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In Silent Graves

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Tools for Wandering Writers – how to stay productive on the road
Is the publisher just a middleman? – things to consider before you try self-publishing
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How To Make A Living Writing Short Fiction – can it be done? Yes.
Book Review: Lord of the Flies – all about Ralph and Piggy and Roger
Who Moved My Cheese? – a short review of this short book
How to comfort someone whose mother or father has died – advice for handling this difficult situation
Coping with unemployment – more practical advice for a difficult situation

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Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Reading in the 21st Century

If you've been following my column at Horror World -- heck, if you've taken a look at any of my fiction and nonfiction -- you know that I have a deep and abiding gadget lust. I love playing with new computers and peripherals. Other women may get excited over shoe bargains, but my heart goes pitter-pat when MicroCenter has a sale.

Likewise, any casual observer should realize that I love books: big books, little books, hardbound and softcover. I love the look of them, the feel of them. Having a house full of books makes me feel rich in a way that having a full bank account never did. Consequently, my husband and I buy a lot of books, and it's an ongoing challenge to find new shelf space in our house for our treasures.

So, my owning an ebook reader would seem like a no-brainer, wouldn't it? I've bought a lot of titles from Amazon ever since their site launched, so surely I'd have been all over the Kindle like syrup on pancakes, right? My husband and I love our Macintosh computers and iPods, so surely we'd have gotten iPhones or at least upgraded to iPod Touches and would be happily reading digital books on those at night and on trips, right?

But you'd be wrong. My love for books and gadgets failed to mesh. Aside from my laptop, the closest thing I have to an ebook reader is my PSP, which can be grudgingly made to read books in HTML format and frankly I haven't used it for that much because of the effort involved. It's a lot easier to stick a book in my purse or backpack and go.

Part of it may be psychological. Way back in 2001, my very first collection came out as an ebook, and although it got good reviews, to say that sales were miserable would be a vast understatement. It was a combination of the publisher not having a good distribution system, me being naïve about promotion, and the technology not being in place to provide a satisfying reading experience to encourage many readers to want to spend money on a PDF. My gut reaction to the whole thing was essentially "ebooks suck!"

I like to think that my head rules my emotional innards, though, particularly when it comes to business. Nine years have passed, and now we do have the shiny Kindles and iPods and Nooks and everything else to tempt readers who previously went cross-eyed trying to read books off a regular computer screen. And I've had other books that have been released in both hardcopy and digital copy ... and the ebook sales have not sucked.

Some people are breathlessly claiming that digital sales are outpacing hardcopy sales. It certainly appears that this is the case with my new novel Spellbent, if the sales rankings on the B&N and Amazon sites are to be believed. But I don't have any hard data to support that assertion. I do have hard data on the sales for my collection Installing Linux on a Dead Badger: although the Kindle version is priced considerably lower than the paperback version, digital sales are only about 33% of the total number of books sold. Admittedly, digital sales would probably be greater if the book were available in other digital formats, but Kindle seems to have the biggest piece of the ebook pie right now. And either way you slice it, although 33% is not a majority, it's still a considerable number of sales. The publisher feels that the Kindle version has nicely supported sales of the hardcopy version.

So, the take-home message here, based on my experiences? You need both hard copies and digital copies to meet your book's market. Despite the claims made by epublishers, I just don't think digital alone will cut it right now if your goal is to get your book into as many paying readers' hands as possible. But not having a digital version will cost you a considerable number of sales.

Abstract sales numbers aside, the real people I've polled seem to be split on how they prefer to read in the 21st Century.

Some just aren't ready to give up the joy of reading and owning physical books.

"I love the feel and look of books," says avid reader Christine Jaegli Ehrler. "I don't own an ebook device, have never actually held or looked at one, so maybe it's unfair to dislike something I have no experience with, but I just cannot imagine liking ebooks."

But other avid readers faced with the limited space to store hardbacks and paperbacks have embraced ebook technology.

"I've put a moratorium on getting new physical books," says Eric Haddock, who now uses Kindle on his iPhone as his main method of reading. "I'm enjoying it quite a bit. If it's not available on Kindle -- or PDF -- I don't read it."

"I've had a Sony PRS-500 since the month it was released," says author Mehitobel Wilson. "I love it. I won't discard books, which means that my poor house is piled with the kind of paperbacks that you read once, and that's the kind of thing I now read on the Reader. I still buy normal paper books, and if I fall in love with an e-edition I'll buy the tangible sort too."

So, the technology is entirely embraceable, and I've gotten over my bitterness over my first foray as an ebook author (I think). Why haven't I bought an ebook reader?

Lately, it's been more a financial concern rather than a psychological one. My husband and I have laptops and iPods and shelves filled with paperbacks we haven't got around to reading yet. Could we really justify the expense of a new gadget that would only provide us with digital books when we're surrounded by the real thing? I admit the iPod Touch and iPhones were tempting, but the extra cost and duplication of gadget function made me hold off.

And my gut told me that Something Better was just down the road. Others have shared my wait-and-see attitude.

"I was about to buy the new Kindle when the Apple iTablet rumors started," says novelist/screenwriter Diana Botsford. "Now I'm holding off. Part of what I've learned from my research (on ebook readers) is that you need to see which device best supports your preferred genre. For me, it seems that Kindle has better offerings for (genre fiction) -- particularly recent releases."

And lo and behold, last Wednesday, Apple unveiled their brand new gadget, named the iPad instead of the iTablet. As is typical for new releases from that company, the new product's lack of Flash support, size, even its name has been met with derision around the Internet ("iPad sounds like a feminine hygiene product" chortles a librarian friend.) And many hardcore Apple users are upset that the iPad runs iPhone-style apps (140,000 of them and counting) instead of the full-blown version of MacOSX.

But you know what? For me, the iPad is exactly what I was waiting for. I've been eyeing netbooks but didn't want to have to deal with the constant whack-a-virus that comes with owning a Windows computer or with the extra time involved in integrating a Linux version into my work style. And of course I was tempted by the functionality of the iPhone, but I hated the expense of the cell plan that inevitably came along with it.

The iPad would integrate right into our Mac-based household. The screen is big enough for decent movie viewing and novel writing. I could actually see myself replacing my 7-year-old iBook with it (the fact that my laptop has remained useable for so long is testament to why I like Apple hardware). There are already apps available to enable me to do the things I typically do with my laptop -- I don't need the full version of OSX to get work done. And there's a nifty full-keyboard dock for the thing, so I could carry the light, portable pad around with me during the day for quick notes and then dock it at night for more serious writing.

But this column isn't about laptops or netbooks, is it? We're talking about ebook readers. And although thus far Apple hasn't yet been pitching the iPad hard at bibliophiles -- the first promo video does spend a few seconds on the new iBooks bookstore app, but the video mainly features movies, games, email, business productivity apps and easy navigation of the New York Times site -- the iPad could be a Kindle killer.

Provided you view the Kindle as a piece of hardware, of course. The iPad is roughly the same size as a Kindle and can perform all the accessory functions of a Kindle -- MP3s, web surfing, and note-taking -- far better than Amazon's product. The iPad makes the Kindle look positively dowdy. The Kindle does offer limited free worldwide wireless (it allows you to get books and look things up on Wikipedia), but in a world of free wifi at the library, hotel, and neighborhood coffee shop, the main advantage of a Kindle is the E Ink technology.

"E Ink is hot shit," says Mehitobel Wilson. "It's neither backlit nor reflective, and is great in full sunlight. It so very closely emulates the printed page that people seeing my Reader have thought it had a display overlay on it. No eyestrain."

Some have speculated that the iPad's backlit screen can't possibly compete with the eye comfort of the Kindle. However, I've heard some believable rumors that in the near future there will be an app for emulating the E Ink reading experience in the iPad. We'll see. There's already an app for reading Kindle books on your iPod or iPhone, and an E Ink emulator might come bundled in with future releases for the iPad.

Which brings me to this: if Apple mainly views itself as a tech manufacturer and not as an upstart book distributor, and if you view the Kindle not as a piece of hardware but as Amazon's whole digital book delivery system, the iPad is not a destroyer but a right-hand ally pulling in more market share for Amazon from people like me who don't mind backlit screens.

It will be interesting to see how (and if) the Kindle evolves in response to the iPad. It's hard to imagine book-centric Amazon trying to have a hardware showdown with a company that's been making excellent hardware for years. It's also hard to imagine the Kindle disappearing overnight. It's possible Apple will use iBooks to try to stage an iTunes-style coup over the digital text market and shut the Kindle app down as unwanted competition, which to me would be a stupid move. But strange things have happened in the tech world.

But the upshot is that ebook technology has clearly matured, and interested readers have their choice of good devices. Add that in with other book-related technologies -- Project Gutenberg, printing on demand, and a cornucopia of Internet bookstores -- the 21st Century is a great time to be a reader.

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Sunday, April 05, 2009

Shy Writers and Crunchy Numbers: An Author's Introduction to Advertising
As I said earlier, the most basic purpose of book promotion is to let people know that your book exists, why they might want to pick up a copy, and where they can get it.

Some authors aren't keen on promotion. They might make a brief announcement on their blog, webpage, or mailing list, then put their noses back to grindstone, focusing on The Work. They rely mostly on the kindness of strangers, friends, and their publishers to get the word out.

Many other writers spend countless hours talking their books up at conventions and on message boards. This tactic can work well for gregarious authors with enough social depth perception to avoid becoming annoying. And if they fundamentally enjoy chat-and-post, the time involved may be an energizing boost that enables them to get back to The Work with renewed vigor and enthusiasm.

However, many writers are introverts. Shy, some painfully so. Chatting up strangers at conventions leaves them nervous and exhausted, and even making unobtrusive promo posts on message boards makes them feel tired and uncomfortable.

A shy writer at a convention often ends up needing a few hours of "quiet time" between panels. Sometimes, gin is involved. Or good Scotch if the ruggedly-coiffed Richard Dansky's been by to commiserate and fill her glass. Either way, she sits there in the comforting dimness of the hotel room gathering her nerves. Slight boredom sets in. She grabs the freebie bag she got at registration and pulls out the souvenir program book. If it looks nice, she starts to thumb through it. In between the fan articles and dedications, she sees shiny advertisements for books from big-name authors.

She touches the ads wistfully. So many nice, pretty books adorned with blurbs, the covers doing all the talking to potential readers ... she wishes her publisher would take out some ads for her books.

And then she has a thought: maybe she could take out some ads on her own?

The good news is, she (or her publisher) can! The bad news is, an ad campaign will take varying amounts of time and money -- a lot of time if you don't have much money, or a lot of money if you don't want to (or can't) spend time on things like ad creation and statistics analysis. But the good news on top is that smart, well-targeted ads actually do work.

Many writers first consider taking out ads in convention program books or in magazines they read. If you want to suppport the publication or convention in question, taking out an ad may almost be a no-brainer, especially if you've already made enough writing money that you're worried about owing taxes at the end of the year. An ad is a legitimate business expense, and you'd be paying money out to the IRS anyhow, so why not help out projects you like by renting adspace? In that light, the fact that the ads might raise awareness of your book and increase sales is just the cherry on the sundae. If you're working with a publisher of any size, they probably already have ads you can request through email and then just send along to the publication.

But if you don't have a tax burden to defray, and if you don't particularly care about the welfare of the convention or magazine in question, you'll want to give things a harder look.

The problem with print ads is that:
  1. Unless you take out just one ad at a time, you never really know if a specific ad is working, unless you get the oh-so-rare message from a new reader: "I saw an ad in Weird Tales and I bought your book and wow I really love it!" Otherwise, you're reduced to sending a bunch of "Are we there yet?" type messages to your publisher to see if there's been any uptick in sales.

  2. Print ads put a burden of memory and action on the reader that probably won't end in a sale unless it's reinforced with word-of-mouth from friends or a bookstore employee, etc.

In his post "What The Nuns Didn't Teach Me", Richard Dansky talks about what he and other book store clerks observed as the Pattern of Picking Purchase:
  1. If the book was face-out and the cover was appealing, the reader might pick it up.

  2. If they picked it up, they might scan the front cover for the title, the author, and any blurbs that might have made it to that side of the spine.

  3. If they liked the cover, they might flip it over to read the back-of-book blurb.

  4. If they liked the back-of-book blurb, then they might be interested enough to crack the book open and read a few pages.

  5. And if they liked those few pages, they might then buy the book.

Many people lose interest and put the book aside at each of those steps. Just think of the front-end attrition for people who glance at a magazine ad for a book and think, "Hey, that sounds interesting." Those people then have to actually remember the name of the book, then get in cars and go to bookstores, where things go crashing to a halt if it's a title the store doesn't carry.

It seems to me that the Web is a much more reliable place for readers to find books, and so Web advertisements can reduce many of the barriers between learning about a book and deciding to pick up a copy.

>> Go on to An Author's Introduction to Advertising - Part 2

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An Author's Introduction to Advertising - Part 2
(<< Go Back to Part One)

Some people hate advertising in general and despise Web ads in particular. I can certainly sympathize; my inbox overfloweth with spam. I fondly remember the good ol' days of Netscape 1.0 when the Web was a cozy, ad-free place mostly populated with hobbyists and college students. And I'm well aware that Corporate America has done damage around the world by promoting mindless consumerism, harmful goods and pernicious social and sexual stereotypes through advertising; kids are particularly vulnerable. For instance, researchers have found young girls often develop eating disorders the more they're exposed to advertising (references). Google ads are filled to the brim with scams that prey on the naive (I personally see red every time I see a vanity publishing scam).

But your book isn't a scam, is it? You worked as hard as you can on it, poured your life into it. It's not wrong to tell people about it.

Will your book get negative backlash if you take out a web ad? If it's an attractive, honest ad, and you don't, say, advertise your erotic horror novel on a children's cartoon site, probably not.

But there's still a risk. Most people who hate web ads with a passion do the logical thing and install ad-blocking software, regardless of whether this hurts the sites they enjoy or not. A few of them will condemn any product -- good or bad -- that is promoted through advertising. They condemn any site -- good or bad -- that hosts ads.

So if you think the true target audience for your book is mostly composed of pedantic, judgmental lit snobs, then yeah, you might want to avoid ads altogether. And if that's the case, "Hey, guys, my new book came out!"-type message board promos aren't going to pass muster with that crowd, either. You're probably stuck waiting for word-of-mouth to materialize.

Fortunately for me, those folks probably wouldn't ever pick up my humor collection, so the publisher and I decided to give web ads a try through the Project Wonderful system. PW mainly runs on web comics sites but also delivers ads to speculative fiction magazine sites like SFReader and Greatest Uncommon Denominator.

It's been a learning process for sure -- one big thing I learned is that web comics readers actually do buy "real" books. Another thing is that actually paying for ad space often yields better results than participating in free banner exchanges. Most people who host an exchange banner stick it down at the bottom of their pages where hardly anyone will see it. Conversely, people who are participating in Project Wonderful often put the ad slots in highly visible locations so that they'll be worth more. The trick is to hit a good balance between cost and exposure.

Anyhow, since the publisher's refined his tactics, monthly sales for my book have quadrupled. There are a lot of elements you have to orchestrate to have a successful web ad:

1. You need an attractive ad.

Every ad system allows you to run text ads, but text ads in my experience are a usually a waste of time and money. People just tune them out. Graphical ads do much better. Colorful ads do better than monochrome ads, and ads that move do better than static ads. This is all Psychology 101 stuff -- we're wired to pay attention to movement. The key is to avoid obnoxious colors/movement. Having an ad move too slowly to catch the eye is bad, but setting its frames to flash by too quickly to read is worse. We've all seen those horrible mortgage ads featuring panting sows and dancing people from the uncanny valley. Obnoxious. Avoid.

Some sites are so put off by moving ads that they'll only take static ads. Furthermore, different sites have different sized slots (see PW's templates page for more info). So, you'll need multiple ad sizes, and this is where graphic design skills and proficiency with programs like Photoshop and Adobe Image Ready come in handy (GIMP is free and great for static images, but I've found making animated ads is far easier with Image Ready). If you don't have these kinds of skills, and if your publisher can't provide ready-made ads, you'll have to hire a graphic designer. If your budget is limited, at the very least get a banner ad and a leaderboard ad. A square ad wouldn't hurt, either.

Aside from fitting into different ad spaces, having a variety of ads at your disposal lets you see what works and what doesn't. A specific ad might get a listless response at one site, but work very well on another. So, get multiple ads made if you can.

What should you put in an ad, or tell your graphic designer to put in the ad? The title, cover art, and author names are mandatory -- you want these things prominently displayed so that potential readers who don't click through might recognize the book and pick it up if they see it in a store later. Short, lively review excerpts are good -- no more than a dozen words in a single frame. Less if possible.

It helps if your ad has a "hook". Why would people would want to read your book? Is it funny? Exciting? Scary? Sexy? Informative? Try to convey that in the ad. The goal here, other than to make people aware that the book exists, is to entice them to actually click on the ad to learn more about it.

2. You need an ad host.

Some popular book sites, like Smart Bitches, Trashy Books or Ralan.com, provide their own ad hosting and offer flat rates for buying ad that will appear on their site for a set period of time, usually a month at minimum. While these $50-for-a-month type arrangements can be a good deal, you're locked in -- you can't usually swap an ad out for a different one if it performs poorly, and you surely can't cancel it and demand a refund unless the site goes down or there's another problem on the host's end.

Furthermore, you'll experience click-through attrition on ads that stay up a while on sites that have a regular daily readership. You might get 100 clicks the first day, 75 the next, then 50 the next day, and so on until you're only getting a few clicks each day toward the end of your ad month.

So, there's a lot to be said for sites that take ads through auctions like the system Project Wonderful offers. A banner ad slot on a popular site might be going for $50 a day ... but my publisher doesn't have to buy the space for an entire day. He can just bid up enough to secure the ad during lunchtime, spend a few dollars to get a couple thousand exposures and a couple hundred click-throughs, and then cancel the ad and let someone else have their turn in the slot.

Once you're buying space through an auction system, you'll start considering taking out ads on sites that are new to you. Use basic common sense in evaluating them. Does the site get a lot of traffic? Are the site's visitors likely to be interested in the genre you're writing in? Do many of them appear to be readers? Are the ad slots featured in visible places, and are they limited so that the page isn't crawling with competing ads?

3. The ad needs to go someplace useful

What do you want to achieve with the ad? Do you want to promote a particular book, or do you want to promote your whole catalog? Whichever you want to do, make sure that the page the ad sends people to is attractive, informative, easy to navigate, and loads quickly. Good review blurbs are a must. Free samples of the book are extremely useful - few people are willing to take a chance on an author they've never heard of before if they don't have the chance to read some of it first.

In my experience, you get the best results if you send people to a place where they can read excerpts and then actually buy the book, such as its page on a major, consumer-trusted seller such as Amazon or Chapters. This works best if the book page has at least a couple of positive reviews featured on that page. So, when you or your publisher are sending out books for review, don't ignore people who mainly post on Amazon or other bookstore sites. They do have value.

Barnes and Noble and Amazon pages also have additional value in that they provide sales rankings. While these rankings involve a lot of secret voodoo and are hard to translate into real numbers, they do give you an idea if a book has actually sold copies or not that day. And being able to track sales greatly protects you from click fraud and other shenanigans from dishonest ad hosts.

4. You need to monitor your ad's performance

Okay, you don't have to monitor an ad's performance. If you're awash in cash but not much time, you can just throw money into ads and hope for the best. But if your budget is limited, it helps to pay attention to what works and what doesn't.

You need to know some jargon going in. A CPM is not a type of missile, and CPC is not an ozone-destroying chemical. CPM is the cost for 1000 loads of the ad on the site's pages. A raw CPM refers to overall page loads; a unique CPM refers to loads presented to individual visitors as determined by their internet address. CPC stands for "cost per click". Paying for ads based on pure click-throughs is a bad idea (see the next paragraph) but watching the number of click-throughs in conjunction with the number of impressions is helpful for determining if the ad is reaching an interested audience or not.

A lot of potential advertisers are concerned about click fraud -- that is, a single person spoofing different IP addresses to make it seem like real site visitors are actually clicking through when they aren't. A slightly lower-tech version of this is a webmaster who's enlisted minions to click on new ads as they appear on the site. This is a legitimate worry. But if the site is high-traffic and it seems legitimate (ie, not a link farm) you probably don't have to worry too much, particularly if you give the ad a test run and see that it's generating results in terms of your book's sales ranking. We use Titlez to keep track of Amazon rankings, and it's been very handy for the purpose.

Remember Richard Dansky's observations about potential reader attrition? That applies just as much to web ads, but at least there are fewer steps for them to go through. Of the people who see an ILDB web ad on a high-traffic science fiction comic site, maybe 2% or 3% might click on it. Of the people who click through, another 0.5%-3% might actually buy the book then and there (the statistics I have indicate that more people apparently come back later and buy the book from another vendor, or put it on their wishlist, or bookmark the site, etc., but for direct sales it's between 0.5%-3% depending on how the wind's blowing and if Mars is ascendant and Venus is in the House of Pancakes).

By my calculations, if 5,000 people on the aforementioned comic site load up a web ad, 2-5 of them will end up clicking through and buying the book in one fell swoop. So if an ad goes out to 2,000 web surfers and the Amazon numbers don't improve a little that day, we know the ad isn't working.

Ultimately, you need to run some test ads, then crunch numbers. How much is a single sale worth to you? You need to know this before you can go further. Figure out how many clicks and exposures you probably need to get to earn that single sale (and bear in mind that some days you'll do all the right things and still not get a bite). If the ad on the site is going to cost more than you'd get for that sale -- don't buy it.

I've seen Facebook ad hosts bragging about a fifty-cent CPM - that is, a buck for 2000 ad impressions. In my experience, that's actually pretty bad, unless the site's visitors are mainly composed of the sort of people who buy the kind of books you're selling. My publisher generally ditches an ad that gets worse than a $0.30 CPM, unless it's highly-targeted. It's entirely possible to find CPMs of 10 cents or even less in Project Wonderful.

Likewise, he looks for low costs-per-click. More than 10 cents is bad, 3 cents is good, one cent is awesome and if you find an ad at that rate, you should ride it for a while to see what happens. At three cents per click, my publisher spends $3.00 to have 100 people hit the book's page. If just one person buys the book, he's broken even; if a statistically-probable 3 people buy it, I've personally earned enough in royalties to go get a burrito.

And that's pretty cool.

I hope you've found this introduction to web advertising helpful. There's no one-size-fits-all approach to this, so it's all pretty daunting at first, and it's definitely work, but it can generate good results. And you don't have to stand up in front of a crowded room of strangers or drive five hours to do it.

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Sunday, January 04, 2009

An open letter to the Barnes & Noble at Polaris Mall
Dear B&N,

I like your store. Really, I do. Ever since chain stores drove most of the indie booksellers in the Columbus area out of business, you've been the most easily accessible bookstore in our part of town (The Book Loft is hanging on, God bless 'em, but we don't get down to German Village that often). Your store is spacious and pleasant, the restrooms clean, the coffee smells good, and I could probably set aside my feelings about your being part of an evil mom-and-pop crushing chain except for one little thing: you act like local authors don't exist.

I checked your shelves today. No Gary Braunbeck. No Tobias Buckell. No Charles Coleman Finlay. I didn't check for Rosemary Laurey, but you probably don't stock her, either. All of these authors are recently published by big houses, and so their books should be dead easy for you to order.

I can understand if you've decided author readings and such aren't your style (the Easton B&N has been happy to have us), but seriously, could you at least stock local books? You are a part of the community, aren't you? Would it kill you to act like it? Would it really kill you to set aside a foot or two of shelf space to acknowledge that Central Ohio has a pretty vibrant writing community?

Instead, we're treated to twelve square feet entirely dedicated to Stephenie Meyer's Twilight books. That's okay. I'm sure she's running low on 24-carat gold flakes to mix in with her morning oatmeal, and she needs the extra push you're giving her.

Here's the thing: we authors tend to be book junkies. We buy a lot of books. So do our friends. And so when we go to a place that obviously doesn't care about us local writers, it makes decide to window shop instead of doing actual shopping. Today, we could have easily bought $60 of books from your store. Instead, we left with a shopping list, which we'll fill on Amazon (which is arguably also evil, but is cheaper and at least carries our backlists) or save for our upcoming Book Loft safari.

Anyhow. Just something to think about.




Thursday, September 18, 2008

An author's view of the First Sale Doctrine
by Gary A. Braunbeck

Abuse of the first sale doctrine is fairly rampant in the small-press bookselling world. This is a real sore spot with me, and is going to take some explaining, so get comfortable.

You have possibly encountered on-line booksellers who offer copies of books (often books they did not themselves publish) for outlandish prices. I myself have seen copies of my Cemetery Dance collection Things Left Behind going for as much as $1,750.00 (which, by the way, is a good deal more than I received for writing it; not bitching about what Rich Chizmar paid me for it, not at all, but I would dearly love to have more than one copy of my first book but that ain't gonna happen because I can't afford the prices many places are charging for it). The sold-out release of Borderlands 5 turned up at several on-line auctions within days of its publication with bids starting -- starting -- at between $200.00 and $500.00.

There are some who mistakenly think this sort of thing is illegal; it isn't. It is allowed under what's know as the first sale doctrine.

According to Section 109 of the U.S. Copyright Act, whoever first purchases the physical copy of a copyrighted work (a book, a DVD, VHS tape, CD, etc.) has the right to do with that copy whatever they want, including transfer ownership of that physical copy in any manner they choose. They can give it away, sell it to some place like Half-Price Books, or offer it up for on-line auction. The doctrine deals with the physical object, not the intellectual or artistic expression contained within. For more info, read Lucy's article "Why you can rent a novel but not a music CD".

Here's what pisses me off about this: there are some booksellers and individuals who will purchase and hoard multiple copies of a book with no concern for the work, the author, or the work's fans -- they couldn't give less of shit about the quality of the stories or the novel. What they're concerned with is obtaining as many physical copies as possible because (as was the case with Borderlands 5) a particular book might sell out very quickly, and they, in turn, can sell their copies at a price that is sometimes as much as 700% higher than what they paid for it originally.

When confronted with their unapologetic avarice (and avarice it is, make no mistake about that), they will inevitably defend their actions by claiming that they've every right to turn a profit on their investment...and then probably have the nerve to bitch about having to pay four bucks a gallon for gas because OPEC are a bunch of greedy bastards. What's wrong with this picture?

Understand something: I am not condemning specialty-press publishers like, say, Donald Grant, who produce exquisite (and justifiably expensive) limited editions of books geared toward book collectors -- those rare birds who have a deep and abiding respect both for the physical object and the work contained within and who, it should go without saying, can afford these editions. Nor am I condemning any specialty-press publisher who at a later date offers up copies of a book they've previously published at a higher price: after all, it's their product, and if they can find a buyer for their product, more power to 'em.

I am also not condemning those who offer up for auction or re-sale books with the intent of using the money to assist others who are struggling with financial hardship or to fund charity drives.

My problem lies with those who buy books solely for the purpose of re-selling them at obscenely inflated prices so as to fatten their personal pockets just because they can.

No, it isn't illegal, but in my book it is (and always will be) reprehensible and immoral. Which is why I do not buy books from sellers who engage in this practice, be they on-line or in the dealers' room at a con. As far as I'm concerned, it's price gouging if I see a book selling at more than twice its original asking price. I'm not completely unreasonable about this; I realize that booksellers have to make a certain amount of profit to stay in business and cover basic operating costs, so doubling the price of a sold-out or out-of-print book strikes me as equitable and fair, but beyond that -- I walk away.

And God help 'em if they have the nerve to ask me to sign any books for them so they can jack up the price even more.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

More on successful book promotion
Just to recap, in my last post on this subject I detailed my first two suggestions for promoting your book:
  1. Write the best book you can.

  2. Don't get stuck with a bad cover.
The things I'm discussing in this post are mainly of concern to authors and editors with small-press books. So, if you've had the good fortune to score a deal with a big house, you can skip this one.

3a: Make sure your book's listed at Amazon.

Once the cover's set, check with your publisher to make sure the book will be listed on Amazon.com. If your publisher is a small specialty press, a little (or a lot) of wheedling may be necessary. But if you've got more than 300 books to sell after preorders have been accounted for, it's best to get the book listed on Amazon.

I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Amazon.com; some of you may have a hate-hate relationship with them. If so, I sympathize completely. Amazon demands a 55% commission on top of account setup fees, and they've been bullying POD publishers into using their Booksurge service instead of LSI and other printers. Amazon is the 80,000-pound gorilla of book sales, and they've been taking full advantage of their status, often to the detriment of small publishing companies.

So, I understand a small-press publisher's desire to tell Amazon to go blow; the publisher's got their own site and can sell books through their own secure shopping cart just fine, so distribution's covered, right?

The problem is, for many prospective readers, if your book isn't on Amazon, it's as if it just doesn't exist. Your book's being available at the publisher's site won't help if a reader has never heard of the publisher before and is therefore reluctant to release their credit card info to them.

So: if your book's not on Amazon, you will lose potential sales. Also, because so many other sites grab book information directly from Amazon's feeds, your book's absence from that site means it will also be absent from a bunch of other sites.

(Side note: because book information posted on Amazon gets distributed far and wide, double-check that the publisher is posting accurate, complete information about your book from the start. The publisher can make changes later, but I've noticed changes often don't propagate to Amazon.uk and other sites. It's better if the book description is correct from the beginning).

I'll be discussing Amazon more in future posts, but for now, the basic goal is to make sure your book is listed. If your book is a small-run limited edition from a specialty press, the cost of selling the book on Amazon might not make sense. But if you've got more than a couple hundred books to sell, get the book listed on Amazon (and price it to compensate for their commission), or else be prepared for slow sales.

3b: Make sure your book's listed in WorldCat.

WorldCat is a gigantic database of books in libraries around the planet. WorldCat gives you basic publishing and authorship details about a book and tells you how you can borrow it for free through Interlibrary Loan. If you're the least bit of a library geek, you already know it's very cool, and you probably already wanted to be in WorldCat just on general principle.

If your book's not on Amazon, getting it listed on WorldCat is important. Why? WorldCat is the other main source of information about books that websites like Bookmooch and LibraryThing refer to. It cuts to one of the most basic goals of promotion: making sure potential readers know your book exists. Getting your book listed in as many places as possible is part of that goal, and WorldCat helps you achieve it.

Furthermore, if your book's not in WorldCat, to the librarians of the world it's as if your book just doesn't exist. And since librarians can be some of an author's strongest allies, you want to make sure they can easily reference your work.

How do you get a listing in WorldCat? In theory it's pretty simple: just make sure that at least one Worlcat-member library immediately gets a copy of your book when it comes out.

If you're an established author, there's a good chance your local library already knows about you and is planning to order a copy of your latest book (and if your local library doesn't know about you, shine your shoes, brush your teeth and go make friends with the library staff).

But if this is your first book, or if your local library's suffering from funding cuts, chances are good you will need to donate copies of your work if you want specific libraries to carry it. On the plus side, you can write the donated books off your taxes. On the down side, this usually isn't quite as simple as popping a copy of your book in an envelope and mailing it to the library (if you do this, your unsolicited book may go straight into the box of books culled for the next library book sale).

First, find out who the acquisition librarian is if you haven't done so already. Drop him or her a polite, professional email to tell them about your book and to ask if the library would like a copy for their collection. Make sure to mention that you are a local author and that your book is not self-published. Otherwise, if you and your publisher are unknown to the librarian, he or she is very likely to assume you're self-published and the answer is probably going to be "thanks, but no thanks."

Libraries have only so much room on their shelves, and to avoid being inundated with amateur work most patrons will never check out, many have explicit policies against accepting self-published books. Some may send an email back to you asking for evidence that your small-press publisher has produced a certain quantity of books; don't take this personally. Just politely send them back the information they've asked for (above all: don't piss off your local librarian).

Be prepared for a "thanks, but no thanks" response no matter what; a library may be in the midst of downsizing their collection or undergoing renovation and they may not be acquiring new books. Again, don't take this personally; follow up with a thanks-for-your-time email and query the next library on your list.

Once you've moved past the probably-small list of local libraries who'll look favorably on your work because you're a local author, you'll want to have a more formal press release to send out to promote your book. But to put together a good press release, first you'll need some good book blurbs and review excerpts ... but that's a topic worthy of its own post, and I'm out of time.

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Saturday, October 20, 2007

Book distribution and printing cost too much. Why don't publishers switch to e-books?

N-Wing says According to this and this, the two biggest book costs are distribution and printing, both of which are essentially $0 for electronic formats. In a very small sampling, some ebooks were cheaper and some more expensive than paperbacks. Lets mention this greed thing again.

My reply: I'd have to know which ebooks you're referring to before I could posit a reason for the price difference. A few publishers price electronic versions and print versions exactly the same so as to not undercut print sales. However, many publishers do give their e-books lower prices than their print books.

But the price points are a bit irrelevant, because ebooks have largely been failures except when you're dealing with romance, erotica, porn, and technical documentation. Romance/erotica/porn readers tend to consume a whole lot of books, and e-books are cheaper and psychologically easier to discard than paper books. Plus, e-book readers provide the ultimate brown paper wrapper to prevent the other people on the commuter train from seeing garish covers featuring vast tracts of mantitty or heaving cleavage. Technical documentation ebooks sell well because the people who buy them mostly need tech books for quick, specific reference and don't intend to read large sections in one sitting as they would with novels or long nonfiction.

But, sales show that most readers of other forms of fiction and nonfiction prefer to buy books as physical paper objects. This may change in the future if better, cheaper ebook devices become available, but so far, the fastest way to produce a book that almost nobody will read is to release it in ebook format. Yes, some people enjoy reading long works on their computers; most demonstrably do not.

My first story collection was an ebook entitled Blood Magic which cost $3 (which fairly represented the cost of cover art, layout, etc.) as a download on Fictionwise and $6 in CD format (which fairly represented the additional labor/materials involved in putting the CD version together). My current book is a trade paperback that costs $18.95 at most places. You would think that a $3 collection would sell way better than a $19 collection. However, in the 6 months that Sparks and Shadows has been available, it has vastly outsold Blood Magic, which was available for 5 years. I've heard from a lot of other writers who've had similar results. I've also heard from publishers who got started doing electronic editions but who turned to print after they kept getting messages from customers who said they'd buy more if only the books weren't so expensive to print out.

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Why can't most publishers print books for $1?
(Go back to Part One: Why New Books Are So Expensive or Part Two: Why new textbooks are so expensive)

spiregrain says According to Brewster Kahle of the Internet Archive, printing and binding a 100 page book costs $1, which is less than the admin cost of lending and taking back a library book. See here for what this might mean for book sales and lending models for public domain books.

My reply: It would be awesome if small press books could be produced for $1 a copy. Based on what I've seen, though, a 100-page perfect-bound book (that is, a paperback with a spine) on decent paper done through a reputable POD print shop will run $2.40-$2.75 per copy, depending on things like setups and proof changes. This is assuming the book has a glossy color cover and a B&W interior. More pages equals a higher per-book cost, of course.

If the publisher were able to order books in large volume, he could get the desired perfect-bound books for a cheaper per-book price from an offset printer -- but the publisher would have to order a minimum of 5,000 copies to even begin to get the per-book price down below $2.50 a copy.

To get it down around $1, he'd have to order 20,000 or so. Aside from requiring an investment of $20,000 from the get-go, that's a heck of a lot of books to store and process. Most small presses are 1-to-5-person operations and they don't have warehouse space, nor the funds with which to rent any.

And then there's the issue of being able to sell all those books and recoup the printing investment. The average small press short story anthology sells 150-500 copies. A fiction collection or first novel from a literary writer published by a university or specialty press may comfortably sell 1000-3000 copies. An established, award-winning literary poet who gets his or her collection used as part of the curriculum of college poetry classes can probably sell 1000-1500 copies; most other poets sell far more modestly. So, 20,000-copy print runs just aren't sustainable for many book projects, and so $1 books just don't happen.

On the other hand, the publisher could produce 100-page B&W saddle-stapled 5.5"x8" chapbooks on his own for less than $1 a copy if he considers his own labor to be free. This will require ready access to layout software, a copy machine and the proper folding/stapling equipment or an actual booklet-making machine (some models run about $10,000 new). The publisher will also need lots of time and a fairly large room dedicated to his assembling and storing the books. Chapbooks are most cost-effective if the publisher works for a company that owns a big copy machine and he or she can negotiate with that employer to bring in his/her own paper and toner to do print runs.

While the resulting booklets may have a charmingly DIY look, they are not going to be aesthetically competitive with perfect-bound books with glossy color covers. And it's hard to generate even 500 copies of a book this way. I've known several small-press publishers who started out doing chapbooks and 'zines by hand; most all of them eventually got tired of the labor involved and switched to using commercial offset printers or POD when they could.

(Go on to Part 4: Book distribution and printing cost too much. Why don't publishers switch to e-books?)

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Why new textbooks are so expensive
(Go back to Part One to read about the mass market paperback pricing mentioned here)

I've heard from a couple of people who don't believe that the economics mentioned in Part One work for textbook prices.

I look at the biology textbooks I've used -- which have been massive, sturdy hardbacks with lots and lots of illustrations and photographs (pro photographers expect to get paid) and color ink and slick paper -- and I see pretty high production/printing cost right off the bat.

Specialist nonfiction of any kind pays much better than fiction, and publishers have to pay more to interest a professor in producing a textbook that will take a lot of his or her energy and time away from teaching and research (in some cases, choosing to write a textbook may actually harm a prof's career because a textbook doesn't "count" the same as other scholarly publications that may take much less time to write). The publisher might, for instance, have to recoup an advance of $40,000 or so across 5,000 copies, and I don't think it's greedy to expect $40K for authoring a book that takes a lot of expertise and several years to write. And finally, distribution will still be expensive no matter what kind of book you're producing.

According to the National Association of College Stores (NACS), Collegiate Retailing Industry, Higher Education Retailing Market, the breakdown of each $1 of an average new textbook's price goes like this:

Paper and printing: 32.1 cents
Distribution: 22.9 cents
Marketing: 15.3 cents
Author's income: 11.5 cents
Shipping: 1.3 cents
Publisher's operations: 9.9 cents
Publisher's income: 7.0 cents

So in the case of textbooks, printing costs more than distribution, and marketing and the author get the other big hunks of the cheese. The publisher ends up making about $5 profit from each copy of a $70 textbook, which costs about $22.50 to print. Percentage-wise that's not hugely different from what you get with a mass-market paperback.

(Go on to Why can't most publishers print books for $1? or Book distribution and printing cost too much. Why don't publishers switch to e-books?)

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Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Why new books are so expensive

The other day, I was in Barnes and Noble when I overheard a college student in the literature aisle say, "I'm not paying twenty bucks for this!" followed by the slap of an 80-page poetry collection being forcefully returned to the top of the shelves.

I'm sure we've all been feeling a bit of sticker shock at the bookstore, particularly if you are old enough to remember when pulp novels actually did cost just a dime.

So, why have new books gotten so damn expensive? Don't publishers realize they could sell a lot more paperbacks at $4 a pop than they can at $7 a pop?

The simple answer is, yes, they do, but the reality isn't simple. A book's pricing is based largely on how much it's costing the publisher to get into the readers' hands, and there's a lot that goes into that.

The basic formula goes like this:

author advance + design + printing + distribution + profit = price

At this point, you may be shaking your fist at the authors and muttering about how greedy they are. And I'm here to tell you that the author advance is often one of the smallest pieces of the book pricing pie. The advances offered by publishers to writers can vary hugely, as can the royalty percentages. But since I know what several mass market publishers generally pay and know their print runs, let's look at a theoretical mass market paperback publisher called Bighouse.

Most Bighouse paperbacks have a cover price of $6.99. An average Bighouse author may be offered an advance against royalties of $2500 and his or her book will have a print run of about 30,000. The publisher will hope that the book will actually sell about 25,000, and the rest of the copies will be stripped and returned1. At 25,000 copies sold, Bighouse will have made back all their money from the advance, and they probably won't owe the author any more money (clauses stipulating the publisher's right to keep reserves against returns is a diabolical bit of contract evil that I'll address someday in another article).

So, regardless of the royalty percentage dictated in the author's contract (which will probably be around 7.5%), simple math tells us that in this case, about ten cents of every book sold goes toward paying the author's advance.

Ten cents. Whoa. That's not very much, is it? So that means that Bighouse is making a huge profit on every book, right?

Not exactly. There's the cost of editing the book, laying it out, proofreading the final copy, printing galleys, and paying for cover art and cover design, but since they're a big publisher and have full-time staff, this will cost them less per book than it would a small press publisher. I don't have hard numbers for this, but let's assume that it's about $2500 depending on how speedy the staff is. Either way, that's still not a big slice of the book pie.

Now comes printing time, and paper's much more expensive than it used to be. I've heard from a fairly reliable source that your average 350-page paperback costs about $2.25 per copy to print ... provided the books are ordered in batches of 30,000 or more. The per-copy price for small publishers, whether they go with an offset printer or a POD company, will be much higher, simply because they can't buy in volume. A certain amount of the printer's cost is purely the cost of setup, and that's the same price whether you're ordering 100 copies or 100,000.

So, from purchase to production to printing, a $6.99 paperback has cost the publisher about $2.50. Big profits time for the publisher, right? Only if they get to sell all their books directly from their own warehouse. And they don't: they need to send the books to distributors like Ingram so that the books get into bookstores.

And distributors like Ingram and Amazon.com generally want a 55% commission from the sale of every book they handle. Fifty-five percent, kids. Smaller bookstores may only ask for a 40% commission, but the big boys want 55%.

So, out of the $6.99 paid by a reader for the paperback at Amazon.com, $3.85 goes straight to Amazon. Once you subtract that and the direct production costs from the book, that leaves a whopping $0.64 "profit" per copy. If they've struck a deal and only have to pay a 40% commission, the "profit" rises to the kingly sum of $1.69 per copy.

But much of that $0.64-$1.69 isn't profit at all. Remember those 5,000 books that didn't sell? Those still had to be printed, and the publisher most often doesn't get them back. The bookstores rip the front covers off the unsold books, dump the books themselves in the trash, and mail the covers back to the publisher for credit. The book returns alone in this example would eat up $0.45 of the $0.64, leaving a mere 19-cents-per-book profit. And some portion of that 19 cents needs to be used to pay the other departments at the publishing house that aren't directly involved in production, such as the acquisitions department and the legal department, but most especially the marketing department.

After all, the marketing department is responsible for stuff like designing and placing ads and sending authors on book tours. They can make or break the book. I didn't include the book's marketing cost in the original equation because this is a very elastic cost for paperbacks. Sometimes a big publisher goes whole hog to promote a book, but sometimes they quietly release it to bookstores and let nature take its course.

Marketing costs take many more forms than paying an intern to set up author signings or paying designers to create the ads you see in magazines and newsletters. Do you ever stop to browse through the stacks of new releases placed prominently in the fronts of bookstores? That's not usually the staff sharing their new favorites; the publishers of those books pay to get their copies up front where people can see them.

If you want a number, though, possibly two to fifteen cents out of every dollar spent on the book (see below for statistics on textbook costs) goes toward marketing. But let's say that the publisher in this case has decided to back the print run with a bit of promotion, and they pay to get the book placed well for a week in stores and take out some magazine ads. The marketing budget takes up 50 cents per copy. And so if you subtract 45 cents for unsold copies and 50 cents for promotion from $1.69, the publisher gets $0.74 profit per book in a better-case scenario. But it could just as easily come to a $0.31 per book loss in the land of the 55% commission, or if there are a lot of unsold copies.

So in the end, it's the distribution costs that are the biggest expense of a paperback fiction book, followed by the cost of printing. No fiction publisher can refuse to deal with Amazon.com2 or Ingram and expect to get their books into as many hands as possible, so they have to factor those big 40%-55% commissions into their book pricing.

(Go on to Part Two: Why new textbooks are so expensive, Part Three: Why can't most publishers print books for $1?, Part Four: Book distribution and printing cost too much. Why don't publishers switch to e-books?)

1: The number of copies printed and released versus the number of copies sold is called the "sell-through rate". An 80% sell-through rate -- that is, 80% of the released copies sell and 20% are returned -- on a mass market book is considered very good. Anything above 80% is awesome. I'm actually using an 83% sell-through rate in my example; most books will not sell that well, so the cost of paying back the author's advance would eat into the 64-cent profit outlined above.

And again, the 80%-as-excellent-sell-through applies to mass market books. Small press books with much smaller print runs may require sell-throughs of 90%-100% for the publisher to simply earn back the production and promotion costs. Or, a seemingly-unreasonable cover price: $20 for an 80-page poetry collection.

2: HW Press refused to deal with Amazon because of their commission rates. The publisher didn't want to bump the book price by $3 just to account for Amazon.com's cut. Selling on the web is selling on the web, right? But it's not. Amazon.com goes around the world and offers a bunch of discounts and incentives that a Mom-and-Pop distributor can't match. Amazon.com offers rewards credit cards, for instance, and was able to negotiate cheaper shipping costs for itself with the US Postal Service because they do such a high volume. Furthermore, LibraryThing and Bookcrossing and a host of other sites pull their data directly from Amazon's data, and if you're not in there, it's like your book simply doesn't exist for a certain number of potential readers. Amazon.com is the 15,000-pound gorilla in publishing. People look at you funny if you tell them that, no, you can't get the book on Amazon, even more than when you tell them they can't find your book down at the local Barnes and Noble, either.

And when you come down to it, Amazon.com's cut is not necessarily unbridled greed. They have warehouses to maintain and staff to pay. The free shipping you get with every $25-or-more order gets paid for out of their commission. I know one online bookstore, Shocklines, that only charged a 40% commission; the owner is having to close down the shop because he ended up doing too much business to keep up with on his own, but he could never quite make enough to hire an assistant. It's an expensive business.

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Monday, May 15, 2006

Liberty Books & News
Liberty Books & News is a relatively new bookstore at The Shops on Lane Avenue (1649 West Lane Avenue) in Columbus, OH. If you are a reader, you seriously have to check this store out. It's got an excellent selection of both children's and grown-up's books, and it has the single best magazine section I've seen in town, hands-down. Not only do they carry Locus and the SFWA Journal, they have issues of The Journal of Irreproducible Results.

The comics section is much better than in most bookstores, but of course can't touch the offerings of the city's actual comic book shops, such as Midgard Comics (5541 Westerville Rd # 312g, Westerville, OH) or the Laughing Ogre (4258 N High St, Columbus, OH).

As added bonuses, Liberty Books & News has comfy chairs, free coffee, and offers author readings.

May 23, 2007 Update: Sadly, Liberty Books will be closing its doors soon.



Monday, February 27, 2006

The Horror of the Used Bookstore
by Gary A. Braunbeck

There's a dark side writing that few people have dared address. I'm talking about the single most dangerous foe to the writer's resolve; the thing that can stop even the most dedicated wordsmith dead in his or her tracks; an element of the publishing business that renders all of us absolutely powerless when faced with it.

No, it isn't the dreaded book signing that finds you sitting at a table for 90 minutes, during which time the only person to approach you and the unsold stacks of your new book is someone asking for directions to the bathroom; it isn't having someone discover you're a horror writer and asking (almost as if compelled to do so by a Congressional Decree): "So, do you know Stephen King?"; and, no, it isn't that utterly radiant, mettle-testing moment when you open that first royalty statement to discover that your book has, in the course of one year, sold only one-third of its print run so obtaining that more pricey loaf of bread is going to have to be put on the back burner once again. Yes, all of these can test you, no doubt; they can chip away at your confidence if you let them; and they can make you a real buzz-kill who doesn't get invited to many parties, but I'm not here to discuss my dreadful personality problems.

No; the single biggest foe to the writer's resolve, confidence, and determination is (insert ominous chord here): the Horror of the Used Book Store.

We all shop at them. We're writers, for pity's sake, our major source of income is our writing (see Laura Anne Gilman's previous post to learn more of that particular daily terror), none of us can afford to shell out 30 bucks for each new hardcover or 8 bucks for each new paperback on a consistent basis. We go there to find a bargain, or perhaps to locate a book that's been hard to find or out of print for several years. While we're doing this, we remind ourselves that the First Sale Doctrine, codified in Section 109 of The U.S. Copyright Act, allows the original owner of any book to transfer ownership of the phyisical copy in any way they choose, so, technically, there's nothing legally or morally wrong with our purchasing any books here.

Besides (we tell ourselves), stores like this make books affordable to folks who otherwise wouldn't have the money to buy them. So it's all good ... until we find ourselves face to face with copies of our own books.

Don't shake your head at me; if you've ever published with a mass market house, odds are you've found yourself in this situation. And what is the writer's first reaction? But, my work is eternal, it speaks to the deepest pain of the human condition, my books are things to be treasured , to be passed down from generation to generation, not end up here!

The first time I discovered copies of my novel In Silent Graves on the shelf at a used book store, I felt a slight twinge of disappointment -- who wouldn't? We all hope that our books will be things that readers will want to keep around to read again someday, but here we are, faced with the bald hard truth that not everyone who buys and reads our books is going to want to keep them. I at least had the pleasure of knowing that the 3 copies I found on the shelf had been well-read, as evidenced by the wear on, and cracks in, the spines.

Two weeks ago, I'm in another used book store with a friend of mine who also happens to be a writer, and he points out to me that another copy of Graves is on the shelf. I'm really into this now, I've adopted a helathy attitude, I want to see how well-read the copy was, enjoy the sight of those cracks in the spine, hold it in my hands knowing that whoever had owned it before read the living shit out of it before selling it here.

Well, guess what? (Here's the moment that really tests the mettle.)

It hadn't been read. It hadn't even been opened, as far as I could tell. It still had the Walpurgis-Mart sticker covering the bar code on the back.

"What is it?" asked my writer friend.

"This hasn't even been read," I whispered.

"You don't know that," he replied. "maybe the person who sold this is like you, they take care not to damage the spine when they read a paperback. Maybe they're just very careful with their books."

"And maybe they just didn't read it." (Outwardly, I'm doing the Healthy Attitude Shuffle, I'm very calm and cool and collected; inwardly, I'm jumping up and down and throwing a fit and threatening to hold my breath until my face turns blue.)

"Okay," my writer friend said, "then you gotta tell yourself that there was some earth-shaking emergency that forced them to sell this book. They lost a job. They lost a limb. Their Workman's Comp ran out. They had to do it to put food on the table for their family, man! You know they had to do it to put food on the table! Dear God, why else would they part with one of your books? IT WAS A MATTER OF LIFE OR DEATH!"

"So what you're telling me in your own subtle way is that I'm over-reacting?"

"God, no! You're a hero, Gary, a lifesaver!" He threw his arm around my shoulder and began talking very loudly. "Because of you and your book, somewhere in this city tonight, a man's family is not going to bed hungry. They can afford Grandma's medication for another month. Little Eunice can get that knee surgery so that her dreams of the Joffrey Ballet needn't be forever buried, thus turning her into a bitter, empty shell of a human being before she turns 13! And it's all because of this book on this shelf. I'm sorry, I'm ... I'm getting emotional, tearing up. So moving, it is. I so rarely get to witness acts of decency and heroism. It reaffirms my faith in humanity. We must all hold hands," he cried out to the terror-stricken customers. "Indeed, we must all hold hands and sing out our joy at being here to mark this resplendent moment in human history. Come, sing with me, all of you: 'WHEN YOU WALK THROUGH A STORM, KEEP YOU HEAD HELD HIGH, AND DON'T BE AFRAID OF --'"

"So I'm over-reacting, is this what you're telling me?"

"Nah. They probably got through the first 20 pages and decided it was too much of a downer. You gotta admit, this thing ain't gonna make anybody's list of My Top Ten Favorite Chuckle-fests."

"I feel so much better now, thanks."

"Hey, take your pick: They did it to put food on the table, or they did it because they thought your book sucked the dimples off a golf ball through 40 feet of clogged garden hose."

We're writers, we exist because of fantasy and delusion and our ability to convey them on the page. And when you have to rely on your writing as your major source of income, any delusion helps, especially if you know it's a delusion.

So I helped a stranger put food on the table for his family. I feel good about myself.

Hey, I'm a writer. Delusion is my business.

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Monday, February 20, 2006

Yellow Springs, Ohio

I found Yellow Springs to be a very pleasant, very arty little community. It has about 4,600 residents and is home to Antioch College. Apartment rental and real estate prices are on the high side because so many people working in Dayton want to live in Yellow Springs.

It's also the home-away-from-Hollywood for popular comedian Dave Chappelle, who was spotted there after his 2005 nervous breakdown and flight to South Africa.

The village really reminded me a lot of parts of Bloomington, IN and Portland, Oregon. (Presumably, it would remind me even more of Eugene, Oregon, another city that has been accused of being stuck in the sixties, but I have not been there yet.)

While we were there, we stayed at the Morgan House Bed and Breakfast, which is within walking distance of practically everything you'd want to visit in the town. The location is the major advantage to Morgan House; while it is far less expensive than most B&Bs, it's not ideal if you're looking for a getaway with your significant other. The rooms don't have private bathrooms, and the accomodations are more rustic than romantic. You also can't lock your room when you leave, and although I was assured my belongings would be safe, I still found it a bit offputting.

Yellow Springs' downtown is nice, but it's small, and the village rolls up its sidewalks fairly early; if you're out and about after 8 p.m., the only food you'll be able to find is at the Sunrise Cafe, which looks from the outside like it might be a greasy-spoon type diner but which is a more formal restaurant inside. The food there is good, but perhaps a tad overpriced.

If you're willing to drive a bit north out of town, a very good place to eat (if you're a carnivore) is Young's Jersey Dairy. They offer excellent burgers and real fountain Coca-Cola made with syrup and soda water that taste much better than the bottled kind. The food is fresh and inexpensive.

If you're a book lover, you should check out Dark Star Books while you're there. The front of the shop has a very decent collection of comics and anime; my first impression was that this was entirely a science fiction book shop, but when I went toward the back of the store, I realized most of their stock is used books on a wide variety of subjects.

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Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Generic books

Many of us remember the ultra-plainly-labeled, über-cheap generic foods sold in bulk at grocery stores a few decades back. Stuff like bulk beer, which came in plain white cans with just the word "BEER" in stark black letters, plus minimal nutrition information and a bar code.

Fewer people remember that, for a very brief period of time in the white-label heyday of the early 1980s, someone attempted to market generic genre books.

Yes, completely generic paperback books. They had a plain white cover with just the title in black block lettering: ROMANCE or SCIENCE FICTION or HORROR or WESTERN.

They released one book in each genre; an older friend of mine collected the whole set. The books had no back-panel blurb, no author information, no publisher information, not even a copyright page.

My friend said the novels were uniformly awful, but entertainingly so. Apparently the writer or writers went out of their way to incorporate every possible genre cliché into the paper-thin storylines.

I'm guessing the white-label SCIENCE FICTION novel had a bad case of white room syndrome.

The books, of course, failed miserably except as a collector's oddity for bibliophiles. It's hard to get authors to do good work when they're not even given a pseudonym, and it's even harder to get readers to pick up a book without the benefit of snazzy cover art, a catchy title, or author name recognition. And, of course, without publisher information attached to the product, there's not much possible motive or method to marketing.

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I'm Lucy Snyder. I'm a Worthington, Ohio author and former magazine editor; on this site you'll find my writing as well as features from my husband, novelist Gary A. Braunbeck.

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