Tuesday, December 25, 2012

E-Reader Publishing: Three Months In (UPDATED 12/29)

This post was originally published on 12/25, but due to a sudden problem, I felt the need to go back and revise. Read it and you'll see why.

On September 3, I self-published my story "Melon Heads" on Amazon.com for the Kindle, thus beginning my experiment in self-publishing for e-readers. September 20 saw the second coming of my previously-published story "I am the Wendigo" and November 16 saw my Lovecraftian tale "The Beast of the Bosporus." My most recent self-published story, "Illegal Alien," debuted on Amazon December 11. At some point I created a formal Amazon author page as well.

At first, I enrolled all of them in the Kindle Direct Publishing Select program, which allows members of Amazon Prime to borrow my stories for free (I still get paid through a fund set up for this purpose) and allows me to release my stories for free on certain promotional days. However, being part of KDP Select is conditional on not having the stories available online anywhere else.

KDP Select proved to be a mixed bag. The promotional days allowed me to move large numbers of copies free, which I had hoped would generate more reviews and build buzz, leading to more sales later. The increased number of reviews I expected did not come through (most reviewers are people I already know), although there's no way of knowing the long-term effects of having dozens if not hundreds of readers having seen my content for free. Maybe I'm creating a fan base that will pay off in the future when I have real books available. After all, I did once get some traffic to this blog from a Google search for "Illegal Alien Matthew W. Quinn." The number of free copies moved on the first promotional day tends to be significantly higher than the number moved on later days, and I recall only actual borrow.

So I bought some Facebook advertising for the short stories, remembering how successful it had been in attracting readers to my blog in the summer of 2011. This provided to be a major bust--I'd spent upwards of $70 on advertising, but gleaned few if any sales. This not only applied to my ads for "Melon Heads" and "Wendigo" that received relatively few views and clicks, but even my ads for "The Beast of the Bosporus" that received over 100,000 views and over 100 clicks. Paying $45 for a much nicer cover for "Illegal Alien" didn't generate much sales either. So far, "Illegal Alien" has made 1/4 of the sales "Melon Heads" made in its first month, although since it was published mid-month, I won't be able to make an accurate comparison even after four weeks pass.

This meant more drastic measures were needed. I turned off the KDP Select auto-renew for all four stories. The other stories were either still in their first term or I'd allowed them to renew for another term, but "Wendigo" would no longer be Kindle-exclusive come December 21. This would be especially useful because an ad I'd purchased for my Facebook fan page increased my fan count from 80 to close to 1,400 (as of 12/29), most of whom apparently are from Turkey or other Middle Eastern countries. As far as I know, people from these countries cannot buy from Amazon (except through tricky means like getting a UK e-mail address to access Amazon.co.uk). People from India can access the same Amazon as Americans, but that would exclude Pakistan, Bangladesh, etc.

On Christmas Eve, I made the leap to Smashwords, putting up "Wendigo." Soon afterward, I "greased the wheel" a little bit by paying $5.00 to "promote" the post announcing the story was now on Smashwords. The number of "likes" I've gotten from my Middle Eastern fans indicated the move was much appreciated. Within 24 hours, I'd sold ten copies of "Wendigo" in two batches of five. I figured Smashwords' sale of stories in multiple file formats (to allow people using different e-readers or not using e-readers at all) and not being limited by country had paid dividends.

Then when checking my Smashwords Dashboard, I noticed my royalties had been cut in half. I queried Smashwords and looked at the Excel spreadsheet and found that five of the ten sales had been refunded due to "fraudulent payment method." I wrote Smashwords and learned that thieves use Smashwords to either test out stolen cards or "max out" said cards. My remaining five sales were refunded as well for the same reason.

(Smashwords limits purchases to five at a time to minimize the impact of fraud--some poor author "sold" 1,000 copies to a fraudster and then had his purchases refunded.)

Rather than earning $7.85 in a day, I'd earned zero--and my royalties remained zero as of 12/29. I'm not going to complain too much, since it's just one short story and I've only been a Smashwords member for a week or so. Some discussion on LinkedIn indicates that "premium status" (which ensures one's writing is marketed on other sites) on Smashwords is where the real money comes from, and that's still pending. Before I pass judgement on Smashwords as a whole, I'll wait to see what happens with that. I might even buy a Facebook ad for "Wendigo," since it's much, MUCH less limited than Amazon KDP and that might have been a reason behind the first Facebook ad campaign's failure.

My strategy for the moment is to publish the three remaining stories on Smashwords as soon as their KDP Select periods end, which will be in February and March. Any future stories I self-publish will be on KDP Select for one term (to allow for one or two promotional days) and then placed on Smashwords. Maybe I'll post my stories on lulu.com as well.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Next Big Thing...

I found the idea of "The Next Big Thing" on the blog belonging to Christopher Nuttall and got reminded to do it when I saw Delilah S. Dawson post it herself. So here goes...

The Next Big Thing: Battle for the Wastelands

Where Did The Idea Come From: When I was in high school (probably around 2000), I read the first of Stephen King's Dark Tower novels and wanted to write something similar. The world of the Dark Tower is a Western-type world, albeit more feudal (there's a knightly caste called "gunslingers" who control most of the world's guns), but it's strongly implied this is a post-apocalyptic situation--the world has "moved on." Over the years, the story has mutated drastically--the technology level has shifted forward to the Civil War era, the general milieu has become rather steampunk, the characters have last names instead of "Name of Place," and I've included some deeper themes like race in a fantasy context, the merits of decentralized vs. centralized power, and whether or not leaders who are less despotic but more prone to racism are worse than tyrants who don't care about such things.

What Genre Does Your Book Fall Under: I used to call it "a post-apocalyptic steampunk Western," but my friend James R. Tuck said it would be better-described as "a post-apocalyptic military fantasy with steampunk elements." I think "post-apocalyptic military fantasy with Western and steampunk elements" will do nicely, even if it doesn't come off the tongue well.

What Actors Would You Choose to Play Your Characters In a Movie Rendition: The only thought I've really put into it is that the character Catalina Merrill could be played by Danielle De Luca. In fact, I used De Luca as the model for Catalina, since she was a relative latecomer to the story. Although the tyrant Grendel's general look was inspired by Clancy Brown's portrayal of the Kurgan in the film Highlander, Grendel's face and hair don't really match up with his. And Clancy Brown is too old now anyway.

What is the One-Sentence Synopsis of Your Book: A teen becomes a soldier in a rebellion against a scheming tyrant, who has problems of his own.

Will Your Book Be Self-Published Or Represented By An Agent: Preferably an agent. I've sent it out to one publisher, since I met an editor there at DragonCon 2012, but I'm considering tweaking it a bit more and sending it out to agents. If it gets rejected from the publisher, I've already moved onto the next step, and if they accept it, that's a way to get an agent. I'll keep working my way down the chain to small presses, some of which are following me on Twitter. Self-publishing is an absolute last resort.

How Long Did It Take You To Write The First Draft of Your Manuscript: Too long. I had parts of it written down many years ago, but decided to focus on actually finishing this one (as opposed to spreading my efforts thin on various projects) probably sometime in 2009. That didn't stop me from finishing some lengthy fan-fiction projects I'd already started, which helped delay the first draft until sometime in early 2012. It's 104,000 words, so it has more in common with an epic fantasy than a genre novel in terms of length.

What Other Books Would You Compare This Story To Within Your Genre: When I submitted it, my cover letter compared to Cherie Priest's Clockwork Century and L.E. Modesitt Jr's Corean Chronicles novels. It has more in common with the latter than the former, considering they're both secondary-world fantasy with guns, but it does have airships and other steampunk stuff like Priest's work. Also like Priest's work, it's a big enough world to set a lot of stories. I have partial or complete novellas centered around lesser characters and eight planned novels--a seven-novel cycle focusing on protagonist Andrew Sutter's war against Grendel, with an eighth novel ending Andrew's story a la Beowulf.

Who Or What Inspired You To Write The Book: Stephen King, as I've said above. Beowulf has had a strong influence on my overall plan for the series. I'm sure the Corean Chronicles have influenced things, at least subconsciously, since I read the books when I was in high school and college and working on the earliest version of this. A Song of Ice and Fire has crept in as well, especially the emphasis on the impact of war on ordinary people and moral grayness. In fact, I've compared Grendel to Tywin Lannister (an evil man who nevertheless has understandable motives, governs effectively, and generally maintains the peace) and Roose Bolton (expend the soldiers of subordinates who don't trust and husband your own, plus the "quiet land, quiet people" thing).

What Else About Your Book Might Pique The Reader's Interest: The battle sequences are Civil War in style, if airships were available for close air support and elite units were armed with 20th Century repeating rifles. The way I explore certain themes will either intrigue or offend you. And considering the amount of time I've worked on this and the number of eyes that have been on it, this isn't going to be a "bad first novel."

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Book Review: "Warm Bodies" (NO SPOILERS)

Awhile back, I saw a trailer for the upcoming film Warm Bodies, based on Warm Bodies: A Novel by Isaac Marion. It looked amusing, so I decided to request the book from the library.

Although initially it might seem to be an attempt cash in on the paranormal romance craze started by  Twilight, it's not really a romance novel per se. There is a love story, but the story is more about a zombie named R. rediscovering his humanity than the romantic relationship.

One of the things I liked about it was its creativity. For starters, it gives the zombies something resembling a culture and community, which would explain why zombies in more traditional zombie media cooperate with one another to attack humans. It also differentiates between the different types of zombies, the "Fleshies" (the ones still resembling people) and the "Boneys" (ambulatory skeletons, who seem to operate as a leadership caste). It also explains why the zombies go for brains specifically, although I won't say why to avoid spoilers. That aspect of the story is played for comedy at one point, which I found amusing, and it also provides a major reason for why the events in the story actually take place.

The book also depicts a rather realistic survivor society in the unnamed city where the story takes place. The survivors have barricaded themselves into fortified compounds, the most prominent one being an old sports stadium. When I was in college, I took a course on the archaeology of Rome's provinces and I remember learning about an old Roman arena where a town grew up after the fall of the Western Empire. Although I don't remember clearly, I'm pretty sure it was the Arles Amphitheatre. A structure of that size would have the space to house a large number of people and would extremely defensible, with only a few ways in or out. The survivors in the stadium raid the surrounding city for supplies and build walls to connect the stadium to other fortified survivor enclaves, another clever defensive measure.

It's also a very quick read. I read through it in two sittings and it was never dull.

However interesting it is, though, it's not especially memorable. It's a fun book to get from the library, but I wouldn't buy it. 7 out of 10.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Book Review: "The Royal Sorceress"

The Royal Sorceress by Chris Nuttall takes place in Britain in the 1830s, but not the Britain of our world. In the previous century, magic was discovered and scientifically categorized, allowing for Great Britain to crush the American Revolution and grow even more powerful than it did historically. Airships have begun to fill the sky, but the industrializing cities teem with millions ground underfoot by poverty and an indifferent if not abusive ruling class.

It's in this environment that young Gwendolyn Crichton, frustrated with the limitations imposed on her by her gender, is given the extraordinarily rare opportunity to be apprenticed to Britain's royal sorcerer. But at the same time, a renegade magician bent on revolution is returning to Britain...

Full disclosure: Chris and I were both longtime members of the alternate-history message-board I've referenced here before and we agreed on a review-for-review swap, his novel for my Kindle-published short stories. However, that doesn't mean I'm going to go any easier on him than I go on the fellow members of my writing groups. Here goes...

For starters, it's a quick, fun read. The story is well-plotted and tied together nicely. Things start out fast--within the first seven pages, Gwen becomes the sorcerer's apprentice. Chris has a particular talent for chapter endings--they either serve as suspense-building cliffhangers or as means to speed the story along. There are a lot of scenes that are pure fun to read, including a food fight between Gwen and some male apprentices who resent Gwen's presence and several revolutionary happenings in the last half of the book that I'm not even going to hint at lest I spoil them.

Also, Chris manages to do exposition without boring the reader. Although exposition through dialogue is frowned on (the infamous "As You Know, Bob" from the Turkey City Lexicon), Gwen's session with a tutor does a good job explaining just how magic was used to defeat the American Revolution.

There are also some shout-outs to other books I enjoyed. One of the supporting characters is none other than Mycroft Holmes and his more famous younger brother and his brother's assistant appear but aren't named. We also meet Irene Adler at one point. There's also a reference to the Draka novels, in particular an early model breech-loading rifle that went largely unused in our history but was used by the proto-Draka to defeat and enslave the native Africans in the Draka timeline.

However, the book does have its flaws. Some of his sentences are a bit too wordy, although it might be my journalism training and consequent disdain for semicolons coming through. Some of the issues I have come up late in the book and I can't really go into detail without risking spoilers, but one character commits a terrorist act without concern for some innocents who would be killed when earlier he'd gone to the trouble of rescuing some children being prostituted. I thought that was out-of-character and even if he couldn't avoid doing what he did, at the very least he should have expressed some misgivings at the time as opposed to later on. Also, a character is revealed to have a magical talent so rare that it's not even confirmed to exist until halfway through the book. That risks the character turning into a Mary Sue, although given the way the scene it's revealed turned out, it wasn't even necessary.

(I've talked with Chris about this and he said there are storyline reasons for this. Hopefully we'll get into this more in later books. After all, according to a talk I had once with Michael Stackpole, flaws in one book can be an opportunity for later stories if the explanation is good enough.)

Furthermore, one reason Britain is ahead of the other powers in terms of magic is because in some other countries, the Inquisition persecutes those with magical talents with a vengeance. In our history, the Inquisition played a large role fighting witch-hysteria and Scotland saw a great deal of witch-hunting. One could argue that the Inquisition might change its tune when faced with real witchcraft, but that doesn't necessarily mean the situation in Britain would be any better.

(Hmm...an idea for a sequel)

Finally, there's a minor character named Bruno Lombardi who is a rather shy younger son of an aristocrat and a fellow pupil of Gwen. I'd have liked some more of his back-story, considering his distinctly non-Anglo-Saxon name. Of course, that's something that can go in a sequel.

Overall, I'd give it an 8 out of 10. Those interested in an excerpt or some behind-the-scenes material can find it here.

"Illegal Alien" Cover Preview

Sometime this week, my goal is to post a new short story on Amazon.com entitled "Illegal Alien." It's another example of my love for bad puns--the storyline involves a group of undocumented immigrants lost in the desert who encounter extraterrestrials.

Here's the cover to tide you over for awhile:

In terms of image quality, this is the best cover art for any of my short stories. Adrienne Langston, whose work I've promoted here before, is the artist. Here's a link to her new Etsy site where you can buy her artwork and here's a link to her Facebook gallery, where you can see even more.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

New "Star Trek: Into Darkness" Teaser

Found the new trailer for Star Trek: Into Darkness this morning:

It looks awesome. No Khan*, but so long as they don't explicitly get rid of him (one member of my message-board suggested having the Klingons gratuitously use the Botany Bay as target practice) they can bring him in later.

*Although Khan was widely reported as the new villain, this guy is too white, too British, and way too physically powerful to be Khan. Khan had twice normal human intelligence and five times normal human strength--he wasn't a telekinetic. Furthermore, IMDB describes him as originating from within Starfleet.

I'm pretty sure the villain is Gary Mitchell. The character depicted in the trailer would match his power levels and note the references in the article to an attractive blonde, who appears very prominently in the trailer.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

New Fan-Fic: Westerosi Elections?

My alternate-history forum features a sub-forum called "Alien Space Bats" where non-mundane points of divergence like supernatural intervention, time travel, etc. get discussed. It also features alternate histories of existing works. One of the most popular "AHs of fictional worlds" is George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire.

I found one ASOIAF divergence particularly interesting and wanted to share it with you all, but the ASB forum is members-only. Luckily author Silver Phantom 2 has his own fanfiction.net account and at my suggestion, posted his chapters there. Now everyone can see it.

Behold, The First Kingsmoot of Westeros!

The gist of it is that Catelyn Stark manages to convince Renly and Stannis Baratheon to put aside their feud and join forces with House Stark and House Tully against House Lannister, with who is to be king in Westeros to be decided later. In the meantime, the invasion of the North by the Ironborn and some kind of undescribed treachery by House Bolton throw a wrench into things. The political situation mushrooms into an Ironborn-style Kingsmoot in King's Landing, with all the landed nobles voting. This being ASOIAF, all sorts of shenanigans break out, and the wild cards of the Others and Danaerys Targaryen have yet to be played.

Although dropping full-blown parliamentary governance into Westeros is a bit dubious in terms of plausibility, our history has the precedent of the Magna Carta and how House Romanov became rulers of Russia. The story is quite entertaining. There isn't much if any violence, but the politicking is fascinating and everything seems in-character so far.


Monday, December 3, 2012

My NaNoWriMo Autopsy

Just as I suspected earlier, I did not succeed at National Novel Writing Month this month. Based on the numbers in my Excel spreadsheet, I wrote approximately 7,660 words, around 15 percent of the 50,000 words those who set out to climb the NaNoWriMo mountain must write.

Now it's time to conduct an autopsy, to see why I did not succeed and what lessons can be learned:

*Work was one of the biggest causes. Although I've made some money with my personal writing, that which makes most of my money should take the top priority.

*For my NaNoWriMo project, I picked a hard SF novel I had already begun writing. That genre is more difficult to write and requires more pre-existing knowledge than, say, a sword-and-sorcery or "New Pulp" novel. My friend Jamie, who "made" NaNoWriMo for the second year in a row, said my not succeeding at NaNoWriMo was understandable if I chose hard SF. I'd written most of the first chapter of a pulp adventure novel in an hour or so at DragonCon this year and that would have been a better NaNoWriMo project.

*If you look at my November blog-posting list, I found a lot of stuff to comment on. Although some of that was very time-sensitive and necessary (like the Starcraft novel review), others perhaps could have been held off on. Part of the issue is that if I run into a block, I often find something easier to do, like post on the blog or message-board. Good for bringing in blog traffic (November was one of the most-trafficked months this year), but not good for finishing a novel.

*I brought the first four chapters to my writing group and spent time revising them rather than simply writing new content. I have reason for this--one of my writing group's more active members is a former petty officer on a submarine who knows significantly more about the Navy than I do and his comments lead to large re-writes. It's better to get problems in earlier chapters fixed to minimize the amount of rewriting later. However good that might be more for the novel as a whole, that contributed to my not making the 50,000.

Oh well. Better luck next year.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Most-Reviewed Story So Far: "The Beast of the Bosporus"

My experiment in publishing short fiction for e-readers has entered into its third month. So far, although "Melon Heads" remains my top seller with a combined 200 sales and giveaways, "The Beast of the Bosporus" has gotten the most reviews on blogs.

Here they are:

Matthew Stienberg

Matt Mitrovich

Sean Korsgaard

It warms the heart to see my work so well-received, especially when Matt S. said I inspired him to blog and write.

However, blog reviews don't necessarily translate into large numbers of sales, at least at first. I've sold six copies of "Beast" so far and given away around 82 for promotional purposes. This is not to show a lack of appreciation for these upstanding gentlemen and the help they've provided, mind, but it is a lesson.

(Matt M. said his review got 19 "up" votes on the Lovecraft sub-reddit, so it might sell better in the long run. Things like reddit and StumbleUpon are avenues I've not really touched.)

At some point, I'm going to buy some Facebook advertising. When I did a Facebook ad campaign in the summer of 2011, it brought large amounts of traffic here, both as a result of direct ad-clicking and from people who'd linked my blog pages to the Starcraft Wiki, ensuring a continuous flow of hits (1,500-odd so far) from there. One of the downsides of self-publishing is that you've got to pay for advertising, not your publisher. I've run the numbers and I'd need to sell three copies (I get $0.35 per story sold as royalties) to justify every $1 spent on Facebook ads.

I'll keep you posted on how this goes.