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.

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Master Classes on Writing - The Deep Archives

Warning: any one of these links will take between 15-50 hours to work your way through.

"The net is vast and infinite", but search engines can't give the answers you seek when you don't know how to frame the question. Experts speak specialized languages, and they are opaque to the laymen. Also, when just starting in a new field, it is hard to tell the virtues of those who are experts from the vices of those who hold themselves out as experts.
So, here are some in-depth, actual experts, sharing their knowledge. Each one must be taken for where they started, where they ended, and the audience they were and are speaking to.

1. Write About Dragons.
Write About Dragons is a master class on writing, given by Brandon Sanderson. Who is Brandon Sanderson? (okay, those of you who read epic fantasy are staring in amazement at the question; the rest of you are still looking inquisitive.) He's one of the biggest names in fantasy right now, both from his own works and from being the writer who successfully finished Robert Jordan's Wheel Of Time series.

In one of those strange and rare moments of clear-headed thinking by an administrator, he has been hired by Brigham Young University to teach a master class on writing. And for two years, students have filmed the class and put it up on youtube for the rest of us to see. The link above is to a student page that lays out the syllabus, and breaks out the entire semester's worth of videos into topics discussed in each.

Caveat: While Brandon is one of those relatively rare people who can teach what he does well, he is at the top of his game in trad pub. Don't go into this class looking specifically for indie publishing advice; he won't BS on what he doesn't know. Also, it's aimed at pre-published writers. It will include the most basic points as well as the highly advanced ones.

2. Kristine Kathyrn Rusch, "The Business Rusch" and other articles

Kris Rusch, and her husband Dean Wesley Smith, have been in publishing from all sides. They're career writers, ranging across many genres and pen names, decades of work from media tie-in fiction to their own original stuff, short stories to novels. Kris was an award-winning editor, and together they once ran a publishing company. So they have a perspective that is nearly unique, and she spent five years writing articles once a week to explain the publishing industry from the inside, the business end of being a successful career author, working with editors, the challenges of discoverability, and even, after the death of a friend, the very-rarely-mentioned topic of how to do estate planning for your intellectual property.

Check out the "business resources" and the "for writers" tabs at the top of her blog - if you're a writer just starting, the "for writers" contains The Freelancer's Survival Guide, which is a great guide to looking at this business not from a "I wrote a book! Yay!" but a "taxes, business plan, reserves in the bank before you quit your day job" sort of way.

Caveat: Kris started writing these before the indie market really exploded. She starts from a fairly trad-pub mindset, aiming only at getting writers to be able to build a career in trad pub. It's fascinating to watch her change as the market shifted radically, but don't swallow all of her advice without chewing on it and thinking about when she was writing, and what's happened since.

3. Writing Excuses

This is a podcast started by Brandon Sanderson (whose cred is already established above), Howard Tayler (of Schlock Mercenary, one of the few web cartoonists to make a full-time, family-suporting living), and Dan Wells (a midlist horror writer, and good guy.)

Their tag line is "fifteen minutes long, because you're in a hurry, and we're not that smart." For the first 5 seasons, it worked great, because they tackled one writing topic, and each person had five minutes to work on it. In the sixth season they added a fourth person, Mary Robinette Kowal (midlist regency romance dressed up as fantasy), but didn't make the podcast any longer - and that's about the time I didn't find they were going in-depth enough anymore to really be interesting. Which is a shame, because when they had her on as a guest, she had some really interesting things to say from a puppeteering background about character focus and directing the audience attention.

Give the archives a try, knowing that the first season of any podcast is rough. Maybe you'll get more out of Season Six on than I do, maybe not - but there is good information in the first five, and plenty of fun.

4. Dean Wesley Smith, "Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing" and other articles

Dean is Kris Rusch's husband. He has a lot of interesting things to say in his own right, in a more abrasive style than she does. Every year, he also updates and rewrites a series (and then publishes it when done as a book) called Think Like A Publisher. I recommend that, too.

You'll notice there are workshops advertised on his page. You'll also notice that he doesn't make his living from those; he makes his living from royalties, and WMG publishing, which he and Kris started to put up their extensive backlist... and then inevitably branched out, because they can't do just one project at a time. I've heard nothing but good about said workshops, but have not taken one myself, and can honestly say the advice that is free is plenty good and sound.

5. The Passive Voice

Passive Voice is the instapundit of the writing world, run by "Passive Guy", an IP lawyer whose commentary is brilliant and cutting. The best part are the comments, because that's where you can see working writers chatting about the industry and various events, and actually get a finger on the pulse of the publishing world (indie, hybrid, and trad-only).

Be warned: after reading six months worth of TPV, you'll have learned enough about what it's actually like to deal with tradition publishers in their contract clauses, their attitudes, and their corporate structure that the very idea of an offer from Simon & Schuster or Hachette will set your skin crawling. It's been accused of being an "Amazon cheerleader" site by its detractors.. but really, it's full of authors who have kicked over the can of worms in the bright daylight, are discussing the filthiness displayed there on the ground, and how great it is to have other options!

You'll also regularly see some of the luminaries of the indie world regularly pop up in comments.

Caveat: The unofficial etiquette rules before you start - promoting your own work is verboten, as is discussing religion or politics. The crowd ranges from the hard left to the hard right, from military scifi to erotica authors, so everybody has a little tactful dance they do to avoid pissing in the pool and ruining the unique culture there.

6. And one short site, that'll only take a few hours. Author Earnings

Author Earnings is the ONLY site to try to answer two questions: What does the entire industry, trad and indie, look like in terms of units sales, dollar amounts, and total volume? How much are the authors earning?

The studies you see in the news are, without fail, commissioned by the trad pub, for the trad pub, and completely fail to capture the indie market. Well, that's like saying we're going to study the pizza market - but only look at sit-down restaurants, and completely ignore any pizza delivery information.

So Hugh Howey and an unnamed gentleman (commenters on The Passive Voice referred to him as Data Guy, and he now uses that handle) set out to find a way to capture the data. The first report they ran was met with universal scorn from trad pub, claiming it was incomplete, it had to be utterly wrong, it was only one small snapshot of data and didn't represent the market...

The second report has been met with a deafening silence, because it confirms things nobody in trad pub wants to hear. Such as the "flattening growth and decline of ebook sales"... is only in trad pub, and it's because they're capturing less and less of the growing market. And that there are now more indie authors making a full-time living, than all the traditionally published authors. Go. Read. The hard numbers, and the raw data, about the true market, are right there for you.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Happy Independence Day

To those of you who are Americans by choice, to those of you who are Americans by birth and by choice, and to those of you who are Americans by birth and will yet learn that it is a choice - Happy Independence Day. It's not a perfect country, but it's the best one out there of all of 'em.

Now go out there and celebrate!

(And for those of you wondering why I'm suddenly writing a lot about the technical and business side of books, I was on a panel at LibertyCon, wherein I had 20 minutes to try to explain the entire marketing side of indie books. This is pretty much the residue rolling around my head of all the things I wanted to say. There's more to come, probably for the next week or so, and then it's back to normal. Most of y'all can roll your eyes and ignore this stuff. Old NFO, though, you and Brigid might find something useful here or there in the lot.)

What's It About? - How to write the stuff on the back of the book

Out of all the books, your cover caught a reader's eye. Now, quick - in less than 100 words, sell your story to the reader. What's it about? Why's it interesting enough to download a sample - or pay for, sight unseen?

I know, I know. If you could say everything interesting about your novel, it'd be as long as... your novel. Welcome to the wonderful world of ad copy, also called promotional copy, and generally referred to as "the blurb." (Which is a misused term, as "blurb" used to mean solely the line on the front cover by famous author saying "greatest thing since hot running water!" But misused or not, it's becoming the standard term. I still think "blog" is a silly term, but just stand aside while the relentless changes to the english language roll on...)
First, just as the book cover is an advertisement not a true representation of your book, the blurb is an advertisement, not a plot summary. If you are describing what's going on past chapter 3, you're doing it wrong. (Unless it's epic fantasy.)
Second, all blurbs, regardless of genre, boil down to three critical elements. A protagonist, in a place, with a problem.

If you have 50 minutes to spare (actually less than that, once you skip the intro on each video), watch Dan Wells talk about story structure here:

If you don't, answer these questions.
Who is your major character?
What is your setting?
What is your major conflict?
What is your story hook - what is your starting state for the book? (this is usually the opposite of where the protagonist is at the end of the novel / character growth arc / action arc.)
What is your plot turn - what introduces the conflict, and sets the plot in motion? (confronting new ideas, getting a call to adventure, etc.)
What is your pinch? (The point where everything goes wrong/ your characters have to take action.)

There's a whole lot more on story structure, but this is all we need for the blurb. No, really.

"Percy Jackson is a good kid, but he can't seem to focus on his schoolwork or control his temper. And lately, being away at boarding school is only getting worse-Percy could have sworn his pre-algebra teacher turned into a monster and tried to kill him. When Percy's mom finds out, she knows it's time that he knew the truth about where he came from, and that he go to the one place he'll be safe. She sends Percy to Camp Half Blood, a summer camp for demigods (on Long Island), where he learns that the father he never knew is Poseidon, God of the Sea. Soon a mystery unfolds and together with his friends -- one a satyr and the other the demigod daughter of Athena -- Percy sets out on a quest across the United States to reach the gates of the Underworld (located in a recording studio in Hollywood) and prevent a catastrophic war between the gods."

Your Protagonist is at his Hook / Starting State. When Plot Turn conflict happens, he is sent to second location/introduction of supporting main characters, where he learns Information that sets Plot In Motion. Then Percy Starts Action Plot Arc because Major Conflict of Story.

"The Son Also Rises . . .

On a near future Earth, Good Man does not mean good at all. Instead, the term signifies a member of the ruling class, and what it takes to become a Good Man and to hold onto power is downright evil. Now a conspiracy hundreds of years in the making is about to be brought to light when the imprisoned son of the Good Man of Olympic Seacity escapes from his solitary confinement cell and returns to find his father assassinated.

But when Luce Keeva attempts to take hold of the reins of power, he finds that not all is as it seems, that a plot for his own imminent murder is afoot—and that a worldwide conflagration looms. It is a war of revolution, and a shadowy group known as the Sons of Liberty may prove to be Luce's only ally in a fight to throw off an evil from the past that has enslaved humanity for generations.

Sequel to Sarah A. Hoyt's award-winning Darkship Thieves, and Darkship Renegades, this is Book One in the Earth's Revolution saga."

Tag Line.
Setting. Protagonist in Starting State, with Plot Turn conflict.
When Protagonist moves to secondary setting, he learns Information that sets the Plot In Motion. Introduction of allies and of Major Conflict of story.
Information on Series.

Note - Percy Jackson has a lot less initial setting, because it's set in the "Real World, modern day." The further from baseline normal you get, the more explaining you have to do.

"Revolution rises!

The Interstellar Empire of Man was built on the enslavement of the gentle Stardogs, companions and Theta-space transporters of the vanished Denaari Dominion. But the Stardogs that humans found can't go home to breed, and are slowly dying out.

As the ruthless Empire collapses from its rotten core outward, an Imperial barge is trapped on top of a dying Stardog when an attempted hijacking and assassination go horribly wrong. Trying to save its human cargo, the Stardog flees to the last place anyone expected - the long-lost Denaari motherworld.

Crawling from the crash are the Leaguesmen who control the Stardogs' pilots by fear and force, and plan to assassinate Princess Shari, the criminal Yak gang, who want to kill everyone and take control of a rare Stardog for their own, and an entourage riddled with plots, poisons, and treason. But Shari and her assassin-bodyguard have plans of their own...

Stranded on the Denaari Motherworld, the castaway survivors will have to cooperate to survive. Some will have to die.

And some, if they make it to the Stardogs breeding ground, will have to learn what it means to love. "

Tag Line.
Setting! Setting includes aliens and aliens' conflict!
Protagonists (the whole group) in Starting State, with Plot Turn conflict.
When Protagonists move to secondary setting, introduction of protagonists and Information that sets the Plots (All of them but two?) In Motion.
Introduction of Major Conflict of story.

Now, some more important notes.

Note 1: After you write the intial draft, go back and highlight every past tense and passive voice usage. Eliminate them all. Past tense is for reporting what happened. Present and future tense are for getting people interested at what is happening, and what will happen.

Note 2: So, your protagonist has a bunch of friends who helped him, and a mentor, and a mother who saw him off, and people and people.... Almost none of these need to be mentioned in the blurb. If he doesn't find out who is holding his kids hostage until chapter 22, it doesn't go on the blurb.

Note 3: Use adjectives and adverbs. This is like poetry - every word needs to be doing something, or it doesn't need to be there. Haiku gives you about 17 syllables in English; blurbs give you about 100 words. So use connotations, denotations, alliteration and implication!

There is a difference between that and hackneyed cliche. Don't go cliche, man. Readers' eyes glaze over so fast they look like Krispy Creme donuts when they hit cliche, because they assume the story will also be full of hackneyed cliche... Just Don't Go There.

Note 4: When you think it's pretty good, try to tell a friend about this really cool book you found... using your blurb as memorized, not as written and consulted. You will find, when text is converted to speech, that not only are a lot of hand gestures involved, but that you'll start dropping words, phrases, entire sentences that sounded really cool when you were writing and editing, but aren't going to keep your friend's attention. Go back and edit with this in mind.

Note 5: There is a form of pitch known as "the elevator speech." It often is presented like this: you get on an elevator, and realize the other guy on it is an acquiring editor / your favorite director / an actor you want to get really excited about your story/screenplay/novel. To break the awkward silence of the elevator, they peer at your con badge and say "A writer, huh? What's your book about?" You have three to five floors to sell your story, off the cuff and impromptu (but you do have a short speech prepared for this moment, don't you?). Go.

Yeah, that's your blurb. Instead of Adam Baldwin or Toni Weisskopf, though, you're trying to reach through a computer screen and get your money from a bored browser who wants something good to read, and has been momentarily distracted by your book cover. You want his money? You have three to five paragraphs. Go.

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

But I'm Not An Artist! - Cover Design for the Rest of Us

If you want great covers, and your drawing ability is still stuck at little stick men, do not despair. You don't have to be a good artist to get great covers. Go back and read up on design, typography, layout, and art not with the despairing expectation that you'll be called upon to create your own cover, but with the confidence that you'll now know just enough to be able to tell the cover artist / designer you hire why you like their design, or why not, and what you want changed. If you can speak the same technical language as them, or even get fairly close pidgin, you'll be able to collaborate for a far better cover than "Um, I don't like it because it doesn't feel right. I dunno, the thingie is just not good, so change it."

Where do you find said designer? First, check out covers you like. Many indie authors put their cover designers (and cover art source) on the copyright or acknowledgements page, right up front. Find an ebook in your subgenre you really like? Check Amazon, click the "look inside" feature, and see if the designer / artist are listed on the copyright page.

Second, there's word of mouth - who do you hear people making happy noises about - especially if they're in your genre? (Do you wonder why I keep bringing up genre? It's because each genre and subgenre have very specific treatments and conventions in their covers, that cue the readers. If you're not on top of these and able to point them out to your designer, then you'll need a designer who's already familiar with them.)

You could also go to - he has monthly awards for submitted covers, which not only is an education watching designers critiquing design (as opposed to the book), but lets you skim to see if you find a submitted designer you want to work with.

Still, getting a cover usually involves the time sink of either finding your cover art and the designer, or working with a designer on why the cover art he found is not what you want, and why. If you ever wished that you could just look through a page of covers and pick yours out, already made, from a catalog...

Well, you can. The technical term is "premade cover." Most common for the Thriller, Horror, and Romance genres, you can see some options from the following designers. Understand, I've never bought one, so I don't have any endorsement for a specific designer. Caveat Emptor, do your research, etc. and Jason Gurley are two well-known designers; they'll give you a feel for the high end of the business. There are a multitude of designers hanging out their shingle - the best directory I've found so far is on kboards at,123703.0.html

Like any list of people and services on the internet, you'll need to see if you can find a designer in your genre, in your budget, and still actively responding - but that'll be a good start for you.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Typography & Cover Art - It's How You Say It

"Don't judge a book by it's cover" is not a rule, it's an admonition to try to get better behavior right up there with "Don't eat those cookies now, you'll ruin your dinner." Readers, browsers, customers, reviewers, and probably the cat all judge a book by its cover. (Okay, the last one's criteria is 'best spot to sleep.')

However, what are the criteria by which they are judging the cover? There's the rub.

Readers have a very specific set of questions as they browse, and when your cover comes up, it'll get between 0.2-0.7 seconds to answer all of them. If the answers aren't good enough, they'll never click over to your blurb.

1. Who wrote it?
2. What genre is it?
3. What subgenre is it?
4. What's it about?
5. is it well done?

When you're trying to convey this much information in so little time, every design element is crucial. Let's go through them.

1. Who wrote it?

As an author, your name is your brand. If you give me a list of titles I haven't read yet, and there's a Mike Williamson or a Lois Bujold on there I haven't read, I'll buy them sight unseen, cost irrelevant. If I see a new Patricia Briggs, I'm not going to spend $16 for an ebook - but six months later, when I've long forgotten most of the books I didn't buy, I'll still check now and then to see if the publisher's dropped the price yet. You don't have to be a mega-bestseller to have readers who like your books enough to look forward to your next one - in fact, chances are high you'll have these long before you know it.

2. What genre is it?
3. What subgenre is it?
4. What's it about?

So, genre. Look at your genre very carefully, then look at your subgenre very carefully - again, look at the print books over the ebooks, because they're less likely to have risen that high despite the cover instead of with its help. Two caveats. First, make sure the books you are looking at are recent. Fahrenheit 451 is going to sell gangbusters despite a very dated cover because Fahrenheit 451. Imitating its cover is not a help. Second, Baen Books has put decades of branding into a very specific art style that really pops in print, not in ebook. They've built a large and loyal following who look for that style, that branding, in order to buy new Baen books / try new Baen authors. This isn't going to help you if you're a new science fiction author trying to get people's attention in a 60x100 pixel space with your cover.

Fantasy genre practically requires something that looks like a painting, but not a piece of classical art.
Literary can be a photo or an excerpt from a classical painting, depending on the subgenre of literary.
Science fiction must look like a painting, not a photo - unless it's of a planetary view. However, where fantasy tends to "this looks like an oil painting", science fiction tends to "this is an almost-photo-quality-realistic" painting.
Romance tends to actual photographs.
Thriller and Horror tend to actual photographs, then heavily altered/darkened/blurred past the central point... or icons.
Chick Lit tends strongly toward drawn, almost cartoonish illustrations.
Mystery... depends heavily on the subgenre. What kind of art you use will signal which subgenre.

These will change over time. What I say now may not apply in five years. Keep up with your cover art trends, and expect to have to rebrand / redo your covers in the future, to make them look exciting and interesting to new browsers.

Then, of course, there's your actual image. This image is supposed to indicate at least three of the five W's: Who, What, When, Where, and Why. (How, we leave for the reader to discover on the pages inside.) It can be as simple as a woman with a katana and a gun, in a dynamic pose (dynamic - looks like she's moving, as opposed to static, like a cityscape.) Great. That tells us there's a woman, there's action, and it involves modern guns and swords (as long as it's not a blunderbuss or a raygun, or she's not wearing a futuristic bodysuit or historical garb.) Probably thriller, maybe action/adventure... now, if she had her back to the reader in a static pose, was showing a fair bit of skin, and there was a dark city in the background, it'd be paranormal romance instead.

Important note. Your cover is not a representation of your book; it's an advertisement for your book. Has your cover designer shown you a picture with a heroine that doesn't look like the character in your head? Does the beefcake model have brown hair instead of black, and wide shoulders instead of a wiry body? Is the spaceship completely different than the ones in the book, and they never exploded in an orbit that close to the planetary background?

IT DOESN'T MATTER. Repeat after me: "Advertisement, not accurate representation." It's great if you can get both. It's not crucial.

No matter how strong your cover art, it isn't strong enough to carry the information alone, and must work hand in hand with the typography (the font of your title, author name, and any other words on the cover.)

For a great example of how much work the typography does, watch this.

If you go back and look up the original movies, you'll promptly see how much the typography alone enforces and reinforces the genre. In books, we don't get multiple images like movie trailers, so the font carries an even heavier load. Go back to your top books in genre, and look at the font. Then, go to a place like font squirrel, and look around at just the different fonts to see what they convey.

Yes, fonts are works of art, just like paintings and books, and unless you get one that's public domain (why do you think I'm sending you to FontSquirrel?), you're going to have to buy a license to use it. For the absolute right font, that's as worthwhile as buying cover art. For those of you just getting started, you can trade time for money, and do it free, just as you can do public domain images - but it will take longer.

5. Is it well done?

If, when you stand back and eye your cover in amongst other covers, it looks just like the trad pub books around it, it will subconsciously promise "this is a good one - it won't have terrible plotholes, bad spelling, cardboard characters and awful cliches." If it stands out - photo when the others are paintings, wrong typography, unbalanced cover - it's not promising a bad novel, it's just not promising a good one. This is not the time to be groundbreaking; this is the time to be the best of the herd.