Friday, August 29, 2014

What does that mean?

Once upon a time, after the dinosaurs were gone but when you could still hear the echoes of their footsteps, I was a small child in elementary school. Even back then, I liked science fiction novels, but would settle for reading six chapters ahead in the textbook rather than listen to the teacher go at the pace of the slowest kid in class. However, I didn't understand everything I read or heard, so I'd often ask my parents.

The sad part is, all those burning questions I was so frustrated at the answer "wait until you're older"? I don't remember any of them now. And half the ones I went to look up in the dictionary, I forgot due to distraction. Wikiwandering is nothing new to any kid who had encyclopedia sets or the unabridged OED available.

However, there were some answers that made a LOT of sense, and Daddy could tell me answers for hours.

(This would have been several years before daddy started teaching me about depleted uranium's really cool uses (even more versatile than enriched uranium!), but probably about the time he had me memorize the periodic table with lots of "Hydrogen goes boom, helium makes you squeak when you talk, and lithium burns really hot and sets the asphalt parking lot on fire if you toss a cube out the lab window into a snowbank.")

The second time an elementary school teacher asked a puzzling question, by G-d, I had an answer.

"What would happen if they held a war and no one came? Um.... yes, Little Wing?"

"Conquering, looting, pillaging, and burning! Like all the city-states that didn't have allies handy when Ghengis Khan came to town, or the Vikings rowed in from the sea! Did you know the Assyrians used to make walls with the skulls of their defeated enemies?"

That night, I had a new question for daddy. "The elementary school teacher tried to give me detention, but the principle said your answer was right. Daddy, what's a rhetorical question?"

Saturday, August 23, 2014


"Junk is stuff you throw away, and stuff is junk you keep."

I've now given away about 70% of the glasses, mugs, and silverware I owned, as well as at least half the plates and bowls. The three partial sets of measuring cups have been replaced with one matched set, the chipped bakeware all tossed, all but two of baking pans and why do we have 5 pie tins, mixing bowls down to half what they were, bread pans all but gone, pots and saucepans thinned...

And you know, it hasn't actually affected the schedule for washing dishes? It does mean there's a lot less clutter taking over the sink and counters, though, before the dishes are done. Some days, everything even gets scrubbed and stuck in the dishwasher, awaiting a full load, and the counter and sink stay clean, clear, and dirty-dishwater-stink free.

So that's the bright side.

On the other paw, the last two pickup-loads we've moved have been sharply capped by "drop everything and run, the rain's started falling." At least it's the cookbooks that got wet, not the military history books. Cookbooks with watermarks and stains are just... books probably have good recipes. (Hint for used cookbook buying: hold the book pages-up, spine flat in the center of your palm, and let the covers fall from vertical to horizontal. Where the pages break open and lie flat is going to be a recipe that was used a lot, and will be one of the ones that make the book worth having.)

And on the gripping paw, if I could just be self-aware enough to instantly figure out the difference between "I'm bored because you are determined you have to do everything yourself and will snap at me if I pick up a single item you're not ready for me to carry to the truck. Clearly, you're doing it all wrong." and "I am having a massive, epic-level allergic reaction to the dust in this room, and am not so busy bearing dusty items back and forth that my mind is taken off the fact my skin is swelling and itching, eyes burning, sinuses hurting, and temper flaring.", domestic tranquility would be a lot more tranquil.

The "We will stop meth labs by making it bloody hard for everybody to get the allergy medicines that work!" laws SUCK DEAD RAT THROUGH A STRAW. May the fleas of a thousand camels infest the lawmakers and lobbyists who crafted and passed them, and swarms of bedbugs by night and chiggers by day cover the journalists who praised them! No, you bloody pharmacy tech, I don't have puffy red eyes because I want a meth fix, I have puffy red eyes and swollen hands because I need the bloody antihistamines I'm trying to buy! Sod off and just hand me the damnable pills!


Friday, August 15, 2014

Things I learned this week:

1.) If you don't have the time (or inclination) to make chocolate ganache (the chocolate super-dense "frosting" in cakes and other desserts), nutella will do in a pinch.

2.) Where I see a chocolate candy bought by my husband as a "Get better soon" treat, the cat sees a round ball-shaped object with crinkling foil twists at each end. If I don't keep a sharp eye out, they will get stol... nationalized by a furry little socialist.

3.) The very best note on Robin William's suicide I have read was at Yes, the site with all the lowbrow humor you can cram into a list form. It's the most serious, wrenching note of all, and you can tell the poop jokes thrown in were there by reflex, almost like a nervous tic. It's Of course it's not safe for work. But I'd recommend you go read it anyway, because it's going to be the most raw and honest answer you'll ever get to "why?"

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Know Your Readers (Pricing)

Readers aren't uniform creatures with uniform buying habits, so why do we approach pricing with the assumption that they are?

Pools of readers:
1. The Free Crowd. If you put your story free, they will download it, but they'll never get another of your books... unless you put that one free, too. These are the same as a library crowd. They range from teenagers with no extra cash (the majority of the audience on WattPad) through college kids to pensioners with no extra cash (more likely to be found on Bookbub and Goodreads).

Don't ignore these readers. If they love your work, they will give you the most powerful marketing tool of all - word of mouth. If young, they're likely to come back later and buy all of your books in a few years when they have a job and income. (Baen Free Library has thus made lots of sales across the years.) You can develop lifetime fans here, who will turn into fans who buy everything you put out... but right now, they're loyal to price above all else.

However, understand they won't pay for your books. There's no money to be made from them, so while they're very relevant to marketing, they're irrelevant when it come to pricing - to actually making money to buy food and pay rent.

2. The discount crowd ($0.99 - $5.99)
Believe it or not, this is a different group from the Free Crowd. There's plenty of overlap, but it's a different crowd. Unlike the hardcore free-only, the 99 cent crowd will buy books cheap. If they're long-term broke, they're likely to use some of the tools to track your sales and only buy when the price drops. These are the people who keep all the used bookstores in business. At this price point, you're competing with used paperbacks from McKay's Powell's, Amazon... you are NOT competing with new books from B&N or Book a Million.

How big is this market? I don't know if there's a way to tell - certainly it hasn't been measured. But it's been large enough to support thousands of used book stores across the US alone (much less the charity shops in the UK), and to propel low-pricing indie authors into millions sold.

You can develop fans here. If you stay in this price range, they'll buy everything you put out the moment they discover it. (Not the same thing as the moment you release it, and that's why a mailing list / social media presence / targeted advertising is a good thing.) You can also use this range to tempt people into impulse buying your works, in conjunction with targeted advertising.

3. Occasional Bookstore Browsers. ($6.99 - $9.99)
For those of us who've been head-down in the indie world for years, and can remember the bemoaning of any changes to Amazon's algorithms, it may come as a surprise that there are a large number of people out there who only buy a book now and then, and think that they should cost about the same as bookstore prices. The idea of a $2.99 book is met with "What's wrong with it, that it's bargain-bin price?"

But to millions of readers who buy only occasionally, either for themselves or as gifts for others, as often from a brick and mortar bookshop as online, $13.99 is a pretty normal price for a paperback. If you can position yourself with all the same signals (especially cover, blurb, and correct 'feel' to your sample chapter) as a traditional publishing house, then they'll consider $6.99 a fine price to pay for the ebook.

However, this is a much smaller market, in volume, compared to the power readers who regularly trawl the used book stores, looking for their favorite authors and interesting new reads. So you'll make more money per sale, but will make fewer sales.

4. Fans. ($0 - $50.00)
All of the above categories are loyal to price, not to a specific author. And in the general world of books in aggregate, when a potential customer is looking for a new-to-them author, price will significantly impact their browsing and buying habits. However, when a reader is a fan of a particular author, the price consideration becomes very, very flexible indeed. Baen has found they can sell the unedited pre-release ebooks for $15! And the same people who paid that will drop $25 on the hardcover of the same story!

These people are to be cherished, interacted with, and the first to know when a book's coming out, because they're the ones who will, over the years, ensure you have an income from every story you tell. Take care of your fans, and nurture them with a very long-term eye; short-term gouging will only result in ex-fans who spread bad word of mouth faster than any good word could go.


Critical note: Readers will be all of these categories at one point or another, from one book or author to another. No single price point is The One Right Way, nor will any stay The Right Way forever and ever amen. Price with purpose, and with forethought, instead of in reaction to your hopes, fears, or feelings about the market.

hat tip:

Friday, July 25, 2014

Thieves' World

In a lot of fantasy set in generic medieval Europe equivalent, one of the stock characters is the plucky street thief. (Steampunk, as well, and any story involving a bazaar.)

But where does your plucky street thief come from? Who is he going to sell your stolen invention to? What is the black market in stolen goods?

..Did you know most stolen items are sold within an hour of their theft, and often within 5 minutes? Or that low-level thieves in present-day Manchester target soap and Mach III razors - precisely because they are hard to prove stolen, and easily disposed of (everybody uses soap)?

Or that there's a highly enterprising con that involves buying cheap gold-looking jewelery / knock-off copies of luxury goods and reselling them at a higher price on the black market, all the while acting like they're the stolen real deal?

Go, read.

One last note: while people are people, and the entire report is a very interesting and illuminating window on the world of thieves, it is also Extremely English. This means they're blinded by their own worldview. Very sharp people put a lot of thought and effort into trying to figure out how to disrupt the economics between thieves, fences, and the not-so-innocent buyers... and completely ignored any risk involved from anyone other than the police. I assure you, thieves in Texas and Tennessee put a lot more effort into figuring out if they're going to get shot by the homeowner than thieves in Nottingham and Manchester, and that appears to be a far greater deterrent to crime right there, than anything this paper proposes as a solution.

Monday, July 21, 2014

Author Bios

There are two types of author bios: the ones on your product page, and the ones that aren't.

The bio on your product page, you see, has all of your books linked nearby. The reason the browser is reading it is often to see if you know anything or have done anything that lends credibility / interest / bias to that particular book, right before they scroll down to the reviews.

The bio on your convention booklet / printed book / guest blog / etc. is going to read by reader who think "Okay, what's he written? I've heard of/liked this one, are there any more?"

So when you're staring at that blank box that says bio, remember what the reader wants, and try to put in a hook that shows you know a little about your subjects. Or put in "Peter Grant, Author of the Maxwell series including Take The Star Road, Ride The Rising Tide, and Adapt and Overcome, and the new Laredo War series, War to the Knife..." so the customer knows what else to look up on their smartphone or at the merchie's booth.

... minor rant here ...

Of course, one eternal problem of getting men who've been there and done that (and to heck with a t-shirt, they have the patches, challenge coins, out-of-place reflexes and scars to prove it) is that, as a rule, they don't talk about it. I learned a lot about bush flying from a quiet, kindly, thoughtful gent with a laid-back 'absentminded professor' persona that belied a mind sharp as a tack. If I hadn't known him for several years, I would never have managed to start piecing together the timeline of just when and where in SouthEast Asia and Africa he was. (A little harder than normal, because the USA wasn't, ahem, there.

Similarly, Calmer Half has seen a lot more of Africa's heart of darkness than he'll ever admit to in casual conversation, and J. L. Curtis - OldNFO to his blog and ATH readers - has far more acquaintance with things that never happened in places we never were than he'll ever say. But try to get these men to write a bio? "22 years in the Navy", OldNFO says. "Humanitarian work", Calmer Half says. And to those who don't know, this gives no clue that they know anything of which they write.

Were I to try and badger them into blowing their own horn, the response would be a mild look, and a head shake. "Oh, no, I was just there. I'm not one of the real hardcore guys." (I know they don't train 'em to say this, but its pretty universal. My neighbor as kid, holding a cup of coffee in his gnarled hand and recounting to us kidsthe day he was on a tiny boat moving the mail pouches from one ship to another, when the Japs attacked and sank the ship he was serving on... "Oh, I was just there. I was only doing what I had to.")

Now, you take some REMF whose only acquaintance with actual shots fired is his quals, and they'll blow their horn all day long about how they were a super soldier in the war on terror. And the military will all groan, and the civvies will all go "Oh! Somebody who knows what they're writing about!"

I'm not even going to try to get the real men to blow their own horn. Well, I might badger Calmer Half a little, because I married him, but I recognize it's the sport of throwing yourself at a mountain and trying to get the mountain to move.

As for OldNFO - well, I'll just tell you to buy this book, and join me in badgering him for the next one, 'cause I know it's getting close to publication (and the badgering won't hurry him, just amuse him). It's a slower-moving thriller, one that takes time to explore the ties of families who live together for generations on Texas ranches, and of the people who work and serve together, instead of trying to jump from action to action like a red bull commercial.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Where do you find Good Art Cheap?

(This was previously posted yesterday as a guest blog on According to Hoyt. Good comments there, check it out.)

Ahem, would all the authors look at me? Ignore the howling mob of artists and illustrators bearing down on us with torches and pitchforks after that question was asked; I've got the gates close and the drawbridge up.

Thank you. Now, the first answer is another question: what is good art? You with the pretentious air, you sit down. This is not your moment to pontificate. You over there giggling and quoting Neil Gaiman's Make Good Art speech... sigh. You're actually closer than you know. Let's try a simple working definition. Good art for authors is an image that will catch a browsing reader's attention, communicate genre, tone, and theme, and lead them to click on the little icon and investigate your blurb to see what the book's about.

You over there, complaining that definition is marketing, not art? Just. Shut. Up. Or I'll throw you to the angry mob of commercial artists and illustrators who make such images for a living. Michelangelo didn't paint the Sistine Chapel out of some wild whim of artistic vandalism, he did it because he was paid to produce work to spec on theme.

Now, how do you find good art?

There are three ways to approach this.

1. Start with books you like, in the genre you're writing. You don't even have to buy them, just click the "look inside" feature and check out the copyright page in the front matter. Many indie publishers list their cover artists, illustrators, and cover designers there. (If they're not wearing all those hats by themselves, anyway.) Quite a few trad publishers put in the artist, too, though rarely the designer. (That's likely to be an employee.) This one is likely to be moderately expensive in terms of time and money - after all, you already know that the listed artists do sell their art for commercial use, and you just have to backtrack where and how much. On the other hand, you'll also end up having to sigh and filter out artists like Michael Whelan and Kurt Miller, because they do this for a living and charge prices that put them well out of our reach. Someday... Anyway, the artists run from $6 USD on a royalty-free site to $12,000 USD for custom oil painting.

2. Start by browsing the places that have art for sale, looking for things that'll fit. This is very expensive in time, but cheap in money. Where are these places? In person, check the artist's alley at your local conventions; you can browse portfolios (look at the art for sale) and ask artists about commissioning a custom cover, or buying the rights to use a piece they've already done as your cover.

Online, you can look at royalty-free stock sites. This is far cheaper than commissioning, as you pay one flat fee to download the art and use it as you wish in accordance with the terms of the rights agreement. This includes places like dreamstime, fotalia, photo morgue, istockphoto, etc. This option starts at free (morguefile), and then goes to around $6 - $20 USD.

Beware! For royalty-free sites, if you're wildly successful and sell more than a set amount of books, you are legally obligated to return and purchase a higher circulation license. Also, you are not buying the right to put the image on things for sale - so selling posters, t-shirts, or mugs with your book cover is right out, legally! If you try to make money on an image in ways you did not purchase the rights for, especially that that you are not compensating the artist for, don't be surprised if they come after you legally like you'd come down on a pirate site selling your books!

That said, it is by far the least expensive in money option.

3. Buy a pre-made cover from a designer. This already has the art purchased and the design work done, and costs less than custom because the designer did it on spec, hoping to catch a customer. All you have to do is tell them your author name, book title, and any minor tweaks if you want them, and it's all done. This'll take the time to skim designers, but starts at $50 USD.

Caveat! The designer got their work from somewhere, and all the restrictions on the rights they purchased still apply to you, when you buy from the designer! Also, make sure you're buying the right to use, modify, and possess (there's some more legal language, too, here) the cover design; If you hit bestseller, there should be no legal way for the designer to come back and demand more money, or assert legally that you don't own the finished product and they can yank it. (It's happened.)

Whatever you do, pay attention to which rights you buy or license. Not all artists, especially ones starting out, are savvy about this, just as not all authors are savvy about copyright, rights licensing, subrights, and territorial rights. The more rights you buy, the more expensive it's likely to be - for example, artists will often retain the right to sell the image (and often retain the original painting, if it's a physical painting, and sell it separately.) If you want exclusive use - nobody else can use this image - it's going to cost more than if they retain the right to put it up on a royalty-free site and earn more money from other folks downloading it. If you want the right to merchandise - to sell posters, keychains, mugs, whatever with the image as part of your cover design, that's going to be a fair chunk more, because now you're directly competing with the artist's main ways of earning income - namely, selling their image. And if you want to be able to sell the unaltered image - that is, to take their painting or design, and sell it yourself as though you were the artist - that's going to cost you as much as the artist thinks they could make from that image over the lifetime of copyright.

Protect yourself, protect the artist, and protect your ability to do friendly business in the future by learning about rights and making sure both parties are clear on who's getting what before money changes hands.