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Indie Publishing as Cyclic History

 Countless blogs trumpet indie writers and self-publishing as new and unprecedented, a revolution in publishing. It is and it isn’t. What’s new is that writers are selling their books directly to the public through a licensed online bookstore instead of to a publisher. In many other respects indie ebook publishing is surprisingly similar to past formats for mass market publishing.

Through the second half of the 19th century and early 20th century the “dime novel” genres provided affordable reading for budget conscious readers with a taste for adventure. The serialized British equivalent, the “penny dreadful,” often targeted male adolescents. Although it has gone out of fashion, the term “dime novel” became a pejorative to describe hastily produced potboilers with no literary value. Nowadays indie publishing conveys similar connotations for people espousing traditional literary values.

The paper bound dime novel was the forerunner of modern paperbacks, introduced, successfully, just before the Second World War: Penguin to the English-speaking world in 1935, and Pocket Books to America in 1938/1939. Both companies acquired the paperback rights to hardcover books, ordered large runs to keep costs and prices low, and marketed their paperback editions to mass audiences through non-traditional markets. Penguin’s first success was with the department store Woolworths, and Pocket Books tapped in the distribution network for newspapers and magazines. Penguin and Pocket Books became almost synonymous with paperbacks, but many other companies entered the market. After early experiments, the Canadian publisher Harlequin became one of the largest publishers in the world by specializing in inexpensive romances, for a predominantly female audience.

Penguin’s association with paperbacks may explain the angry tirades on the internet in 2010 when it announced it had reached an agreement with Apple to charge higher prices for ebooks than paperbacks. The general consensus of the market was that ebooks should be cheaper because the cost of printing is eliminated. At the time, some online retailers required publishers to set ebook prices lower than print editions as a condition for listing in their catalogues. Some of those retailers also sold print editions and they wanted to use cheaper ebooks to attract new customers rather than compete with print editions. Both arguments are valid. As the price of paperbacks rose higher and higher, many customers, myself included, stopped buying books or curtailed their purchases. Eliminating printing costs, which are maybe 30% of the total, should be reflected in the end price, and lower prices could encourage people to read again, or buy more books. But that is just my opinion.

The essential point is that for the first time writers set their own prices. They can even give their books away free of charge, if they want to. The price of indie ebooks is typically lower than the price of ebooks from traditional publishers. The reasons for that are complex, but it is generally accepted by even the most successful and talented indie writers, and the rapidly evolving trends in the pricing of indie ebooks hasn’t really affected that basic fact. In that sense, the indie writer at the bottom of the pricing spectrum is the modern equivalent of the dime novel publisher or paperback publisher.

For the most part the production of indie writers has largely been genre novels and the books are often potboilers, to use that old term. One indie writer called them “throwaway novels.” (I suspect that term would also apply to erotica, which has become a popular ebook genre.)

Literary writers still tend to prefer the traditional publishing route, although that is gradually changing, and some traditionally published writers are now using both traditional publishing and self-publishing some of their own titles (the hybrid model).

Indie writers often produce more than one novel a year; they have to in order to earn a living, but some genre writers have always been prolific producers. Both have often been accused of producing hastily written novels, with the implication being that they were poorly written. The same criticism is often made about other aspects of the final product such as editing and proofreading, and the indie writer is responsible for those whether they attempt to do it all themselves or hire professional editors, proofreaders, and cover designers. When a reader sees poorly constructed sentences and typos in traditionally published book it reflects on the publisher almost as much as it does the writer, but in an indie novel there is only one person to blame for any defects: the author. Indie publishing has enabled thousands of inexperienced writers (me included) to publish stories, and the quality of that output has been variable, let’s say. Which may explain why cost versus value discussions within indie publishing more often revolve around the quality of editing and proofreading than storylines, and why some book buyers won’t purchase cheap indie novels or say indie publishing has a bad reputation. Similar complaints were made about dime novels, in their day. 

Some things haven’t changed much in the last 150 years regardless of changing formats. It has never been easy to make a living by writing fiction, and indie writers must contend with many of the same challenges and literary prejudices as writers of dime novels or paperback novels for specialist genre publishers.

One thing has changed, though: female writers have a better chance of being successful than male writers. And that is one helluva a big change over earlier eras.

 

A couple of weeks ago I picked up a used computer and one of the programs installed on it is itunes, an Apple program for listening to songs purchased from Apple. I think. I have never used itunes, so I’m sort of guessing in the dark here. I ran the program for the first time last night and found I could check on my stories listed in Apple’s ibookstore. The results took me completely by surprise.

The story called Healthy or Else had five ratings. I didn’t think anybody had every downloaded one of my stories from Apple, and immediately fired off a query to Smashwords asking if Apple reported downloads of free ebooks. I made my short stories free to begin building an audience, and Apple is the only store where I struck out, was skunked, or any other metaphor or cliché you care to use for no downloads whatsoever.

My query to Smashwords was premature. My next discovery was that books can be rated without downloading them.  That forced my thought process into reverse, maybe none of my stories were ever downloaded from Apple and Smashwords’ records were accurate. 

The second and more interesting discovery was that those five ratings were in the Canadian itunes store. Out of curiosity I checked the American store, thinking it would have the same figure. It didn’t. The American store posted an average score based on 20 ratings.

Some time ago I used a service to generate URL’s for all of the countries with itunes stores.  After digging out the list I checked Great Britain and Australia, but the blurb said there hadn’t been enough ratings for Healthy or Else to produce an average. Okay, that was mildly disappointing, but at least I was getting an indirect indication of the geographical distribution of the story.

Then I decided to explore a bit more and ran across a real shocker. Healthy or Else has been rated 28 times in Germany, one more than the 27 ratings in Barnes and Noble.  Not only was the number of ratings a shocker, I saw two short reviews. The reviews are in German, of course. I don’t know what they say, but both were 4 stars, so they can’t be too bad.

Now I was really curious how many times – if any – the story has been downloaded from Apple.

Healthy or Else was published two years ago today, and my exploration with this second hand itunes program gave me more feedback than I’ve had in the last two years.  Other than the 27 ratings at Barnes and Noble there has been one (solicited) rating on Smashwords, one (unsolicited) rating at Goodreads, and a couple of early reviews on Bibliotastic. Both the rating on Goodreads and the best review on Barnes and Noble were posted in the last month.  Interestingly, the rating averages from Apple, in both America and Germany, are in line with the 3.5 average at Barnes and Noble.

I didn’t fare so well in my native Canada. The average for the five ratings was three. But since the story is satirical and is set in one of the Canadian provinces, I regard the lower rating as an inverse compliment. Not that very many Canadians read it.

Smashwords replied promptly the next day and said Apple doesn’t report downloads of free books. I hate data gaps, but what can you do?

A Thousand Bayonets Reviewed

I first saw a blurb about A Thousand Bayonets on the Internet. Not many thrillers are set in I in the artificial concrete environment I live in, and I tried to request a copy from the local library system. It didn’t have a listing for A Thousand Bayonets or its author, Joel Mark Harris. So I sent him an email and said a novel set in Vancouver and written by a Vancouver author should be in the Vancouver library, and suggested he contact the acquisitions department.

I thought that would be the end of it. But it wasn’t. Joel Mark Harris replied, said I was right, and asked if I would like an autographed copy of A Thousand Bayonets. The obvious answer to that was: Yes.

An autographed copy landed in my mailbox a couple of days after the Easter holidays. At the time I didn’t know Joel Mark Harris had sent out 300 copies in Goodread’s Free Book program, or that he had a background in public relations. But that doesn’t matter. I regarded it as an act of goodwill. All he asked was that I like A Thousand Bayonets’s facebook page. This blog review was written of my own volition.

A Thousand Bayonets is a good thriller. Returning home from the war in Afghanistan, John Webster, investigative reporter, following up on a tip finds himself literally in the middle of an explosive crime scene. To the police and media, and John himself, it appears to be a gangland hit in a war between criminal gangs.

Despite haunting flashbacks from Afghanistan, a personal life in disarray, subpoenas from the police and threats on his life, John’s journalistic instincts, honed in war zones in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Congo, lead him – not unerringly – to the perpetrators, and help him survive his ordeals. Ordeals those same instincts are partially responsible for, by prompting him to take dangerous – some would say foolish – risks, often while drinking too much.

The major characters in A Thousand Bayonets are believable and interesting, and Joel Mark Harris develops them skillfully. His narrative style is simple and direct, and there is enough action to keep the reader’s interest alive and thriving – and to make a movie. That is not coincidental. Joel Mark Harris is a screenwriter and producer, in addition to being a journalist and novelist.

Production is underway on the movie version of A Thousand Bayonets.  Joel Mark Harris’s first production, Neutral Territory, has won 10 awards and 15 nominations from showings in 23 film festivals.

The trailer for the book , radio and television interviews, photographs and videos about making the movie trailer, and other good stuff can be found on A Thousand Bayonets’ facebook  page.

Finding interesting subjects for blogs can be difficult. A top ten list is hardly original, but I thought a list of stories from Daily Science Fiction might be interesting. Coming up with a top ten list was not all that easy, however, and my list is not authoritative or critical in the literary sense. I just wanted to point out a few stories I enjoyed reading.

The first two stories on the list, Epinikon and The Blue Room, really stand out in my memory. Beauty, Deconstructed was published more recently. For the rest I had to fumble through my list of “keepers,” the stories I’ve starred or put in separate files and folders (my system is still evolving). Putting those seven stories in preferential hierarchical order would be arbitrary and misleading, and not fair to the writers, so I didn’t do it.

When I subscribed to Daily Science Fiction I thought I was going to get sci-fi stories emailed to me on a daily basis. Turns out most of the stories in DSF are fantasy. Fantasy is popular these days, so I can’t blame the editors of DSF. In the past I scrupulously avoided reading fantasy (elves, dragons, unicorns, sorcerers and their ilk). But Guess What? The Blue Room is a fantasy story, and another story on my list is about a sorcerer.

Some types of science fiction stories interest me more than others, except for time travel stories, which I don’t read. If you’ve read one time loop story you’ve read them all. Guess What? One of the stories on the list is a time travel story.

If nothing else, subscribing to DSF has made me aware of the potential for finding good stories in genres I’ve overlooked in the past. That doesn’t mean I read a lot of fantasy and time travel stories now, my literary interests are eclectic and there isn’t enough time for it all (and I still don’t care much for elves, dragons, unicorns, and most sorcerers).

The last two stories on the list are flash fiction, and a couple of the others are short fiction (<2,000 words). Palindrome was actually published December 28, 2010, but I fudged the date because Palindrome is a clever piece of writing I wanted on my top ten list.

Click on the links to my favorite stories, and explore DSF website over the holidays. It’s guilt free, as subscriptions to DSF are free.

Epinikion by Desmond Warze

The Blue Room by Jason Sanford

Beauty, Deconstructed by Adam Colston

Starlight Cantata by Brian Lawrence Hurrel

Palindrome by Will Arthur

Gathering Glory by Steve Stanton

And a Bottle of Rum by Melissa Mead

Apology by Sam Feree

Schrodinger’s Outlaw by Mathew W. Baugh

Safe Empathy by Ken Liu

A Fresh Look at Four-letter Words

Everybody knows what I mean by four-letter words, the words used for swearing and cussing. Nearly all of them are off-color words related to sex and biology. Those aren’t the words I want to talk about. I want to talk about a class of four-letter words that, when spoken with emphasis, come close to swearing. This word group describes the weather.

Winter is fast approaching or already here in some places. So let’s start with it. “Snow” is a four-letter word. Some people like snow, but they are a minority. Most people don’t. It doesn’t snow very often where I live, and most people hate snow. People tend to spit the word out, like it leaves a bad taste in their mouth. Those prone to using colorful language combine it with the f-word to form a compound cuss: “F…ing snow.”

“Cold” is another wintry word. I don’ need to elaborate, that one syllable tells you everything you don’t want to feel. It’s contrary is equally true. If you live in the south, say Texas or Arizona or the equatorial regions, you probably detest the summer “heat” as much as northerners do the winter cold. Personally, I can’t tolerate either condition.

Another thing I don’t like is rain. I live in the northwest, close to the ocean, and rain defines the climate. One night my car broke down when it was raining so hard the raindrops were bouncing off the pavement almost up to my knees. You can probably guess what I was muttering: “F….ng rain.”

I’m not fond of “wind,” either. A breeze on a warm day can be pleasant, but a wind is not. Wind is emphatic. It affects the weather, and spreads the climatic miseries around so no one is spared.

The English language has many words for extreme winds. Tornado and cyclone are of Spanish and Greek origin, respectively. Hurricane is a Spanish word for a violent storm, accompanied by extremely high winds. It generally refers to storms in the Caribbean. A typhoon refers to similar storms in the Indian Ocean and the western Pacific. My dictionary says typhoon originates partly from the Arabic language and partly from a dialect of Chinese. On the North Pacific Coast and in the North Atlantic the word mariners fear is “gale.” Gale is a four-letter word that blows right out of the English language’s roots with the force to snap your mast and sink your ship.

None of the four seasons is a four-letter word, although autumn is often called fall. When it arrives you know the weather is going to get worse, fast. Which brings us back to winter. Time to close the windows, turn up the furnace and open my favorite four-letter word: “book.” I can hear my family swearing hundreds of kilometers away.

A Halloween Story Published

Trick or Trap is a Halloween short story I published as a free ebook. Halloween is my birthday, so it has special significance for me and is probably the reason I wanted to write a Halloween story. But the horror stories that dominate Halloween literature don’t really appeal to me, and are not particularly in keeping with a birthday or traditional Halloween activities like trick or treating, costume parties, and fireworks. 

Trick or Trap is an urban fantasy, but is a story more in keeping with the modern spirit of Halloween. It is more spoof than spooky, and all dressed up for a fun read. The setting is the Halloween Parade (Carnival) in Los Angeles, the largest Halloween event in the world. Three bikini models and their photographer, who are also crime fighters, are called to the scene to investigate a disruption, and battle the demons doing the disrupting. There is a reason the demons are disrupting the parade, but you will have to read the story to find out what that reason is. I don’t want to give too much away in this blog.

The story was first published a couple of weeks ago and is being rolled out to free ebook sites and ebook stores. So far Trick or Trap is listed in the catalogues of Smashwords, Feedbooks, Bibliotastic, and Apple’s iBookstores, with more, hopefully, to come before Halloween. Feel free to rate or review the story. You can do so on most sites where it is available.

Happy Halloween.

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My Problem with .pdb

Multiple format ebook stores and web sites provide a valuable service for readers and for writers who, obviously, want as wide a distribution as possible. Many, if not all, multi-format sites rely on automated conversion software to generate ebooks in a format selected by the customer. Based on my limited experience, the automated conversion programs work pretty well for many of the popular formats (ePub, mobi, lrf, and mabye fb2), albeit with some minor changes to the original formatting.

But recently I published a short story as an ebook with smashwords.com, and the pdb edition of the story lost a key piece of formatting, the italics used, by convention, to indicate unspoken thoughts. Without those italics the story can be confusing to read, and I was forced to cancel the pdb version. That is unfortunate, pdb is a popular ebook format, and I like the desktop eReader. My story Healthy or Else can be downloaded from smashwords.com in ePUB, mobi, lrf, PDF, and .rtf formats, so alternatives are available for anyone who wants to read the story.

The problem was not caused by smashwords automated conversion software. They call it the “meatgrinder.” The same problem occurred when I tried converting the story to pdb online using Zamzar, and Calibre also lost the italics when I converted the story to pdb. 2ePub wisely doesn’t output pdb files. Not being a programmer I was forced to conclude the problem lies within the pdb format itself, and that was confirmed by searching the forums on Mobile Read.

I wanted to make a properly formatted version of the story available on my web site, if nowhere else. I found two software programs for formatting pdb files on the eReaderLibrary site, owned by Barnes and Noble. Naturally, I tried the free software first. This program, called Dropbook, requires use of the Palm Markup Language. It seemed a bit intimidating when I first looked at it, but the list of commands was not all that long and I decided to give it a whirl.

Trial and error is a slow process, but after a time I started to figure out how to use the program and the Palm markup language, and my progress picked up speed as I overcome a couple of initial problems I induced myself and the learning curve ramped up. Some time later (I don’t want to admit how much later) I was nearly finished and had searched through the character sets and added a couple of nice finishing touches. Now all I had left to do was attach the cover, and that should be easy, or so I thought. It turned out not to be so easy. In fact, I never did get it attached. Despite the relatively unimportant lack of a cover, the pdb download link on the Healthy or Else page is the only properly formatted pdb version anywhere, and will provide the best reading experience for the eReader and Palm devices. Or you can download it using this link: Healthy or Else.pdb. Now you can also download a pdb copy of the story from memoware.com

A pdb version can be downloaded from manybooks.net, but it is generated by an automated file conversion system and the italics are converted to the same font as the rest of the text. I can’t cancel the pdb file on manybooks.net, however. Nor can I test the formatting of all the many formats available from manybooks.net. I simply don’t have readers or devices to view files in all of those formats. When a site tries its best to provide files in every conceivable format some are bound to work better than others. And manybooks.net is a stellar site for readers. Every ebook is free, it doesn’t charge member fees, and is operated by volunteers. What more can you ask for?

I feel much the same way about Smashwords. It provides a good service for indie writers, and helps connect us with readers.

The Smashwords style guide even warns writers to avoid complex formatting – now I see why. A novel I am working on will have the same problem with italics. Both it and the short story were written or too far advanced to change after I looked at the option of electronic publishing. In the future I am going to have to learn new literary techniques to get inside my character’s heads.

Grammar is for Lawyers

Writing is communication, the transference of thoughts and images between two members of the same species. People were communicating successfully for millennia before dictionaries and rules of grammar formalized the art of written communication.

I blame lawyers, while confessing that I have not researched the historicity of the legal origin of formal rules of grammar. They are clearly legal trickery, and not necessary for social communication. A billion emails every day are proof of that.

Preventing ambiguity in the laws and in legal contracts is a legitimate justification for the legal professions obsession with grammatical rules. I accept the counter argument that they can be used to create loopholes.

If you accept the assertion that one of grammar’s functions is to reduce ambiguity, then it is largely irrelevant to the art of fiction. Fiction and literature thrive on ambiguity, ambivalence, double meanings, and multiple interpretations. They keep a host of literary critics and university professors employed, and stimulate coffee house debates.

Grammar can be a creative tool. In a passage in one of her novels Virginia Wolfe uses semicolons to help create a sense of psychological repression. (Sorry, I can’t look it up for you. My books are in storage, molding.).

But don’t use this blog as an excuse to ignore the rules of grammar, you will hand your critics a weapon to turn against you. On the other hand, if you want to make $100 per hour arguing about the position of a comma, forget writing and get a law degree. You will be in good company. A small army of undergraduate English majors has gone on to law school, and a few of them later wrote some pretty good novels.

My apologies to all editors and proofreaders out there who do a stellar job of restoring order to grammatical chaos.

Good writing usually – but not always – adheres fairly closely to rules of grammar. Or so we have been taught to believe.