Thursday, April 30, 2015

Shelf Space For Joe Blow

Zestful Blog Post #104

When I started working at the second store Tom and Louis Borders opened, in suburban Detroit, we had a lot of autonomy. One of the side things we did was ‘consignments’. We wanted to be as inclusive as possible. Therefore, anybody who believed in their book enough to go the trouble and expense of having it produced—after, in most cases, having tried and failed to find a publisher—could get their book on our shelves. The process was labor intensive: each copy of each book had to be specially marked so it could be rung up properly (in the unlikely event that somebody bought it), then shelved, then kept track of. Each author had to be paid by check, and each author was entitled to call up and ask at any time how things were going. We could only carry two or three copies at a time.

This amounted to an unprofitable situation for the store, but we kept it up essentially as a public service. Naturally, when the company got big and everybody had to do what headquarters said, consignments went away.

Customers rarely bought consignment titles, in no small part because production values were dismal. Joe Blow, who had written a 327-page manifesto on why the Upper Peninsula should be granted sovereign nation status, had to balance the cost of hardcover vs. paper cover; spiral binding vs. stapled vs. perfect vs. sewn; glossy cover stock vs. matte; a professional designer vs. his admittedly talented eleven-year-old niece; a print run of 200 at a cost of $15 per copy at a total cost of $3,000 payable now, vs. a run of 1,000 at $8 per copy for a total of $8,000. No wonder most self-pubbed titles looked pathetic, whether they contained precious gems of knowledge or drivel.

Fast-forward to today. For zero cash upfront, or for very little, Joe Blow’s descendants can insta-pub their books with production values that would make Grandpa’s head explode. And they can, of course, sell their books—physical and digital—on line. Still, authors crave the experience of seeing their books on a store’s shelves.

The other day my friend and blog follower Cordia sent me a link to an article by Judith Rosen in Booklife about a new kind of bookstore.

The place is essentially all-consignment, where authors pay for shelf placement, and are responsible for their own marketing and restocking. It’s a truly new business model for bookstores, and I’ll be interested to see if it catches on. I think it will. Be on the lookout for many more titles by the Blow publishing dynasty.

My own most recent title, Left Field, was just reviewed by the talented and perceptive team of Cheri Fuller and Nikki Little in Curve magazine online. Excerpt: “The mystery is well done and complex but not overly so, and the author did an admirable job making us second-guess our assumptions throughout the book. This one is filled with deception, shady dealings, conspiracies, and questionable characters. What more could a reader ask for?” I'll tell you that an author couldn't ask for a nicer review.

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Thursday, April 23, 2015

Stuff That Bugs Me, Vol. I

Zestful Blog Post #103

As I sat down to my coffee and breakfast this morning, pen and paper in hand to rough out this blog post—I knew not what it would be—I was internally grumbling about misuses of language I’d noticed recently. Then my hand just started writing. At the top of the page appeared, “Stuff That Bugs Me”. I thought, it’s true I was brought up not to complain and find fault, but dammit, I’m gonna. My hand then wrote, ‘Volume I’. I burst out laughing. Here we go.

I regularly read a popular magazine, which is usually good with copy editing. But the most recent issue contained two blunders, the first being ‘nonplussed’ to mean ‘calm and collected’. This is sloppy and brainless. I will explain.

The word comes from the Latin ‘non plus’, meaning ‘no more’, as in ‘I’m so freaked out, I can’t handle any more! I can’t go forward!’

Like ‘literally’ to some people, ‘nonplussed’ has come to mean the opposite of its original definition.
And here we come to the prescriptive-vs.-descriptive argument involving dictionaries and other arbiters of linguistic accuracy. If enough people start using ‘nonplussed’ as a fancy way of saying ‘calm’, that definition will be first in every dictionary ere long and every moron will be using it that way.

Webster’s Third, which came out in 1960, must be blamed for starting the ‘descriptive’ trend in dictionaries. Some think civilization began to decay in the 60s because of LSD and long hair on men, but it was really Webster’s Third.

[This is not Webster’s Third, which will never darken my dictionary stand. This is my Compact OED (Oxford English Dictionary), magnifier visible on bookcase to the left. Photo by ES.]

I know language evolves. I get that. For instance, ‘get’ did not commonly mean ‘understand’, but it does now. I’m fine with that—there’s some intelligence to that particular evolution, having to do with economy and rhythm.

But using ‘nonplussed’ to mean its opposite is simply dumb. It’s the ‘non’ prefix that makes intellectually lazy people think it must mean ‘unruffled’ or ‘not bothered’. I stand against such corruptions, even though I use ones that have evolved over a long time, like ‘egregious’, which originally meant ‘illustrious’; ‘of a high order’. That changed during the Renaissance, so I don’t remember it.

Therefore, we come to the solution for the descriptive-vs.-prescriptive argument: If the meaning of a word starts to change to its opposite, or become dumbed down in any way DURING MY LIFETIME, I’m against it, and you should be too.

The other error in the same magazine was, “…you’ll need lots of money and some serious cajones.” Really? You’ll need money and some Peruvian percussion instruments? Oh, wait, you must mean ‘cojones’, which are testicles or, informally, courage. Well, why’n’t you say so?

Those two mistakes should properly be laid at the feet of the magazine’s copy editor. I’ve worked as a copy editor; it was part of my jack-of-all-trades job on a minor metropolitan newspaper, and of course I edit my own material. Also, I throw in some copy editing when doing manuscript analysis and development with private clients. I’m considering including a full copy edit with my services. For one reason, it will save my clients having to hire somebody else to do it, and for another, I will catch inadvertent blunders less experienced editors might miss. BTW, if you’re interested in working with me on your manuscript or career, just shoot me an email; the contact info is on my web site. I’ll send you my service sheet, which includes prices.

I turned to the magazine’s masthead, noted the chief copy editor’s name, and said aloud, “What are you, a seventh-grader? This is a Condé Nast publication. They can’t afford better than you?” This is how deeply these things affect me. I got on line, intending to send an email to the magazine, offering my services, but found no to-the-editor email address, or indeed any email address. This magazine doesn't publish letters to the editor, and they don’t want to hear from you or me, it seems. This is egregious, don’t you agree?

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Thursday, April 16, 2015

Zestful Parking Lot

Zestful Blog Post #102

So much of this blog has been about the craft of writing, and, in recent months, the publishing business. Zestful writing is great. But in order to write with zest, we also have to live with zest, don’t we?

And what does that mean? It can mean doing exciting or extraordinary things like skydiving, alligator-wrestling, or going off to be a mercenary in some craphole war. You can think of a thousand more.

But most of us live fairly quiet lives that sometimes verge on the mundane, or at least the routine. Routine isn’t necessarily a negative. I like routine. But I like to feel alive, most of all. Way too often I forget about that part.

The other day I drove to the store to pick up some things; a typical mundane errand. My mind was wandering all over the place—a snatch of music, a task ahead, some unresolved grievance, some unresolved longing. But when I got out of the car I saw

[photo by ES]

these gorgeous magnolia blossoms, and they just arrested my heartbrain. I stopped and inhaled and yeah, magnolia! The whole time I was in the store I thought about that little tree, one of a dozen planted on the little islands in the parking lot. And I thought, be present, bitch. The Buddha could be waiting for you out in that parking lot. He could be that lady chopping vegetables behind the deli counter. He could be that apple in your hand. He IS waiting in the parking lot. He IS that lady, that apple. I often think of Buddha, but I’m also a fan of Jesus, Athena, and all the rest.

There’s a reason that ‘stopping to smell the flowers’ is a timeworn cliché. Literally stopping what you’re doing (which is usually going somewhere) and smelling whatever flower happens to be on hand, is a way of becoming present. Spiritual leaders constantly admonish us to be present. Why? Because in the present lies eternity. In the present, true zest becomes available to us. When we’re present, we’re totally alive.

So that day I was like, hell, let’s pay attention on the walk to the car. It wasn't a pretty walk, until I got to the magnolia tree again. But it was a beautiful walk. It was a zestful walk. Being present, no matter what we’re doing, makes life rich. It makes life life, not some meandering dream.

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I might add that you can now pick up the May/June issue of Writer’s Digest magazine at your favorite newsstand. The theme is “Write and Sell Short Stories”, and it includes a feature by yours truly, “15 Hacks for Characterizing Fast”. You’ll also find career advice from James Scott Bell, flash fiction techniques from Grant Faulkner, and an interview of the incredibly prolific Susan Mallery.

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Thursday, April 9, 2015

Is it a Race?

Zestful Blog Post #101

Usually I put up just one post here per week, on Thursdays. Last Saturday, though, I wrote a post about a promotion I was running for my novel Damn Straight, and promised to give you a report. I’ll do that, then I have something else to talk about.

I consider the promotion—five days free on the Amazon Kindle Select program—a  success. Data:
This was the second or possibly third time I put the book for free on Kindle. I know the first time, the book got between two and three thousand downloads, with minimal word-spreading. Subsequent free offerings of the same title never do as well, but I wondered what would happen now that a few years had passed. (The reason for the promo was the big LPGA golf tournament, formerly known as ‘The Dinah’. Damn Straight is set at that tournament, and I like to watch it on TV every year.)

The promo started at 12 a.m. Saturday, Apr. 4, 2015. I put up notices on Facebook, Twitter, a couple of Yahoo groups, and this blog.

Amazon Bestsellers Ranking: By 10:50 that evening, the book was at #665 Free in Kindle store, and #1 in LGBT Mystery & Detective, and #1 in Lesbian Fiction. It stayed at #1 in those two categories for four days, reaching #344 overall on Monday, Apr. 6. It might have climbed higher, but one can only spot-check these things. On Wednesday, Apr. 8, the last day of the promotion, the book was at #936 overall, and #1 in LGBT Mystery & Detective, and #3 in Lesbian Fiction. (9:34 a.m.)

During the first two days, the downloads were the most at 438 and 565, then dropping off every day thereafter. Total downloads: 1,446.

As I write this on the morning of, Thursday, Apr. 9, Damn Straight’s rank in the Paid Kindle store is 99,737, and #59 in LGBT Mystery & Detective.

What you look for after such a promo is a sales bump for that title and others. And in fact, the other four books in the series all climbed into the top 100 in LGBT Mystery & Detective at some point or other during the promotion. Holy Hell is #42, Easy Street is #60, at the moment.

So basically it’s worth it to keep the free promo going for the full 5-day period, because even though the book’s overall rank and number of downloads slipped dramatically after the first two and a half days, it went to and stayed at #1 almost the whole time in its narrowest category.

OK, now on to other stuff. Over the past few months, I've written about my publishing history. I’ll continue to share what I do, whether it’s a promotion and its results, a new published work, whatever. But I’ll also talk about discoveries I make in writing techniques, reading, and living. Like-a what follows.

[Photo by ES]

I once saw a photograph of two young girls poised on the starting line of a footrace. One girl's eyes were fixed anxiously on the man with the starter's pistol. The other girl's eyes were brightly locked on the finish line in the distance. Which girl do you think won the race?

One could say that micro story is about competition. But I see it as being, at its core, about performance. In You've Got a Book in You, I sought to help writers cast aside doubt and fear and just pour it out, trusting your own natural talent and creativity. If you’re anxious about the parameters—the starting gun, the query letter—that stuff’s gonna get in your way. But if you focus simply on the joy of doing—running fast, writing well—you’ll achieve. And you’ll be satisfied with your performance, whether you win a particular race or not.

In a way, the first girl was already running, while yet poised for the gun. The other girl wasn’t going to be really running even after the gun sounded.

It’s paradoxical, it’s Zen, and it’s true.

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Saturday, April 4, 2015

Promo Experiment: Damn Straight Free

Zestful Blog Post #100

Apropos to my missives on marketing lately, here’s a special I’m running, followed by some early feedback:

The special (text I posted on FB this morning):

Grab a freebie on Kindle: In honor of this weekend's major LPGA tournament, the ANA Inspiration--formerly known as the Kraft Nabisco, formerly known as the Dinah, after Dinah Shore, 'the Tennessee Thrush', who founded it, the Lambda-winning DAMN STRAIGHT is free on Amazon Kindle. The weekend is still known as 'The Dinah' among SoCal golf cognoscenti. Lotsa parties in the Palm Springs area. (The course is Mission Hills in Rancho Mirage.)

DAMN STRAIGHT is set at the Dinah, where our heroine Lillian Byrd falls for a professional golfer with some dark danger going on in her life. What can Lillian do but try to help? This read 'will keep you up til dawn,' according to Whitney Scott on Booklist.

The feedback:

This is, I believe, the second time I’ve put this book up for free; the first was about 3 years ago, I think. I was happy with the results then, though off the top of my head I can’t remember how many total downloads. It was in the several thousands.

As soon as the special went live at midnight this morning (Saturday Apr. 4), night-owl readers (and possibly some non-nightowl overseas ones) started snapping it up, slowly, then with more gusto. 30 copies were downloaded in the first six hours; the total is approaching 90 now. Promo done so far today: One post on Facebook, one on Twitter, and now this blog. I’ll put up notices on a couple of Yahoo sites I’m on, and this blog will be automatically fed to my author pages on Amazon and Goodreads.

As I write this, just after noon on Saturday, the book’s ranking:

·         #5,410 Free in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Free in Kindle Store)

The price will stay free for a few days. Not sure when I’ll cut it off, but it will be back to full price at least by Thursday, because I can only put it for free for a total of five days per three-month period on Amazon Select.

Will let you know more in Thursday’s blog.

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Thursday, April 2, 2015

Learning from the Vagaries

Zestful Blog Post #99

I've looked back through my blog and am surprised to find I haven’t shared the story of the genesis of Left Field. I kind of can’t believe it because I've told it a number of times to audiences, as a parable about the vagaries of connecting with readers.

At the 2010 Left Coast Crime convention I found myself on a panel called “Writing Gay Characters”, along with Laurie King, Christopher Rice, L.J. Sellers, and moderator Pat Brown. We’d been scheduled for 8:30 Saturday morning, the godawfullest time slot of any convention, due to the fact that everybody’s either hung over or sleeping in from Friday night carousing.

So we all straggle in with our Starbucks, and lo and behold about 30 people came to hear us. While all of us had written GLBT characters, it seemed that Chris and I were the only authentically queer authors on the panel, so we more or less hijacked the discussion. Come question time, someone asked, “What do gay and lesbian readers want? What are they looking for in the novels they read?”

 [L to R: Brown, King, Rice, Sims, Sellers. Photo by Marcia.]

Chris gave an intelligent answer based on his experience, then I decided to speak aloud something I’d been turning over in my mind.

I talked about having used a women’s bar for the setting and focus of my first novel, Holy Hell, and then setting Damn Straight at ‘the Dinah’ (as it was popularly known), an LPGA golf tournament and magnet for thousands of lesbian fans and revelers. (When I attended the tournament to do research for the book, accompanied by Marcia, we passed some time in a breakfast restaurant with another diner, who related tales of the parties she’d attended the night before. When we mentioned we were on our way to watch the day’s round of golf, she said blankly, “There’s golf?”)

Both of those books were well received by critics and readers. But, I related, I did hear from some readers who told me they wished somebody would write books that weren't necessarily set in some major lesbo-scene, but simply featured a lesbian protagonist going about her business in an ordinary setting, solving crimes or whatever.

OK, I thought, I’d like that too. So I wrote Lucky Stiff, in which protagonist Lillian Byrd solves the mystery of her parents’ long-ago deaths, with the help of her childhood gay-guy friend Duane. Then I wrote Easy Street, where Lillian brings to justice a cute little thief and murderer, with the action ranging all around the U.S.

Reviewers with good literary taste loved the books and understood the essentially subversive, unconventional nature of my writing. “Her best yet!” they chorused. But guess what? The books didn't resonate so well with my general readership, many of whom chorused, “She’s lost her way!” Sales lagged.

Good God.

“So the lessons I learned were several,” I told my audience in Los Angeles that morning. “One, what readers say they want and what they really want might be two vastly different things. Two, an author should be chary of trying to accommodate readers’ requests anyway. And three, my next Lillian Byrd novel absolutely has to be about—” I paused for dramatic effect, “—softball!”

Chris and the audience laughed so hard I feared everybody would start squirting Starbucks through their noses. That was the most gratifying moment of that whole convention for me, and from then on I knew for sure that Left Field lay somewhere in my future.

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