Friday, July 20, 2012

Book Review: Evertaster

I decided to take some time away from authoring and do a little book consumption. I almost mean “consumption” literally, because the book I just finished, Evertaster by Adam Glendon Sidwell, was good enough to eat. In fact, I dare you to read it without a wealth of snacks in front of you.

The hero of the story is a scrawny little kid named Guster, whose mom is so frustrated by his picky eating habits, she drags him into the dark alleys of New Orleans just to find something that he’s willing to eat. Guster’s true problem isn’t simple pickiness. He’s actually an evertaster, someone who can taste the tiniest molecules of everything that is put into food.

"Guster could taste the dirty corn fed to the chickens Mom used in her casseroles, or the foul rain that fell on the almond trees.”

He’s reached the point of near-starvation, because eating ordinary food (especially his mother’s casseroles) is intolerable to his poor little stomach. When they get to the city, a mysterious chef tells them about The One Recipe, which is the recipe for a food that is so delicious, it will end all wars. Guster, his mom, and his three siblings set off on a global adventure to seek out The One Recipe so Guster can finally fill his empty belly.

It was such a fun story, so absolutely ingenious, I had to share. The Johnsonville family traveled all over the world, fighting gorillas and giant chickens, trekking through the deep dark jungles and frigid arctic lands and remote islands, all the while running from a deadly mafia of evertaster chefs. Sidwell’s storytelling is magical and made me want to hop a plane and head off for an adventure of my own. He created such culinary visuals, I was ready to eat raw eggs or entire tubs of butter. I don’t think I’ll ever touch a casserole.

I first discovered the book on Facebook, funnily enough, on Sidwell’s author page. I loved the cover art so much, I shared it on my own page. When the book was finally released, it made the best seller’s list on the first day, which is unheard of for a first-time author.  Also impressive was the excerpt reaction of Orson Scott Card on the back cover. I stumbled across a book review from a blogger I’m following. The review convinced me to buy a copy of Evertaster for myself. I’m glad I did. I completely lost myself in the story and was curiously hungry during the whole adventure.

I would absolutely recommend Evertaster to everyone, no matter what genre you normally read. It’s a welcome getaway for all ages, and if you are an avid foodie, all the better for you. Kudos to Adam Glendon Sidwell for an excellent literary experience. I wouldn’t be surprised if Evertaster become the next classic fairytale, a book that lands in every nursery and every school library in the world. It was just that tasty.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Are you a writer if you're just pretending?

Years ago, a client asked me to rewrite his book for him. He said that the book, which was about small business planning, was outdated and needed a good refresh. He asked me to write the same information but using slightly different wording. I guess a red flag should have gone up right then, but I was still quite trusting at the time. The client sent me all the documentation and I got to work. Not more than a couple of chapters in, something just didn't feel right. The book manuscript he gave me was terribly inconsistent in style and language and sometimes didn’t make sense at all. For example, my client was Australian, but I noticed that large chunks of text were written in U.S. English, while some parts were in British English. The tone and voice of the pages weren’t consistent either. At one point, I noticed some text that referred to U.S. government offices. That’s when I stopped. I pulled various excerpts from my client’s manuscript and ran a little Copyscape check. The results should come as no surprise. The man did not write the content at all. He stole it from three books published by the American Small Business Association and from another book that was published by an Australian business organization. What he wanted to do was to take these four popular publications, reword them, and put his name on the final product. When I called him on it, explaining that it’s considered plagiarism to copy someone else’s work, he tried to convince me that he wasn’t doing anything wrong. He said that he purchased the books and then tried to return them, but the seller would not refund his money. In his mind, that meant he owned the books and could do what he wanted with them. I lost a lot of money by walking away from that job, and I don’t regret it one bit. I know people plagiarize, but I did think that this was an extreme case.

Not so. Years later, I still come across clients (and I use the term loosely) who want someone to “edit” a book that they hadn’t even written yet. They have an idea and want to make a book out of it. But they can’t write or they’re too lazy or for whatever reason, they are incapable of being a true author. So they hire a writer to edit their non-existent book, or they come right out and ask for a ghost writer.

I do understand ghost writing to an extent. If you’re a celebrity or someone who’s been through a newsworthy trauma, it’s perfectly okay to hire a writer to write your autobiography. I mean, it’s your story. You lived it, so you own it. But in my opinion, it’s quite different to hire someone to write your fictional idea into a book and then expect to get byline rights for it. It’s misleading and not fair to the readers, who all think Mr. Byline is a great author. It’s also not fair to the writer who, in many cases, does all the research, story building, writing and formatting. As a writer, I don’t understand the logic behind taking such a job. If you can write a best seller, why not do it for yourself instead of some bonehead who’ll pay you a hundred bucks for it? Admittedly, I am often willing to write articles and not take the byline. The reason is that I’m not interested in the subject matter and don’t need or want my byline associated with it. But a book is another matter altogether. A lot of a writer’s heart goes into a book. How do you part with that?

I recently came across another freelance writing proposal that was so outrageous, I laughed for ten minutes before sharing it with all of my friends. A man posted on a freelance site that he was a member of an internet marketing forum, posing as an expert in internet marketing. He wanted to hire a writer who was a true expert in the field to write hundreds of posts to this forum, using his name, so that he’ll look like a real expert and get credit for all the posts. Oh, and get this: He’s willing to pay a whopping 35 cents per post. No doubt this man will be paid highly for these posts and will establish himself as a guru of internet marketing. The writer, who is the real expert, will get 35 cents and a severe case of writer’s cramp. If the writer is smart, he’ll bypass the lowballing client and find a way to monetize his posts directly from the website.

It’s frightening how perfectly comfortable people are pretending to be something they’re not. I think it’s admirable when someone wants to write a book, or if they want to be a professional blogger or forum poster. A noble ambition. But if you’re not already a skilled writer, then the logical first step would be to learn. Take a class, read a book, practice. If you decide one day that you want to be a writer and then hire someone else to do it for you, are you truly a writer? I suppose I could say that I want to be a programmer and then hire someone to write code for me. I could declare myself an architect, then hire someone to design my house. I could do that. Maybe I could even make lots of money like these pseudo clients on the freelance boards. But it wouldn’t feel good, and that is the very thing that makes me write. It feels good to do what I love. It feels good to earn even a few pennies a day, because the words come from me. The language, the sculpture, the art. It’s all mine. There’s something gratifying about having a true skill and making it work for you, much more than having an idea and making someone else work for you.

I guess writing means different things to different people. To some, writing is a job. To others, it’s a way of life. The pretenders probably think of writing as a resource rather than a skill. But if you don’t have the skill, can you be called a writer?

Monday, July 2, 2012

Stop and Go, Switch Direction – Writer Needs vs. Reader Needs

I hate stopping a writing flow in the middle. It happens to writers a lot. I have stacks of half-written manuscripts, articles I never finished, and ideas that never even make it to the page. This is one disadvantage of self-publishing and freelancing. In a traditional writing job, you write what your client, publisher, or company wants and are paid for that work. The work is assigned to you ahead of time, along with an agreement for pay. When you self-publish and freelance, you write what you choose to write, typically what you love to write, and then hope to sell it later. You work on your own time, so it’s risky. Today’s topic follows along the lines of my post from October 2011, “The Real World.”

I have been working hard on my next book, which is teen fiction somewhere between funny and demented. Book sales for the previous two books are slow as are freelance gigs. I have to make a living, right? And I only have this one skill, writing. So I am toying with the idea of halting my fiction book temporarily and cranking out one or two non-fiction titles. I noticed a lot of non-fiction writers who write books based on their opinions or one experience that they feel makes them an expert. I think I have more to offer than that. People want to read books by truly qualified authors. I am qualified to write books about writing, not because I write this blog but because I have an education in writing and I have many years’ experience. My experience has not only been to write for people but also to teach them and to set up writing procedures and templates. I have style guides memorized (though I admit I do overlook a few rules when writing casually).

So I know I have the expertise. I have the qualifications. I need a niche. Lots of people write about writing. Why would my book stand out above theirs? I actually know the answer to that and it has to do with the readers’ needs.

Writers often write what they like to write. They write their opinions, their feelings, their experiences. It’s easy to write when you have that passion. The problem is that they don’t always write what the reader needs. Or they write what the reader wants but cannot produce the magical results that the reader expects. You can’t make someone else a great writer. You can’t make someone else a best-selling novelist. You can teach people grammar, but that topic is a little touchy since adults are aware that grammar is something they should have learned in grade school and are hesitant to relearn.

My aim is to teach potential writers exactly what they need to get through a task. In technical writing, for example, which is my primary area of expertise, there are various forms of technical documentation. It is very common for someone to be assigned the task of writing, say,  a Request for Proposal and have no idea what one looks like. It sounds like it would be a simple letter, but in fact, RFPs are typically 30+ pages long and are very detailed. If you miss a detail, your project could be disastrous and costly. This is just one example, but this is the sort of thing people need to know, how to do a specific task and what it looks like in the end. It’s all about need. What they need, not what I need, although it does feel good when you can help people out.

I do hate switching gears, even temporarily. But it’s a consequence of an occupation where you do what you want to, until you have to do what you have to do. It'll be a short break. I promise.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The Reading Experience

I finally broke down and bought a Kindle. I have mixed feelings about e-readers. From an author’s perspective, e-readers are life savers. They provide that extra boost in book sales by catering to the busy, impatient, and conservative consumers who like to read but just can’t fit it into their lifestyles. They allow writers to write more and publish faster. We can set lower prices and reach wider audiences.

As a reader, I see some benefits as well. If I feel like reading a particular book, I can do so right now. I don’t have to gas up my car or put on socks and shoes. I don’t have to hop from store to store to find the book. I don’t have to talk to anyone. I don’t even have to stand in line or wait for shipping. Just click, and it’s mine. In my house, I have a separate room dedicated to books. It was a dining room in a former life, but now it is a library. In my library, I have hundreds of books of all sizes and all genres. I have so many books, that they no longer fit on the wall-to-wall shelves I set up. They are stacked on the floor, spilling into other rooms, and just taking over my life. I love every one of them.

Imagine if I took every one of those books and dropped them into my purse. Obviously, it’d have to be a purse the size of a U-Haul truck, but it would be cool to have them with me all the time. As it is, I already carry 135 audiobooks on my MP3 player, 135 books in the palm of my hand. I can do that with my Kindle. I can take every book in my library and carry them all around in a single electronic device. It’s like magic. How exciting for a bookaholic! Can it get any better than that?

I had my reservations about e-reading. First, I just assumed that an e-reader would display pages exactly as a computer does, in pixels and refresh rates. I already spend too much time on my computer, to the point that my eyes throb at night and I can still see blinking spots even when my lids are closed. I even readjust the resolution in my dreams so I can see them better. The Kindle surprised me, though. When I first pulled it out of the box, there was a printed message on the screen that said something like “Fully charge your Kindle before using it for the first time.” I thought that the message was a sticker and I spent hours trying to peel it off. It turns out, it was the electronic display! The Kindle displays text as if it just came off a printer. It’s the neatest thing. I can’t even describe it except to say that every digital page looks like a printed page. It does not look electronic. It doesn’t even look real. I was seriously in awe, running around showing everyone. I charged up the device and downloaded my Kindle PC library and then purchased a handful of cozy mysteries. In four days, my Kindle never left my hand. It was a very interesting way to read. I didn’t have to turn pages or hold the book open or use a bookmark. It was all very convenient. The Kindle (and probably the Nook and other readers) is well designed with the avid reader in mind.

But while the Kindle has readers in mind, it fails to appease the book lover. In that respect, there were several downfalls. The biggest for me was the absence of a cover. I know that for my own books, I submit a cover with my e-books, but I guess the big publishing companies don’t bother. Book covers are important. They make one book stand out from another and for me, they help me recognize and pick out the book I want to read. My Kindle is not in color. I chose this one on purpose because of its battery life. But even in black and white, I expect to see book covers in my library. Instead, all I see is a list of titles, sometimes not even the whole title if the title’s too long. I select a book and am taken to the title page. When I open a book, the first page I want to see is its cover, not the title page. I want the real-book experience of choosing a book by its cover. I have a very visual mind. I don’t memorize book titles, but I do remember what the books look like. With a hundred book titles in my list, how am I supposed to remember that “The Anatomy of a Chemical Component” is a fantasy novel about alchemy or that “The Mysteries of Pixels and Poison” is a true story about hackers? I need a visual reference to guide me.

Another element missing from the equation is the book summary, typically found in the back matter of a paperback or inner sleeve of a hardcover. Again, how am I supposed to keep track of all these books if I don’t remember what they are about? All those cozy mysteries that I downloaded were part of the same series. Naturally, I wanted to read them in order. But I had trouble figuring out what each book was about, let alone the order in which they were written. I had to go to Amazon (using my iPhone, not the Kindle’s lame “experimental” browser) to read each summary and jot down the order. Not very efficient and definitely not the best book lover experience.

What about having to recharge your book? Even though my Kindle advertised a two-month battery life, mine lasted a week. Imagine my horror when I was just about to read the “whodunit” and my Kindle blinks off and is replaced with a message of “Recharge your battery.” I had to wait hours for the device to recharge so I could find out who the murderer was.

It was a big eye-opener for me. I found myself pondering the potentially disastrous future of depending solely on e-readers. Yikes, can you imagine such a dystopian world?

Mrs. Future Teacher:  Where is your homework, Johnny? Did your dog eat it?
Johnny: No, of course not, Teacher. He doesn’t like plastic. If you must know, my battery died.
Mrs. Future Teacher: Gasp! Oh you poor thing. I’ll give you another week to complete it.

The idea of e-readers replacing books terrifies me, even more so because it’s a very real possibility. I don’t believe it’ll be a conscious decision of every consumer in a single day but rather a gradual transformation. We book lovers adore our books. I can sit in my library for hours just staring at my collection and maybe sifting through a book or two. I love my books. I love the cover art and the design and texture of the pages. I love the craftsmanship and even the smell of a book. But reality suggests that it is no longer practical nor logical to have a physical library like mine. An entire room that holds nothing but books? It’s crazy. Ten years ago, there was no choice. If you had a large collection, this was the way to do it. Today it is much less necessary, and as new generations are born into this increasingly digital world, physical libraries may eventually grow scarce.

To be honest, I feel like a traitor. I feel like a traitor because not only do I now read e-books but I enjoy doing so. Every time I download an e-book, a print book is left behind. Some people might say I’m helping to save trees. I’m helping to kill books is what I’m doing. I’m contributing to the death of a timeless tradition. By downloading digital versions, I am saying to the world that I can live without paperbacks. Others are doing the same. E-books are already a popular trend, but very soon trend will outweigh tradition and paperbacks will become a thing of the past. So what is to be done about it? I don’t think there’s anything that can be done. I’ll never give up my library in my lifetime and will never completely stop buying physical books. But I can’t stop evolution. I can’t stop humans from seeking easy, fast, convenient, cheap, and lazy. I do it myself. It’s only natural.

I do hope, however, that future generations never forget what it’s like to turn a page.


Thursday, June 14, 2012

Judging a Book by its Author

Over the past seven years or so, I’ve attended a number of pop-culture conventions. While most of them are comic or gaming conventions, I tend to seek out the indie author tables. My intention is to buy a book from each author in support of fellow indies (even though I’m only recently published, I’ve been an aspiring potential unpublished author since birth). At these conventions, the books normally fall within one of my preferred YA/fantasy/dragon/magic/dystopian fiction genres and I’m usually excited to get home and start reading. But I don’t always leave the convention with a book, even if there are a half dozen authors spread up and down artist’s alley.

The reason has to do with the authors. I’m not one to readily embrace any form of social interaction, but when I approach an author’s booth with a keen interest in his/her book, I do expect, at the very least, a friendly hello. Unfortunately, many authors are so used to solitude, they forget that in public they are literary icons. More importantly, they are sales people. Say hello, answer questions, hand out flyers. Do something!

Five years ago, I stumbled upon a great find. A man and a woman were standing in the middle of the aisle dressed in Celtic/fantasy attire. They were greeting everyone, handing out bookmarks and magnets and, if a lurker lurked about too long, they launched into a pitch about their book. It turns out, these people were co-authors of an independently published book series called Rowan of the Wood (Christine and Ethan Rose). They were totally into it, cosplaying the characters, inviting people to join in on the fun of their world. The book itself looked great. Nothing about it was unprofessional, unattractive, or half-assed. The cover art was beautiful, the interior book design was perfect, and the story looked great. In fact, it really was great. I bought one right away and finished it before I even got home. There were wizards and magic and baddies and a past/present theme. Christine and Ethan clearly put a lot of passion and talent into it. As I read, I thought about their enthusiasm. The whole experience impressed me. This is how you sell an indie.

Four years ago, I came across another author. While this one was very personable and approachable, he was somewhat of a nutcase. I did enjoy visiting with him. He was funny. But he also had no talent, and he knew it. In fact, his lack of talent was exactly what he was pitching. He was standing there, waving people down, telling them, “I wrote a book. It totally sucks, but buy it anyway because I need the money…”  I actually did buy his book, mostly to show support and to give him the benefit of the doubt. I thought I could overlook the fact that the book was horrible, because the author was so friendly and funny. But it was truly bad. The cover was pure black with white pencil scratchings and a few stick figures. He was courteous enough to write “Not a Writer” on the front, just in case you had any delusions that you were about to read something professionally written. Inside, there was no copyright statement, no publisher information, and not even a title page. The content of the book consisted of two parts profanity and one part humor that only the author understood. He broke all the rules of writing and probably could have won an award for the anti-manual of style. I bought two of his books, but after the first one, I was laughing so hard, I couldn’t even go near the second. I wasn’t laughing with the book. I was laughing at it. I’ve got to give the guy credit for trying. But seriously, he’s the poster child for the bad rap indies get. I am not posting his name because my intention is to make a point, not to slam another author.

That same year, at another convention, I discovered another gem. This woman (again, I won’t mention her name) had a fantasy book that was right up my alley. Dragons and magical education and faraway lands. And while the cover art was quite bland, the story sounded intriguing. But as I stepped up to the table and read the back of the book, the author sat there like a dead fish. She didn’t smile. She didn’t look at me. She didn’t offer a synopsis of her book. She just sat there and scowled. I decided to go ahead and give the book a try. Again, the benefit of the doubt. Only when I told her that I’d like to buy a copy did she even move. She got up from her metal folding chair and slugged over to me, signed the book, took the money and dropped the book in a bag. No “thank you,” no “enjoy it.” Nothing. When I got home, I tried to read this book. I wanted to like it. But as I read, I kept recalling the dead fish lady slumped in a chair. From that memory, I developed a prejudice against the book. After a few attempts to get through the first chapter, I decided to put it away and try again later. Maybe I was just tired from the convention. Three months later, I tried again, and again six months after that. I could not get through it. I’m not entirely sure whether it was just boring or if the author herself ruined it for me. I suspect the latter.

I encountered hits and misses like these over the next few years. There was a time when I passed an author’s booth twenty times, because I liked the synopsis of his book, but it was too expensive and didn’t know if I could justify the expense. The author made no attempt to connect with me, even though I circled around his booth for hours. I didn’t buy his book.

The point I am trying to get across – for both myself and my readers – is that an author’s job is not done at the publishing of the book. Someone has to walk it and feed it, and that someone is the author. I’m not exactly Miss Marketing, but I do know that I represent my own books. If I take a stack of books to a convention or a signing or a book fair, my personality should reflect enthusiasm toward my books. I have to show professionalism so that visitors know the book was written by a professional. I have to show interest to show that the book is interesting. Christine and Ethan Rose had the right idea. They didn’t just sit there like a lump. They got involved, acted the part. They grabbed people from the aisles and convinced them that they couldn’t live without Rowan of the Wood. Kudos to them for scoring points for the indies.

Next year, if I can manage to publish my next two books by then, I may set up a booth at A-Kon in Dallas. My experiences above have taught me that I cannot simply throw some books on a table and wait for sales. I have to draw in interest. I need to be cultural and persuasive and fun. As a clinical sociaphobe, I might end up curled in the fetal position afterward, rocking back and forth and muttering to myself. But I consider it a small price to pay for doing this thing that I love. Writing.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Another Rant About Bookstores

Once upon a time, long, long, ago, someone wrote something down and someone else wanted to read it. Then lots of people wrote things down and lots of people wanted to read them. As time went by, these things that were being written got longer and longer, and soon, these writings were so long, the pages had to be bound into a durable leather binding. Hence, the birth of a book. Soon afterward, more people wanted to read these books, so more people learned to read. Great, they can read. Where can they buy a book? “Over here!” called one clever little man, who saw a market for a product and sought a way to deliver. He opened up a shop and sold only books. Hence, the birth of a bookstore.

The premise of this is quite simple. There is a need for a product that the customer cannot get at home. People are willing to travel the distance to a store and pay money for that thing which they cannot get for themselves. This was not much different from someone who travels to the store for milk. If you have a milking cow or can get milk delivered to your house for free, would you still travel to the store to buy milk? If you had chickens, would you go out and buy eggs?

I love bookstores. I really do. I love to wander around a bookstore, that smell of crisp paper and ink, the coffee shop in the corner, the stacks and stacks of books with colorful covers filled with exciting tales. My love for bookstores has not changed. My needs, however, have. The world’s needs have changed. If I need to travel to a bookstore to buy a book, then I will go there and the environment pleases me. The problem is, I don’t need to go anywhere for a book. No one does. The only time you may need to go to a bookstore is if you want your book right now. Sadly, however, you might still not get it. The last half-dozen times I went into a bookstore, they did not have the books I wanted. Why? Because while once there were hundreds of books to select from within the confines of a bookstore, there are now hundreds of thousands of books available online. Rather than finding out about books by word of mouth, we find out about books online. Bookstores can’t keep up. They have just enough room to stock the most popular books but not enough room to restock them if they sell out. On top of that, there are e-readers and Audibles and interactive books and read-to-me toys and cell phones to keep up with. Where does a brick and mortar bookstore stand among all this?

Answer: They don’t stand a chance.

The reason brick and mortar bookstores are dying (and yes, they are dying; don’t try to kid yourself) is because they are selling a dead product, that people don’t need, through a vehicle that is inconvenient. Granted, some bookstores have tried to keep up with the trends. I wholly give credit to Barnes and Noble for integrating the Nook into their sales model. Kudos to you, B&N; you understand that there is a change in the world.

Too bad you missed the point. The point that Barnes and Noble missed is that current consumer needs no longer warrant a trip to the store. If their wants say “I want this book, by this author, in a hardback cover,” their needs are saying, “How can I get this book exactly as I want with the least cost and inconvenience?” The answer will almost always be to shop online. The cost of gas is outrageous. Traffic is frustrating. We’re busy people trying to fit too many tasks into too little time. The resolution for all these problems is to “order in” when you can, especially when you are offered free shipping and lower costs. Do you see where Barnes and Noble failed? B&N mistakenly thought that the consumer “needed” e-readers. They saw the e-reader trend and that’s great. They offered an e-reader of their own. Also great. But selling the trend does not solve the vehicle problem. I can buy a Nook online. I can buy a Kindle or an Apple or a Sony online. So, Barnes and Noble, what else have you got?

A more innovative solution would be to stop catering to the “need,” which a brick and mortar will never fulfill, and start catering to the “want.” People want to go out. They want an escape, an environment, some excitement. They want something different. A long time ago, a trip to the bookstore could scratch that itch. There wasn’t much else that could compete with a good book and you couldn’t get it anywhere else. You could sit there all day and read, sip coffee, and then walk out with an armful of books. Now, there’s no reason to get in your car, drive through traffic and sit in a bookstore. I can sit at home and read. I can download my books in an instant. My coffee doesn’t cost $8 a cup and I don’t have to pay for gas.

If brick and mortars are going to stay alive, they need to reinvent themselves, not copy online stores. The reason was so successful was because they invented a need that consumers didn’t know they had. It wasn’t much different from the mall era. Malls created the opportunity to shop for everything in one place. Amazon went one step further. Shop for everything in one place and never leave your house. So now, if you want me to leave my house, you better give me a darn good reason. Be unique. Here are some examples:
  • Hold a Nook Book signing – No, I’m serious. Start making Nooks with an autograph app and sell each one with a stylus. You can draw or sign just as you would when you sign for a UPS package. Then have a Nook signing. Authors come in and sign people’s Nooks and those signatures are saved digitally. Great way to collect autographs and not waste paper. 
  • Have book scene re-enactments – Have the bookstore staff perform scenes from popular books, or invite acting students from local colleges to do it. Not only would it be fun, but it is great promotion for books. Hold these reenactments once a week or have it constantly going on so customers can always expect to see it. 
  • Book readings – Why spend money on an Audible when you can go to the bookstore and have someone read to you? 
  • Hate-the-Book Reviews – Book clubs can be dull. Everyone sits around conjuring up the symbolism of a book they may or may not have actually liked. It’s much more fun to pick on a book, even if you loved the book. Have you ever read a book and thought to yourself, “Why does she keep saying ‘gosh’? No one says gosh anymore. I hate that.” With a Hate-the-Book review, everyone notes what they hated about the book. The comments will likely be passionate and funny and may even sell more books. This would especially be awesome for kids.
  • Scavenger Hunt -- Hold scavenger hunts in the store. Write a list of passages or quotes. Participants have to search through all the books in the store looking for those passages. When they find the passage, they write the title, author, edition, and page on which the passage or quote appears.

I’m not a bookstore owner, but I am a bookstore customer. I don’t want bookstores to die. I want them to care about me, the customer, enough to draw me back in. Right now, they are failing. I don’t want to drive to the store for an e-reader. DTP (defeats the point). 

I want something I can’t get at home.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Social Media Brings Me Judy

The greatest thing in the world happened yesterday. I got an email from Judy Blume. If you've never heard of Judy Blume, you were either raised under a rock or you knew all about adolescence before you came out of the womb. Judy Blume is a legend. She's one of those authors who finds herself at the top of a recommended reading list for young people. She's the Statue of Liberty for all young bookworms. Her books, for both young and old, all seem to portray the same message: If you reach a point where you don't know what to do in life, it's okay; neither does anyone else. She shows, through quirky and thoughtful characters, that it's okay to fumble. It's okay to stutter and stammer or be too fat or too thin or flat-chested or big-chested, handicapped, diseased, geeky, unloved, untouched, unhappy or just plain awkward. She says, hey, it's okay to dream. It's normal to wonder. If you're mean, if you laugh at others, or even if you laugh at yourself, that's fine. No matter what you do, you'll learn from it. She taught her readers that it's okay to be yourself, and nine times out of ten, you'll be imperfect.

I discovered through another blog that Mrs. Blume has a website. I stopped by her site and left a message on her guest blog. Anyone who has ever read a Judy Blume book, especially in the 70s and 80s, will understand my note:

C.Amethyst Frost

Dear Judy Blume,

I've read your books since the 70s. Thank you for getting me through an awkward adolescence when there was no one else to explain. Thank you for preparing me for adulthood when I had no idea what to expect. And thank you, especially, for inspiring me -- as early as the age of 10 -- to become a writer. I am me because of you.
Posted May 26, 2012 11:56 am

This is true. I was a heavy reader in my childhood, a trait that expanded exponentially through my adulthood. Back in the 70s and early 80s, no one talked about those sensitive subjects that complicate an adolescent's life. Schools had classes to tell you where babies came from, but the process looked so sterile and unnatural that no one really believed that's how it's done. Most of the time, however, there are questions long before you get to those classes. Most of the time, "things" happen before the classes as well. Parents were useless in these cases. No one taught them anything, so many of them didn't know how to teach their own kids. Not that it mattered. No kid was going to ask their first generation Italian-American/Irish-American/Jewish-American/German-American parents how a specific incident feels. And they didn't have to. Judy Blume did it for them. She taught 9-year-olds that being an older sibling can be frustrating and unfair, but there are rewards for being a mentor. She taught bossy 10-year-old girls that life changes as you grow up, and you may not have all the answers. She taught us that kids can be mean, but you can get through it.

By the time you're 13, you're addicted to Judy Blume's wisdom. Are You There God, It's Me, Margaret and Then Again, Maybe I won't bridged teenagers into their blossoming years, answering questions they'd never dare ask their parents. Mrs. Blume doesn't even abandon her readers there. Forever and Wifey are her way of saying, yep, even in adulthood, you won't know everything.

It was the intimacy I felt with these books that first sparked the writer in me. Her books were like friends. They talked to me. It only felt right that I talked back. It took decades to finally get here, and I will never be the legend that Judy Blume has become, but just as she took me from childhood, through adolescence and into adulthood, so too will she carry me as a writer.

Imagine my delight when I opened my email and found this:

From: Judy Blume <>
Subject: Thanks for your message
Date: Tuesday, May 29, 2012, 12:49 PM

Hi C. Amethyst,

Thanks so much for your warm and thoughtful message.  It means a lot to know how well you remember my books, and that they helped you during difficult times.  I'm trying to write a new one now.  Think it will be older YA, but it will probably take two years to finish it. (Ugh - writing is hard work!)  It's my readers who keep me writing.  Where would I be without you?  You can follow me on twitter @judyblume, though I'm trying not to tweet too often. It's too good a distraction.



P.S. - Watch for news of Tiger Eyes, the movie based on the book, on my website.

How cool is that? Social media is a crazy thing. We're at a time when everyone can communicate with everyone, no matter how famous they are, no matter how poor or rich they are. Those icons in our lives who were once immortal and untouchable are now only a couple of thumb taps away. We can now reach out to actors, politicians, artists, long lost relatives, and even the President of the United States through websites, texts, Facebook, blogs, and Twitter. (Judy Blume tweets! Who'd have thunk?)

When I was 8 years old, hugging a copy of Tales of the Fourth Grade Nothing at the counter of the Ocean Township library, only willing to release it long enough to have the librarian flip open the back (where it made that crinkly sound because it was covered in a protective plastic cover) and press a rubber date stamp onto a little card (my name was written on that card at least 10 times by then), I never imagined that I would one day be contacted by the book's creator. It was closure. That link between child and adult has finally clicked.

Monday, May 21, 2012

How to Avoid Indie Authors

I stumbled across an Amazon forum post that hit me pretty hard. The post is titled "How to Avoid Indie Authors." The comments are pretty harsh, talking about how they're tired of Amazon putting Indie titles in their recommendations. They don't want to buy books from Indies -- the books are awful and they're a waste of time and money. You can always tell an Indie book because the cover art will be "abysmal" and it'll cost less than "trad pub" books. They will be full of errors and are written unprofessionally. Amazon should filter out Indies so the customers don't have to sift through them all just to get to the good stuff. Amazon needs to "raise the bar" so that only quality books are sold.

Wow, I mean, it was pretty harsh. As I read through some of the 3,000+ posts, I could practically feel the fire rise up from my feet, burning the wooden post that was strapped to my back.

I wonder if it's time to re-educate the readers. These 8-10 posters judged independent authors as a single entity, based on an archaic belief that indies put no effort or professionalism into their books. Admittedly, I've seen some of awful indies that fit the mold these posters set out. There are a lot of "All About Me" books, where someone visited another country or led a rough life or found some kind of renewed strength. They decide to write down their experiences and share them with the world. But the books are poorly written or unedited or just plain boring. I can understand judging a book like this if proper effort was not put into it. But to lump all Indies together into the same category?

I tried to get inside the heads of these posters to understand their prejudice. First, I decided to think like a reader. I am qualified enough to judge books based on my experience as a reader. I spend (shamelessly) hundreds of dollars a month on books, mostly on and Audible. I've purchased so many books in the past 15 years, I practically own stock in Amazon. Not to mention the hearty business I've thrown Barnes and Noble, Borders, Hastings, and Half Priced books. I have read every day of my life since I was four. That's a lot of reading. I am definitely qualified to judge as a reader. Yet I don't feel the same kind of distaste toward Indie book authors. What did they do to warrant such a hateful gathering of Amazon readers?

As a writer, I also take offense. My books may not be best sellers, but I put a lot of work into them. I have a bachelor's degree in Writing and Linguistics (Georgia Southern University) and have been a professional writer and editor for many, many years. From the lifetime of reading that I mentioned above, I have a pretty good idea of how to tell a story. If I don't have a right to publish my own novels, then who does? What is the criteria to be a book author in these posters' eyes? Is it acceptance by the Big 6? Because if that's the case, they should probably pick up a few more "trad pub" books and investigate a little deeper. Publishers don't put much effort into their books. The past dozen books I've read from traditional publishers had errors. The last three books alone (same author) were so badly written, I had a hard time keeping up. It is a very popular, best selling series, too. What qualified this writer to be a novelist in the absence of experience and education? Luck, I guess. Publishers have to pick someone. I'm sure they have a lot of good material to choose from, but they could only pick one. This was it. It makes me wonder, though. Would these irate anti-indie posters have picked this author if he'd have self-published his book? Would they have read Harry Potter if Rowling had self published?

Times are changing. Authors are taking their art back from the publishers. But the world isn't getting the message. Maybe we need a more visible campaign. TV commercials, bus banners, highway billboards. "Buy Indie!" Remember a few years back when farmers got together and advocated local sales of meat, vegetables, and milk? Perhaps we need something similar.    

Friday, May 18, 2012

Marketing -- A Big Scary World

I think I've made it clear that I'm quite the sociaphobe. Writing books is so comfortable and safe for someone like me. That is, until the book is actually published, after which, the terror begins. I've been running around trying to figure out how to market my book. I'm not exactly the type to stand on a picnic table in a crowded park and yell out "Buy my book!" At first, I did a search for a publicist, someone who specializes in marketing for indie authors. Interestingly enough, I found that most of their marketing outlets were through social networking websites. The services included signing me and my books onto a Facebook author's page and registering for about a dozen book review sites. They wanted a lot of money to do it, too. It seemed kind of silly since the websites were all well-known and free to register. I can do it myself. Another service had to do with sending out press releases to major distributors...except that I'd have to write the press release myself. Again, why would I pay someone for that? If I have to write it, I can send it as well. Then again, my book is being distributed through Lightning Source, which is owned by Ingram. You can't get much more distributed than that. None of these paid services had anything unique, no marketing magic or inside connections. The end result is, do it myself.

It's not exactly an easy quest. The first thing I did was to set up an author page on Facebook. I don't have a personal Facebook page because it's not my kind of scene. I'm not interested in knowing every time a former high school classmate takes her kid to soccer practice. I could care less if someone is suddenly married to Jesus or "Likes" the Cats of America Facebook group. But I set the page up as an author, which was a pretty freaky experience. The page was confusing and cluttered. I first had to set up a people account before I could start an author page. Then I had to go through the people account and hide everything -- not exactly for privacy but because there was nothing on the page and I didn't want people to stumble across it and find a page full of blank fields. Once I had the author page set up -- with the most hideous combination of "cover" and "profile" images -- I struggled to figure out how to show off my books. Oddly enough, the author pages were not very author-friendly. I looked up other authors to see how they did it. Smaller authors like myself just sort of went with whatever they had. It looked like they had some trouble too, so that the pages were all a bit awkward. The more established authors -- like J.K. Rowling and D.J. MacHale -- had token pages. In other words, they had the page up but didn't put much effort into it. There were no posts or updates except by fans. I doubt the authors even know their pages exist, let alone visit them regularly.

A positive side of the Facebook experience was that I discovered a number of pages that catered to indie authors. On each one, I shamelessly posted a self-promotional comment and link (everyone was doing it). But after I did that, I would scroll through the page and find very useful information. I found links to various websites where I could display my book, and other sites that offered free book reviews. There were contests and tips and even groups that were willing to do book review exchanges. So while I originally was going to merely throw up my page and run, I've decided to sniff around a little bit more, get to know the authors and all the helpful pages.

So far, I've signed up with The Author's Den, which is kind of like a flea market for authors to show off and hopefully sell their books. I also contacted eBookSwag, which is another site to display your book. (They actually charge 10 bucks to show it off for a day, but every bit helps.)

I used to think that book contests were silly. Back when I was devoted to the Big 6 (despite their 400 rejection letters), I scoffed at the idea, thinking that respectable best-selling authors didn't enter their books in contests. Duh. I guess I'm the silly one. For one thing, winning a contest is yet another method of drawing attention to your book. For another, you can get cash prizes, which is really cool, especially if your royalty checks don't amount to much. The print version of my newest book, Dismal Thoughts, was accepted by Lightning Source and should be available on Amazon and friends very soon. I already ordered a batch for promotional purposes. One of those purposes will be to submit it to the Indie Book Awards. It couldn't hurt. CreateSpace on Amazon also provides a nice list of competitions. I shall enter those as well.

Marketing takes a lot of time, but it's not that difficult. The key, I think, is exposure. I don't have a lot of friends or family who'd want to read my preteen books, so I rarely pass them on to my sparse inner crowd. So I have to depend on the world wide web. It's a big world. But if I can reach just one person for every thousand, it's a good start.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Some Assembly Required Publishing

As you can see from my last post -- way back in October, I've been stressing for quite a while about getting my next book published. I finished writing it years ago (seems like it but probably more like many months to a year). Then I edited the heck out of it myself before hiring another editor. The editor of my first book (whom I hope is not reading this) left a few errors in the book. There were only about 5 of them, which isn't horrible in a 300-page book, but they were pretty embarrassing to me once I saw them. I don't know about you, but when I read a book, typos and spelling errors seem to glare up at me. I can never understand how someone can publish a book --- especially through a traditional publishing house -- without anyone noticing typos. It happens a lot these days. Apparently, I'm no better.

Anyway, as I was saying, I stressed over getting my "Dismal Thoughts" published. First, I needed a good editor -- whom I found (hi Sarah!). After the book was edited, I nearly had a breakdown worrying about a cover. None of the cover artists I found had the right style for my new book, and even those that came close charged an arm and a leg. I can't really afford to give up any of my limbs just yet, so I stressed over it for months.

My solution was to create a mock up cover myself that I could send to a cover designer, so the person would understand what I wanted. I figured it would be less stressful and save time bouncing artwork back and forth. Once I opened PhotoShop and got to work, I found myself tweaking and editing the draft until I was pretty happy with the results. Then I thought, "Why do I need a designer? I have the layout here already and all the tools to work with." The whole idea of indie is to do it yourself. So I did it myself. It took about a day to get the cover the way I wanted and then to format it according to the various guidelines. Then I prepared the manuscript for Lightning Source, Kindle, Smashwords, and Nook and started my submissions. It may take a few days for all the venues to review and process, but my ebook version is at least available through Smashwords today.

A year's worth of stress only took me a day to resolve. I wish I'd had the confidence in myself to know that the some-assembly-required publishing process was not as complicated as I anticipated. Now I have no excuse. It's time to finish book three.