July 20, 2011

Taking Stock

A few weeks ago I marked two years as an independently published writer (at the time I was still under contract to a traditional publisher and preparing a book for them, but it turned out to be my last book via that route).  I barely noticed the milestone; at the time I was busy bringing out my first backlist title, A Love of Her Own.

I have learned so much in those two years...and some things I realize I always knew.  I referred to my first Bunderful Books title, Save The Best For Last, as having been independently published from the beginning, since it seemed the most appropriate description. The phrase is now widely used, usually shortened to "indie" publishing.

Back when I was still traditionally published, in 2009, I did what I decided then would be my last book signings in the Chicago and Milwaukee areas. It was just too much trouble, and the days of my selling 60-85 books in areas where I was well known (my hometown of Yonkers, New York and the city where I lived for 17 years, Jacksonville, Florida) seemed to be behind me once I moved to the Midwest, reduced to 15-20 books. When my last Dafina title came out in 2010 I set up no appearances at all. Two years later, it has been announced that Borders will be closing all of their stores. While it's nice to have correctly predicted the wave of the future, the thought of all those people losing their jobs does make it sting.

There are a number of people who've had great success with independent publishing, and who are generous enough to share their thoughts and ideas. Much of it is just common sense that occurred to me prior to hearing them say it:

  • Present a quality product. Get a professionally created cover that looks like it came from one of the Big Houses, have the content edited, and if you can't handle formatting, have this done professionally as well. An eBook shouldn't have page headers in it.  No skimping!  A book with a nicely done cover with the inside raw is the equivalent of working out all afternoon and then putting on fancy duds and attending a party that evening without taking a shower...it's going to stink.

  • The more products you have in the market, likely the better you will sell.  This is similar to traditional publishing...only the very successful have the luxury of putting out a new book every two to three years.  Everyone else would do better to strive for a goal of having a new project for sale every four to eight months. This is a goal I'm still trying to reach.  I'm a slow writer...but my first draft is going to be my last, so it's not as bad at is seems. The recent acquiring of my entire romance backlist has helped, although I won't even publish a backlist title without revising it first. There's always room for improvement, even in a book deemed good enough to be traditionally published.

  • Include an excerpt from at least one other book at the end of each eBook, remembering that this can always be changed to reflect more recent released as simply as downloading a new file.

  • Everyone makes mistakes, but with an eBook they can be corrected with simplicity. As I notice things like missing open or closing quotes and other imperfections I download a new file so at least anyone reading it from that point on will have a copy as perfect as possible.

  • Be up front in informing readers about which books are reprints...some readers might not recognize it as a title they've already read, especially with a new cover.
There's nothing like common sense and an ability to tell which way the wind is blowing.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Keeping it Real

For my women's fiction work in progress (WIP), I'm in the process of writing a dramatic scene where the reader is let in on the other half of a family secret first revealed at the beginning of the story.  I know I'll be going back and revising this scene frequently, because (a) I'm writing out of order and will need to make sure it flows correctly, and (b) I want to make sure the dialogue is in keeping with the pieces of the puzzle the reader already has, because technically they have been introduced to the background but it wasn't completely explained (and I hope no one will be able to guess). In other words, I want it to ring true, not false.

Did you ever see the HBO movie Introducing Dorothy Dandridge?  There was a scene early on at a party where a woman was singing and the agent wanted to know who it was.  The camera zoomed in on three young women, a brunette, a blonde, and a black woman who was, of course, Dorothy Dandridge.  All three women introduced themselves to the agent, who said he wanted to make whomever was singing into a star (something else a little silly, because Dorothy Dandridge did not possess a particularly good singing voice, but I digress).  The blonde was Marilyn Monroe, at that point still a few years away from the superstar she would become.  The brunette "star wannabe" introduced herself as Ava Gardner, and therein lay the problem.

In 1951 Ava Gardner was a household name and had been for several years.  In addition to her acting career, she was also notorious for an affair she was having with Frank Sinatra, who was married at the time (they married late that year after his divorce).  Her pleasant singing voice had also been featured in the movie The Killers as well as on the soundtrack for the hit movie Showboat released that year (even though she was dubbed in the film).  She would not have to introduce herself to any man in America, particularly a Hollywood agent.  Offering to make her this star into a star was just plain silly.

In that same movie there is a scene where Dorothy brags to her agent that she is accustomed to Jim Crow, having been a performer all her life (including at the whites-only Cotton Club), and had traveled all over the South, then is shocked when she is told she cannot use the bathroom.  That struck me as about realistic as plastic dog poop.  Yet this phony-sounding scene was used to promote the film.

Writing is hard. Good, believable writing is even harder.

Four things independent authors can do that are guaranteed to piss off readers

In addition to being a writer, I'm also a consumer, and in light of the rapidly growing independent eBook projects out there, I see authors making mistakes that, in my humble opinion, are only going to serve to annoy their readers (because they have, or would annoy me). I'd like to share some of these with you.

Of course, if you're doing any of the below and are meeting with good sales and reviews, then just ignore this post. You obviously have nothing to learn from me.

Here we go:

1) Not mentioning that your eBook is a short story or novella. I can't say this has happened to me personally because I always check the file size, but I've seen plenty of reviews from pissed-off readers who thought they were getting a full-length novel...especially when the price being charged is not 99 cents, but $2.99, the same price as many full-length indie novels. As a guidline, all of my eBooks are over 400 KB (and I'm sure if you're reading my blog you've read all my books, tee-hee), so if an eBook is just 60 or 80 KB it's going to be short.

Which brings me to my next point...

2) Charging $2.99 for a 20-page short story. It's not nice to fool readers.

3) Putting out a backlist title with a shiny new cover and a book description that fails to mention that it was previously published. Truth in advertising, folks, because as I said, it's not nice to fool readers into buying a book they've already read.

4) Putting out a book with a shiny, professional-looking cover that is unedited (or poorly edited) and full of errors. No one among us is ever going to be perfect, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't strive for it. At least make an attempt to have the inside product look as nice as the outside packaging. What would you do if you rented a room for the night in a hotel with a beautifully decorated lobby, then got to your room and say dingy sheets and filthy carpeting? You'd go to the front desk and demand your money back and never stay there again.

Did I say it's not nice to try to fool readers?

I hear screaming. Is it murder...or is it eBook formatting?

In this odyssey of publishing independent projects, where I wear all the hats because I'm too cheap to pay anyone other than the all-important cover designer and editor, I am discovering the importance of the proper format for eBooks. I am reading a book now with free-for-all indentations and occasional page headers that show up mid-text (not to mention spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors, but that's a column for another day). Much as I like to rush through anything not related to the creative process of writing, I shudder to think of one of my books appearing like this on an eReader, and I have begun the tedious task of re-formatting some of my books that were formatted before I knew what I now know.

A few major points I've either a) learned, b) decided, or c) always knew about but feel they're worth mentioning:

I have learned that the Kindle will not indent any paragraph that falls at the top of a page (and this happens more often than you might think), making for an uneven, inconsistent, and confusing read. My research has uncovered that this is a glitch in the Kindle...and considering this invention is not exactly new and there's been plenty of time to iron out kinks, I find this glitch worthy of poking out my lower lip. I therefore will use block style paragraphs with a space in between for future formatted novels.

I have learned that even-size fonts will always show uniformly on eReader screens, whereas odd-size fonts can show at varying sizes. My preference for 11-point font is the major reason I am mired in formatting hell right now, but my beautiful prose absolutely cannot show up on eReaders looking like mismatched junk. Now I make my text 12 point and my chapter headers (as well as the first letter of the first word of every new chapter) 14 point. I built in the bold on the chapter headings, but I have to manually adjust the first letter of the first word of each chapter to show as bold and italic, since it is part of a word and paragraph, specifically.

I always knew that headers don't belong in eBooks, but feel this is worth mentioning. Do not include headers in your eBook! It's distracting to be reading and to be interrupted by a line that says "[author name]/[title of book]/[page number]" at uneven intervals.

I have learned to use page breaks (it is recommended for reasons I'm not sure of to use the Insert function for this rather than the Ctrl/Enter keystroke combination) to avoid large spaces, sometimes even pages of blank text. It's vexing to have to hit the page down button on your eReader...and multiply the aggravation factor by the number of times you have to hit it before getting to a new page. I also now put page breaks at the end of chapters, since I read someplace that this is the preferred format. Hey, I'm easy.

I've noticed that some novels' formatting includes a table of contents. After considering this briefly (for about 30 seconds), I have deemed this unnecessary. My reasoning: There is no table of contents in my print book, so why would I want to put one in my eBook? I write novels, not how-to manuals or other nonfiction. eReaders have the function of being able to pick up at the exact page where you left off, so why bother?

I'm still maneuvering my way around breaks, where so far my efforts to build line spacing into the paragraph style have been unsuccessful and I have to do something special with each occurrence to keep the line spacing consistent. Still trying. Like everything else, I'll figure it out eventually.

Finally, in an effort to save time to indulge my creativity, I have built a template of the various paragraph styles I use in an eBook, into which I will type all future projects directly.

Back to my formatting.