Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Growing Up

Today is the day I just took another important step into adulthood.

Today, I bought my first torque wrench.

It is a CDI, not a full Snap-On, though you don't know how much I miss chasing the Snap-On truck like a parade of sled dogs following the bearer of the doggie chow. (Isn't that an automatic reflex in everyone? I know you can make every head pop out of any nook and cranny in an airplane shop just by calling "Snap-On truck's pulling in!")

I was flat-out astounded that my husband had never before, in his entire life, used a torque wrench. All through my formative years, this was one of the things that marked the transition from shop help to apprentice; the trust to be given a job that required a torque wrench. And the fully certified mechanic saying "Let me see your conversion math. All right, you got it. Now, this is the right torque wrench for that job. If you drop it, I break you. Let me watch you set it." I knew I was getting competent when I was allowed to borrow the torque wrench without being double-checked (and you'd better believe I checked my inch-pound to foot-pound math very, very carefully.)

Calmer Half, though, learned his wrenching in the African Bush Mechanic school of hard knocks. This apparently involved more shooting at things with teeth while changing your tyres, and digging out, and "Is it tight enough? Stomp on the wrench again!" and "Well, if it won't move, use the tank to tow it."

So I carefully explained the caveats to him - that there are lots of tool brands I don't know, and I have no rigorous tests or reviews to prove anything. However, my Daddy kept a small basic stash of Snap-On tools and advised "Ten bucks saved on the tool costs a thousand an hour in the emergency room." Also, every airplane mechanic I knew in Alaska used 'em. Sure, they had a lot of other brands, and some things heavily modified by torch and welder to be the perfect tool for the job, but the strong advice was "Get Snap-On as soon as you can afford it."

Calmer Half smiled at me, and said thoughtfully, "I'm going to use it for an AR-15. It's only working on something four inches away from my favorite pair of eyes. I think that's recommendation enough."

Wow. My very own torque wrench!

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Adventures in food you can't read

I popped into the Romanian import store to get a treat for my husband while he's sleeping, and found a can I didn't recognize mixed in with the pate selection. Intrigued, I flipped it over and noted it was marked $2,54 on the bottom - so whatever it was, it'd be a relatively lighthearted, cheap adventure.

The store owner perked up as she bagged my pate tins, and waved it at me. "You'll like this! Is wonderful!" I grinned, and we giggled over the joys of surprising people we love with food. She understands that Food Is Love, after all.

When I got home, I cracked open the mystery can to try it, and was surprised by little headless fish in oil. Squinting and bringing the can up to bright light, I found the 4-point english font required for import among the Cyrillic: "Smoked sprats in oil."

Shrugging, I decided to try some with cheese. And that's when my shins were tackled by twelve pounds of all-consuming hunger in cat form.


By the way, they're tasty with a nice sharp cheese. Just lock up the cats before you crack the can, lest you have to excavate cat claws from your thigh.

Friday, December 12, 2014

The ritual words are important

I know, I know, Calmer Half and I share our bank accounts, our home, our marriage, pretty much everything (except the turkish delights, those are all his, and the kalamata olives are all mine). And I knew exactly what I was getting for Christmas (I'd already held it and tried it), and it was a toss-up as to which of us would pay for it, because shared accounts.

That doesn't matter. There are still important rituals that must be performed.

So Calmer Half dutifully ignored the gentle laughter of the gun store employees as he lifted the box, pressed it into my hands, and said "Merry Christmas."

Of course he got a kiss!

...and being a wise man, he was not at all slow to deny any possibility that he was going to make his wife wait until Christmas to shoot it.

Friday, November 21, 2014

European Market and Deli

As the child of an expat, and wife of an immigrant, I have a certain fondness and skepticism toward the import food stores and foreign delis and bistros. I grew up eating not-from-here dishes as special treats and everyday food, and watching friends and family experience the bliss of eating something flavored with nostalgia. (Nostalgia is a special seasoning that can transform the most awful concoctions into delightfully tasty things. Kippered mackerel, rose-flavored turkish delights, horse meat, pixie stix powder washed down with a slug of mountain dew.. it's all much of a muchness.)

Without the special seasoning of nostalgia, I was underwhelmed by most of the things that got passed around and hoarded by adults in a manner eerily reminiscent to my treatment of trick-or-treat candy. On the other hand, it's not hard to become awfully fond of McVitties Digestives with milked and sugared tea, and barley water on a hot summer day is wonderfully refreshing, leading to its own nostalgia flavouring when I grew up.

On the other hand, when I got my own car keys and credit card, I started to understand a lot of the sarcasm expats vented at delis and bistros, and "European Bistros" are usually the hardest hit. They're often operated with people who are in love with the image of some alternative-reality Europe they have in their head, where socialism is hip and communism won, and want to sell you a quarter of the food at twice the price while proclaiming their anti-capitalist bona fides and sneering at each other about coffee. In their minds, everything they don't like about America is of course not done by the Europeans, who are creatures of utopia.

...yeah. I'll spend my capitalist dollars elsewhere, thank you, while they play 70's protest songs and cater to an increasingly greying crowd who wants to think they're fighting the man while terrorizing their students and not realizing they're "the man" the college students who escaped indoctrination hate. Except when my husband gets a serious craving for a properly European pastry or dessert, in which case I'll try not to be too loud while pointing and laughing at the Hillary Clinton shrine. Sigh.

On the other end of the spectrum, today we took a chance and swung into a parking lot in the hinterlands of Nashville's metro sprawl (Mt. Juliet) to check out the "European Market and Deli" sign in the window. On a nice cold (for the south) day, we walked into a store where the owner clearly felt there was no need to turn on half the lights when it was sunny, and the obvious solution to a cold day was for customers and owner to wear sweaters, not turn up the heat.

This is like pulling up to a small airport and hearing the loving growl of a radial engine; you know you've got something good! Now, mind you, I deny any report of Calmer Half squealing in glee when he spotted quince preserves. Like a girl at a Justin Beiber concert. Low carb diet be damned. I cannot deny we met at the end of an aisle to find we'd both grabbed the same selection of pate... hey, he has good taste! We lingered lovingly over the meats, and could not pass up real Polish kielbasa made by a butcher who knew how they should taste (and yes, we both checked for the USDA inspected stamp. Not slow, children of expats or American immigrants.) This stuff isn't going into soups or stews, oh no.

The owners are Romanian, and like any small import store, the taste of home has the heaviest representation. The cheeses (goat and sheep, mostly) were Romanian with a small sprinkling of Greek, and if you like a cheese with a strong sharp flavor like the best cheddar or feta, I highly recommend the Romanian "sheep cream cheese." The prices are very nice, not the usual import-store-high, and I even saw a couple common biscuits (cookies) and Jaffa cakes at prices lower than the trendy stores that also carry import versions.

The owner, who clearly had dealt with Americans expecting her import "sheep cream cheese" to be as bland as philadelphia cream cheese, tried to warn me until Peter spoke up in his lovely British Colonial accent, at which point I was deemed quite knowledgeable enough to make my own adventurous food choices. (It is absolutely delightful with the real kielbasa and pickled onions, by the way.)

They chatted, as expats do, of how long you've been in country, and from where. She mentioned she'd come to the USA in the very early 80's, and I tried to rack my brains about important historical points in Central Europe... not my strong point. Calmer Half is much faster at being on the ball on that, but then, people were shooting at him in that time period. He was paying very sharp attention to world politics. His eyebrows flew up, and he responded in a very impressed tone. "Oh, you got out the hard way."

"Yes, yes I did." She straightened up with a fierce pride, and they glanced over at my still puzzled face. She helped by spitting a name out as though it were the foulest curse ever to touch her lips - "Ceaușescu" - and things suddenly became very clear. (I'm slow, not stupid.)

Yeah, I was definitely the privileged one in the store, for which I thank my parents and ancestors very much. The other two became Americans the hard way, and they're likely better, fiercer, prouder Americans than I can ever be. Thank G-d for the people like that who help keep our nation and its ideals strong.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Hope Takes Wing

Sometimes, humanity is awesome, and people accomplish amazing things. Like, for instance, landing a probe on a freakin' comet. That's just mind-bogglingly awesome, with a standing ovation success moment worthy of cinematic standing and cheering. When we do things like this, yeah, we know we'll eventually overcome the gravity well and explore the universe.

There are quieter victories going on every day around us, too, projects of amazing vision and scope that take years of work to achieve smaller victory after victory. building toward a success so incredible it will seem only natural when it's done. Take, for example, Operation Migration.

In the 1940's, there were only 15 whooping cranes left alive in the wild. After eight decades of conservation work, the population is up to just under 600. That's the result of year after year of hard work by dedicated volunteers. These are environmentalists in the truest sense - not the posing for the cameras and shouting that fur is bad, but in the shoveling shit and spending year after year raising the birds and working through the massive amounts of bureaucracy and regulation between America and Canada to re-establish them. These men and women are to environmentalists what Ayan Hirsi Ali is to feminism: the real deal, willing to tackle the hardest issues and be out there for the long, dirty, hard and dangerous haul.

Unfortunately, migratory patterns in cranes are like legends, languages, and cultures for humans: something that has to be passed from generation to generation. When the last wild crane who flew the migration between Canada and the Gulf Coast died, so passed all the stops, all the ways to catch the wind, all the timing and the landmarks and the knowledge that there ever was a eden filled with food and warmth over winter, and a perfect breeding ground in the far north. All those moments were, indeed, lost like tears in the rain. The cranes left stayed right where they were at, never understanding the urge within that comes at the changing of the seasons.

And that is where a group of people, starting from the realization that Canada Geese could imprint on an ultralight and fly with it, took hard science and raw hope, and merged the two with a crazy idea: teaching the cranes to migrate, by imprinting them on an ultralight and leading them all the way down. Isn't that a crazy idea? Take a trike, that can't handle rough air, in the cold winter winds, for over a thousand miles... and convince a flock of wild birds to stay with you the whole time.

It works.

The first wild chick was hatched in 2006 and followed its parents along the route OM taught them. It was confirmed that December near the wintering grounds in Florida - proving that the concept was sound. It was the first wild-produced migratory Whooping crane to hatch in eastern U.S. since the last nest was reported in 1878.

And this is why, this morning, Peter and I stood on the side of the road watching hopefully over harvested cotton fields, along with several other folks. We were watching the dawn break and waiting for the pilots and ground crew to come over the radio with "They're airborne." And they did - for a moment, the lead trike rose with seven great big white birds (still speckled brown with juvenile feathers) forming a V off its wingtips.

Of course, nothing ever goes perfectly when working with wild animals, and so the morning became a rodeo, trying over and over to catch the birds as they broke away on their own, heading back to the pen where they'd been. They only made it a mile today - but that's one mile closer for this flock. They'll make it yet!

So, the next time you've had your belly full of the idiocy of humanity, and are feeling despair and gloom, remember this: people can be awesome, and there are great things being accomplished out there if you go looking for them.

Friday, November 14, 2014

I love you

I tell my husband every day that I love him.

I won't lie; I've gotten really angry with my husband. And annoyed. And frustrated. But even then, I still love him, even when I didn't like him very much at that moment. Love is a verb, an action, not a fleeting feeling; it is hard work building together and an opening in your emotional defenses, both making of the two of you into one.

I don't stay mad for very long, though there can be a residual grumpy. For one, it's almost always a miscommunication. Sometimes it's cultural, South African vs. American. Sometimes it's just not communicating our wants and needs and expectations clearly enough, or our limitations, restrictions, and commitments. After enough miscommunications, the ability to realize "this is probably just another miscommunication. We'll cool down, figure it out, and then be laughing and back to normal in a little while" is enough to head off the storm of hurting and shouted words before it blows up.

But there's another reason why I can't stay mad at my husband. It's the same reason I tell him I love him every day, and send him random little notes saying so from work, or the road, or the grocery store.

He's already buried many, many people he cared for, after 18 years of civil war. Some went easy, some went hard, some went in despair, and very few of old age. I, too, have lost far too many people I cared for, laughed with, fought over who'd get to pay the bill and took random road trips and flights with. I've landed the plane and sat and shook for a while, knowing that training and G-d's own grace were the only things that just kept me from joining them. It's getting harder to fly, now that every time I walk out to the plane, a little voice whispers in my ear that this could be my last flight.

I've already lost Peter once, before we even married, to a heart attack. They cracked open his chest and patched everything up, but the patches aren't guaranteed to hold forever. In fact, they're not even guaranteed twenty years.

I can't take him for granted. I don't have enough time. I can lie awake some nights, and already see the empty side of the bed in my future, if a car crash or the airplane doesn't get me first. There's no way to know the date marked on the calendar, but it's coming closer every day, every hour. When that moment comes, there'll be no more chances, no more shared laughter, no new memories to make, no more us....

So he went and bought a new gun or three while I was at work? Cool, he'll enjoy it. So he's decided he wants to change all our plans? It'll work out. So he wants to eat out tonight, instead of cooking like he said he would... would I rather have memories of arguments and nagging, or of a happy husband? Is he looking frustrated at the housework, because his body betrayed him? Eh, I'll just do it so he doesn't have to worry. Is he bored? Let's ditch the standard night in and go on a road trip!

G-d may grant me twenty more years (please, G-d, make it fifty? I know that's asking for a miracle, but I love him), or twenty more minutes. I can't afford to waste the time it takes to grow emotionally distant and then reconcile, or even to stay angry. Here, now, this is all I've got, and dwelling on should-have-done or I-wanted-instead loses precious time we'll never get back.

What caliber for the Grim Reaper? Because I'll fight for this man. And every day, he will know that he is loved.

Thursday, November 13, 2014


"You're a racist!"
"Ah Course I am. NASCAR is far better than Formula One, and Talladega over Daytona. If you don' understand that, you're a damnyankee carpetbagger who doesn't know enough to hold up three fingers on the third lap."

That just kicked over my giggle box.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

How small the world becomes

It's a small world out there.

When I lived in Alaska, once a week I'd get together with friends and we'd play a game. Sometimes it was just a board game, sometimes a long-running RPG campaign with paper and dice and creative rule interpretation, but mostly it was just getting together and having fun. We'd often talk about movies, books, shows, and musicians we'd found, and share the goodness. One of my friends mentioned his wife's college roommate, Jagi Lamplighter, was locked in a multi-year struggle with her publisher. The publisher had accepted the book, but was literally taking years to decide whether or not to give it a publication slot. (Later, I'd learn that being openly and proudly Catholic is an incredible detriment to getting published by NYC.)

When Jagi finally got published, we all bought the book to celebrate, and it was a pretty nifty read!

As years unwound, we started splitting separate ways - friends moving to Fairbanks, to the Lower 48, and then I went and fell in love and emigrated down to the Contiguous US myself. My husband started writing, and I started becoming friends with more writers, including the awesome Sarah Hoyt, who has not so much come out of the political closet as had a beautiful firework display of the entire structure with lots of C4. (She's now writing for Baen and independently publishing, neither of which require keeping quiet while others declaim the glorious socialist paradise to come in order to get published.)

And then Sarah mentioned she met this lovely writer at a conference, who was going small-press with her young-adult series, which is charming, delightful, and not only true to teens, but features the rare ability to be readable by adults without inducing the desire to slap the stupid (and the teenage angst) out of the main character.

Yep, Jagi has published The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin, and asked Sarah to blurb the cover for the sequel, The Raven, the Elf, and Rachel.

If you want a fun, light read, try it out. :-)

Friday, September 26, 2014


There's a man. Bloodied, but unbowed.

Friday, September 12, 2014

How much of my stuff is a souvenir?

There are two phases to downsizing your stuff, and it's entirely possible to cycle between them in tune with the 60 Hz hum of a dying transformer.

1.) Junk is stuff you throw away - and so much of this stuff is junk! It's great to be getting rid of this!

2.) Stuff is junk you keep, and I can't get rid of this! Or that! Or that either! And that will probably come in handy, and "Two is one and one is none!" Col. Cooper's ghost would frown if I threw this out!

It's fairly easy to get rid of the first layer of junk, but there comes a time when you're down to stuff. Lots and lots and lots of stuff. Part of the whole process that surprised Calmer Half, when he started unboxing things for the first time in 4 years, was just how much of the things that were packed as good stuff turned into junk he could give away when he finally started sorting through to deal with it.

And today, I found a perfect quote to explain why.

"Physical books are souvenirs of the experience of reading the book."
-Tracy Hickman

This explains many things, like why I keep a pile of paperbacks I haven't reread in years, but loved - and always end up rebuying if I give them away. It's why I cheerfully paid full retail price to buy a hardcover signed edition of Mike Williamson's Freehold, well over a decade after I first read it on a beat-up CRT monitor, page at a time on Baen's Free Library. It explains why some fans of Calmer Half buy the print edition as well as the ebook - or even after they've read the ebook. They want the souvenir from the experience.

It also explains my fifty-odd t-shirts, some of which are old enough to rent a car and nowhere near fitting my current proportions. This shirt is the one I was wearing when I got my flight license. This was the first orienteering course I completed. This was a great scifi con where I met friends. This was the sweatshirt a kind stranger shoved under my head while they waited for the ambulance to come, and the EMTs just tucked under me when they put me on the stretcher. Heck, this even explains the mis-matched utensils in the drawer - this is the set that's complete, but these knives are from the set Calmer Half got for his house when he bought it...

As long as emotions are still attached to the souvenirs, they're stuff that's painful to get rid of. But if I learn to let it go, to look back and realize I'll always have the scent of snow off the glaciers adding its distinctive lilt to a warm Alaskan summer day filled with friendship and muddy malamute paws in my memories, then this is just a pair of jeans so battered they're indecent, and too small anyway.

(Besides, I have no doubt G---- could always reach over to the futon and send me enough spare malamute fur to build a small dog, if I really needed the reminder.)

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.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Branding - Hot Iron Not Included

Branding is a simple name for a simple concept with a complex execution: making something recognizable to the consumer as belonging with another thing.

If the food place off the freeway has a funny yellow M standing high on the signpost, we instantly know what price range, type of food, wait time, quality, etc. to expect even if we've never been off this exit (much less in this state) before. If the athletic gear on the rack has a little swoosh on it, the consumer instantly has an expectation of quality, cost, "cool factor", and such. Beyond symbols, owners often try to make memorable taglines. Dixie Plates has trademarked "Strong plates for heavy, messy meals"(tm). These are to differentiate from every other similar product on the market, to try to get a niche that'll attract consumers - in Dixie's case, for people buying plates and contemplating the disaster after a paper plate folded under a helping of Millicent's Death By Fiery Apocalyptic Doom Chili at the potluck.

When it comes to selling stories, we're all trying to connect a few things.

1. Author Name. Seriously, the readers are loyal to the storyteller, and will binge-read if you give them a chance. Readers who loved your last book, put out six months ago, will snap up your new one as soon as you can jog their memory of how much they liked the last one.
We see this as indies, especially when we run a promotion on a single book. Some readers will start on the promo book, and then read systematically through everything else the author has printed, regardless of genre.

2. Series. If you loved the first one, you're going to want to stay with the characters and find out what happens next. If you picked up one in the middle at random, this is how the author makes it clear to you that there are lots more, and the order in which to read for maximum fun.

3. Genre. When you write different things, you will get different fans. Some may love your mystery but not your romance, others love your steampunk but not your literary. This is how you signal to your fan base how to find the other books they particularly want to read.

4. Publishing house / co-op. This one isn't relevant to one-author houses, but the larger your press or co-op of authors gets, the more you want to funnel readers from "I loved this author, I want more" to "This publisher put out great stories, including that author's. What else do they have?" The Big 5 fail spectacularly at this. Baen is a master of this, as is Harlequin.

So, how do we do it, especially as Indies? Several ways.

1. Cover Art.

Look, if your art was awesome enough to catch a random reader's eyes once, stick with a good thing! Use the same artist, or a similar one with a similar style, to catch your reader's eyes again!

Every artist, once they grow beyond imitation, develops their own style. Chandler's "voice" is very different from Tolkein's, and Monet's paintings are very different from H.R. Giger's. If you retain the same artist, your series will be very recognizable by the style of the art. For example. Don Dos santos does urban fantasy, YA scifi, a little fantasy, a little scifi of the more adventure / possibly space opera bent... but you can tell a Dos Santos cover, and you can tell which of the painting in his gallery belong to the same series. Check out his gallery here.

Now, most of us can't afford a Dos Santos, Kurt Miller, Michael Whelan, or Boris Vallejo cover. But you can look at your level. We started with innovari, and when supplies ran low (he hasn't uploaded in 3 years), we went with the closest match in good milscifi ship and art design, PhilCold. (Great artist, easy to work with.) If you have an artist with a unique style that you like and has graced the first in the series from a royalty free site, don't be afraid to contact the artist and ask about a custom cover if you know what you want and they don't have what you need uploaded.

2. Cover design / typography.

If you can't find a similar piece of art, this is where your designer can put photoshop to the test and make a similarly styled picture look like it belongs perfectly - giving it different treatments until it looks like an oil painting, or has decorative moire patterns to match the last cover added in.

The cover designer will also select the typography and kern it correctly - and this is often the most obvious place to build genre and author brand. Go to Amazon and look through some of the most popular series and authors. Note how similar the design of each series title and author can be, and of the author name across their various series.

This, by the way, is why Baen is an instantly recognizable house - it has a limited slate of cover artists whose styles complement, and a single cover designer with an homage-to-pulpy-fun style. (At least, I hear it's only one designer. Even if they have a full team, the lead designer can set the style and tone for everyone under him, and keep all artwork designing to that same principle.)

Note: If you feel that you got the genre cuing wrong or just want a different / better cover, don't feel restricted to the style and fonts of the last cover. You can always use a book launch as a great time to re-brand the older books to match the newest one!

3. Personal Branding.

This is for making yourself a.) instantly recognizable and b.) making sure you leave an impression enough times to be remembered when doing public appearances. John Ringo always wears kilts and has his hair in a ponytail at cons. Howard Tayler always wears formal business wear. Cedar Sanderson has a small collection of evening gowns, while Dave Pascoe can be seen in a kilt, vest, and undone bowtie. (I presume it's tied sometime, but it's always undone when I see him at cons.) David Burkhead is always in black, with a bright purple patch in his dark hair. No matter what your schtick is, be consistent. It'll help fans find you and connect, and let them easily point out so others can go "Oh, that guy!" when you or your books are brought up in conversation.

Caveat One: While mode and manner of dress is a standard way to stand out, it's not the only one - nor does it need to be artificially forced. Calmer Half doesn't have a specific wardrobe, but the distinctive accent, silvery hair, neatly trimmed beard, and dry humour leavened with the occasional war story or pun seem to leave plenty of impression anyway.

Caveat Two: J. L. Curtis - this one's not for you. If you're not doing public appearances, don't worry. And no, blogmeets in the US inbetween popping up in Australia and Italy and points all over doesn't count. Stay safe, my friend.

Caveat Three: when you become visibly branded as An Author, you become a sort of public figure. What you do and how you act in public will become part of your reputation. Generally, being polite and professional will go a long way toward keeping a warm fuzzy feeling toward you. Don't be afraid to hit back when threatened, especially if you can make it as entertaining as Larry Correia, but don't start nothing and think twice before opening your mouth.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Covers: Cueing Genre and Subgenre

The best way to get a feel for what your cover needs to signal is to look at your genre's covers, discard the classics and the iconic covers with major push, and average the differences for cues. However, I've had lots of reminding the past few days that not everyone has the visual memory / visual processing / sufficient exposure to understand what I mean without more explanation. I've seen this before, in brand new home buyers trailing behind a home inspector / landlord / rehabber.

I can drive past a property, and wince. "Absolutely not."
"Why not? It's pretty, has a big yard, is in our price range, and we haven't even looked inside yet!"
"You see how the roofline's sagging? That's major structural repair. And see the caulked lines on the downhill side of the house? That's a cracking foundation, as it's settling. I don't care how pretty the kitchen and bathrooms are, that's a money pit that'll be less expensive to demolish and rebuild. What's your next address?"

So, here's my attempt to point out what I'm looking for when it comes to signals, so you can do it consciously. PS - you may have to turn off adblocker or noscript to get these to show, because it's infinitely easier for me to link to an amazon-hosted image than to try to download all the images, upload all of them to picasa, and then link them all. Like you guys, but you're not paying me to work that hard for your convenience.

Space Opera and Military SF have a fairly broad overlap; their Venn diagram has most of the the books in the center of both ranges. General rule #1: No photographs other than NASA images. Rendered and painted art is perfectly normal.

Classic ship + planet. "Exploding ship in space - you can tell it's space because of the planet! Epic space battles! It's Military Science Fiction - or Space Opera! (Check the blurb.)"

Classic planet. "Hi! It's set in space! It's science fiction with planetary scope! It's Space opera!"

It's an exploding ship in space - it's military scifi! And hey, if you're not on a mobile browser, look at the sidebar for some non-exploding ships in space, or with alien moons to signify it's not earth! They're space opera!

The number of sarcastic exclamation points is only partly because I'm still on my first cuppa for the day. It's also because covers scream. They have to - as you're skimming a bookstore shelf or a web page of search returns, there's no time for a slow, gentle, subtle introduction. Nobody notices the wallflower - so the good ones tend to be jumping up and down screaming "Pick me! Pick me! Over here!"

It's a space scene... and a person! It's Space Opera! Okay, if the person is holding a gun or wearing military uniform/body armor, there's still a good chance it's military scifi.

For a note on typography - this could be a military thriller, or even a book on a historical battle, by cover art. Nothing really says military scifi... except that typography. That's pure Baen, which screams from six feet away in a bookstore "I'm Baen scifi! My characters kick ass and take names with an awesome plot!"

On to post-apocalyptic fiction. Again, no photographs.

The nuclear explosion, biohazard and radiation symbols have been so overdone you'll need a truly outstanding treatment to look attractive, but they can always be snuck in as an element of the covert art.

Epic paintings/rendering of ruins of modern civilization are pretty standard.

Also, there's usually a a human against the ruins, walking toward or walking away. And, you'll notice that most of these covers are fairly dark, or grungy.

Epic fantasy! Photographs are right out, and so are renderings. This needs to look like an oil painting. Yes, specifically oil.

You have three choices: landscape with guy with sword,

guy with sword,

or magnificent architecture (epic landscape.)

Why didn't I mention the two biggest-selling epic fantasies? Because they're the two biggest epic-selling fantasies, with multi-million dollar marketing campaigns and lots and lots of push.

This isn't a very visible image in thumbnail, but with a TV show and lots of coop space (the tables at the front of the store), millions of occasional readers to non-readers know Game of Thrones. This very, very strong iconic branding means that you can spot it easily, and someone who doesn't read SF&F but can't wait for the next season of the tv show can walk in and instantly spot the book they want.

If you don't have the push, I don't recommend going for the indecipherable icon. Why not? Well, an unexplained little swoosh is instantly recognizable as a Nike product - but another unexplained little squiggle is just some knock-off no-name cheap Chinese athletic gear. So, too, an indecipherable cover icon "It's a...helmet? maybe?" requires the background treatment and typography alone to carry genre, subgenre, and promises to the reader - and has to overcome "Oh, it's a game of thrones knockoff."

Now for two oft-confused subgenres with almost as much overlap as space opera and milscifi: urban fantasy and paranormal romance. The difference is that one is about kick-ass people in variants of modern-day with magic/fantasy tropes, while the other is a romance in an urban fantasy setting, with a "strong female lead" (sadly, usually the romances confuse bitchy, self-centered, and abusive with "strong." Feminism, you have a LOT of damage to the culture to answer for.)

Guy who is not half-naked, wearing a noir-film remeniscent trenchcoat, firing gun while holding mystical-symbol staff: urban fantasy.

Woman facing the viewer, head visible, holding weapon (bonus points for it being primitive weapon.) Urban fantasy. Though it's Mercedes Thompson, which like several other series started off as great urban fantasy, and has slid firmly into paranormal romance. A common feature / bug in the genre, and part of why it's so hard to tell one from the other.

Woman facing away from the viewer / face not visible. Paranormal Romance! Bonus points for skin-tight clubbing gear, any hints of black leather, black latex. Points deducted for lack of weapon.

This one again works on the typography. Guy with sword: quest fantasy or urban fantasy? Grunge font - urban fantasy.

I have now spent two and a half hours on this post. I'm going to wander off and find breakfast, more tea, and the daily chores. If you have a genre/subgenre you specifically want me to cue, put it in comments.

Catnip and elefunks

When we first got Kili, she was 4 pounds of malnourished, half-starved shy and wild thing. Her documentation from the shelter said "three years old, already had a litter, spayed."

We started feeding her high-quality, expensive cat food (Same stuff Oleg Volk's Gremlin gets), and her coat became soft and shiny. She also doubled her weight in a month. (Orijen, for the curious.) We also tried to interest her in catnip toys, but she was completely uninterested. Springs, bottlecaps, boxes, hands under covers - those are the good stuff.

Well, a small percentage of adult cats are, like all juveniles, unresponsive to catnip. They don't have the genetic switch, you see. So I accepted a tiny 8-pound adult who wouldn't play with catnip.

Except today we caught her, red-pawed, dragging a long-forgotten catnip toy out of some recess (probably under the couch), and rubbing herself all over it in glee. I eyed my now-11-pound cat, and considered how small and curmudgeonly she'd been when we first got her. Nope, not fat - just seriously, seriously off in estimated age. And now fully adult, and stoned out of her little furry head.

Note to self: check with vet if she needs any follow-up shots, and if she's actually spayed or not.

So, of course, what do we do after going off to member night at the zoo to see the elefunks and zebras? Why, stop at out favorite pet store just before they closed, and buy a fresh catnip toy. Because our little ambush predator is hilariously mellow when stoned.

Oh, and if you're looking for publishing thoughts, go check out calmer Half's post on Mad Genius Club on the correlation between rankings and sales.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Metrics - Because Math Is the Universal Business Language.

One of traditional publishing's many, many failures is their basic lack of data capture - the fact that they have no way to measure how an individual book is a success or failure compared to others, and thus no way to derive why a book succeeds or fails. The rest of us don't get to lean on multi-billion dollar media conglomerates and whine about Amazon; we have to figure it out as we're already in motion, in order to keep improving our successes and minimizing our losses.

A quick note on success: if you truly believe that publishing your book was only done for the love of it, then you're likely to be offended when success is measured in monetary terms and volume of sales. That's fine for you, but not for anyone who wants to increase sales, or cover the mortgage. Math is a language used to describe the universe, and in order to describe it, we need to use terms in common. Unit volume and dollar volume are the terms I'm choosing. Fuzzy feel-good and raising awareness are not quantifiable terms, and therefore are not useful terms.

So, how do you track the time you spend building an audience, the time you spend writing, the time you spend editing, the time you spend looking for cover art / working on covers? How do you track the size of your fanbase, and whether or not they're actually interested in buying the things you write? How about the reach and effect of promotions? Welcome to metrics.

While I should hope that facebook and twitter, google+ and myspace and every other format I'm rolling into MyTwitFace have the ability to keep metrics, I'm going to tackle blogs because I know blogs. Wash, rinse, repeat, apply as you can to other social media.

First, how much traffic do you get on your blog? will let you track the number of visitors and pageviews, the sites referring people to you, and your most visited posts. It doesn't, however, capture the audience that uses an RSS feed to view your posts - for that, see feedburner. Neither do a great job at capturing outclicks - people going from your post to an amazon book page, for example.

If you are in a state or country that has an agreement with (and if I understand correctly, also has this option), get thee to the Amazon Associates program and sign your happy site up right now! This program lets you give site-tagged links for products that people can click on, and you get a kickback for driving traffic to them. However nice the money is, though, it's almost irrelevant compared to the data. With this linking account, you can actually see how many people who clicked out from your site went and bought your story!

This is how I can tell you exactly how many people clicked through a book announcement each day and bought the newly-released book. This is how I can tell you the rough effectiveness of a newsletter mailing. Mailchimp can tell me how many people clicked on the link in the newsletter, but the Amazon Associate program can tell me how many of those people actually bought the book. Seriously, it's like Amazon whipped aside its veil of corporate secrecy, and is giving you straight, raw, glorious data on how effective any and every promotion you do is in ACTUAL SALES through your links, separated out from the casual browser on amazon itself.

When you know how many people are visiting your site on average each weekday, and how many people bought the latest release through said site (use the first 7 days unless you click-to-sale ratios are very different from ours), then that tells you the size of your story-purchasing fan base versus the whole. When you know how many people over the course of a non-release month clicked on your book cover icon on your sidebar (and you DO have your book covers with a link to retailers on your sidebar, right where they can see it, don't you?) compared to how many bought your stories straight off, you know the background sales level of just keeping your blog traffic steady. When you can tell how many people opened a newsletter, how many clicked to the page, and how many of those bought the story - that tells you whether your ripest area for improvement is on the newsletter, or on the cover/blurb. If you do a guest post and they let you use your associate tag instead of one of their own (be very polite and ask, if you're not sure), then you can look at the spike and see how effective guest-posting was. If you're on a forum and embed the link in your sig with a cover or two (assuming it's not against forum etiquette), then you can measure the traffic from your frequent posting days to see if the visibility drives sales.

What you can measure, you can improve and measure again to make sure it was an improvement.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

To blog or not to blog - that's not the question! (social media for authors)

As you can tell from the sparsity of my posting on this blog and my lack of facebook / twitter / etc, I am not a very social-media person. It did not thrill my little heart when a coworker came up to me the morning after a Company Event, and said "I saw the pictures of you all over mytwitbook!" Nor did I rush to pull out a smartphone and retweet or "like" everything. (Those of you who like me anyway, thank you. I like you too, as friends and acquaintances, not as clicky-button-instead-of-adding-coherent-commentary.) I feel it's important that you know my stance, so you can vary your "take with grain of salt" dosage accordingly.

So, how important is social media? Do you have to participate? How many accounts do you need to have? How often do you have to tweet? Cart. Horse. Wrong questions. Try this one instead.

What can you gain from using social media, and what return on investment can you gain from time spent? How do you maximize this?

The single most expensive thing you can spend is your time, because you don't get it back, and there's no way to get more. It's also the thing that every one of us gets (until we don't), and therefore the easiest to spend. Tomorrow you'll have 24 more hours to spend that day (G-d willing), no matter what the state of your bank account. Some are sunk costs already: if you don't spend at least 6 sleeping (8 for me) and at least 1 eating, the rest will be pretty miserable. Of the remaining, not all are equal for creative work. May writers do best in the morning; others do best in the late evening, and some will have to make do with whatever can be squeezed into while the baby's sleeping, waiting for customers to check in or between patients.

Many writers transitioning to full-time are startled to find that they don't have 8-10 hours of writing in them; the brain is a muscle, and after 2-5 hours, it goes to mush and won't put out any more creative work. (It gets better as you train it, but there is a practical limit.) This leads to indie authors writing in the morning and editing/marketing/business matters in the afternoon, as they don't require the same skill sets. Keep this in mind, and schedule wisely.

Now, to the meat of the question: what is the point of a blog/ mytwitface account?
1. Gain reader exposure / attract readers
2. Retain readers' interest, building name recognition.
3. Build excitement for the next release, so you can
4. Spike your sales in the first few days of your book release / sale

No, interacting with your readers isn't a goal, it's a process. It's how you accomplish your goals.

Goals 1-3 are very fuzzy and hard to measure. "Raising awareness" is so nebulous entire charities make their mint and pay their execs handsome salaries on doing just that while never having to provide any actual outcomes to justify their existence. As indie authors, though, we'd better find ways to quantify and qualify to see if we're wasting time that would be better spent writing. You measure these by site visits and click-throughs, "likes", retweets, etc. Keep in mind, though, the sad fate of a nearly unknown writer (not even sure she was published yet?) telling Larry Correia that she was better than him because she had more facebook friends... don't get obsessed with these metrics, because ultimately, they only matter when you translate them to the action on goal #4.

Strange as this will sound to you, the five years of daily blogs that Calmer Half put out before he released the first book only made a difference for three days. The same is true of mailing lists - you may have 18,000 subscribers, but it'll only make a difference for 18 hours. The point is: your audience on your soial media, whatever form it takes, is not the main audience that will buy your books - the main audience is a vast unknown mass of readers idly browsing amazon, looking for something to read. Your social media audience is there to help you spike the sales numbers on release, drawing enough sales fast enough to kindle (heh) that fire. Once your fans put you on the bestseller lists, and tell people about you, then the world will be able to see and buy your book.

So first, you want to get them excited about an upcoming book. You'll be excited about it, and share that enthusiasm - the joy of finishing the draft, the excitement of the cover reveal (sometimes authors even do two or three options, and kick it out to their readers to help decide which is the best cover. This engages your audience, making them feel excited and invested in the upcoming release.) Some authors release snippets, teasing the audience and whetting their appetite for the rest of the story.

Second, DON'T SPAM YOUR READERS. Did I make that clear enough? Look, Calmer Half gets about 3,000 visits/day. The sell-through rate (people who click on the release announcement to go buy) is much lower than that, and it drops by 50% every day after release.

So, if 100 people click through and buy the book on release day, 50 will on day 2, then 25 on day 3, 12 on day 4, and 6 on day 5. This happens whether we mention the book every day or not; it's been a consistent pattern across all releases. By Day 5, the sell-though rate from "buy my book!" is indistinguishable from background sales through the pictures on the sidebar, by infrequent readers just noticing or browsers who just found the blog being curious enough to click through and check out the books. So by Day 5, announcing again won't help sales, and will annoy the people who've already bought the book - or won't get around to it for weeks.

Third, What do you write about inbetween book announcements? Something that interests you (they won't be excited if you're not excited), and will interest your target market. Which means, don't write primarily about writing. The only people who want to talk about whether or not it's okay to have first person protagonists are other writers, not readers. (This isn't to say never do it; people are fascinated by how things are made / done behind the scenes. See the astounding popularity of Dirty Jobs, How It's Made, Deadliest Catch, etc.)

For blog examples, which tend to be longer format than mytwitface, My Calmer Half has everything from articles on airplanes to cute Peruvian commercial. Sarah Hoyt has social, political, and feline commentary. And free novel chapters. Cedar Sanderson has book reviews, food photography, life updates, snippets of upcoming books, and art. Dave Freer has the "mundane" (only to him and his neighbors) everyday adventures of homesteading in Flinders Island, Tasmania. Larry Correia has a serial adventure written from his gaming campaign, pictures of minis (miniature models for fantasy armies) he's painted, social commentary, book promotion for friends and good causes, and fisking trolls.

For shorter form, see Larry, Sarah, Marko Kloos, or high-selling authors in your genre on facebook - and for very short format, see them on twitter. If you're better at coming up with snarky bumper stickers than articles as long as this, you're probably going to be better showcased on twitter. If your response is "any philosophy that can fit on a bumper sticker is idiotic", you'll probably do much better on blog.

Be warned: Facebook has a habit of censoring how many people can see a post with a link. So if you send "my book's out!" with a link, only 180 out of 3000 people may see it. The current workaround it to post the announcement sans link, and add the link in first comment.

More on click-through, sell-through, and advertising another day.

Monday, July 7, 2014

It's not spam, it's tasty - Mailing Lists

We've all done this: picked up a book, enjoyed a series, read everything we could find in it, and... completely forgotten about it when we couldn't find the next book. Sometimes the publisher killed the series in the middle, sometimes it just didn't get stocked in your bookstores, sometimes it didn't come out for three years and by then you'd forgotten to even look for it.
How do you prevent this from happening to your readers? Amazon has a notification that an author has another book out, but it's intermittent at best. What if you're relying on B&N to tell its customers, and they go out of business? You can reach out on twitter, but will it get lost in all the other tweets, or if you repeat it, will you get blocked out as "spam"? You can put it on facebook, and on your blog, and each of those will reach the audience actively following you, but what about the casual reader who isn't fan enough to follow?

Enter the mailing list. If you have the names and email addresses of your readers, then you can reach them. No publishers, no bookstores, no distributor can take away your ability to reach out and directly tell these readers that you have something they're interested in buying.

A mailing list is something to start building early; you can't plant tomato seeds on Monday and expect to reap a caprese salad on Friday. The best way to do it is through one of the mailing list companies like Mailchimp, Mad Mimi, Aweber, or Constant Contact, as sending a single email to too many people from a personal email (the "too many" varies by mail provider, but I've seen it happen to people sending out Christmas letters to a large family) triggers their spammer alerts.

Warning: the CAN SPAM act requires a physical mailing address for the sender, which gets put on the bottom of every email. This is a great reason to rent a PO Box / mailing box at the UPS store / mailing box at a local business for your publishing imprint. Protect your privacy, protect yourself, and don't use your home address. Also, get a different email address for this, so the inevitable spam and reader replies will be separated from your emails to vendors, distributors, and your mom.

Now, how often do you send out emails? There are plenty of readers who will, by reflex, say '"Oh, I just want to know when the next release is out", and plenty of shy, retiring writers who say "I hate spam, so I don't want to bother my readers". However, if you don't remind people who you are, after six months, they won't recognize the name in their inbox and delete it unopened. Even after three months, you are but one of the many books they've read, and may not trigger name recognition. On the other hand, once a day is far, far too much. Most authors default to monthly, and that seems to be a fine compromise.

What should be in the email? Well, you have everything from David Drake's wonderfully chatty bimonthly newsletters,, to H.M. Ward's announcements of upcoming releases about every 3 weeks. See if any authors you like have newsletters, and sign up. Try some of the top people in your genre, whether you like their work personally or not - it'll give you a feel for someone who's doing something right on the marketing.

Generally, a newsletter should have:
1. Where you are at on current releases and future books.
2. Con appearances
3. Something interesting / fun / cool. This is a great place to stick deleted scenes, trivia, snippets of upcoming books, cover reveals of upcoming books... something that makes the newsletter not feel like the authorial equivalent of the grocery store circulars that keep getting stuck in the mailbox.

Buying/selling email addresses: DON'T. Not only is it immoral, unethical, illegal, but bought lists are unlikely to contain your target market - people who want to know about your book. Similarly, don't betray the trust of people who like you enough to want to read more of your stuff. Word of mouth is the slowest, most unpredictable, and by far the most powerful marketing tool out there, and you want it to be good.

Do you have to have a mailing list? Nope. But it's a great tool. It helps drive interested readers to your books who otherwise would take days to months to learn about a new release - or would forget about you entirely. It'll also send them over a roughly 18-hour period (the bulk of emails are opened in the first 18 hours) which will give you a nice sales rank boost, leading to better visibility.

One more note to avoid spam filters - don't send a link that looks like it's for one web address, and actually goes to another. For example, do not have your hyperlink text say "" while your link is "". To an auto-spam-filter, that's indistinguishable from "" being redirected to" Instead have your hypertext say "Amazon" or "Amazon - UK" or something similar that doesn't look like a web address.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

A place for everything - Keywords and Categories

In the 1880's, a librarian named Charles Dewey got so frustrated at trying to find books (they used to be shelved by date of acquisition and height), that he released upon the world the Dewey Decimal system, with the (at-the-time) astounding advance of organizing books by subjects, from most general to most specific.

For over a hundred years, his system has made it possible for people who are not experts on a single library's particular collection to easily track down the area of the library with the general subject (history), the aisles with the more specific subject (American history), and get to the shelf with the Spanish-American War books. This is awesome. As an indie publisher, you want to know this if you want your book to end up in a library.

Bookstores, though, found problems with the Dewey Decimal Code, in part because it has the inborn design view of a 1800's American librarian, and doesn't play well with fiction. They have mostly adapted the BISAC, Book Industry Standards and Communications. You'll want to know BISAC, because that's how you're going to categorize your book for sale. is the page with all the categories. You'll be using those for Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and itunes. When you hear the phrase cross-genre, these are the original genres, the categories that made publishers look at a book and go "Bookstores won't know where to shelve it, so I won't buy it."

And then there's Amazon. Amazon took a look at BISAC, and says, "Well, that's neat. But the customers who want to read about ninjas in space won't know where to find it, and what if they want epic fantasy instead of adventure fantasy?" So they promptly went and created a whole bunch more categories, and sub categories, and sub-sub categories, and tickyboxes on the side of the page so you could say you wanted romance that only included men with kilts, or pirates in pantaloons, thank you.

Amazon is still creating categories. They love creating categories. They just made "short reads", and are plunking fiction in sorted by the amount of time it takes the average reader to read 'em.

This is important. Every categorization system before Amazon's was made to shelve a physical book. They are exclusive, as putting a book in one category prevents it from being put in any other category. Amazon's is inclusive, designed to put your book in all the places a customer might look for it. It's the difference between filing paperwork and tagging a photo on flickr. This is as different a worldview as Dewey's was in his day.

Just as tagging a photo requires, commonly recognized labels to create a populated cloud of photos under that label, and #hashtags on twitter work because people #recognize them as a #commontrend, so Amazon has "keywords." You only get to pick two categories when you initially publish, so the keywords you enter will unlock the subcategories for you.

For Example, War To The Knife (Laredo War Trilogy Book 1)'s main categories are:
FICTION > Science Fiction > Space Opera
FICTION > Science Fiction > Military

However, it's present in all the following categories:

Books > Literature & Fiction
Books > Science Fiction & Fantasy > Science Fiction > Adventure
Books > Science Fiction & Fantasy > Science Fiction > Military
Books > Science Fiction & Fantasy > Science Fiction > Space Opera
Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Science Fiction & Fantasy > Science Fiction > Colonization
Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Science Fiction & Fantasy > Science Fiction > Galactic Empire
Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Science Fiction & Fantasy > Science Fiction > Military > Space Fleet
Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Science Fiction & Fantasy > Science Fiction > Military > Space Marine
Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Science Fiction & Fantasy > Science Fiction > Space Opera

We did that by putting in the following keywords: "Fleet, Marine, Space, Action, republic, Colonization, Starship"

But how did we know what keywords to put in? We went to the KDP help pages: they have lists.

Note they have keywords for characters. Well, if you browse from the kindle ebook section of amazon, clicking on science fiction and fantasy, then on fantasy, you'll see subgenres of fantasy on the left side of the screen. Scrolling further down, you'll see tickboxes with specific characters. Did you want pirates? Clicky the tickybox, and anyone who put "pirate" in as a keyword will pop up, even if their title says "raiders" and their book description says "the dread scourge of the high seas", but never once uses the word pirate.

Yes, that last sentence does indeed mean that keywords are not the only way to get in these categories and characters; putting the words in your book title and your book's blurb will also do so... but NOT as reliably as a keyword. Also, "Swept Away ROMANCE KILTS TIME TRAVEL SCARED SHEEP by Ina Godda DaVida " just looks tacky, and will drive readers away.

What about the book Description? Death of a Musketeer (Musketeers Mysteries Book 1) is in:
Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Mystery, Thriller & Suspense > Mystery > Historical
Kindle Store > Kindle eBooks > Mystery, Thriller & Suspense > Mystery > Private Investigators

But there's no good way to specify which period in history you want your historical mystery, or which city. So, the book blurb does it for the search engine.

"April in Paris 1625. D'Artagnan, and his new friends who hide their true identities under the assumed names of Athos, Porthos and Aramis, discover the corpse of a beautiful woman who looks like the Queen of France.
Suspecting an intrigue of Cardinal Richelieu's and fearing the murder will go unpunished they start investigating. But the enterprise will be fraught with danger, traps from the Cardinal, duels with guards and plotting from the king himself."

Yep, there you have Musketeer (in the title), Paris, D'Artagnan, Athos, Porthos, Aramis, Queen, France, Cardinal, Richelieu, duels, king. That's some search engine optimization right there.

What will this do for you? First off, it'll put the book where the readers are looking for it. If your wild elven pirates are fighting the dwarven navies, no matter what terms you used, it'll pop up in the search when a reader is looking for a good pirate tale. If you're not on a top-100 list this is your best shot besides showing up in also-boughts at coming to a reader's attention.

Speaking of those top-100 lists, there are 162,352 stories in Science Fiction & Fantasy right now. There are 1802 in steampunk. If you've written a post-apocalyptic steampunk adventure, your chances of getting on the top-100 list are weighing against 1802 others in steampunk, and 6,452 in post-apocalyptic. That's a whole lot easier than competing against the multimillion dollar media campaign for George RR Martin, or against the several-decade rolling franchises of Star Trek and Star Wars. And once you get on those top-100 lists, by being visible, it's a lot easier to capture browser's attention and stay visible.

On the other paw, this also tells you the size of the market. There are 24,090 historical romances in ebook. Clearly, your PA-steampunk adventure isn't going to have the same popularity as Say, Outlander: A Novel (#2 in the historical romances, #74 in the entire 2-million-plus kindle store, as I type). In fact, Shadowdance: The Darkest London Series: Book 4 is #2 in steampunk and #3,704 in kindle store as I type this.

Caveat: Your book should go in all the places it belongs, but don't stick it in places that have more traffic, but it doesn't belong. Chick lit about shoes and metrosexuals does not belong in historical romance. Quest fantasy does not belong in hard science fiction. You will get ticked off customers, one-star reviews, and refunds all saying "not what I expected/wanted!" Don't piss off the readers, who are the people you want to help you pay for food.