December 23, 2011

Naked, Wet and Inspired

The title sounds like an erotic intro, but I assure you, it isn’t. What I’m referring to is a strange phenomenon that inevitably occurs when I’m in the shower—inspiration. I don’t even have to be suffering from writer’s block; I might think my plot and characters are just fine, thank you very much. But when I’m in the shower, minding to the business of getting clean for the day, some part of my brain that is presumably occupied when I’m doing most anything else, is finally free to produce some of my best ideas. Why is that?

Let’s examine some possibilities.

Scent – Aromatherapy researchers have shown that scent can temporarily relieve everything from stress to insomnia to PMS. All I know is: when I’m scanning the grocery store aisle for shampoo, I open the cap, sniff, and base my decision on what to buy on how good it smells. Maybe the process of lathering and rinsing combined with a flowery, fruity fragrance opens up more than just my nasal passages.

Heat – There are very few more pleasurable things in life than the first few moments after stepping under a hot shower spray. Unlike the unpleasant goosebumps that sprout when our husbands or male co-workers insist on keeping the air-conditioner at a frigid 72-degrees, warm water sets off an exquisite chain reaction in the skin. Minescule arectores pilorum muscles attached to each and every hair on the human body react to cold by pulling the hair upright. It is theorized that this functioned as a way to make early man look bigger and more formidable when threatened, by poofing him up (the idea of a poofy, hairy man certainly frightens me). Nowadays, goosebumps in the shower set the stage for what follows:

Relaxation – Breathe that steamy air in…and out. Upon each exhale feel your shoulders dropping as the tension loosens its hold on your neck. We don’t need a yoga instructor to call out instructions guiding us through this part—it’s fully instinctive.

White noise – Sitting in my writing chair, my ears are constantly assaulted by the noises of the household. The base boom of my husband’s computer speakers coming through the office wall as he plays a video game or watches a movie. The incessant chat-chat-chatter from my son as he whirrs around the house like a hummingbird. The click-click-click of the dog’s claws on the wood floor, and his urgent barking at the slightest noise from outside. People actually buy machines that produce constant, soothing sounds to drown out external noise and promote sleep and relaxation. Inside the shower stall, all that can be heard is the steady shush of falling water, a welcome, natural white noise.

Solitude – There are very few places one can go to escape from the world. Even in bed, most of us have to share our space (“Keep your crusty man-feet on your side!"). In the shower, once the glass door steams up, and I can no longer see my cat staring intently at me with his huge, round blue eyes, I’m all by myself. No one judging me; no expectations. Alllll alone.

Refreshment – Clean is good. Just the act of literally and symbolically washing away the day creates a feeling of accomplishment and sets the stage for a receptive mood. I’m clean, I’m relaxed, I’m alone. The shower is my meditation chamber. Let the ideas come!

December 19, 2011

Haircut Chaos

Just for fun, I'm resurrecting some of my favorites posts that no one read.

January 2008

I took my four-year-old for a haircut yesterday.

What an ordeal.

This is a child who cannot hold still. I remember my mom talking about my little brother. She'd say, "If we ever get invaded by aliens and have to hide, we're dead for sure because Matt won't be able to hold still and shut up!" Apparently, my son takes after his unkie Matt.

So of course my son got a hideous haircut. Even worse than usual, but that may be my fault. I was rushed yesterday morning and didn't take the time to brush his hair (he was getting it cut, after all, I rationalized) and when we walked in to Fantastic Sam's we must have looked like some kind of dopey back-country folk who don't give two hoots about their appearance. The hairstylist probably thought he needed a cut that would keep his grown-out hair from getting caught in the pigsty gate or the rusted out Chevy.

She was young and it was obviously her first day - my son may have even been her very first haircut - poor thing, I hope she didn't have a career change of heart after surviving the chaos. So anyway, just about everyone in the store had to get involved in mowing the boy's mop. The other stylists took turns coming over and trying to bribe or distract him into holding still. He thought all the attention was grand fun and acted out even more. Then he got hair in his mouth and in his eyes and started whining and disturbing his apron, which made even more hair go flying. The harried hairstylist tried to remain calm, but I could see her hands shaking.

Not even the promise of a lollipop, a rare treat for him, could keep my little guy's shoulders from rising whenever the buzzy scissors hit his neck. When I say the haircut was bad, I do not exaggerate. I literally could do better - on a kid who held still, of course. So this poor hairstylist is going to extreme measures to fix it and it's getting shorter and shorter. Snip, snip, snippity-snip! I started rolling my eyes because he might as well have been bald by then.

Then he began a loud litany of, "When are you gonna be done? Are you done yet?" The fond smiles on the other patron's faces had long since worn thin by the time he was finally shorn.

Liberated from the chair, my boy went straight for the lollipop jar while I futilely brushed at my clothes, which were covered with a thick layer of short, blonde hairs after my useless attempts to pin his head down during the procedure.

As I walked out the door, I sheepishly handed the stylist a $10 tip for sheer effort, even though my son looks like a fuzzy, lopsided baby chick. Next time, I'm hoping to find a salon that, like many dentists' offices, offers sedation - for both my son and me!

September 28, 2011

Indie Author Discrimination

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I thought I'd write about some of the issues that led to the creation of my popular video The Indie-Author Lament. By "popular," I don't mean viral or anything, I just mean it hit a nerve with a lot of self-published authors like myself – you know that nerve in your elbow when you bonk it that hurts like hell but makes you laugh helplessly like a loon? Yeah, that one.

From the feedback I got on the video, it's pretty clear that just about every self-published author out there has a story similar to mine. I decided to write the song after two weeks of intensive marketing that left me feeling like a dog that couldn't quite catch its tail. The video was never overtly intended as a marketing tool, even though I did have it in the back of my mind that almost anything that gets me attention can be used to direct people to my product. So in that respect, I accidently stumbled upon a unique marketing tool in itself. People have asked whether the song is true; it mostly is, but I exaggerated some parts to make it funnier - and to make a point. The song is a composite of what the average indie-author goes through.

For those of you who aren't writers, you may be wondering what all the fuss is about.

There are two roads to getting a book published these days, the long road and the shortcut. A simplistic description of the long road is that it's the traditional route where your book has to pass muster with first an agent and then an editor at a publishing house. The shortcut, referred to by its detractors as "vanity publishing" is where writers self-publish their manuscripts. Usually they attempted to take the traditional route, but roadblocks and detours prevented them from reaching their destination. So they chose to self-publish, which on the surface might appear to be a smart move to shave off time in their journey, but more often, like many promising shortcuts, leads them through alligator-infested swamps.

I know I'm pushing the metaphors, but in the war against bad books, agents have traditionally held the front line. They function as the roadblocks; well-armed with opinions on what the reading public wants, and they only allow a chosen few books to get past them. Those that do, must detour on to another set of roadblocks set up by the editor. In this way, books that eventually reach the public are supposed to be error-free and high-quality.

The books that don't get past the agent are a mixed bag. Some are good, some are bad, some are very bad – but some are excellent, because agents aren't perfect and sometimes they reject based on what's hot in the market at the moment, etcetera. There're a lot of subjective reasons why an excellent novel wouldn't get traditionally published, but on the other hand, there's no vetting system in place to prevent the very bad self-published books from stinking up the shelves. Anyone who wants to publish a book can do so, but the bad books erode public perception of indies as a whole. If someone reads a traditionally published author's book and hates it, they aren't likely to give that author's next book a chance, but they probably won't boycott the publisher. If someone reads a badly written or poorly edited self-published book, there's a danger that they will lump all indie-authors into the same category and avoid them altogether.

The marketing advice most indie-authors are given is twofold: establish an internet presence in forums and on social networking sites, and solicit book bloggers to review their book. So whereas publishing houses can provide advertising and obtain reviews from professional book reviewers for their stable of authors, indie authors are on their own - and unfortunately, some do a piss poor job of promoting themselves.

In a certain subset of self-published authors, I'll refer to them as the Spammers (because that's what they are), there's a decided lack of professionalism as far as marketing is concerned. Spammers are not subtle. They are the ones who tweet the link to their book every hour on the hour. They are the ones with seventeen links in their signature line. They dive-bomb forum threads, comment off-topic on blog posts and generally make a nuisance of themselves – and a bad name for indie authors in general.

While the forum and book blogger advice has worked in some cases really well for authors who didn't abuse it in the past, there's been a recent backlash. Some forum administrators purportedly fielded so many complaints about spam that they were forced to create separate groups within the forums, effectively segregating self-published authors – who can now spam each other to their hearts' content – because you can bet readers won't venture to the back of the bus. Amazon UK, in a move they have yet to explain to their customers, has just banned indie promotion on their forums altogether.

Major book review publications like the New York Times actually have policies in place that exclude self-published books. Whether this is a result of pressure from publishing conglomerates who advertise with them or an unwillingness to dedicate the manpower necessary to sift through the chaff: they won't touch them. So indie-authors are forced to seek out alternative ways to get reviews, which are essential to sales. Indie-authors' family, friends and peers often volunteer, but what they need most in order to avoid the appearance of dishonesty is unbiased opinions, and that's where book bloggers come in.

The majority of book bloggers don't accept self-published books, but those that do have unwittingly taken on the road-blocking role of agent. They get the exact same kind of queries agents do and perform the same basic function of filtering out poorly written or badly edited books. This is ironic to the author given that taking the shortcut to publication was supposed to bypass these sorts of roadblocks in the first place. Book bloggers have popped up everywhere and some have become extremely popular: they weather a steady deluge of requests from indie-authors. Many are backlogged several months or even years, so even if they agree to read your book, it won't be any time soon. Many also have a policy of only posting reviews on books they liked. Some do that because they don't like negativism, but in others it's a defense mechanism to avoid confrontations with disgruntled authors. There have been cases of self-published authors engaging in very public and embarrassing flame-wars with reviewers.

So you can see how the aggressive, unrelenting actions of a few have severely curtailed the already limited marketing options of the many.

This anti-indie shift is understandable, but very very frustrating for most of us. My song was a spoof – it didn't offer advice on how avoid these minefields because even though in general indie-authors stick together and support each other, at the end of the day, marketing is a very personal commitment. Each of us has to budget our time and resources as best we can and something that works for one won't necessarily work for the other. But just because things look dire right now for indies doesn't mean it will always be that way. Public opinion swings back and forth, and indie-authors themselves are scrambling to think up unique ways to market themselves and their books. The majority of us keep tight rein on our marketing efforts so we don't humiliate ourselves or compromise our integrity. It's not hopeless, just another challenge. Until someone comes up with a viable solution to the lack of a cost-free, unbiased vetting system for self-published books, the best defense is to have a solid product and to maintain decorum. And it looks like the best offense in today's climate is to think up a unique, non-spam generating marketing platform to wow your potential audience.

August 15, 2011

WHAT'S GOOD FOR THE GOOSE...

On the cover of Cassandra Clare's popular young adult book The City of Bones, there's a prominent quote from the author of Twilight, Stephenie Meyer: "The Mortal Instruments series is a story world that I love to live in. Beautiful!"

Neil Gaiman raved, "Stephen King's Under the Dome was one of my favourite books of the year so far."

Taylor Stevens' debut novel, The Informationist, got labeled "One of the best thrillers of the year!" by Tess Gerritsen.

Let me ask you this: When you see a quote from one big-name author singing the praises of another author's book, does your bullshit radar begin pinging?

Why would a famous scribe like Meyer stir herself to offer up what amounts to a huge advertising coup to another author anyway? Let's examine her possible motivation:

The quote was given after Meyer found herself truly moved by a book she chose on her own to read.

The quote was heartfelt and unsolicited, but Meyer was given a copy of the book by the author/agent/editor.

The quote was solicited and Meyer felt she had to provide it, but she honestly enjoyed the book.

The quote was solicited and Meyer was under pressure to say good things about it.

The quote was provided as a tit-for-tat to benefit both authors. Meyer's name and the name of her book appears on the other author's cover, thus giving her extra exposure while the other author gets an endorsement that will potentially sway Meyer's fans to read his/her book.

Unless some industry insider starts blowing his or her whistle, we'll never know for sure, but the fact is: it's common practice in publishing for authors to review each other. When I've seen these quotes in the past, I've generally taken them at face-value, especially if I like the quoting author's work. It never occurred to me to wonder whether I've just been duped into buying a book I wouldn't have if it didn't have such ringing praise from someone I admired.

In the Meyer and Clare scenario, can the reader trust that Meyer really would like to leap between the pages of Clare's book and live there?

I ask because I've been accused of unethical conduct by the reigning opinion-makers at a popular reader's forum (that will go unnamed to hopefully prevent retaliation).

Let me start at the beginning: I created a website, a place where indie-authors could connect and exchange honest, unbiased read/reviews. This was born out of the frustration I experienced trying to promote my books. There exists a series of vicious concentric circles wherein an indie-author cannot sell their book without getting the word out, but can't get the word out without being accused of spamming. Everything we do to promote our work is either restricted (we can comment about it only in segregated sub-communities on forums) or suspect (we cannot ask our family, friends or peers to endorse it). Since we are shunned by major book review publications and ignored by most book bloggers, what are our options other than to pour money we don't have into paid advertising (which is arguably just as suspect)?

According to my detractors on this particular reader's forum, agreeing to swap reviews with another author isn't one of them. The response to my little post announcing the website I created was immediate and fierce:

"Just an FYI before the feeding frenzy starts on your thread. Most readers on XX don't look on authors exchanging reviews with affection. It seems dishonest and some of us feel that we can't really trust a review done by one author in exchange for another review."

"There've been numerous discussions about WHY review swapping is a bad (BAD!) idea."

"We get these posts a lot, Mel, and the overwhelming consensus is that these sort of things are unethical."

"I think that the only reviews that are worth having are professional reviewer sites (not the kind you pay for)."

"…around here, we've had this discussion many, many times. And the consensus is always that this sort of thing is a bad idea. Not only because it can look like gaming the system, but also because it can be bad for business. The appearance of swapping favorable reviews with other writers can cast doubt on all of your legitimate reviews."

Given the admitted number of times this issue has come up in that forum, it seems obvious to me that the concept is NOT distasteful to everyone, but as soon as the idea of swapping reviews is proposed by some hapless forum member, these "self-appointed desk-jockey lynching mobs," as a friend describes them, pounce. Notice the phrases such as "most readers" and "overwhelming consensus." I was given the choice to read the links to previous discussions—proving that the issue has been well-and-truly argued and won—or to take their word for it that It Has Been Decided that swapping reviews is downright wrong.

While my thread was combusting from the negative feedback, I began to get private messages from sympathetic folks unwilling to go against these forum bullies.

"The same thing that's happening to you just happened to me! …Everyone slammed me and called me unethical to the point that I was in TEARS!"

"I saw your book review post and was about to sign up when the comments scared me away."

So why is it that these bullies seemingly don't recognize a practice that already runs rampant in the traditional publishing world? Is Stephenie Meyer "dishonest?" Is she more legitimate than me because she's backed by a traditional publisher who can influence a "professional reviewer site" to read her book? If Stephenie Meyer can give Cassandra Clare a quote, why can't I give one of my fellow indies a quote?

The goose does it, why can't the gander?

My friend puts it this way, "These little lynching mobs don't have any real or meaningful power, and in the petty power they DO exert, they slavishly ape the actions of the people who are over THEM in the rest of the world."

Really, people? Way to go…way to beat down the little guy.

Perhaps my biggest sin in this sad story was that I went public and embraced the tit-for-tat concept instead of accomplishing it behind-the-scenes like the big boys and girls undeniably do. Instead, supposedly I've "cast doubt on all of [my] legitimate reviews." All one of them.

June 26, 2011

The Indie-Author Lament

So I desperately needed to take a break from my book marketing efforts and do something fun, right? I love dinking around with animation software and I've had Crazytalk Animator for some time now with no specific project in mind. I decided to pour all my self-publishing frustrations into a song. It's a spoof, a little ditty poking fun at everything we indie-authors go through to get noticed.

June 18, 2011

Death by Book Blogger

Now that I'm trying to get word out about my books, I was happy to find sites like YA Book Blog Directory and The Indie Book Blog Database. They make it easier to find book bloggers—potential readers/reviewers for my self-published books. I've been trolling through them for the last long, torturous week…

Kill me…kill me now.

No, I haven't quite lost the will to live, but if the paper-thin walls of my ego weren't bolstered by stubbornness and a rather urgent need to prove myself, I'd have quit days ago.

There are two kinds of book blogger: the ones just starting out and the ones who've made a business of it. Right off I'll tell you not to bother with the pros unless a traditional publisher's name graces the spine of your book. They are easily recognized as the flashiest blogs with the most followers. They've been around long enough to have gotten the attention of best-selling authors (with ARCs and swag, no less!), so they will almost always have a version of the following sentence under their official review policy page: I do NOT accept self-published novels.

I read that sentence over and over again this week, usually after I spent precious minutes waiting for a site to load, searching for the policy tab and reading through a now-familiar set of rules. If I could beg one thing of book bloggers, it would be to put that "I've risen above slogging through indies" sentence first and foremost to let us down before we get excited that their favorite books to read are exactly what we wrote. Those who've reached pro status are the ones most likely to announce that their review turnaround is two or three months down the road and if they aren’t interested in your pitch, they won't even bother to respond to your email(!).

Which brings me to the book bloggers who DO accept self-published books. With some exceptions, they are the bright-eyed bushy-tailed ones; the dewy-fresh newbies with palpable enthusiasm (who are often very young). All book bloggers love to read, but these newbies haven't gotten overwhelmed with requests by desperate self-published authors…yet. But they are the ones with very few followers, so the word about your book might get out there, but it won't go far.

Here's my stats so far: One week of trolling the Internet for book bloggers, an average of three or four hours each day. Hundreds of sites visited. Sixteen review requests emailed. Five responses. Two were very nice, but said they were too busy. (This could be true or could be a gentle way to avoid saying they're not interested, I dunno.) One said maybe. Two said YES, but both told me it would be several weeks if not months before they would be able to find the time.

Yeesh.

Actually, I don't think there's anything more to be said...

June 7, 2011

Forum Spam-a-lam-a-ding-dong

You've got a self-published book or two to sell, so you begin your marketing efforts by seeking out online locations to hawk your wares. The most obvious places are where the elusive and legendary Readers are rumored to be found—book forums—places where Readers discuss their literary likes and dislikes. Nirvana to a new author! Or so we think, until we join the site and discover, well, we're not welcome. Despite the advice we've gotten to get busy promoting ourselves, there're new rules out there, folks, and forum administrators aren't very forgiving if we barge into their territory with an ulterior motive.

Although we writers are generally solitary creatures who have a hard time singing our own praises, there exists a sub-species of scribe hell-bent on spamming the living crap out of everyone and anyone who will allow it. Just like writers who self-publish before their manuscript is ready for prime-time, these spammers are making a bad name for all self-published authors. Forums everywhere are catching on, and they've been making it crystal clear what they'll do to us if we spam, blatantly or inadvertently.

Amazon customer discussions forbids "Any form of "spam," including advertisements, contests, or other solicitations for other websites or companies." At kindleboards, it says right in the user registration agreement, "Spam…(is) forbidden on this forum." And over at Goodreads, most of the groups I've checked out have their own rules against spam. There's a thread in the SciFi Fantasy Book Club group that spells out in no uncertain terms how some Readers, at least, feel about, among other sins of the author, spam.

I joined Goodreads earlier this year, before I decided to self-publish. I love it there, it's such a friendly place, as long as I participate as a Reader who follows the rules (and I have, meticulously). But unless I choose to join the groups set up specifically for others like me, it's been made painfully clear that even the faintest whiff of spam will get me a face full of slammed door. I did join some of those groups—I'm all for making contacts among my peers—but there's an atmosphere of segregation there, and the spam is rampant and even encouraged. Even if I posted my own tentative spam attempt to that mix, I doubt I'd garner many reads, because no matter how helpful and nice the members might be, they aren't there looking for reads. And since I also run a book review blog that doesn't turn its nose up at indies, I'd probably end up with a big red target painted on my virtual forehead. Because, yes! Just like the skittish Reader, I, too am leery of self-published books in general. I've read some truly good stuff, outstanding stuff, in fact, but the last thing I want is for someone with an ulterior motive to woo me and become my online pal only to wham-bam-spam me in the hope that I'll feel obligated to read and review them.

So I understand completely the defensive attitude of forums and applaud their anti-spam efforts—even though it leaves me with very little in the way of promotional options for my own books. Word of mouth is essential for indies; we don't have the luxury of marketing dollars provided by traditional publishers. I need reads, and can't rely on the one thing even more elusive than Readers: Luck.

May 15, 2011

My Reasons for Self-publishing (Again)

Back in 1999, after a decade of starts and stops, I finished my first novel, Uncommon Sense. To say I was naïve about what came next, about the way the publishing industry worked, would be a vast, echoing understatement. I began searching for information, and was appalled when I learned how long the process took. Months waiting on agent query responses, partial responses, full responses. Assuming you snag an agent, you wait several more months on editor submissions. Assuming the book is eventually accepted, you then wait up to two years for the publisher to release it. Yikes! I wasn’t getting any younger. How long was I willing to languish in pre-publication purgatory before I saw the fruits (recognition, if not outright acclaim) of my labor?

My search yielded an alternative: self-publishing. Because I was clueless to any repercussions, the concept appealed to me. I had no one to advise me against it. As a working mom, I didn’t have time to attend writer’s group meetings, and back then, if online groups existed, I didn’t know about them. The information I’d gotten on traditional publishing was highly discouraging. The odds alone gave me serious pause; there are millions of writers out there competing for a select few spots on the bookstore shelves. Getting published is akin to winning multiple lotteries—first you win an agent, then you win a publisher, then you win fans…or not.

So I hope it’s not too hard for you to understand how I was swayed by the promises of my first self-publisher, iUniverse. They had a (paid) program where one of their reviewers would read my manuscript and if it was good enough, it would get a ‘special’ designation as an Editor’s Choice novel. When Uncommon Sense passed muster, I was over the moon. They like me! They really like me! The reviewer had wonderful things to say about the novel.

It felt like a tremendous victory, but I realize now the thing that made me happiest was that someone other than my family and friends read it and approved. I gratefully bought a ticket and boarded the iUniverse train, despite the fact that I had to accept whatever lame cover their amateurish artists threw together. In no time my baby was in print – with a $12.95 cover price, a cost much higher than the average paperback. Marketing, as a basic concept, never occurred to me.

It was before ebooks hit the scene, so of course sales were less than dismal. I can only fall back on the excuse that I really do suffer from a pervasive naivete. This explains why I chose to self-publish my next two novels, The Dragon Diary and Dessert Island. I simply hadn’t learned my lesson. The truth is that I was still caught in the gravity pull of planet Instant Gratification. The gratification in my case had more to do with putting my manuscripts in motion, launching them as it were, rather than jumping through agent submission hoops before inevitably abandoning my books to languish on my hard drive. Certainly I wasn’t gratified by my royalties!

My rude awakening occurred at the first writer’s conference I attended. At the Southern California Writer’s Conference in San Diego in the early 2000’s, I went to lectures and workshops and generally enjoyed myself…until a small-press editor got behind the pulpit and smashed my confidence to smithereens. She had palpable contempt for those who self-published and even went so far as to say that anyone who did would ruin their chances of getting accepted by a “real” publisher because their debut status would be forever gone.

I slunk away, ashamed of myself and my three books. It didn’t take long for me to come up with a plan: I would start over using my married name and hope that no one discovered what I had done.

Thank goodness the stigma of self-publishing is fading! Well, okay, the field is divided on the subject: some sneer and call it "vanity publishing," and others think it's a smart move--authors taking control of their own work. But there will always be poorly written self-published books out there dragging everyone else down. Readers who encounter one of the stinkers will likely avoid taking a chance on another self-published book. Agents and editors won’t even glance at one unless it has proven its worth through impressive sales. And some have proven themselves, although the odds show it’s just another lottery we have to win. Neither quality of writing nor extensive marketing efforts guarantee sales. There is, however, a lot of advice out there now for those considering self-publishing. Indie activists like April Hamilton have helped level the playing field.

Fast-forward to the present. I had signed with an agent in May of 2009 and she’d shopped my latest manuscript unsuccessfully. I’d won the agent lottery, but that was to be the extent of my winning streak. She rejected my next manuscript as being too similar to the one she couldn’t sell and I dropped to the bottom of her client priority list. I wrote for the market after that; a young adult dystopian with a unique premise that I was sure would wow her. After two months, she still hadn’t read past the first five chapters. I was persona non grata with my own agent! Ouch. Reality just wouldn’t stop smacking me in the face. Two years gone, poof! The lure of instant gratification reared its tempting head. I was still not getting any younger; nor any healthier to be honest. The specter of failure began to haunt me. It slowly dawned on me that the lingering shame I felt for having self-published was preventing me from going after not just the small measure of success I might get from doing it again, but any measure of success.

My friend Peter (of MyWritingSpot fame) had been sending me a series of ever-more-insistent emails encouraging me to self-publish again. What follows is his latest attempt, which I initially rejected out of hand because I had yet to sever ties with my agent:

“Hey there,

It's Sunday, so it's time to nag you about self-publishing some more. I have been following this phenomenon for the last two years, and I really think that you are in a place to take full advantage of it. Why? A few reasons:

1. You write books that (are) in genres that are currently selling extremely well in this market (romance, teen paranormal/fantasy). This woman writes teen paranormal/fantasy and is currently selling 100K books A MONTH. A MONTH. At $2.99 a pop, she takes home $2.10 per book. Do the math. http://www.novelr.com/2011/02/27/rich-indie-writer

Oh yeah - and she was never published "traditionally." If a traditional publisher approached her with a book deal today, there is no way that they could offer as much as she's currently earning by publishing herself [insert: this author, Amanda Hocking, recently did accept a book deal from St. Martin’s press].

2. You have multiple books already written and waiting to be sold. One of the keys to being a successful eBook author is to have multiple books available. Especially with your books, you're hitting different markets and can therefore cast a wider net. Once you've hooked a reader, they will want more, and you have several other books that they can purchase now.

3. Traditional publishing is dying, and is not as financially beneficial to the author (not by a long shot).

Gosh, I'm such a nag. I know, but I really feel strongly about this. I think that you should re-issue ALL of your already-published books and all your unpublished books and put them in several different eBookstores. Since I seem to like numbered lists, here's how you might go about doing it:

1. I think you need new covers for some of the books so that you can tie them to your brand. One of the keys to a successful eBook is a catchy cover. But that cover should also be somewhat consistent with your other books, so that the reader can immediately recognize it as one of YOUR books.

2. Reformat the books and get them into all the most popular eBook formats. ePub, mobi, pdf, etc, etc.

3. Put up a website to promote all the books. Tie a blog to the website and start capturing eyeballs.

4. Submit the books to all the major eBookstores - Kindle, B&N, Smashwords, etc.

5. Figure out where/how to promote your book. Send out review copies, get some reviews on GoodReads.com, etc.

6. Promote, grow your fanbase.

7. Make money doing what you love.

If any of the technical aspects of any of this are giving you pause, I'd be happy to help get your books out there. Just let me know.

OK - nagging done. For at least a week, that is. :)

Peter”

It wasn’t the technical aspects that gave me pause. This was in February, and I had just finished my YA dystopian and had high hopes my agent would love it. I was also under the delusion that the odds would somehow swing in my favor and I would eventually be traditionally published. I sent Peter a rather final-sounding reply that I didn’t have the strength or temerity to accomplish his list.

However, once I accepted the fact that my agent and I were not a good fit and requested she release me from our agreement, I wallowed in uncertainty. As much as I felt I didn’t have the confidence to self-publish again, I felt even more strongly that I could not re-subject myself to the traditional ringer. The thought of querying other agents and beginning the process all over again made me queasy.

Writers are compelled to write, even if hardly anyone reads our efforts. You might say we suffer from Einstein’s definition of insanity; we keep doing the same thing over and over again, expecting different results. So, at the end of this story I’m confronted by the same two choices I had to begin with, neither of which I am all that enthusiastic about! Damned if I do…

I’ve chosen to self-publish again, solely in ebook format through Smashwords and Kindle, beginning with my YA dystopian, Xenofreak Nation.

My honest assessment of my chance of success is that I have no idea if I will win this particular lottery this time around. I can’t help but think I’m due, but like my grandfather used to say, “Spit in one hand and wish in the other. Which hand has the most in it?”

And since I’m not quite the Pollyanna I used to be, I won’t be sitting around wishing and waiting. The word “marketing” is in my vocabulary now, and I even have a basic idea what it means in today’s world! I have Facebook friends and Twitter followers! Since I’m an artist as well as a writer, I have the skills to create cover art and book trailers. I also have some damned good books to hawk, even if I do say so myself.

April 25, 2011

Animate Text so it Looks Like it's Being Written Using Photoshop Elements

I made this YouTube tutorial on how to animate text so it looks like it’s being written onscreen. I searched for how to do this and only found tuts in expensive programs like Photoshop CS5 and After Effects. I wanted the ability but wasn’t about to pay for it, so I figured out how to do it using layers in my old version of Photoshop Elements. It’s simple but, like most animation, a bit tedious! And you will need video editing software to put it all together. I just upgraded to Corel VideoStudio Pro X4. If you find the tut helpful, please give it a ‘thumbs-up’ on YouTube!

February 3, 2011

Why they call it an 'Extended Warranty'

A month ago my son was idly watching Spongebob when he called to my attention that the picture on our 3-year-old, 50-inch Samsung plasma television had gone out. The sound was still working, though, so I did all the usual things: switched channels, turned it on and off, checked cable wires and cable functionality. Finally, my husband shined a flashlight down into the holes at the top of the back of the television.

“Uh, oh,” he said, stepping back and waving his hand. “Unplug it, quick!”

It hadn’t quite burst into flames, but our house was soon filled with the noxious odor of smoking electronic components.

I located the Samsung warranty, which was for the standard one (measly) year, then found the Best Buy receipt tucked into an extended warranty information pamphlet. Yay! For once, all those thousands of dollars we’d dumped into extra coverage on our appliances was paying off. We were saved!

Well, perhaps we would have been if the warranty had a “Pain and Suffering” clause…

The next day during business hours, I called the Best Buy 800 number. An automated voice gave me my options, none of which were, “If your television exploded, please push four.” I chose to speak to a representative and the call was transferred with a loud “BEE-BOOP-BEBLY-BOOP!” in my ear. Then I got the “wrong number” tone and the call was disconnected. I tried again with the same results.

Okay. Best Buy 800 didn’t want to talk to me, so I looked up and dialed my local Best Buy. The friendly clerk gave me the 800 number for the Geek Squad and then kindly transferred me through. “BEE-BOOP-BEBLY-BOOP!” Not sure what the purpose of that painfully loud transfer tone was, but I made a mental note to hold the phone away from my ear when being transferred by these guys in future.

I spoke to a Geek Squad rep who transferred me to another rep, who took down my information and made an appointment for a repair technician to come to our house. The next morning, I hadn’t heard from the repair people, who were supposed to have called to let me know what timeframe I should expect them, so I called. It was a company located an hour’s drive away from us. When I told the guy why I was calling, he said rather grumpily, “They’re not supposed to make my appointments for me.” Turns out he only comes to our town when he has more than one service call to make, AND he wouldn’t come out until he’d ordered some parts that he thought he might need to make the repair based on my description of what happened to the television. We waited almost three weeks before the parts came in and it was worth his while to make the trip. Mind you, we live in a suburban area of over 150,000 people, but when I called the Geek Squad to complain, I was told that it was the only television repair company that had a contract with Best Buy to provide service to our area.

During that time, we moved the clunky old 15-inch television from our bedroom into the living room. My husband discovered the joy of watching Netflix on his laptop, my son hovered two feet away from the screen until we had to put the dog gate up to keep him back, and I wore my glasses whenever I wanted to see what was going on.

I know what you’re thinking: BOO HOO, why didn’t you people just read a book or play a board game or go outside? But I’m telling you, we ARE a huge book-reading, game playing family. And we love to go outside, but there’s just so much family time you can spend bundled up against the 20-degree January weather. The thing is, we also happen to enjoy watching the large screen television we paid $1600 for (not including tax and warranty). And, to complicate matters, the Super Bowl was approaching rapidly…

So on Repair Day, I anxiously watched over the repair guy’s shoulder as he opened the back of our television. He replaced a part, turned the set on and BRZZZZT! Smoke began to curl towards the ceiling. I ran to open all the windows before the fire alarms went off.

“Okay,” said he, clapping his hands together. “I’m going to have to take this back to the shop.”

Progress, right?

Ten days from that point, we figured we’d waited long enough. I called the repair guy, who told me to call Best Buy. I did, got transferred to a rep (“BEE-BOOP-BEBLY-BOOP!”), and Hallelujah! The rep informed me that at long last a decision had been made. We were to get a new TV!

On the way to the store, my husband and I had a naïve conversation about our options.

Him: We paid $1600 three years ago and those televisions are worth a lot less now.
Me: I know! We should be able to trade up for a much nicer one with the extra cash.

Once inside, the clerk led us to the wall of TVs and said basically, “Here’s the one you get.”

“Um,” my husband replied, staring at the borderline-obsolete technology on display. A thundercloud began forming over his head, so I jumped in.

“But that set’s only $599. We paid a lot more.”

“It’s a comparable television,” said the clerk. “We’re replacing your old one.”

“Oh…I see,” I said as the Truth began to dawn. “We get a replacement set regardless of the price now. So what about taxes, delivery charge and a new warranty?”

“Taxes are covered, but this completes your old warranty, so if you want a new one, you’ll have to buy it. And delivery is $50.”

My husband’s head spun 180-degrees on his neck. It was urgent now that I convince him of the intrinsic fairness of the situation.

“Honey,” I whispered. “You have to consider that we got three years of usage out of the old TV. Best Buy would lose money if they gave us all our money back at this point. It isn’t their fault Samsung made a defective product. And if we hadn’t of gotten the extended warranty, we’d have nothing at all.”

The clerk was listening and chimed in, “I’ll tell you what. I see from your receipt that delivery was free three years ago. Why don’t we throw that in? And the extended warranty isn’t $299 anymore—it’s only $149!”

My husband’s mouth moved stiffly, but the impending explosion didn’t happen. “Can you get it to us before Super Bowl?”

You never saw a clerk type so fast. “How’s Saturday, the day before?”

I’m writing this before we actually get said replacement television, which is perhaps a little Pollyanna of me. After an extended amount of time with no TV, the inconvenience of ‘cashing in’ on our warranty, and the additional cost, I should probably wait to make sure everything works out in the end…

January 29, 2011

Super (Bowl) Salsa

This is my own recipe, which took years to perfect, so if you substitute ingredients don’t blame me if it comes out wonky (wink). We don’t like spicy salsa in my house; we’re wimps who prefer to taste our condiments rather than suffer through them. If your clan and/or guests, on the other hand, enjoy the sensation of burning tongue, just add some fresh diced jalapenos to the below recipe and/or get the hot version of the La Victoria chiles. If at all possible, buy fresh, organic ingredients. Also, some people find that cilantro tastes like soap (I used to—yuck!—but as the following article in the New York Times explains (http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/14/dining/14curious.html), I got over it after being exposed multiple times to the herb and now adore it), so you may want to separate your batch into one with and one without.

Ingredients:

1 small can La Victoria mild diced green chiles
One bunch fresh cilantro (warning! Cilantro looks a lot like parsley and to further confound you, the grocer will often place them next to each other. Double-check to ensure you get the right one)
Six to eight vine-grown red tomatoes. (don’t be cheap and get the Roma!)
One bunch green onions
Two or three red, orange or yellow peppers (no green!)
A few peeled cloves of garlic
Two bags Tostitos Scoops

Thoroughly rinse and drain all fresh ingredients. In a super bowl, toss in the chiles, chop and add about a loosely-packed cup of the cilantro leaves, not stems (a tricky enough task; don’t worry if it’s not chopped fine), chop and add the onions, dice and add the tomatoes, remove and discard the top inedible portion and insides of the peppers before dicing and adding (I use the Chop Wizard from Bed, Bath and Beyond for all my dicing needs). Use a garlic press to crush the garlic, estimate about a teaspoon or two. Mix and refrigerate for a few hours before serving (unless you can’t help yourself and must consume immediately).

By far our favorite chips to serve with my salsa are Tostitos Scoops. This recipe makes around a quart of salsa. In our house, it doesn't last. Enjoy!

January 5, 2011

Cybersquatters: Legal Extortion on the Internet

Your name is Jane Doe and you’re ready to join the ranks of .com owners. Congrats! But then you find that someone else already owns your preferred domain name. That’s cool, you know you aren’t the only Jane Doe out there, but what if the owner of janedoe.com is a company that trolls the Internet for business and personal names to buy up and resell? A domain that would have cost you $14.95 a year is available to purchase, but it’s now $350. You’re just getting started and that’s a tad steep, plus, it doesn’t seem fair. It’s one thing if another Jane Doe beat you to the .com or even the .net or .org, but how can these companies or individuals get away with basically holding *your* name hostage until you or another Jane Doe ponies up?

On the face of it, it seems like slightly shady, but perfectly legal free enterprise, right? Ehrm, wrong. If you’re famous, that is.

A person whose name is widely recognized is protected under the Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act, which is designed, among other things, to prevent registrants from profiting in bad faith from a domain name that is identical or similar to theirs.

But we’ve already established that you’re not rich and you’re not famous.

So what can YOU do? Not much, as it happens.

You can try contacting the domain service provider (registrar) that sold your name to the reseller in the first place, but they will likely refer you to ICANN, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers. ICANN is the governing body behind UDRP, the Uniform Domain-Name Dispute Resolution Policy. This is a policy that exists between the registrar and the domain-name holder (the reseller that owns your .com) that supposedly protects you. Well, it would if you were famous or trademarked, but you’d still have to pay a UDRP provider to handle your complaint, starting at around $1000, according to Wikipedia. Or you can really hemorrhage from the wallet by hiring an Internet lawyer.

The reseller that owns your domain name knows this! They count on the fact that it’s cheaper to pay them than it is to fight them, and have likely taken that into consideration when setting the price. Not only that, but they often have an exclusive deal with the registrar (like Tucows) to purchase domain names that have expired. Even if the original owner of janedoe.com defaulted on their registration, it never becomes available to the public to purchase. The instant the registration fully expires it’s sold to the extortionists. If you own a .net or other extension of the same domain name, you may even get unwanted emails attempting to sell the .com to you. (Beware, because this is usually a scam.)

In summation, there are no laws to protect the average Jane from these cybersquatters, and janedoe.com will sit unused in their domain inventory until someone pays the ransom, or, probably, hell freezes over.

Disclaimer: I'm not any sort of authority on this subject, merely a victim who educated herself to the best of her ability and wanted to pass on what (little) she learned. Nothing in the above should be constituted as advice in any way, shape or form.