Posted in Books, Publishing, Reading, Writing

Pitching my tent at Muse Camp

I was interviewed for Muse Camp recently and allowed to natter on and on about my journey from “trad” publishing to “indie.” For those of you who are interested, you can listen to the interview for free through November 22nd: http://musecamp.com/spe_dianefarr/

Muse Camp is a great site, with inspiring stories, tips, interviews, and support for writers of every stripe. Anyone who has been to summer camp will understand the concept! There’s something about getting away with a group and focusing intently on something for a few days that refreshes the spirit.

Enjoy!

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Posted in Other Stuff

Happy New Year!

It’s still January, right? I’m not too late? :whew: Squeaked that one under the wire.

I love this time of year. The daffodils are ready to pop, the sun is lighting up all the fresh-rinsed green of winter, and even the trees are stretching, yawning, and getting to work on flower buds and leaves. It’s a good time to be mapping out a book. Like the world outside my sun room, I’m bursting with secrets about to unfurl. Even I don’t know what they are yet. I just know they’re gathering, swelling, and jostling for position … the same process I imagine happening in the plum tree in my front yard.

Meanwhile, I received a package of books to judge for the RITA contest. So while my next book is pushing itself to the surface of my brain, I get to nibble the fruit of other author brains.

Which is a lot less icky than I just made it sound.

Posted in Books, Other Stuff, Reading

Kindle Heaven

Santa brought me a Kindle Fire for Christmas. He got one for my husband, too, so I don’t even have to share it. Amazon automatically christened it for me: “Diane’s 3rd Kindle.” Which is a little embarrassing. I mean, really, how many Kindles does one pair of eyes need?

What’s even more embarrassing is, I am lusting after yet another Kindle — one I don’t have. The Kindle Touch.

Oooh. Aaah. I got one for my sister-in-law so I can live vicariously.

I have SUCH a crush on Amazon.

The Kindle Fire, if you happen to be wondering, is a different animal from your garden-variety Kindle. It’s Kindle-like, but it’s also iPad-like, and sort of phone-like as well. There’s a bit of a learning curve while you figure out how to navigate to where you want to go and how hard to touch the screen. Too vigorous, and your book jackets go flying by in a blur. Too dainty, and your commands are ignored. You feel like Goldilocks at first, struggling to find the place that’s juuuuust right. But, oh my, the things it can do!

I sat up in bed beside my sleeping husband with headphones on and watched three hours of Downton Abbey — the most exciting bout of insomnia I’ve ever suffered. I subscribed to Newsweek and the New York Times, which are now downloaded to the palm of my hand, essentially, in full-color glory. I updated my Facebook status while waiting for a plane at the Los Angeles airport. I played Angry Birds while in line at the cafeteria at work. There is, basically, no earthly reason why I should ever be bored again.

Aren’t you glad you lived long enough to experience 2012? I am.

Posted in Publishing

The Adventure Continues

This whole self-pubbing adventure is pretty amazing. I think I may have mentioned that my expectations were low at the start, but since my expectations were honestly low — as opposed to, you know, trying to fake myself out when actually my hopes were high — I have been honestly, and pleasantly, surprised.

For those of you keeping score at home, I have given up fretting about Amazon reviews. For one thing, Wicked Cool has now garnered so many five-star reviews that I can afford to breathe easily. For another, it is ridiculous to stew over things one can’t control.

This is an excellent adage, by the way, and I wish I applied it universally. I don’t, however. I still compulsively check my sales numbers, and mentally set “goals” that must rank among the stupidest goals ever set by any human being, anywhere. Because there is nothing, NOTHING, nothing whatsoever, that I can do to move those sales numbers! So why am I muttering to myself, “If I can just sell X before midnight …” As if I were a sales clerk working on commission. The sales clerk, one assumes, is surrounded by customers with whom s/he can actually interact, and might, therefore, be able to influence whether something is purchased or not. An author, sitting alone in her pajamas, staring at a computer screen? Not so much. You’re fairly helpless in that situation. No, get real, you’re completely helpless. And yet you keep thinking, “*&$!@, only X in the past hour! I’ll never make it!” and mentally reviewing what time it is in New York or Denver or Honolulu, trying to decide whether it’s reasonable to expect anybody to buy teen paranormal fiction at 2:16 a.m.

Somebody please tell me this is normal.

Posted in Publishing, Writing

The Truth About Amazon Reviews

It has come to my attention that savvy consumers view 5-star reviews on Amazon with suspicion. Not reviews of vacuum cleaners or cameras, mind you. But book reviews? Nowadays, a 5-star review of a book you’ve never heard of is (I am told) assumed to be a plant.

In a world where anyone can publish and anyone can review, it’s expected that authors are, naturally, bludgeoning their friends and relations into posting rave reviews on Amazon. And they do! The abuse of Amazon’s customer review system by hyperactive, anxious authors, desperate to compete in an ocean of content where most books sink without a ripple, is so well-known that the trick is no longer effective. (Is it fair to call it a “trick”-? Aw, heck. For purposes of this blog post, let’s call it a trick.)

The problem is, sometimes a 5-star review of a book you have otherwise never heard of is genuine. The reader not only read the book, but loved it. How is a would-be book buyer to discern the difference between puffery and honest enthusiasm?

Do you, Gentle Reader, have a system of weighing customer reviews that winnows the wheat from the chaff? If you do, please share it with us.

In the interest of full disclosure, I will tell you that WICKED COOL received a 1-star review last week. This is always painful to an author — but it doesn’t, you know, ruin your life or anything. Your voice is not going to connect with everyone. Some people can’t stand Shakespeare. That doesn’t mean Shakespeare sucks. I don’t care who you are, or how well you write, some readers are not going to “get” you. That’s just the way it is in this business. I am grateful that my 5-star reviews outnumber my 1-star reviews, but this was certainly not the first 1-star review I have received. Just the first for this book.

What gave me pause this time around was that a Facebook friend clued me in to The Awful Truth: ALL my other reviews were 5-star reviews. So when the 1-star review popped up, in a lot of people’s minds it instantly negated all seven of the other reviews. (And, apparently, the professionals quoted under “Editorial Reviews.”) The experienced Amazon consumer would, based on the picture currently presented, assume that all seven of the 5-star reviews were posted by my mother. And the 1-star review was the only “honest” review.

Wow. What a catastrophe.

I am hereby going on the record and coming clean about those eight WICKED COOL reviews. I am personally acquainted with one, but only one, of the people who posted a 5-star review. Three more, however, are very kind and interested internet friends. So four of the really good reviews you can, perhaps, dismiss. (If you must.) The other three? I have no idea who those people are.

I also have no idea who the 1-star reviewer is, unfortunately.

I’ll tell you why I care: 9 times out of 10, I choose the books I buy based on customer reviews. So the idea that people are going to dismiss ALL the good reviews of  WICKED COOL and only believe the bad is turning me pale.

Posted in book promotion, Books, Publishing, Writing

What to Expect when you E-Pub

I have never understood how books find readers.

If you are a reader, you probably pictured it the other way round: readers finding books. But as an author, I’m here to tell you, books find readers. They reach out to you with their attention-grabbing cover art, their carefully-chosen titles, even (eventually) the author’s name — once the author has sold enough books. In the world of print publishing, sometimes the author’s name is, itself, chosen to attract you. Julia Quinn, for example, invented her pen name to place her books on the shelf next to Amanda Quick, an already-established author writing in her sub-genre. It worked so well that newer authors now vie for the honor of being shelved next to Julia Quinn. And so on.

It helped, of course, that Julia Quinn’s books were terrific. But I digress.

More thought, preparation and money goes into crafting the look and feel of a book than readers can possibly imagine. Cover artists are routinely paid more than authors. Marketing people argue and brainstorm for hours, I am told, figuring out how to ensure that this particular book reaches its audience — the people who, all unwittingly, are destined to enjoy it most. However true the adage may be that you can’t judge a book by its cover, you do. We all do. And it is an important part of a publisher’s job to design and market each book in such a way that it efficiently telegraphs its essence at a glance. How do they do this?

I don’t know.

Publishers do not hawk books the same way other businesses hawk toothpaste, beer, or automobiles. Because you, Gentle Reader, would not buy a book based on an advertisement you saw on TV or in a magazine. You buy the books your friends urge you to read, or — better yet — you wander the aisles of a bookstore or library until some lucky book catches your eye and your interest. You pause. Pick it up. Turn it over and read the back cover copy (over which many people have sweated, unseen and unsung). Based on what you see there, perhaps you open the book and glance at the first paragraph. And then you either return the book to the shelf or … and this is the moment for which so many, from the author to the clerk behind the counter, have labored and longed … kismet. You fall in love.

It’s a mysterious, and oddly intimate, process. We have a relationship with the books we read. Reading them requires a commitment — first of money, then of time, an even more precious commodity. Buying a book is a very big deal.

So now we come to the brave new world of e-publishing. No wonder traditional publishers are flummoxed. And authors even more so! In the old days — you know, two or three years ago — all an author had to do was write a book and hand it over, then get out of the way. Now the last thing they want you to do is get out of the way. Quite the contrary. Your publisher now wants you to help market the book. Probably because (I suspect) they no longer know how. The old tricks don’t work in e-publishing. There are no shelves of carefully-grouped, alphabetized authors labeled ROMANCE, WESTERNS, CLASSICS, GENL FICTION. There is a website.

Oh, dear. Better have the author pitch in.

Market the book! What a disaster. I am among the majority of authors, I think, who not only have no clue how to market a book, but actually shudder at the prospect. My circle of family and friends is numerically limited, after all. If each and every one of them bought a copy — or even two — I’d still have no hope of hitting the NYT list. So what’s the point of badgering them? For heaven’s sake, let me leave them alone. And if you don’t mean for me to hawk the darn thing to my friends and family, what on earth are you asking me to do? Go door to door? Rent a sound truck? Hand out flyers in airports? And if I did, why would total strangers listen or care??

No, indeed, the entire prospect is repulsive. Please do not ask me to market my books. I’d rather not sell any books at all. In fact, I’m going to hide under my desk and refuse to answer the phone. Somebody else go out and market my books, please. Not me.

But a funny thing happened while I was cowering beneath the desk. People started buying Wicked Cool.

Quick recap: Cerridwen Press released Wicked Cool in May of last year as an e-book. The rights reverted to me at the end of December, and I brought it out through CreateSpace in a nice, glossy print-on-demand version. I forget what Cerridwen Press charged, but it was more than I wished they would. And CreateSpace has rules to guarantee that they don’t lose money when they print and ship books (and pay the author a royalty). So, basically, my friends and family (and a few others, I admit) have been shelling out $8 to $12 for Wicked Cool.

Along about  March of this year, I released a Kindle version — you know, in the spirit of “why not?” It was absurdly easy. Since Amazon and CreateSpace are linked, I was able to use the cover art from the print edition. The most difficult part of the experience was deciding what to charge. A very kind friend on Facebook urged me to sell it for the lowest possible price. The lowest price Amazon would let me set was 99 cents.

I thought long and hard about that. Did I really want to sell a book — a work that took years of my life — for 99 cents?! My friend assured me that yes, that’s exactly what I wanted to do. (During this conversation, I believe the name “Amanda Hocking” was bandied about.) Apparently 99 cents is what people nowadays expect to pay for things. And (my friend explained) it is such a low price that readers who have never heard of you will roll the dice and buy your book. Because, after all, it’s only 99 cents. That’s throwaway money.

My objections to this ridiculously-low price were twofold. One was the obvious — it hurt my pride to sell one of my darlings for throwaway money. The other was, all the people I really cared about on Planet Earth who were going to buy my book had already bought it, and they had paid a heckuva lot more than 99 cents. So I cringed at the thought of insulting them by suddenly offering Wicked Cool to the masses for so much less than they had paid.

My compromise? I decided to wait until the anniversary of the book’s initial release. Once the book has been out for a year (I reasoned), it wouldn’t be so bad to drop the price. Since I’m working on a sequel, I thought it might even be good marketing strategy. Not that I actually have a marketing strategy, or know beans about marketing, but hey, any strategy is better than none. Maybe.

So there the book sat: Available, but unheralded. It was March. I let it lie there, quietly, in the corner of Amazon’s Kindle store, thinking it could gather dust while I waited for May. Not that I had a plan for May, really, apart from finally confessing to my near and dear that I had done this. Maybe adding it to my email signature. Announcing it to a few folks on Facebook. That’s about the extent of my marketing muscle.

The first week it was available, six people bought it. I figured the few people I had mentioned it to had sought it out. Although six seemed a little high.

The next week, three more copies were sold. Then four, then three again, then six. By this time, I felt puzzled. Gratified, you know, but puzzled. How on earth were these people finding it?? I supposed there must be a coterie of people who noodle around Amazon the way people used to noodle around bookstores. I found this amusing, but heartening. Sure, this particular bookstore had over ten million books on the shelves, but with so many customers, apparently even my humble offering was sparking a certain amount of interest. I pictured my sales like background radiation on a Geiger counter: sput. Sput-sput. Sput.

When six people bought it the next week, it still seemed random to me — it didn’t occur to me that my numbers had, you know, suddenly doubled. But the next week, fifteen copies sold. And that caught my attention. Fifteen?! I was flabbergasted. This must be how Amanda Hocking felt, I realized, dazed. There was no earthly reason why fifteen people should have suddenly purchased my book.

Oh, wait a minute. Now it was May, the anniversary month I’d been waiting for. Time to “launch.” (Insert hollow laughter.) So I mentioned it on Facebook. That’s all I’ve done so far; no Twitter campaign, no blogathon (whatever that is), no change to my email signature yet — just a single Facebook mention. And I think — though I can’t be sure — that two people from Facebook bought it. Just two.

Then I checked my sales figures for this week. They have quadrupled. Oh, wait — I just checked them again. More than quadrupled. People are buying Wicked Cool at an unsustainable rate, surely, but good heavens — I am going to receive actual royalties from this thing.

Is it a fluke? Or worse, a joke? Has Amazon made an accounting error? What on earth is going on?? I rushed to Google, as I always do when I need answers. Nope, no new reviews. No discernible buzz. No overnight outpouring on any Googleable message boards.

So what should you expect when you e-pub? I thought I knew the answer to that one: Nothing. I still think it’s best to expect nothing. Anything you get is gravy — that’s Rule No. 1 when writing a book, and always has been. They used to tell you to write for the love of it, expecting nothing, because there was no guarantee that it would get published. Now you have the power to guarantee that much all by yourself. It’s the sales you can’t control.

How do books find readers? How do readers find books? I still don’t know. I may never know. It remains as mysterious, and as fascinating, as True Love. People manage to find books the way they manage to find marriage partners. We stumble through life toward Destiny, until Destiny overtakes us. We wander through the bookstore, or click idly through Amazon, or whatever the heck we do, and then … suddenly … ahh. There it is. Our next read.

It’s just weird.

Note: Wicked Cool sold thousands of copies that summer and made me a believer. I apologize to anyone I called an “amateur” in The Truth About E-books.

Posted in Reading, Writing

New Year’s Resolutions for Procrastinators

Yes, it is January 3rd and I’m writing a New Year’s post. Such is the life of a procrastinator.

Today is the last day of my 5-day vacation. My kitchen is still full of the clutter I intended to clear two days ago, the writing that I did over the past few days improved a book I’m pretty sure I’m going to ditch (instead of the book I should actually be working on), and I’m sitting here in my jammies at 11:00 a.m. I think I am uniquely qualified to write this particular blog post.

In my defense — and notwithstanding the fact that I missed the New Year by a couple of days on this one — I will say that I rarely miss deadlines. I do, however, spend a portion of every day stressing over the fact that I am not writing. I could easily alleviate my suffering by, um, writing. And yet I dread the task so much that I would rather feel guilty and depressed than write. Writers call this lamentable state of affairs “block.” (Non-writers, I am told, call it “nuts.”)

I received a book for Christmas that made me feel ever so much better: THE WAR OF ART by Steven Pressfield. Evidently the sinking sensation I experience whenever I contemplate sitting down at my keyboard to write is not only common, it’s well-nigh universal. He says anyone who ever bought a treadmill and let it gather dust in the attic is up against the same thing: resistance. Resistance rises up to thwart us whenever we attempt to do something really worthwhile. Alcoholics fall off the wagon, dieters gain the weight back, and writers stop writing — all encountering much the same thing: a mysterious force of negative energy that fills our souls with reluctance and our brains with excuses.

So is writers’ block (and all the rest of it) really a matter of insufficient willpower? Is it sloth, one of the Seven Deadly Sins? Are we under attack by evil spirits? Or what? Why can’t people DO the things they want so badly to do? Why will most of those New Year’s Resolutions people made a couple of days ago be just a bad joke in another few weeks, if they aren’t already?

It’s uncanny.

While you are contemplating all the excellent things you planned to do and somehow never did, here’s a tip from my playbook: Procrastinate. Put off your New Year’s Resolution(s) until everybody else has already made theirs. By the time you take your personal bull by the horns, everyone else will have left the field. You can resolve in private and fail in private, skipping the humiliation. Because nobody is going to ask you: “Hey, what’s your Lincoln’s Birthday resolution?” And, later: “So, did you KEEP your Lincoln’s Birthday resolution?”

Posted in Reading

Baby’s First Tolstoy

I am reading (and reading and reading) Anna Karenina. I downloaded it to my Kindle. There are advantages and disadvantages to reading it on a Kindle: it certainly weighs less than the book would, and is much easier to handle. But I can’t actually see where the heck I am in the book. I can’t mutter, “Holy cow, I’m only a third of the way through it!” as I’m reading. There are no markers.

I keep trying to figure out where I am in the narrative based on plot pacing, and I can’t. The book is following no pattern that I can perceive. It just goes on and on and on. People do this, people do that. They go here, they go there. We spend a while in one character’s POV, then switch to another, then another, and then another. Tragedies occur and are recovered from, first by this character, then that one. I’m utterly mystified as to why the book is titled Anna Karenina and where it is going. Perhaps at the end, Anna Karenina — one of a whole boatload of equally-important characters, as far as I can tell — will blow up Moscow or something. Then I’ll say, “Aha, THAT’s why he named the book after her.”

Or perhaps he named it Anna Karenina because, of all the characters, hers was the only name that would fit on the spine. Ekaterina Alexandrovna Shcherbatskaya just wouldn’t have the same ring.

If you know, don’t tell me.

The Kindle has a little fill bar at the bottom of the screen that informs you, sort of, how much of the book you have read. According to the little fill bar, I’m only about halfway through the thing. I can’t tell you how tempted I am to stop. We are at the scene of a singularly beautiful wedding, and I’m so happy to see poor old Konstantin Dmitrievitch finally marrying the girl he has loved for years and never thought he’d win — the romance novelist in me is screaming, “Stop! Stop right here! This is the happy ending!” But no, according to the little fill bar, Tolstoy plans to go on. And on and on.

People who sneer at romances often claim our books are unrealistic, but that’s not true. Our books are just as realistic, or unrealistic, as everyone else’s. We just wrap everything up at the happiest point. In what is loosely referred to as “real life,” every love story is a tragedy because they all, without exception, end in separation or death. In life, you have no choice. In fiction, you do. So don’t go there. Awful things will happen to your beloved characters eventually, so stop at the proposal, or the wedding, or the birth of a longed-for child, or whatever. If you’re writing a mystery, solve the crime and wrap that sucker up. If you’re writing a Western, run the bad guys out of town and ride off into the sunset. If you’re writing horror, kill the monster and let the sun rise. If the monster comes back, let him do it in the sequel. Those are the rules, O spinner of tales. Break them at your peril.

Tolstoy had the advantage of writing before the rules were carved in stone, so I have no earthly idea where he is taking this thing. He’s got so many plot-balls in the air, all being carried by characters with unpronounceable polysyllabic names, that I marvel at his ability to keep it all so clear. Apart from the political conversations and Russian farming theories, that is, which I am skimming — I hardly ever skim anything, but I guess everyone has limits.

I do wonder what it’s like to read it in the original Russian. If this were my first experience with Russian literature, I’d think this was a lousy translation, but actually it’s very like the Chekhov plays I encountered in college. People seem to have different names depending on who is in the room, and they burst out with odd exclamations that ring completely false to an American ear. “Ah, my dear Darya Alexandrovna! I understand you perfectly. No, no, we mustn’t speak of it.” (OK, I’m paraphrasing, but you get the idea. We’re left muttering, “What? What do you understand, and why can’t you speak of it?”) People burst into tears or laughter for no discernible reason. You know, the usual. The usual Russian stuff.

And my goodness, there’s a lot of snow.