” and never succeed as a proper science fiction author if you go the self-publishing route.

Yet, as I listened to this I was surprised to discover that I was encouraged and even more certain that indie-publishing is the road I want to travel.  I know that sounds crazy, and I was reminded of a line from the movie Hoffa, so smartly delivered by Jack Nicholson.  When several different people told him he should call off a strike, he replied, “If everyone says I’m wrong, I must be right.”

I know that this is the height of arrogance and conceit, but I also know what Mr. Sawyer had said earlier at his Kaffeekaltsch: it will be increasingly difficult and perhaps impossible for a science fiction author to make a living just from writing.

An indication of the direction the industry is going can be found in the subscription numbers of Analog Magazine: at its peak back in the seventies it had 160,000 subscribers, but now it has around 28,000.  I’m also willing to bet a lot of those are older boomers, so as that generation goes on their ultimate adventure, Analog will probably also go down forever.

I’m sure Sawyer’s career will be fine because he’s so well known and has won every important science fiction writing award at least once, but a newbie like me–fighting to break into a dying industry–has nothing to lose by taking the road less traveled.  The big six are struggling to adapt to eBooks, and their desperate throes are creating market opportunities.

If I landed a contract today with any publisher, my debut novel would have to compete head-to-head with Robert J. Sawyer’s umpteenth novel–one $10 paperback versus another.  But I’ve checked the prices of Sawyer’s Kindle editions and discovered that they’re priced between $10-$13, with many of them more expensive than their paperback editions.

Wow!  That means Vampire Road at 99 cents is less than one-tenth the price of most of Sawyer’s novels, and when I launch the prequel, The Book of Bertrand, at $2.99 it’ll still be less than a quarter of the price.  This cut-rate is the only hope for a newbie author trying to seize a piece of the incredibly shrinking pie.

I considered putting my hand up and debating this with Mr. Sawyer–starting a lively old fight–but most of the authors were enjoying the last panel of the conference, and I knew there was little hope of swaying hearts and minds.  The proof will come in the next couple of years, but even if I have “vanishingly few sales,” I suspect it will be more than if I was still desperately waiting to hear back from a publisher.  And I’ll make this promise, if I haven’t had any luck by SFContario Four, I’ll volunteer for a panel: why ePublishing may not be for you.  I love being on panels.  Either way, it’ll be an interesting ride.

To Blog or to Write: That is the Question

All the great success stories on Amazon–from Amanda Hocking to John Locke–have one thing in common: multiple books.  Joe Konrath says that writing multiple books is the most important thing a writer can do to advance her/his career.  John Locke also warns that there is nothing more frustrating than to have a product’s sales take off and not have anything else for an interested customer to purchase.  In the case of novels, it means that mountain you’ve climbed to promote one novel will have to be scaled again a year later for the next novel.

So I have to examine whether blogging, twittering and promoting is time well spent when I only have one novel and one anthology (in very different genres) up for sale.  What if I get lucky and people start buying Vampire Road in big numbers rather than the steady trickle of sales I get right now?  They might be ready to read more, and if there is nothing to buy until next year, they might forget my characters and move on to something else.

Time pressures are different for everyone.  I write quickly, but I can’t write a book in fifteen days like Amanda Hocking.  My kids eat up a lot of time in the evenings and on weekends, and I’m not going to short change them.  That’s a choice I’ve made.  But if I’m to finish The Book of Bertrand by mid-October and get it off to my editor, something has to give.

So I haven’t been blogging or twittering for the last couple of weeks, but I have been writing.  It’s been fun.  My editor and a couple of reviewers want to know more of the back story to Vampire Road, and The Book of Bertrand delivers.  The progression from computer nerd to saint is a torturous path with euphoric highs, desperate action and unintended consequences that will reverberate down the century to Vampire Road.

But I’m not stopping there.  There are four novels in this series, and I’m going to try and get as many of them up in the next few months as possible.  It’s a lot of work, but I believe the best thing I can do to promote Vampire Road is to have all the other novels in the series available for purchase.

I like blogging though, so I will try to post quick notes on Fridays, but I won’t be posting three of four times a week.  I’ve had to decide whether I’m a blogger or a writer, and novels are my preferred form of expression.

So I’m logging off to write, but I will keep you posted.  See you next Friday.

Forget the Romance. This is War.

John Locke writes in his book, How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in Five Months, that the fastest way to get a bad review is to have a reader review your work who is not from your target audience.

I’ve received two lukewarm reviews from a couple of kind reviewers since yesterday, one calling my novel, Vampire Road, a “slow but interesting read,” a review that can damn a novel to oblivion.  The other complemented my writing but titled her review: “A good book but just not for me.”

That’s when I first realized that I’d asked the wrong audience to review my novel.  I’d asked fans of the vampire genre to review it, and now-a-days that means fans of romance.  The big clue came from reviewer asanders, who openly wished there was more romance in the novel.  Reviewer Karen West felt there was too much fighting.  Of course there was too much fighting if you’re looking for a romance.  I apologize to both reviewers for asking them to read a novel that, despite the title, is outside the vampire genre.

Vampire Road is about war, not romance, which is why it will appeal more to the zombie fans than the vampire fans.  These aren’t sparkly vampires who are desperately in love with teenage girls.  These are murderous vampires out for blood, but unlike zombies they are still just as cognizant as they were when they were alive.  They can plan offensives, set traps and conduct war on a large scale.  They can think ahead and react to situations.  They can be afraid.

My chief concern with this novel is that people will describe it as relentless and complain that it has too much action.  Fitz, the lead character, is fighting someone or something in almost every chapter of the novel.  It takes place in an isolated fortress under siege, so all anyone there is concerned about is surviving to the next day.  Romance is just too far from their minds.

If you lived in condo tower and woke up one night to the smell of smoke, would you spend anytime making moves on the woman in 4B or would you just help her get the hell out?  If you’re a half-way decent human being, you’re only concern will be to get out with as many of your neighbors as possible, including the grumpy old lady down the hall with the yappy dog.

Fitz’s and his friends are in jeopardy for the whole novel, and while his young hormones are in full flow, he simply hasn’t the time for the delicate dance that is the human mating ritual.

Reviewer asanders also complains that when romance finally does occur, it’s almost an after thought, and she’s right.  My characters have been up and fighting for their lives for over thirty hours.  When the chance for sleep comes they seize it, and even if they’re sharing the same bed there isn’t going to be much going on besides snoring.

I thank my reviewers for giving their time and energy to Vampire Road.  I think their reviews are fair and genuine.  Better yet, they have help me define my true audience.

Zombies and the New York Times

What do zombies and the New York Times Book Review have in common?  Until recently, I’d have said absolutely nothing.  Why would one of the most prestigious book reviews in the English speaking world start talking about zombies?

But last week my wife fired up her Kindle, went to her subscription to the NYT Book Review and was astounded to see an article titled, “Zombie Resurrection,” by Terrence Rafferty.  Apparently zombies have gotten so big that even the New York Times can’t ignore them, and vampires are just so last year.

But while Rafferty makes a few good points, his leap that the rise in the popularity of zombies is a reflection of society’s anxiety with the “planet’s dwindling resources” is off the mark.  In fact, his statement is one of the reasons zombies are popular.

I’m too young to remember the Cuban Missile Crisis, but I do remember the late seventies and early eighties, when everyone from my teachers to politicians to media pundits stated with great certainty that we were on the brink of nuclear obliteration.  I remember our school showing a particularly gruesome BBC drama called Threads, which followed a couple of families through a nuclear holocaust and the collapse of society afterward.  It ended with rape and the birth of a deformed child.  Now that was horror.  I was shaken to my core and wondered why my parents weren’t moving us out of the city.

How does a kid deal with this extremely gloomy prediction of the future?  Why I delved into post-apocalyptic fiction, of course, which was very popular back then, and it was oddly reassuring: I’d be the one emerging from the bomb shelter, fighting the mutants and surviving.  Post-apocalyptic fiction was actually less pessimistic than the TV news because it showed that there would be an “after,” and indeed invented the concept that something as final as the apocalypse was in fact not the end of humans, but a fall of civilization more like the end of the Roman Empire.  New governments would form, but it would be chaos and dark ages for a while.

Anyone watching TV news these days must be feeling about as frightened and depressed as I was as a kid in the late seventies.  The Center for Disease Control in the last few years has issued terrifying pandemic warnings about SARs, the Bird Flu and Swine Flu, apocalypses that were about to take place and didn’t, however they might just reappear next fall.

The world is burning up and sea levels are drastically rising according to environmentalists; the economy has crashed and burned forever according to just about everyone.  Society is on the cusp of great disaster, no matter where you look.  Gold keeps hitting record highs while the stock market reels.

So how does an avid fiction reader react to all this doom and gloom? Why they read about the zombie apocalypse, of course.  Suddenly so many problems are solved.  The debt crisis goes away and so does your credit card balance.  Global warming is not a problem anymore since you can’t even find gas for your car.  The pandemic prophesies of the CDC turn out to be correct, but it’s one manageable disease: just don’t get bit by a zombie and you’re good.

Better yet, you get to do something about all the trouble.  You can shoot as many zombies as you want without guilt and without fear of incarceration.  Life becomes an exciting, first-person shooter game.

Rafferty of the NYT is right about the zombie craze being a reflection of our fears, but he’s missing that point that he and his fellow media pundits are responsible for that fear with their endlessly pessimistic predictions of the future.

Since the end of the world is coming anyway, people want to read about what happens after the presses of the NYT stop running.  It’s actually a very interesting world.

And you get to shoot zombies.

Zombies are from Mars, Vampires are from Venus

It was standing room only, the audience excited and eager to to ask questions.  I actually just described two events at the Polaris convention.

The first was the Charlaine Harris lecture.  She’s done fantastically well with her vampire novels, which were adapted into a series called True Blood.  The second was the panel I moderated: The Nature of the Modern Zombie.

But here’s the big difference: Charlaine’s vampire-oriented panel had far more women in the audience than men.  Our zombie panel crowd was more men than women, and some of them were very young men.  In fact, I’d say the median age of the attendees was probably close to twenty-years old if you cut out about three or four convention veterans from the data set.

This reflects a fundamental trend in the two genres.  Since Dracula, there’s been a lot of romance in vampire novels, and Meyer’s Twilight put the pedal to the metal on the vampire-human romance.  There are a lot of knock-offs that went with this theme.  It’s about undying (literally) love.

But zombies are about war.  Whether it’s a first person shooter game, or the Walking Dead, zombies are getting mowed down with machine guns, beaten with clubs and shot with arrows.  There is absolutely nothing romantic about the fight.

The good zombie movies and shows do spend a lot of time studying human social interaction under extreme pressure, but their subjects are making battlefield decisions.  Should they kill the loved one who got bit?  Should they make a run down that street or through that warehouse?  Who should they select as the alpha male to lead them to safety?

The message I take here is that Vampire Road is really more for the zombie crowd than the vampire crowd.  While there are romances between humans, there are no vampire-human romances.  Vampire Road is a novel of war, of humans under extreme pressure.  It is the story of a desperate fight to save family and home, to somehow survive an overwhelming siege.

So Vampire Road won’t be for the Twilight crowd or even the Amanda Hocking crowd.  I’d love to write for them because they’re a lucrative market, but it just isn’t me, and I suspect that those avid readers would sense my insincerity and the novel would sell poorly.

I’d rather write something I truly enjoy reading myself and sell to a smaller, enthusiastic audience.

The Verdict on Amazon Gift Cards

Promoting a novel through give-aways is a great idea, but I learned a lesson recently.  I was heading to the Bloody Words Mystery Convention in Victoria, mostly to hang out with a bunch of fun-loving authors.  But I knew there would be lots of mystery readers there too, so I decided to give away some e-copies of my anthology, Summer of Bridges, because it has an award-winning mystery short story, Railroaded, among the other Sioux Rock Falls stories.

So I went to Amazon and ordered fifty gift cards and took them with me along with a fistful of postcards featuring the anthology’s cover.  I’m not pushy, so I only handed out the gift cards to people who said that they were very interested.  I also made sure that they either owned a Kindle or were comfortable with downloading the Kindle app for their computers.

Then the real mystery began.  The week after Bloody Words my novel, Vampire Road, began selling copies but Summer of Bridges showed no spike at all.  What the heck?  What were those mystery lovers doing buying a vampire novel with their gift cards?

Then a few of my short stories started selling, and I thought the mystery was solved.  Perhaps they were using the gift cards to buy the short stories.  All of those stories are contained in the antho plus three new stories, so I was surprised they were blowing the gift cards on one story when they could have had them all with one free download.

Today I checked the status of the gift cards with Amazon and discovered that not one single, solitary, gift card from Bloody Words has been redeemed.  The sales for Vampire Road, White Metal, Railroaded and the others all came from book-lovers surfing Amazon.  None of those sales came from my gift card promotion.

I still think that gift cards can be useful, but next time I’ll say, “Show me your Kindle and I’ll give you an e-book.”  I’ve done that twice since Bloody Words with better results.  Both fans had Kindles and both used their gift cards.

So the verdict: the Amazon gift cards are a great way to introduce people to a novel.  Just don’t give them to people who may not be comfortable downloading the Kindle app or buying a Kindle.

 

Why I’m Moderating a Zombie Panel

I like being on panels, so when I got an e-mail from the SF convention Polaris looking for volunteer panelists, I took a look through the line up to see if anything fit my areas of expertise.  Unfortunately my obvious choice, the vampire panel, was full.  With New York Times bestselling author Charlene Harris on the panel, I’ll certainly be happy to attend as a member of the audience.

Then I noticed a fascinating panel, the Nature of the Modern Zombie, and put my name up for it.  I liked Night of the Living Dead, and I was a big fan of Resident Evil Apocalypse, partly because they shot it in my home town and they blew up city hall–well, CGI blew it up anyway.

But I’m also interested to hear what some of the other panelists have to say about how our world has changed since Ramero’s classic debuted back in 68.  Back then the army and toxic chemicals were the underlying villains.  Certainly the mad cap 1984 sequel, Return of the Living Dead, pinned the blame squarely on the army.

But now the preferred underlying cause of zombification seems to be disease, just like the rippers in Vampire Road.  This infectious source of evil has become so prevalent in fiction that I have to wonder just how deeply AIDS, SARS, Bird Flu and other fears of global pandemic have seeped into all aspects of our society.

Perhaps its because people can brush aside the predictions of asteroids, the end of the Mayan calendar and other apocalyptic forecasts as just too unreal to worry about, but disease is truly real, close and plausible.  We know we can sick.  We know we can die of cancer.  We see it happening to people all around us.

Maybe that’s why zombies and vampires have made a big comeback, mostly as depictions of our neighbors run amok with a debilitating disease.  See Zombieland for the mad cow, bad meat version.

I also wonder if all the prognostications of doom that come from pastors, scientists, politicians and activists might have people feeling like just getting on with the apocalypse so that we can all stop worrying.

Of course in all these zombie/vampire/massive population die-off stories, we’re the survivors.  At least, that’s my preference.

The Accidental Google Ad Campaign

Blame it on sleep deprivation, new technology or simply a bad click, but it seems I launched a Google ad campaign for Vampire Road last week. Good thing I set a ten dollar per-day maximum or I might have needed to run to the bank for a loan.

The funny thing is that I should have known something was up because my novel started selling one or two copies a day.  I know this shouldn’t sound so amazing, but I hadn’t done any serious marketing, not even to my friends and family. This is a great vampire novel, but I only want sell it to people who will like it.  If your preferred summer reading is Margaret Atwood, this isn’t a novel you’d want.  Although who knows, maybe you’ll enjoy it when no one’s looking.  😉

The upshot is that I haven’t begged my mother or older brother or even my sister-in-law to buy this novel, so the sales weren’t coming from that end of my life.

The other big clue I should have observed was the Amazon suggestions.  You know: People who bought this novel also bought…just about anything with a vampire or a zombie.  Where did these readers come from?  How did they stumble across my novel?  Now I have the answer.  They Googled Vampire Novels or one of the other keywords I’ve got running and my ad popped up.

Are the ads worth it?  If I was looking to make money from Vampire Road then absolutely not, but what I’m trying to do is build a fan base that will buy the next two novels in the series.  So far the ad words campaign has been pretty inexpensive, but it won’t be my only marketing avenue, and I will shut it down after a few weeks.

I’ve just begun marketing–well, it turns out I began last week. I just didn’t know it.