Giving It Away for Free

Why buy the cow if you can get the milk for free? This rather antique view was held by my grandparents’ generation, which apparently equated milk with sex and women with cows. You can see what I mean by antique. This warning for young women implied that all men wanted from marriage was sex, and this was a commodity that must be withheld until he was trapped with a marriage certificate. But people have been more free with love since the sixties, and they still get married and have children. Apparently there are more reasons to get married than just sex. Dare I say love?

Some authors have this milk-cow attitude to their novels. They warn that if you give them away, you’ll lose sales because no one will buy them if they can get them for free. I’ve heard at least one established and successful author state that you should never give your work away. Yet, that same author did just that with his first novel when he was starting out.

When you’re a newbie author you’ve got to build a following, and for that you need fans. They don’t appear magically out of the woodwork, they have to discover you. So I’m going to give it away for free today.

Summer of Bridges is a collection of award-winning short stories that were first published in Storyteller Magazine (alas, now defunct) between 2002 and 2008. They’re a comedic romp through one coming-of-age summer for Kenny, a seventeen year old who is nothing but trouble for his widowed mother. To save him from pot-smoking friends, she sends him to work with his uncle’s bridge painting crew, five hundred miles from home and so far north that there are no roads that don’t head due south. Kenny has to learn to fit in with a construction crew of ex-cons, become comfortable working at high heights, survive forest fires and even gets involved with a murderer.

I’ll be curious to see how this experiment in free works out. What I want more than anything as an author is for people to read my work and enjoy my stories as much as I do. I developed some faithful fans when the stories first came out, and I hope to add more with this promotion.

UPDATE: I wrote this blog last night before the promotion went live. I just checked my sales and BAMM! Holy Downloads, Batman! By 9:00 this morning nearly fifty have flown out the door, including a bunch in the UK and even one in Germany. We’re looking into how people are finding out about this freebie because I’m flabbergasted.

Is Self ePublishing in a Bubble?

Since the mortgage crisis of 2008, all the pundits are looking for the next bubble, probably because most of them are embarrassed that they failed to predict either the dotcom bubble or the housing crash. That’s why I’m wary of doom forecasters, because the disaster that’s on the way is rarely the one they’re predicting.

So I admit I was skeptical of a bubble-forecasting Guardian article brought to my attention by my friend and fellow writer, Stephen Kotowych. I gave it a read though because he and I spent a couple of years critiquing each others short stories in our writers group, the Fledglings, established by author Robert J. Sawyer. You get to know someone after reading a dozen of their stories and, even more telling, hearing their critiques of your own. I trust Stephen’s judgment.

In a nut shell the Guardian article tries to compare the ePublishing craze to a financial industry bubble, but the author, Ewan Morrison, has to jump through some pretty tenuous hoops to explain why prices aren’t increasing, which is standard for a bubble–think house prices or dotcom stock prices. He states the the actual devices–eReaders, iPads, are the price increase in this analogy, although all of these have been dropping in price. I assume he means the upfront cost to the consumer who could buy books without an eReader before, but then the article is supposed to be about self-publishers.

Yet, there is some validity to his contention that we are in a self-publishing bubble, one where people who are not authors believe they can make a million bucks on Amazon. I know of one example: a man who’d never even tried to write a book before in his life, but suddenly self-published a short non-fiction self-help book. I think he truly wants to help people, but I also believe that he expected to rake in lots of cash doing it. His book sales are non-existent if Amazon’s bestseller ranking can be believed, and I predict he will never write another eBook. But I’m willing to bet that he bought an eBook, probably with a title like How You Can Make Trillions and Trillions of Dollars and End World Hunger by Self-Publishing an eBook. Hey, maybe I should write and publish that!

Sadly, I saw this gold rush coming but I was too late. I first considered self-publishing in September of 2009, and I would have beaten the tsunami of crap, but I waited until the spring of 2010, and by that time Amanda Hocking had taken off. When I read articles about her millions of sales, I knew that every dusty manuscript in a desk drawer would be out there with a quick cover and no editing. What I didn’t predict (and should have) was that every self-styled guru would be out their selling books on how to get rich ePublishing.  These are like the guys selling bent shovels and treasure maps to prospectors in the Klondike.

Any writer (or publisher) could have predicted this bubble, because it’s actually been around for a long time. The general public just didn’t know about it. For the last ten years I’ve heard one editor after another, one agent after another, groan and complain about the massive depth of the slush pile. For years people have been sending in manuscripts, certain that they’re the next J.K. Rowlings or John Grisham, hoping to make millions. Publishers should be delighted with ePublishing because the slush pile can now be sorted by readers at 99 cents a pop, sometimes even for free. And ruthlessly sort they do–just check out the one star ratings that some books earn on Amazon.

As for the scammers, they’ll peak this year and fade into the background. Like spam, they’ll always be with us, but people will get very good at recognizing them.

Yes, a lot of people have jumped into self-publishing because they think it’s easy. When they don’t sell and realize that it’s hard work to learn how to write, to promote and to write more, they’ll walk away because these are also the type of people who give up quickly. Wait for the howls of outrage next year when Amazon announces that they’re dumping every self-pubbed title that hasn’t sold in two years. Contrary to popular opinion, server space is not free. Authors like me will still be there because we’re writers and that’s what we do, even if we don’t sell millions.

But where I strongly disagree with the Guardian article is the suggestion that the government should bail out publishers. They deserve a hand out from the tax payer even less than the big banks, and they’ve adapted to new technology about as well as the record companies. In other words, kicking and screaming their way into the 21st century. But unlike the big banks, publishers can easily be replaced by smaller, better publishers without much pain for the average person.

The next few years will see publishers reluctantly adapt, and the self-publishing bubble will burst, but don’t expect the industry to return to pre-eBook days. True self-publishers, like Joe Konrath and Barry Eisler, will still be out there along with many other successful self-publishing authors. They may not be making millions, but they’ll make thousands. In fact, I’m looking forward to the end of the bubble. It’ll be cleansing.

I am a Hardcore Zombie Apocalypse Survivor

I win! I survived! I get to be the one who carries a shotgun and slays zombies, preferably using a Winchester 1200 Defender with the barrel sawed short for close quarter action.

How do I know? I took a test.

Google would you survive a zombie apocalypse, and you’ll find dozen of quizzes, most them simply aimed at getting you to a website so that you might see other advertising.

This quiz wasn’t on the first page of the search results, but it caught my attention because of the video with it. I assume that author, Max Brooks, of World War Z fame, had something to do with this, but the only evidence I have is that it mentions his book, The Zombie Survival Guide, in the last question, and Brooks’ name is the answer. If he wasn’t involved in putting together the quiz, he’s the luckiest author of this year because it’s a great promotional tool.

Any author who wants to succeed already knows that the web is more than just words: it’s video, audio and audience participation–interactive was the buzz word back in the 90s that had everyone breathless. Even TV execs desperately tried to find a way to make news shows interactive, usually by having a provocative question that viewers could vote on by phone–not exactly the internet.

Most authors know they need creative ways to connect to their audiences, so they’re active on twitter and facebook, and they write blogs like this one.  But I think the blow out successful authors will find unique ways to connect, like this quiz.

Better yet, I bet that it’s not too hard to score survivor, which is what we all want–to survive the apocalypse, whatever form it takes.  On another quiz I even scored as a savior, a rather weighty title that commends me for choosing to bring the grandfolks along when we fled the city.

Suddenly I want to buy the book, because it’s about survivors and I’m a survivor.  I know because I took the test.

Rango – The Post-Apocalyptic Western

Johnny Depp has a knack for picking unusual and interesting films that don’t fit with the Pirates of the Caribbean box office smash, so when my kids wanted to watch Rango, I sat down with them, surprised that an animated Western even existed.

The Western, both as a film and novel genre, fell on hard times during the 1970s and 80s.  The movie-going and reading public had begun to realize the Indians weren’t nameless and faceless “savages,” but rather that they were actually human beings who had, and still have, a legitimate grievance.  The public lost interest in seeing John Wayne indiscriminately kill people who dared to oppose the US Cavalry or tried to stop the flood of settlers into the west.  The audience began to feel guilty.

Westerns didn’t die, of course, but they centered more on outlaws, sort of the Mad Max movies set in the 1860s.  Rango is definitely in the latter category.  Thugs dominate a town while controlling its most limited resource–water.  People are leaving, and everyone who stays behind owns a gun and knows how to use it.  During a gun battle, creatures on both sides kill indiscriminately–yup, just like John Wayne in a 1940s Western.

That’s when it hit me.  We’ve come full circle back to the Western.  Now the stick-figure enemies are zombies/vampires, but this time our heroes can kill without remorse.  The zombies are already dead and there are no land claims.  The humans who need killing are vicious Mad Max-type bikers with no morals. They would be locked up if only there were any jails.

But it goes beyond just guiltless killing.  It’s also the freedom that comes with being in a post-apocalyptic world, one where your credit card and mortgage are unimportant, but your next meal is always on your mind.  I read a great blog by author Steven Montano on the appeal of the post-apocalyptic world.  People actually enjoy the fantasy of waking up one morning to find out that they don’t have to go into work, that the boss is a zombie and their car payments can be skipped.  Indeed, if you can drive, you can grab any car you want, preferably a big SUV.  You don’t even have to worry about sustainable development anymore.  Better yet, in every post-apocalyptic scenario, you are the one who survives and gets to wield the shotgun.

There was a time when I wondered if this genre would peak at the end of 2012 and dip after the Mayan Calendar reset and the world didn’t end.  But now I believe that as long as the population density in major cities is on the rise, as long as consumer debt is high, as long as unemployment rates force people to stay in low-paying dead end jobs, there will be demand for post-apocalyptic fiction.  That’s what Rango is: post-apocalyptic fiction set in the lawless West.

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?

I Just Found My 1999 Website

It even has a pre-YouTube book trailer starring a friend who thought the idea was fun.  Here it is in all it’s 1999 glory: The Book of Bertrand

It’s so antique it’s quaint.  I built the site as a marketing tool aimed at publishers and agents, thinking they’d like a quick and easy way of finding out more about my novel.  I didn’t know back then that the publishing industry is extremely conservative, and I’m referring here to the Webster’s definition of conservative: “tending to oppose change.”

I kept track of the page views of the site, expecting that some agents or publishers might visit it a few times, perhaps impressed that I was ready with such a great marketing tool.  Guess how many even looked at the page?  You guessed it.  A big fat zero.  In hindsight this should have allowed me to predict how the publishing industry would react to eBooks.  The internet is something that even back in 1999 a lot of people wished would just go away.

I even wonder now if having a website hurt my chances of publication.  The internet is a big and scary place if you’re resistant to change.  I love the internet because it’s changing all the time.  Imagine if I’d had Youtube back in 1999.  I wouldn’t have had to put up a tiny low res video trailer under the assumption that some people might still be on dial-up with a 56k modem.  Yeah, remember that?

I’ll work on a new book trailer with apologies to my friends Mark (who helped shoot it) and Gord (the star).  But the times, they are a changing, and they’re going to change again.  Who knows what the internet will bring in another decade?  My bet is that it’ll be fun and very cool.

Oh, and that very unprofessional voice over: that’s me.

When I Gave Myself Up for Dead

I was twenty-seven when I did something incredibly stupid and dangerous.  I often still feel the need to apologize to my mother for putting her through prolonged worry, but I had reached maturity, finished university, gone out into the workforce and felt that somehow I had missed my destiny.  I couldn’t tell you what it was, just that my life was an empty disappointment.  My job was okay.  The people were nice and I was liked.  There were promises of advancement, and one women at the head office had made it clear that she was interested.  The whole world, my whole life was before me and I turned my back on it.

A friend asked me before I left, “but what if you get killed?”

I answered with the bravado of a young man.  “Then my tombstone says I died at twenty-seven.”  At the time I meant that in the lifespan of the solar system, let alone the universe, it was essentially the same as gasping my last breath at eighty.

But I hadn’t really learned that lesson yet.  It was later, when I truly did fear for my life, when I stood beside men who did this every day and weren’t flinching, that I took that lesson into my heart: I was going to die no matter what.  Someday, somewhere, I would have a tombstone that marked my passing from this world.  It was just a matter of time, and in the grand scheme of the universe, a minuscule amount of time.

Now a few of you will think that’s depressing, but I found it liberating.  While I sometimes forget the lesson of that time in the day-to-day rush of life, I’ve held it in my heart and it has allowed me to continue to do things that I might never have ventured had I lived as if I could coast on forever.

At a family function over the holidays, my brother talked about cancer screening, saying that if my father had gotten some at fifty he’d never have gotten the cancer that killed him at eighty-three.  Eighty-three!  If I should live so long!  I’m not against cancer screening, and I’m going for a check-up myself in a couple of weeks, but it sounded as if my brother believed that dad could have lived forever.  It sounded like he was saying that we weren’t going to die as long as we had good health care.  I know if asked he’d state that of course he knows we’re all going to die, but I don’t believe he’s taken that knowledge into his heart.

Some days I wake up and wonder why I chose to be an author, why all my career decisions have been built around getting more time to write.  On a good day I remember that I’m going to die.  On a good day I remember that I have to fight to get every bit of me down on paper so that when I go at least some of me will stay behind, if only for a little while.  I want to reach as many people as I can, to give them a moment of ease, a moment of insight and maybe even a sense of their own mortality so that they can do great things too.  I want my grandchildren (if I’m so lucky) and maybe even great-grandchildren know another side of me, to be inspired by me.

I want to be great in a quiet way.  Not a president.  Not a mover and shaker, but a persistence presence that spreads over time, even after my novels are forgotten and the electrons have spun into chaos, or the paper has returned to the earth.

But the other gift of that great insight into my mortality is a fearlessness about who I am.  I don’t care if people think I’m a literary genius or an purveyor of pulp, and this has allowed me to write books about anything, whether it be a lost soul wandering in Afghanistan, a construction worker afraid of heights or a plague of vampires in Chicago.  Yes, vampires.  It’s more the situation that interests me, how people respond to the pressure, how they struggle to survive, how my characters interact that fascinate me.

So giving myself up for dead was the best thing I ever did.  I can do anything.  I can write anything.  It’s my destiny.  To die. When that moment comes I won’t look back and say, “what if?”

So what did I do that was so dangerous?  My friends and family know.  My readers will already have guessed, and the rest of you…does it really matter?  It’s knowing you’re mortal that sets you free.

But don’t worry, I’m not reckless.  I want to see my children grow up, so when I run at night I watch out carefully for cars.  They scare me.  No need to go too soon.

And mom…sorry about that little episode.

Why I Spoke to the CFUW

There were about thirty-five women at the meeting of the Ajax-Pickering chapter of the Canadian Federation of University Women.  I was invited to speak about my life as a writer, and since I find me so interesting I had no problem showing up for the talk.

But I can’t pretend that these women are going to be interested in reading my vampire apocalypse novels.  The CFUW are a group of well-educated women, and I’d guess the median age in the room was fifty-five.  This is not the kind of crowd that wants to read about machine guns and crossbows, slashed throats and desperate battles.  They’re probably more the cosy murder mystery crowd.  In fact, it’s unlikely they’d even read my coming-of-age Canadiana short stories that were first published in Storyteller Magazine.  So why did I agree to speak despite the poor sales prospects?

Practice.  I’m actually not very comfortable at the front of a crowd, but I’ve learned that as an author I need to be there if I want to sell.  So I’ve appeared on panels at mystery and SF cons, and I accept all invitations to speak, and every time the adrenaline subsides, I review my performance with a critical eye.

Here’s what I learned last Wednesday.

First, I interrupted the moderator just as she began to introduce me, chopping her short and not giving her a chance.  Oops.  I was excited and nervous and launched right into my talk, stepping on her moment as it were.  I should have taken a deep breath and remembered that they were there to hear me and would wait for the end (or in this case even the beginning) of the introduction.

Second: take my time.  I still speak too quickly in front of a crowd.  I shouldn’t be afraid to pause, check my notes and carrying on intelligently instead of relating the first stories about Afghanistan or bridge painting that pop to mind.

Third: Have better cue cards.  There were some amusing anecdotes I had intended to share, like the time a mujahideen commander in Afghanistan told me I should shave because I didn’t look good with a beard–he was right.

But I did do one thing right that evening:  I really had fun.  Better yet, I think my audience had fun too.

Does the World Need Another Vampire Apocalypse Novel?

Vampire novels are everywhere.  You can find them in bookstores, at the library and on the electronic shelves of every eBook retailer.  They’re populated with sexy vampires, conflicted vampires and murderous (as opposed to vegetarian?) vampires.  The blood suckers can be found in space, alternate universes and historical fiction.

So why am I launching a vampire apocalypse novel now?  I first thought of  the idea of vampires having a communicable disease back in the eighties, but that theme is so ubiquitous now that it’s now far from an original concept.  My novel is a unique approach, but so are a lot of novels in the genre, those that aren’t simply quick rip offs of Twilight.  I could also point out that vampires are still hot, that the majority of the eBook reading public is under thirty years old and that there’s always room for one more vampire, but it’s not really why I wrote this novel.

It’s all about the 1000 Souls.  I came up with this concept, this new religion, when I met a Russian in Bokhara, Uzbekistan.  The man owned a small hotel.  He was smart, professional and a master at supplying  tourists with everything they could need at fair prices.  He reminded me so much of a South African caterer in Canada that I was stunned.  It was as if the two men had the same soul, even though their DNA had taken very different routes down through evolution.  These men didn’t look at all alike, but they were  the same guy in different bodies.

So as I wrote my vampire novel, the religion of Erics (yes,  plural) and the 1000 Souls was born, the concept that there are only 1000 souls spread between 7 billion humans.  Ever meet someone and swear you’ve met them before even though it’s not possible?  Well maybe you have, but you were shaking hands with a different host body for the same soul.

So each living human’s body is playing host to 1/seven millionth of a soul, meaning you could meet quite a few people with the same soul.  It also means that the souls are pretty thinly spread, which is where the vampire apocalypse comes in.  Kill off billions of people, and the remaining host bodies now contain denser souls.  This makes their human hosts more passionate and daring than our thinned-souled present day humans.

Confused?  Like any religion, the devil is in the details.  The Book of Bertrand is just the beginning, and religions evolve over time.  A quick check of the first centuries of Judaism, Christianity and Islam alone prove that the formation of a new religion is a tumultuous time.

But why vampires?  Why not a less dramatic plague like bird flu?  Because every new religion  at its beginning needs to confront pure evil.

But the biggest reason I’m adding another vampire apocalypse novel to the world, is because I enjoyed writing it.  I believe it was J.R.R. Tolkien who stated that he wrote novels that he would enjoy reading himself.  I enjoyed reading (and re-reading) the Book of Bertrand.  I really like Bertrand and his friends, and I can’t wait to write what happens in the next novel.

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.