My 2015 Top Ten and a 2016 Resolution

January 1, 2016

I’ll start with the resolution. Let’s get the craziness out of the way.

I’ve been working on a young adult novel that I like, but which isn’t the kind of thing that people in publishing call “commercial fiction.” It’s not literary fiction, either. It’s just this . . . thing about a young person whose brother has been unjustly accused of planning a terrorist attack and about the surveillance state we live in. On new year’s eve I took a deep breath and told Twitter:

tweet1In case you’re not a librarian or academic (or an academic librarian) OA stands for open access. All of my scholarship is available in some flavor of open access – all available for free online and most under a Creative Commons license. I’ve decided for a  couple of reasons to go that route with fiction, too.

Reason One: You have to be really good and really lucky to make it in traditional publishing. I read a lot of books and I’m grateful to the authors and publishers who feed my reading addiction, but I haven’t been good and lucky enough to break out, except in hives. Turns out I’m severely allergic to the business end of publishing. Why try to do something that makes you miserable?

Reason Two: You have to be really good and really lucky and willing to produce like crazy to make it in self-publishing. I can’t write that way. My muse is like a toddler taken for a walk. Forget about getting anywhere fast. Besides, I think our fetish for productivity is irreparably harming ourselves and the planet. So that’s out for me.

Combine my slacker tendencies and an allergy to the business of publishing with serious reservations about Amazon, the leading platform for self-published books, it makes sense for me to try something that fits my personal values better. More like the zine world – hand-made and imperfect and shared for love, not money. To be honest, most fiction writers are motivated more by love than money because hardly any make a living at it. But even so, productivity, sales, and frantic marketing efforts infuse the writing world and that’s what I want to leave behind. It’s inconsistent with my anarchist tendencies and my own mental health.

“Would anyone want to read it?” That was a silly question! Some of my Twitter pals said they would, because they are sweeties, but a piece of that new year’s resolution that I didn’t express properly is that I’d be happy if someone reads this story, but I don’t want to fall into the trap of actively competing for their attention. That’s part of the doomed economic model that’s making such a mess of things, including culture and the internet.

Here’s a bit more of my Twitter stream . . .




Happy new year to all. I’ll be using Pressbooks to serialize this thing and will be blogging more about it here later. I just solved a gnarly problem with the ending this morning! Now I just have to sort out all the other gnarls. All in good time . . .

But now without further navel-gazing, here are my top ten crime fiction reads from 2015. I read a lot of good stuff, but these stood out to me at the end of the year. The list could be much longer.

Kristina Ohlsson / HOSTAGE1476734038-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_
Don’t read this on a transatlantic flight. Swedish detectives team with intelligence officers to find out if a threat found aboard a full jet headed for New York is real and, if so, how to deal with it. They only have as long as the jet’s fuel lasts. The author worked in European counter-intelligence and her take on Swedish versus American intelligence practices was engrossing. I also was happy to have some police procedural aspects mixed in with the thriller aspects of the story.

0802123961-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_Belinda Bauer / RUBBERNECKER
My mystery pals at 4MA chose this book for discussion, and I’m glad because I found it deeply entertaining. A young man with Asperger’s and a troubling fascination with dead things takes an anatomy lab course. Meanwhile, we follow the fate of a man gradually coming out of a coma after a car accident who unluckily witnesses the murder of a fellow patient. Nicely assembled puzzle that combines humor and emotion quite satisfyingly.

Jari Jarvela / THE GIRL AND THE BOMB1503946355-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_
An engrossing psychological thriller involving a black teenager in Finland who wants revenge when her good friend, a street artist, is pushed by a security guard to his death from a building after he has been “bombing” train cars with brilliantly-executed graffiti. The story is told in two voices – that of the disaffected girl and of her chosen enemy, who wasn’t actually responsible, but who grows increasingly angry and defensive. Full of ethical issues and vivid characters – really good story, well translated.

1616954469-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_Timothy Hallinan / THE HOT COUNTRIES
Yeah, I know. This series is always on my top ten. So sue me for being predictable. Visitors to Tim Hallinan’s Bangkok have previously met a group of aging ex-adventurers who hang out at an expat bar. They’ve been there long enough to know their way around the glittering city, but now getting around is getting more difficult. One of them, Wallace Palmer, is becoming increasingly vague and likely to misplace himself, forgetting where he lives and chasing after glimpses of a woman he loved who disappeared from his life many years ago. When a new expat joins them, flashing white teeth and an encyclopedia of factoids that he shares without a pause, they grow a little uncomfortable. Not only will he never shut up, he seems terribly interested in the whereabouts of their friend, travel writer and family man, Poke Rafferty. He seems to think Poke is hiding a treasure that he’s come to Bangkok to claim. My full review is at Reviewing the Evidence.

Martin Cruz Smith / HAVANA BAY0345502981-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_
Another 4MA group discussion book. Arkady Renko, with little left to lose, tries to find out what happened to an old enemy found dead in Havana Bay. Wonderful juxtaposition of a post-Soviet Russian’s experiences with its former ally, now struggling to manage on its own. Really fine. I dithered between this and TATIANA, which I also enjoyed, though not quite as much as the earlier book which, somehow, I had missed reading.

0062197738-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_Laura Lippman / AND WHEN SHE WAS GOOD
Fascinating story about a woman who decides to open her own business – as a “madam” providing services to D.C.’s elite after things go badly wrong with her pimp. When her cover story as a lobbyist for women’s employment is threatened, she has a problem, particularly because she doesn’t want her son to know what she really does. Lippman does a great job creating a character who is both vulnerable and tough as nails as well as brilliant at business.

Lisa Brackmann / DRAGON DAY754aa9e539cbb42597046596b67437641414141
The third and final Ellie McEnroe story in which the veteran of a confused and pointless war tries to find her feet in a confused and confusing China. Her cheerful, scary billionaire acquaintance, Sidney Cao, has a job for her. He wants her to find out what’s going on with his three kids (the one child policy is optional for the powerful) and in particular whether the American adventurer who’s hanging out with his youngest son is bad news. Readers of this trilogy will guess fairly soon: they’re all bad news. There are two strengths in this trilogy.One is the fascinating picture it provides of the New China, a place that’s aggressively under construction and chaotic after a seismic cultural shift toward consumerism. The other is Ellie’s voice – casual, unsettled, constantly searching for something she can’t identify, faced at every turn with a need to figure out the least bad of terrible options. She’s a fascinating woman and a nifty guide to a place that has changed beyond recognition. I’ll miss her (but I won’t write whatever Brackmann writes next).

125004474x-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_Julia Keller / LAST RAGGED BREATH
A fine entry in the series featuring a tough, vulnerable prosecutor who wages war on the problems facing her beloved West Virginia county. This one asks us to remember the unnatural disaster of Buffalo Creek, when a mining company’s dam broke and their toxic sludge swept away a town, killing over a hundred people in minutes, but also to appreciate the work of miners made redundant by machines. I wrote a more detailed review for Reviewing the Evidence.

John Scalzi / LOCK IN0765375869-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_
After an epidemic leaves millions “locked in,” conscious but unable to move, scientists develop a way to link their brains to “threeps” (androids); others affected are “integrators,” able to host locked in people who want to borrow a human body. Our locked-in hero joins the FBI (getting around with a threep) and is quickly involved in strange murder case in which it appears a murderer was an integrator hosting someone else when committing the murder. Sounds preposterous but it worked for me – the scene-setting was handled so efficiently it had a great pace. Scalzi primarily writes SF, but handled the crime aspects of this near-future story very well. Inventive and compelling. There’s also a highly-intelligent handling of gender issues that . . . well, I didn’t even realize until after I finished the book which is the whole point. It would be a spoiler, but there’s a great analysis of it here. Scalzi is not only good fun, he’s wonderfully wise about the world.

0312621280-01-_sx175_sclzzzzzzz_Alan Glynn / BLOODLAND
This is a terrific conspiracy novel that is a bit challenging in that there are lots of characters and multiple points of view, but sharp writing, excellent plotting, and an appealing young Irish out-of-work journalist as a protagonist. He has a commission to write a biography of a silly celebrity but stumbles upon a multinational scheme to make money off a mine in Congo run by people who will dispose of anyone who gets in the way. Cracking read. Excellent narrative skill. Loads and loads of rage burbling under tasty ethical dilemmas. Yvonne Klein wrote a review at Reviewing the Evidence that explains why it’s far more than the bog-standard globetrotting conspiracy thriller. In fact, it’s very nearly its opposite.

Here’s to good reading (and, for me, more stress-free just-for-fun writing) in the new year.




on fairness: authors, libraries, and our future

January 27, 2013

kids reading

I’ve been reading tweets from the ALA midwinter meetings, and before that catching tidbits from Digital Book World, and of course hearing daily from librarians about the various ways that the ebook models emerging from the head offices of publishers are bizarrely borked. A few days ago I was trying to explain this tangle to a blogger who wonders what people can do to support the ability of academic libraries to satisfy multiple student learning styles and preferred reading platforms. The example he gave was a book he wants to assign in class that comes from Harvard Business Review, which won’t even allow faculty to assign articles in journals the library licenses for the campus. That site license only applies to articles you don’t have to read. If a teacher says you have to, somebody has to pay per semester, per students. And we’re supposed to police all this nonsense. It’s enough to make a pacifist a little stabby.

The combination of insanely complex limitations being placed by different publishers on what libraries and the communities they represent can acquire and share and the general perception that libraries aren’t good for the book business is frustrating. But it’s equally frustrating to hear from my fellow authors that librarians have to be patient. This is just a bump in the road until the industry figures out what’s a fair business model.

I ended up ranting a bit when this came up on a discussion list populated mainly by writers. This idea of chilling out until the fairness thing gets worked out pushed a button, the one at the top of the keyboard with an icon of a mushroom cloud on it. Funny how often that button launches a blog post. So here is my discussion list response, tidied up from my morning not-enough-coffee-yet, too-much-excitement sprawl.

on fairness

Full disclosure, I am a librarian, though I work at an academic library, where we don’t generally get to buy fun books. This issues we have with digital books are different than those public librarians have (which is itself a bit worrying, the gap between trade publishing and scholarly books growing even wider, but that’s another issue for another time). My beef here is more as a reader and writer than as a librarian.

Here’s my question: Is it unfair that libraries can loan print books until they fall apart and don’t have to throw them out when publishers say so? Is it unfair that libraries don’t have to pay three or four times the cover price for a book? Is it unfair that libraries are allowed to loan out frontlist and popular titles? All libraries want to do is what they’ve done in the past – pay a reasonable price for a book and let one person at a time read it. Publishers say that’s not fair. Not enough friction (a fancy word for artificially-induced inconvenience), not enough profit. Could bring the business to its knees.

Really? Then the survival of publishing is a freaking miracle. People have been reading books borrowed from libraries for quite some time. Going to a library is not so full of friction that hardly anyone does it. A majority of Americans have library cards and have checked out at least one book in the past 12 months. That hasn’t ruined the book business, it’s helped it. Being able to check out digital books from home – or, more commonly, fill out a form to get in line to borrow a book as soon as the 47 people ahead of you have had their turn – isn’t going to suddenly mean borrowing a book is so insanely easy that nobody will buy books in future, anymore than being able to check books out of a library before the Internet was invented  led to the sudden collapse of all bookstores. Also, bear in mind there wasn’t a button on the library shelf where a checked-out book had been saying “if you want to avoid waiting in line, push this button and you can buy it instantly.” There is a button like that on many digital library shelves. And it’s still not fair enough for publishers.

The only threat libraries pose to the book industry is if they are prohibited from fulfilling their role of introducing new authors to readers and developing an appetite for reading among young people, which is what will happen if publishers get to define “fair.”

Library users are book buyers. This isn’t anecdote, there’s hard data to show this is true. Publishes are unwilling to consider existing evidence that libraries are a keystone species in the book ecosystem. That’s an inconvenient distraction from the new power they wield to control how and what communities can read, and from their understandable obsession with Amazon’s power.  Libraries are the dog they can kick when the Department of Justice tells them to stop bullying Amazon.

But forget that data, let’s just do some simple numbers. If libraries are required to pay three or four times as much for an ebook so that publishers get their “fair” price, that means libraries will buy one ebook and will not buy three other books. Three sales gone, three discovery opportunities lost. Those books not bought are likely to be the ones library patrons aren’t already begging for. The ones ripe for discovery.

Some publishers want to “window” library use by selling access only to backlist titles. If libraries can’t stock a variety of frontlist books, readers won’t have the opportunity they’ve had in the past to discover authors who are not already well-established or have published a blockbuster best seller. If you are a traditionally published author who hasn’t spent a few weeks on the bestseller list, the public library is your best customer, because it will introduce your work to a lot of people who won’t hear about it otherwise. And if they like it, they will become your customers, too.

You can’t pay for this kind of word of mouth. But you can price it too high or make it wait too long to matter, long after you tried to get a contract for your next book but couldn’t because your sales record wasn’t strong enough.

As citizens and taxpayers, ask yourself if it’s fair to let publishers redefine who gets to read these days, and under what conditions. As business people … well, I hate to break it to you, but book publishers are not really that clever at figuring out what’s best for the book industry. So it’s not just whether it’s fair, it’s whether it’s good for the business they claim to represent. If you care about the future of the industry, don’t let publishers cut libraries out of it. We’ll all be sorry.

So endeth the rant. Peace be with you. Go forth and read.

photo courtesy of courosa

book discovery outside the (big) box

January 12, 2013

A blog post at Passive Voice which was an excerpt of a longer essay by Melville House’s Dennis Johnson sparked a lot of discussion about Barnes & Nobles and what its weakened market position might mean for writers and readers among Sisters in Crime members. I started to respond, then realized my email had gotten too long for any reasonable person to read, so decided to stash it here instead.

Dennis Johnson’s essay argued that all book sales suffer, regardless of format or channel, when it gets harder for people to browse a large selection of printed books, an experience uniquely offered (at least for most people, who had never before had access to a large bookstore) by Borders and B&N, that the chain stores promoted books in a way that indies will have trouble providing because they can’t afford to carry the variety of titles the big box chains did. Johnson says the showroom nature of the big box stores provided important exposure to the market that drove sales of ebooks as well as print books – but since B&N couldn’t direct that exposure exclusively to their own platform, and because they started stripping their shelves to redirect their liquid capital and force more consumer attention on their devices, this showroomishness didn’t translate into sufficient ebook sales to keep B&N balance sheets healthy.

But what is the cost of that kind of showroom? It may be hard to find new ways of browsing that work as well as the big box bookstores, but that operation was enormously expensive. Publishers loved the exposure but hated the returns, which were far quicker and extensive with a vast automated system organizing the process. Customers loved the variety and sense of abundance, but books were there to create the illusion of choice; a huge percentage were returned so new book wallpaper could go up regularly. And the number and size of stores grew impossible to support when the real estate bill came due. (Some argue bad investments in overpriced real estate and the resulting debt service is what sank Borders.)

The number of books on the market has risen enormously. Even if B&N continued to fill big stores with a variety of books, they couldn’t possibly all stock the roughly 350,000 books published traditionally in the US last year, let alone the 1.5 million total, once you add in self-published titles with ISBNs. Amazon can, because it doesn’t need to actually have real estate to provide exposure. They just have to have a vast database. (Yes, they have warehouses full of stuff, but their showroom is the virtual sales platform.)

Public libraries argue they are showrooms and great engines for growing the market for books, but they too have limited real estate and budgets, and publishers by and large don’t believe libraries are a value proposition  (read for free? how can that be good?)  so are asking libraries to either pay extraordinary prices for one-reader-at-a-time ebooks or are making them unavailable altogether. Libraries’ potential role in discovery is being limited by design.

What does this mean for book discovery?

I think networked curation is the next logical step. Word of mouth is the most frequent means of discovering new authors, and it is abundant online, so finding a way to aggregate and personalize that flow of information and present it in some easy to explore format (so that people can get a good feel for a book before they decide to read it) is important. If what’s on offer is too diffuse, it’s too unfocused, so not personalized; too narrow, and it’s idiosyncratic and personalized only for the curator. Amazon has tried to create this personalization by algorithm, but it has the clunky results that happen when recommendations are based on purchases made for a wide variety of reasons other than personal reading decisions. (You just bought a Lawrence Block burglar book. You may also want to buy an alarm system! Uh, no.) Besides, people grow distrustful quickly if the recommendation has any whiff of marketing or advertising attached to it.

For me, the best reading suggestions comes from like-minded readers who I hang out with in neutral spaces online. There is some cost associated with this method. I have to spend enough time in these communities to know which people have tastes like mine and which love books I don’t. I have to contribute to these communities, or the flow of recommendations might cease. They depend on reader interaction. I often get interested in books that aren’t available in the US market and certainly aren’t available in any local bookstore, and that can be frustrating.

But it’s far, far better than nothing, and nothing is the alternative. I live in a small town without a well-stocked bookstore and a very small public library, so physical browsing opportunities are frustratingly limited for avid readers.  There aren’t enough mystery fanatics in my face to face circles to learn from them (though I can get decent recommendations for other kinds of fiction). This makes for an interesting dilemma: my taste-shaping circles are borderless self-created communities. Amazon is, likewise, a borderless retail operation that doesn’t have to limit itself to physical geography and that can quickly provide almost anything I have identified as something I want. It works well if discovery happens somewhere else.

Not many brick and mortar bookstores will have in stock what I’m seeking, and though they can order it, the instant gratification a store can offer by anticipating my interests in advance is more than ever likely to turn into instant dissatisfaction. (The exception is Once Upon a Crime, a genre-focused store that almost always has what I want, but since I live quite far away, they have to mail books to me. I can live with that.) Readers who don’t think about what booksellers are up against – the rental cost per square foot of shelf space, the difficulty of tying up cash in inventory that may not sell for months if at all, the difficulty of choosing among the tens of thousands of titles available which ones might turn out to be in high demand – are likely to conclude Amazon works better.

The kind of discovery a physical store offers is quite different than online communities or online retail algorithms. It’s built out of the intersection of a local reading community, a knowledgeable staff, and visiting authors, book clubs, and other events that offer an occasion to gather and experience something with others. It won’t easily satisfy the reader who only wants to stop in long enough to buy a particular book. It depends on investments in time and personal interaction that create a sense of belonging and common cause. Bookstores that thrive (and many do) are not just providing books, and are not just serving as a place to see what’s been published. They become a place where people share a love of books at a local level – because they discover neighbors who share the same passions. And they accept the limited stock as lovingly selected to match local interests, much as a local food coop may have fewer products on their grocery shelves but nobody feels the selection is meager, it’s merely more thoughtful and reflects the coop members’ shared interests.

To some extent, book reviewing is going through a similar discover crisis. Fewer newspapers carry book reviews than in the past, and there are more outlets for reviews, but they reach smaller audiences. (Amazon customer reviews are a special case because they have a peculiar status  as consumer feedback mixed in with reviews mixed in with sock puppetry and are usually encountered after a book has been discovered, not as a discovery tool.) Sisters in Crime has been monitoring the gender breakdown of authors reviewed in the media since the 1980s, a project I’m currently coordinating. We’re now covering born-digital reader-focused publications (a selection of book blogs and online-only review sources). The ones we are examining publish nearly as many reviews in aggregate as the four main pre-pub review sources (Booklist, Kirkus, Library Journal, and Publisher’s Weekly).  The shift to online, amateur, and social reviewing of books has interesting potential which hasn’t yet found the kind of mass audience large chain stores did, but which could become a significant channel for tailored word of mouth.

I’m not sure what to conclude from these ramblings of mine, other than that I understand Dennis Johnson’s point, but am not so concerned about the future of discovery. For those lucky enough to live near good independent bookstores, local reading communities and the stores that provide a home for them fill the gap. Public libraries are available to a large percentage of Americans, and a large percentage of Americans use them, providing another valuable site for developing a democracy of reading tastes. If B&N follows Borders, publishers will have a serious distribution problem to deal with, with Amazon left standing as the major mass sales outlet, but like our fabled fiscal cliff, it’s not really a cliff, it’s a slope, and we’re well down it already.

As for readers – we’ll find our communities, locally and online, and word of mouth will continue to be a healthy means of discovering a wide variety of books. We just have to find our way to the right conversations and settle in as active members of communities, both local and virtual, who can’t wait to share news about books you just have to read.


photos courtesy of ~dgies

What I’ve Been Reading

December 3, 2012

Since I tend to let this blog get covered with cobwebs and dust, I thought I would share what I read last month. It’s a sign the crop was good that I have more books by Anne Holt and Elly Griffiths on my bedside table, waiting for me after I finish Michael Stanley’s DEATH OF THE MANTIS, which is terrific so far.

Anne Holt / FEAR NOT
What a fun ride, blending a puzzling plot with serious social issues. When the bishop of Bergen is stabbed to death late at night at Christmastime, her husband and son seem able or unwilling to explain why she was alone at night outdoors. Adam Stubo tries to sort out the high-profile case, unaware of the related cases unfolding around him. Because the deaths are explained as suicides or drug overdoses or inexplicable but unremarkable acts of violence visited on people on the margins, nobody connects the dots until Stubo’s wife, Johanne Vik, meets with an American friend who fills her in on a new kind of hate crime. This is a deeply involving novel with a big cast of characters whose stories are skillfully interwoven. As in the preceding book in the series, Death in Oslo, things hinge on a coincidence, but it wasn’t a wallbanger. Another feature that seems a common thread in her books is the uncovering of a conspiracy, which in this case is fairly fanciful but an interesting way to think through the implications of religious fervor and bigotry. The final pages touch on religious faith in a way that is highly unusual in Nordic crime fiction, but then Anne Holt often pulls out a surprise at the end, and not the usual plot twist. I thoroughly enjoyed this complex and well-plotted mystery.

Archer Mayor / PARADISE CITY
Like Anne Holt’s book, there are a lot of characters and things to piece together, but Mayor is a pro and it all comes together without too much work on the part of readers (all of whom must pretty pretty smart, anyway, if they are reading this excellent if overlooked series). In this case, a robbery turned arson in Vermont turns out to be related to a robbery and assault in Boston, some dodgy going-on in Northampton, Mass, and a smart craftswoman from China who is a virtual slave, paying off an impossible loan to human traffickers, but who has her own ideas about a worker’s paradise. Very good, as usual. I was actually intrigued to read two books back-to-back that have large casts and multiple plot strands by authors who were able to keep me – oh, look, a butterfly! – on track, with the characters clearly-drawn enough to keep straight.

Sue Grafton / A IS FOR ALIBI
I can’t believe it took me all these years to read the first in this classic series. It was surprisingly good – not as political as Paretsky, not as semi-cozy as Edwin of the Iron Shoes, the first of the Sharon McCone series. We don’t learn a whole lot of backstory about Kinsey Milhone, but we can tell she’s a tough, independent, somewhat lonely and thoroughly competent professional. I like her a lot. It reminded me a bit of Ross MacDonald, and I was tickled to find out that she named the location after a place in his books. Also loved the ending – blunt, unsentimental, but not without a personal impact on the detective. I suspect that denouement was in itself a feminist revolution in the genre. Blam.

Gunnar Staalesen / THE WRITING ON THE WALL
I’ve been wanting to read this series for ages, particularly after seeing the Norwegian television series, thanks to a friend who sent the DVDs to me. This book, unfortunately, was a disappointment, as it was hard for me to get through. I think I’ve reached the age where small font size can make reading just difficult enough to make a difference, and while I hate to blame translators when I can’t tell what the original was like, it seemed a particularly choppy narrative with odd word choices. It wasn’t awful, but wasn’t very engaging. I thought the television episodes were great fun, though, and I’m thrilled to see a new translation (COLD HEARTS) out, translated by Don Bartlett who always does a good job.

I read this for discussion at one of my favorite crime fiction communities, 4_mystery_addicts, a Yahoo list where people share their reading insights and the moderators (of which I am one) guard the door to give BSP (blatant self promotion) the bum’s rush. It’s all about reading, not selling. I enjoyed the book, especially the moody fens setting and the professional life of the main character, an academic archaeologist, but was disappointed by the ending on several counts, including the who dunnit and the sequence of events. I’ll read on in the series, though.

Carla Buckley / INVISIBLE
This was randomly sent to me by a publisher that earns its name by randomly sending people review copies. When a girl whose mother faces kidney failure contacts her long-estranged aunt to see if she might be a donor, a family secret faces exposure. The aunt returns to her small hometown in Minnesota, where she learns that her sister has been investigating the possibility that a factory in the town, its main employer, may be poisoning the residents. This novel has a mystery or two and some thrills but is really a book about relationships in a family and small town facing a big problem but mostly focused on how they approach their own relationship issues. I enjoyed it, but it had ingredients that I wanted to see used differently. One of the main character is as a demolition expert. I wanted to see more of that in her life, but it’s off on the sidelines and seems something she randomly fell into rather than a profession that says something about her or might come in handy in a small town in Minnesota. It’s not the author’s fault that I kept wanting it to be crime fiction rather than a novel about family secrets, but it did make me feel a little itchy, as if there was some unrealized potential that no doubt was realized perfectly well if you weren’t so attuned to the expectations and rhythms of another genre.

I thought I would also toss in a few other things I have saved to Diigo in November:

Jen Howard – “With ‘Social Reading’ Books Become Places to Meet” – profiling a project to share annotations and comments on More’s Utopia, the sort of book that I might want to socialize over. This has great pedagogical and scholarly potential, though truth be told, I find students prefer jotting notes on paper copies, given the choice.

Pew Internet Project – How Teens do Research in a Digital Age – interesting to compare teacher’s impressions with those of students reported by Project Information Literacy, and of the employers the PIL folks talked to in their most recent study.

Craig Mod – Post-Artifact Books & Publishing – one of those things you bookmark intending to read closely one of these days. It may seem snarky to say it, but I probably would be more inclined to process it carefully if it were an artifact. But then, there are many artifacts I intend to read closely, and don’t.

SinC into Great Writing, #3 (final)

September 30, 2011

Ellen Hart spoke next, giving a practical outline of what is involved in putting a book online, steps she had to figure out when she decided to convert her backlist titles of the Jane Lawless series into ebooks.

  • First, you need to be sure you have the publication rights or work to get rights reverted from the original publisher. This can take some time. She found that dealing directly with the publisher was the most efficient way.
  • You need to get the printed book scanned (she had hers done by a company that does this using a device that looks like “a tiny tanning bed for books”) – or you can work from a digital file. Make sure any editorial changes that were made are reflected in the digital file. If you use a company to do this step, you’ll want to get the scanned files back in mobi, ePub, and pdf formats. Mobi is the format Amazon uses; most other ebook vendors use ePub. Among such companies are 52novels, BookBaby, and Booknook. (Ellen was very happy with Kimberly Hitchens at Booknook.)
  • Cover design  is important. Ellen said that words have to be relatively HUGE and graphic has to be simple and sharp in order to stand out when only postage-stamp size. She recommends The Book Designer as an interesting blog on the topic of cover art.
  • She recommends giving each book an ISBN, which can be purchased at This is expensive, so buy in blocks if you plan to do more than one book. Because an ISBN is so commonly used to identify books, it’s extremely important for distribution. (NB: This is the key to why Amazon started selling books. There was no other widely-used consumer product with a standard inventory control system. I forget where I read that. Maybe it was just something I dreamed.) You can’t use the ISBN of a book already published, because it’s specific to the edition.
  • Metadata will help people discover your books. Make a list of all the words that people might be searching for – setting, subject matter, genre, etc.  Before you get ready to upload, also be sure to have review quotes and blurbs on hand, because these will be entered as you upload and will help readers make up their mind about your book.
  • DRM (digital rights management) is optional. It makes copying difficult and is designed to discourage people from sharing your book. Unfortunately it can frustrate users and is easily cracked, so Ellen prefers to go without it. This will be a choice you’ll be asked to make as you upload your book.
  • Pricing is complicated. It’s easy to lower a price, but hard to go up—because customers get irate. Amazon’s royalty structure encourages prices at $2.99 and up. Low prices may be harmful for the business in the long run (and your percentage is much lower). Good job, Ellen!

Marcia Talley followed , giving detailed step-by-step instructions on how to clean  up and upload a document to Amazon and other ebook platforms. She had a lot of examples; here are some random notes (I was getting tired):

  • Need to have a Word document – scanning may be best if you have been edited; otherwise you need to work every edit into your original manuscript. Even so, you need to proofread scanned text, because the OCR (optical character recognition) can go wrong. She showed some amusingly garbled phrases to illustrate this point.
  • In Word, use the “show” icon to tidy up the invisible problems of  extra spaces or tabs or hard returns where they don’t belong. (Do you still put two spaces after a period, just like you were taught in typing class. Don’t do that!! Your typing teacher lied. You’ll have to delete that extra space.) Take out all of the contents of headers and footers, including page numbers.
  • Ctrl+A and make sure the format is consistent throughout – with properly indented paragraphs, etc. Use standard fonts and avoid any fussy special fonts; they won’t work in ebooks. (A short editorial comment here: the absolute lack of design is one of the things I despise about ebooks.) Use find/replace to take out double spaces – need to be one space between sentences only. Yeah, that typing teacher was a sadist. Set your manuscript to have curly, not straight, quotes. Use page breaks rather than section breaks.
  • Have your bank account info ready – it will be needed to set up your account – not to spend money, but to earn it.
  • Make sure the cover art is 72 dpi – if the upload doesn’t work, it won’t tell you why it didn’t work, but chances are your cover wasn’t 72 dpi.

There was a lot more detail in her presentation slides.

The dinner speaker was Meg Gardiner. Her talk was followed by a panel on marketing and consisted of a self-published author, an agent, and a staffer from Open Road Media. I didn’t take notes for this, but the message was “use technology to build personal relationships with readers” and the tools are twitter and interactive websites that tie into the story.

The writer suggested writers look for readers outside the usual genre circles; connect with interesting people and then let them know what you’ve published. Traditional publishing gives you visibility only briefly, when the book is newly released, which doesn’t give it time to build buzz; Open Road does this for authors, continuing marketing campaigns long after the launch. The speaker from Open Road said they don’t see any reason to have book trailers, but they do use video more in a documentary sense – filming short pieces that tie a book into current events or hot issues. The agent sketched out a way for an author to build an interactive website that invites readers into a character’s world, an alternate universe where the site acts like a “wormhole” between the real world and the fictional one, creating a stronger bond of intimacy between the reader and characters. All agreed that authors need to develop an ongoing relationship with readers, which may not take a lot of money but does take time. Although each one described work that could be material for two full-time jobs, they all agreed that writers need to find a balance between market-oriented relationship-building and writing.

All in all, it made for a very interesting day. Eventually there will be some video highlights of the sessions available, so you can see all the bits I left out.

photo courtesy of jm3

SinC into Great Writing, #2

September 28, 2011

Libby Hellmann was the second speaker at the Sisters in Crime pre-Bouchercon workshop and the catchy title of her talk was “To E or not to E.”

Libby thinks the way publishers are behaving with electronic rights is ignorant and blundering.  But don’t rush out to make your own ebooks until you have considered the pros and cons of traditional and self-publishing.

Advantages of traditional publishing: don’t underestimate their marketing support. Though they may not offer much personal support except for a small number of books they are promoting heavily, they do send out advanced reader copies and their distribution channels are strong and broad. Having physical books on retailers’ shelves helps get the word out in a different way than online chatter can do. Contrary to rumor, publishers still perform editing. Booksellers are valuable for the handselling they do, and traditional publishers get books into those stores. Awards tend to go to traditionally published books, though that is changing. Reviews, which tend to favor traditional publications, also give authors a valuable third party endorsement. It’s much hard to get reviewed by influential reviewers if you’re self-published.

Disadvantages: the percentage of ebook sales offered to authors is too small. Publishers tend to be inflexible. They are slow in reporting sales and royalties and slow in paying them. The marketing they’re good at is very short-lived – no more than six weeks for a new book, after which the next group of newly-published books is given the spotlight and your book is no longer promoted at all.

Advantages of self-publishing ebooks: control is in the hands of the author. This is attractive to a lot of writers. There is no need to go through intermediaries – agents and publishers. Libby recommends paying for critical services: cover art (which is different than traditional cover art because it is small and has to “pop”); editing – either copyediting or copyediting plus a developmental editor who can help shape a book. Conversion is a cost. Amazon is where her books sell most strongly, but they have so much control in the industry that it’s worrying.

Disadvantages: Amazon is bad when it is bad – which is often (meaning frequent technical problems when uploading ebooks and their associated files and metadata). There is little available at the moment in the way of third-party recommendation mechanisms (such as respected and widely-read reviews). Since there are no gatekeepers, every ebook has to distinguish itself while in the company of some awful dreck. It’s very difficult to know what works for marketing and very hard for readers to discover what’s good. Pricing is tricky – it’s a buyer’s market right now and Libby’s experience is that low is the most powerful price point. She pointed out that you can’t easily move up in pricing without sales plummeting. Moving down in price is another matter. However be aware that you pay a steep price for going low; Amazon pays a much larger percentage on books priced at $2.99 and up in order to discourage the 99 cent book price point expectation.

She also spoke a bit about marketing and the changing role of agents, who can’t make the income they did when advances are dropping so low. Incidentally, she’s a good speaker – very relaxed, yet energetic.

Next, there was a conversation between author Cathy Pickens and bookseller/publisher Jim Huang. Cathy made the scandalous announcement that Jim actually has read ebooks. (He’s a well-known defender of printed books.) That, of course, gave him an opportunity to talk about why he loves print, which was a good addition to the mix. Jim then made the point that authors don’t have to choose between agent and Big Six publishers and self-publishing; small houses offer a third way. Small publishers have the same distribution potential as major publishers so long as they are represented in the Ingram distribution system. What you need to know in choosing a small publisher is its “access  to market” – and that means the terms of sale are critical. These conditions for retailers (in this case, booksellers) have to match the industry standard (including discount and returnability) and be advantageous enough for booksellers to carry them; that’s what access to market means for authors. Beware of small publishers that can’t provide retailers the conditions that they need to make selling their books a realistic business proposition; you will lose a major advantage of having someone publish your book. Jim also argued that .99 cent pricing is bad for business, not just because the revenue is low but because it makes it seem all books are fungable – when each is actually unique and each choice should be based on the book, not the price of it.

photo courtesy of BMeunier and  MorBCN

meanwhile, at Bouchercon – SinC into Great Writing, #1

September 24, 2011

I’m interrupting my participation in the Sisters in Crime 25th Anniversary challenge to post some notes from a workshop held the day before Bouchercon 2011 , which, by the by, was extremely well-organized and fun; got to a lot of excellent panels and enjoyed the roomy and well-stocked book room. Previous SinC workshops had focused on the craft of writing and, according to a member survey, have been well received.

This year, the focus was different, partly because there were plans for the Mystery Writers of America to run a session of their MWA University at the same time (though in the end that didn’t happen). But it also seemed like an opportunity to do a program focused on the business of writing in an era when things are changing so fast. The issues tackled in this workshop were where is the publishing industry headed? how does an author decide whether to invest her time in trying to publish the traditional way or self-publish? and what is actually involved in creating self-published e-books (with a particular focus on writers recovering rights to previously-published books and turning them into ebooks) ? It’s shape was a bit of an hourglass, with broad issues, first, becoming narrowly focused on how-to before dinner, and then back out to a broader picture at the end when three speakers tackled marketing.

The first speaker was David Wilk, CEO of Booktrix, who teaches a course at the NYU publishing school on marketing. The last time he taught the course he was surprised that none of the students plan to work in traditional publishing. He cited a survey reported in Publisher’s Lunch that found readers of ebooks don’t know or care where they come from. The author is what matters, not the publisher, when making a choice.  Most publishers don’t have brands other than their authors (who might switch publishers). Small publishers are much better at developing a coherent niche and identity for their lists.

By offering self-publishing tools, Amazon is becoming a publisher; David pointed out that it’s not exactly true that you’re “self” published when another entity has control over making the connection between the customer and the book. He recommended reading MJ Rose’s essay, “The Writer as Willy Loman” about writers as business owners. Writers need to balance the time used up in public contact online with actually producing books.

He said that unlike other products, there is no predictable product line for publishers; each book is unique and has a unique audience – though this explains why series and big names are so well-liked – the marketing for a known entity is much simpler than developing an audience for an unknown quantity.

There’s a shift in the way that consumers see companies; they want to have a relationship with the companies they patronize. It can’t be broadcast, one-way communication. In a crowded market, this makes things more complicated – to be a bestseller you need to sell more, but the old “megaphone marketing” no longer works in most instances. “It’s not about promoting the next book,” he said. “It’s about an evolving relationship with readers.” He warned against relying on massive companies as intermediaries; they are bad for the ecology of books. If we trade dependence on the big six publishers for dependence on the big two—Amazon and Apple—is this truly healthier? (Interesting that Google didn’t make it onto his list – maybe with the settlement faltering it’s seen as less of a player.) He mentioned that booksellers and librarians have always been strong defenders of intellectual freedom, but they are cut out of the picture when the intermediaries control both the content and its access. Think about the long-term consequences of letting businesses control content, access, and the preservation of culture. (Insert my loud cheering and whistling here.)

He feels we’re at a Gladwellian tipping point and the plethora of new platforms and the changing relationship between reader and writer will alter things significantly. “Print publishing is in a lot of trouble,” he said. Economies of scale in printing favor big print runs. Now there are much smaller print runs (which are more expensive in per unit costs) as a cost-savings measure, which is an indication that the major publishers are not doing well. He predicted there we may have a big three in a few years instead of six.

He said that, when it comes to print on demand options, he feels Lightning Source is a better option for authors than other digital short-run publishers because they are owned by Ingram so can  distribute books more efficiently.  (They do have setup costs that other options don’t charge, and they don’t automatically distribute your books; someone has to want them enough to make it worth it.) He believes the thing that has been keeping the hardcover alive is Amazon’s deep discounts. People will buy a harcover if it’s discounted to the price of a trade paperback. The agency pricing dispute, he says, is really about fending off the ebook future for as long as possible – sustaining the current model by keeping prices high.

When planning for a long writing career, a major question is how much a writer wants to do for herself. DIY or purchase services? Publishing is becoming a service industry. The cost of services is in flux: trending downward, but there’s a range of prices, depending on what you want and whether you want to deal with an upfront payment or postpone spending money by sharing a percentage of sales.

That was just the first speaker. More to come – though you may be relieved to know that my note-taking slowed as the day wore on.

photos courtesy of koalazymonkey and jacktwo.

choose your own adventure

March 28, 2011

My friend Larry posts a lot of weird stuff to his Facebook page. Not weird as in “how unusual” but weird as in “seriously? how can that be?” yet sadly far from unusual these days. The other day he posted a recent news story link – one on an Alaska politician who believes people who have sex outside of marriage should be criminally prosecuted by the state (a politician who, of course, belongs to the party of small government) and I responded that I wanted to wake up from this dream because it’s getting too weird.

And that’s so often how it feels; like one of those dreams you have in the hour before the alarm goes off, the nightmares that feel so real and so very wrong, the ones where normal life has become warped and looks just like normal, only totally off kilter. It’s scary precisely because everyone else in the dream seems to think it’s how things should be. Because it feels impossible, but inevitable.

I felt the same way this morning, reading two stories from the publishing world, courtesy of Shelf Awareness. One fit neatly right next to the recent story in the New York Times that pointed out G.E. has paid no taxes in the past two years, even though they made $5 billion in profits in the US (and over $14 billion worldwide.)

Here’s the book world business-as-usual weirdness: Apparently top officials in the failed Borders bookstore chain stand to earn over 8 billion in bonuses if the company pulls off its latest fantasy business league restructuring plan. These are not people of the book. They are businessmen who jumped aboard a sinking ship and pretended to steer as it broke up. Yet an unnamed publishing executive at a major house thinks they should get that bonus, telling a WSJ reporter “I want to see Borders come out of this. If they don’t have these guys, I don’t see a chance.”

Reader, with these captains of industry steering the ship we don’t stand a chance.

But there are alternatives. Here is one – and sweet, sweet irony, it’s temporarily occupying the shell of a Borders store in Pittsburgh. Karen the Small Press Librarian points out that Fleeting Pages will move in for a month to provide alternative and indy books, book arts events, workshops, and projects. You’ve heard of pop-up books. This is a pop-up book future, DIY, hand-on, and without executives who require big bonuses. But feel free to volunteer. This may not be the future, and it doesn’t pretend to be. But it sure as hell is better than the current Billionaires in Bizarro World storyline we’re living in.

Because there’s one thing that transcends money, big salaries, business strategies, and corporate goals. It’s simple, and it’s been around for a long time: people telling stories to each other. People creating. People sharing. As the captains of industry squabble over who gets to hold the wheel of the ship, not noticing that an iceberg of greed has already ripped a hole in your hull, we’ll keep sharing our stories.

This intriguing picture comes from a Wreck This Journal set by The Shopping Sherpa. In fact, there's a whole Wreck This Journal group at Flickr. Beautiful!

Seth Godin – Book Publishing is So 1907

August 22, 2010

A snippet from a forthcoming Mediabistro interview with Seth Godin:

“I’ve decided not to publish any more books in the traditional way. 12 for 12 and I’m done. I like the people, but I can’t abide the long wait, the filters, the big push at launch, the nudging to get people to go to a store they don’t usually visit to buy something they don’t usually buy, to get them to pay for an idea in a form that’s hard to spread … I really don’t think the process is worth the effort that it now takes to make it work. I can reach 10 or 50 times as many people electronically. No, it’s not ‘better’, but it’s different. So while I’m not sure what format my writing will take, I’m not planning on it being the 1907 version of hardcover publishing any longer.”

I am particularly struck by the “long wait” combined with the very short window of opportunity during which the publisher decides whether or not to keep a book in print, exercise any of the subsidiary rights they bought, or ponders why they ever bought the book in the first place, though nobody remembers because the people involved no longer work there.  But insists on DRM on e-versions because OMG, what if it escapes!! It’s an insane business, and for books like his that are more topical than they are for the ages – well, I guess he got around to reading one of his own books . . .

the loneliness of the unshared e-book

May 30, 2010

Polonius: What do you read, my lord?
Hamlet: Words, words, words.

Oh, Mr. Klinkenborg- we are on the same page.

New York Times contributor Verlyn Klinkenborg (who visited my place of work once and was overwhelmed by the “deep-keeled Minnesotan politeness that states, as a life proposition, that you should not put yourself forward, not even to the raising of a hand in class” – and used it to write an interesting piece on young women’s hesitance to claim authority as writers) reflects on reading on an iPad. And he has exactly the same reservations about the experience as I do.

“All the e-books I’ve read have been ugly,” he writes. There is no design of the words on the page, no distinction among books. They all look alike, and every at every page you feel as if you’re in the same place in the text, somewhere in the middle. It’s impossible to get a sense of how old the book is, what makes the book visually distinctive, or where you are in the text. There’s  a profusion of editions of classics and translations, but because they’re all dressed in the same burlap duds, it’s hard to tell which is newer, which is more authoritative, which is more accurate. This seeming democracy of words has made every book wear the same drab, ill-fitting uniform.

But I am particularly pleased that he ends with this point that will have the greatest impact on our reading culture.

I already have a personal library. But most of the books I’ve ever read have come from lending libraries. Barnes & Noble has released an e-reader that allows short-term borrowing of some books. [ed. note: many major publishers have insisted this feature be disabled for their books.] The entire impulse behind Amazon’s Kindle and Apple’s iBooks assumes that you cannot read a book unless you own it first — and only you can read it unless you want to pass on your device.

That goes against the social value of reading, the collective knowledge and collaborative discourse that comes from access to shared libraries. That is not a good thing for readers, authors, publishers or our culture.

photo courtesy of Jemsweb.