Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Researching Yourself

No, I’m not complaining that I have to do my own research, it’s just that my current work in progress happens to be about me, so I find myself in the strange position of researching my own life, and I’m finding it surprisingly, well, surprising.
In a different lifetime, when I was a fingerprint expert for New York State, I spent a great deal of time chasing down the lives of the Parke family, who were instrumental in instituting the fingerprint system within New York’s prison department.  Uncovering their lives was a diverting bit of detective work that spanned several years.  It might take months, for example, to track down and secure an interview with the nephew of woman who the librarian said used to live in the house the Parkes owned.  (This was before Facebook, Twitter and, for the most part, even e-mail.)  But the thrill of finding a journal, letter or news clipping that opened a window on the world of the Parkes made the effort worthwhile.  Through these documents, I could peek into a strange and foreign world, full of unexpected, and occasionally startling, connections.
Researching my own life has been a bit like that.  It’s taken nowhere near the time (I know where all the journals, photos and letters are kept, after all), but the forgotten details I am digging up often make it seem as if I am reading about someone else’s life.  It’s interesting to read words written by yourself nearly a decade ago that you have no memory of and that leave you wondering just what was in your mind when you wrote them.  Sometimes I’d like to reach back across the years and slap myself upside the head for condensing what later proved to be a significant event into a mere mention, or writing sentences that assume the reader is there with you and knows the context and therefore negates the need for any clarification.
Piecing the details of that two-week period of my life together required nearly as much detective work as it would have for a complete stranger, though the results were more satisfying.  The collateral effect of writing this new book has been a reawakening of the feelings and emotions of my time in Ireland, not a full-blown resurgence (thankfully; I don’t think I could handle it at my age) but more of an echo, sounding down the years, bringing to the forefront of my mind memories of horrible hikes, hot summer days and meeting the woman who, soon after, became my wife.
All and all a strange and satisfying exercise: to unearth forgotten events in a life that seems to have been lived by someone else, and then to look up and see the results of those events all around me, and the main result curled up on the sofa reading a Peter James novel and watching “The Real A&E” on the telly.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Self Publishing’s Best Kept Secret

Anyone so much as considering self-publication these days has likely tapped into Joe Konrath’s blog and indulged in Amanda Hocking hitting-the-lottery-type fantasies.  (Not me, but that’s only because I never heard of her until only very recently, which shows you just how out of the loop I am.)  Self-publishing is the new paradigm; the gold rush is on so grab your pick and shovel, hitch up the mule and head west.
But if it’s that easy, why do we so often come across the beached bones of enthusiasts who set out before us?  They started out with a good book, great cover and a Twitter account; what could go wrong?
Plenty, but what I’m thinking of at the minute is time.
Most self-publishing gurus will remind you that this is a marathon, not a sprint, but they are referring to fact that you will likely not see any results for months or years (or, in most cases, never).  What they don’t emphasize as much is the amount of hours in the day you need to devote to self-publishing in order to do it successfully.
Wrote a book?  Good for you!  Difficult and time consuming, was it?  Decided to go the self-publishing route, did you?  Well, take the time and effort you put into your last book and multiply that by about three and you’ll be somewhere close to what you have so blithely taken on.
Don’t get me wrong, I am not trying to discourage you; I’m just pointing out that, along with the pick and the shovel, you’d better pack a lot of hardtack to see you through some long winter days.
Publishing is a painstaking, arduous and uncertain business, which is one of the reasons they are having so much trouble competing these days.  But if the professionals (i.e. people who do this for a living) are having a hard time of it, it’s only going to be that much more arduous for you.  Still it can be done; it just takes a lot of our old friend, time.
A writer with a traditional publishing contract can, with a lot of hard work, hold down a full-time job and enjoy a writing career.  But if you add all the functions of a publisher to your to-do list, something must give way.
All of the successful self-pubbers I know of devote all of their time to self-pubbing.  (It’s hard to go wrong with a statement like that: either my observation is accurate or a raft of successful, part-time pubbers will pop up to prove me wrong, which I would heartily welcome.)
Joe Konrath and his circle of undie-publishers were all successful, full-time writers with large and enthusiastic followings before they started posting their work to Amazon, and Joe admits he routinely puts in 50-60 hour weeks, with only a portion of that time devoted to writing.  Amanda Hocking did have a job but she left it as soon as she could and—much to her devotee’s dismay—has recently signed with a traditional publisher because doing it herself was (wait for it) taking up too much of her time.  Even my new self-pubbing hero, Catherine Ryan Howard, notes that step one of her foray into self publication involved quitting her job and moving in with her parents.
I realize I’m going out on a limb here but my guess is a lot of us (say, like 99% of us) do not have that option.  I consider myself very fortunate in that I have the opportunity (plus a very understanding wife) which allows me to work part time.  Without that option, my book would, even now, be just an idea.  I put in some long weeks getting the manuscript ready, designing the cover and learning the ins and outs of CreateSpace, Kindle and Smashwords.  I am now ten weeks into this adventure; the book is out, the web site is updated, the release date is set, the marketing machine is idling and ready to roll forward and, as I noticed this morning in my writing log, not a single new word has been added to my WIP during that time.
There are simply not enough hours in the day.
For me, with the luxury of around thirty hours a week to divide between writing, cover design, formatting, proof reading, accounting, correspondence, webmaster duties and marketing, all I need to do is strike a better writing/pubbing balance (work/life balance went out the window some time ago).  But I’ll get a handle on that, I’m sure.
The real question is, if you are considering self-publication, is how will you divide your time?

Friday, June 10, 2011

A Review, a Revelation and a Resolution - III

Okay, we’ve had the review, we’ve had the revelation, now we can have the resolution and be done with it.

One of the things I did right when I first delved into self-publishing was get the cover right.  This is a place a lot of people seem to fall down on because they don’t do one simple thing—the thing that I did without even thinking about it because it was just common sense—and that was: go look at the covers of professionally published books in your genre.

Why people think they can just whip a cover off out of thin air is beyond me.  Graphic design artist spend years studying, practicing and working to get their craft right.  For a writer to think they can do as well in an afternoon is as insulting as someone at a cocktail party saying to you, “Oh, a writer, are you?  Well, anyone can write.”

I knew I couldn’t do as well, but I thought I could come close, so I studied books in my genre—travel humor.  Bill Bryson’s name came up a lot and I sketched out an idea formed from several of his covers.  And I worked on it for days.  I had my wife (who has been taking art classes for the past six years) help me.  I got advice and feedback from people who were in the business and knew what they were doing.  Then, eventually, I finished:

I was pleased with it.  But then after Lean Market acquired the book, they produced their own cover:

Now, first of all, I have to say I am pleased that my idea was so good they used it as a template for their cover.  But the differences between their version and mine became suddenly obvious and my cover, that I had spent so much time over and come to love, now screamed, “SELF PUBLISHED!”

And I was so close.  Brighter colors, crisper text, stand-out images—I was really, so very nearly there.  But then that’s the difference between an amateur and a professional: the professional knows how to get it right while the amateur thinks he is done before it’s finished.

Knowing what I know now, there is no way I would think I could make a professional looking cover on my own.  If I ever self-publish again, I will be looking to hire a good graphic designer.

Except, of course, for the Postcards books.

I did this myself, and I truly believe it looks professional, but I could never have done it without the original cover to use as a model.  This cover, too, took days.  I painstakingly mimicked every detail of the original to make a suitable cover for the next in the series.  (It’s not as if I stole their idea; they stole it from me in the first place, and I stole it from Bill Bryson.)

I am also going to have a crack at the cover for the final Postcards book, but as I said, after that, I would not be so foolish as to think I could do a professional job without a professional cover to act as a template.  Copying the cover of Postcards From Across the Pond to make the cover for More Postcards From Across the Pond and Postcards From Ireland simply makes sense.  Copying the cover to say, The Da Vinci Code for some half-assed thriller you wrote and can’t sell is nuts, it will make you look like a moron and it is probably illegal.

Wednesday, June 08, 2011

A Review, a Revelation and a Resolution - II

You’ve had the review, time for the revelation.

I have twice made the decision to self-publish, and both times I made it for the right reason.

With the first Postcards manuscript, I continued to receive good reviews from agents and publishers, but the consensus was that, being such a niche book, it would not be economically viable to publish it.  It wasn’t that Postcards was a bad book, it was just that, for them, publishing it would be a bad business decision.

By that time, POD technology had advanced to the point where publishing it myself was a viable alternative.  So I did.  And I did many things (accidentally) right, and some other things (typically) wrong.

Even so, the book gained enough attention that Lean Market Press offered to publish it.  They did this because—for a micro-publisher without the overhead of author advances, print runs, storage, etc.—it was a good business decision, and I was glad to have them.  For me, the status of having a ‘properly’ published book was well worth their cut.  I learned a bit about publishing, marketing and professionalism, and the ‘published by’ inside the front cover gave me a credibility I had not previously enjoyed.

The book sold a few copies, they made a couple of quid for their efforts, and I didn’t make much.  But, in my view, it remained a win-win situation.  However, when the second book came around, I thought I could do it just as well myself and maybe make a few dollars (or pounds) this time out.

With the further advances in technological over the past few years, self-publishing had become even more viable, so I gritted my teeth for the onslaught of “Oh, you mean it’s self-published,” comments and dove in.  What I found disturbed me.

I couldn’t put my finger on it; the bloggers and champions of self-publishing were all dedicated, earnest and full of success stories, but there was something about it all that smacked of zealotry, and I’ve had quite enough of that, thank you.  It made me nervous and left me wondering if I was expected to join their ranks and wear my self-publishing mantle as a badge of honor while publicly declaration my insurgency against traditional publishing.

Then I read Self-Printed and realized what it was all about: they were angry, and I wasn’t angry, nor did I desire to become angry.  I decided to self-publish based on a rational and realistic business assessment, not because I wanted to pick up the lance and tilt at “The Big 6” Publishers.

Catherine Ryan Howard (author of Self-Printed) seemed the voice of reason (and copious amounts of information) and I suddenly felt better about my book.  She calmly and rationally explained the process, the realities and complications of self-publishing, all without exhibiting even a hint of zealotry.  And having studied her example, I have given myself permission to do the same for my book, because it’s worth it.

It’s a good book, really; I’m pleased with the way it turned out, staggered by the early reviews* and looking forward to seeing how far I can take it.  But it already has enough to overcome by being, as it is, self-published, without having to carry all that anger around.

* I was just contacted by a woman who told me she laughed so hard while reading my book she wet herself.  Is that an endorsement, or what?


As part of my image makeover, I am moving to new digs.  And I have decided that this blog will have a larger presence in the new order, which I am calling my blog Empire.  Please come and join me; I'd love to have you along.  The next time you come here, there will be a link to the new blog.  See you there.

Last one to leave, turn off the lights.

Thursday, June 02, 2011

Self-Printed: a Review, a Revelation, a Resolution

I am just about finished reading Catherine Ryan Howard’s book, Self-Printed.  This is the book I should have read before I self-published More Postcards From Across the Pond.  Turns out, not having read it was not due to any oversight on my part; it wasn’t out at that time—this is a brand new book.  And lucky you, if you are thinking of self-publishing, have the opportunity to read it first.  And I highly recommend that you do.

Even my belated reading did a world of good: the book was so thorough and so inspiring that I had a revelation while reading the early chapters, and made a resolution while reading the bits on cover design, but writing about them will take up too much space in a single post, so I will leave them for later and just write the review for now.

This is a one-stop shop for all your DIY publishing needs, covering everything from formatting text and getting accounts on all of those different web sites to how to navigate the often intimidating world of social media.  Originally, I was disappointed at not having had the opportunity to read the book before mine was published, but despite coming at it after the fact, there was still a wealth of critical information to be gleaned.  Because the book is so comprehensive, it filled the void left after reading half a dozen “Twitter For Dummies” type books and did so with simple, concise and easy to understand directions.

In addition to this, the book is almost frighteningly readable.  Catherine’s writing style, which I was first introduced to in her self-published travel memoir, Mousetrapped, is so captivating and comical I literally had a hard time putting the book down.

The other unique appeal of this book, making it—to my mind—the quintessential self-publishing guide, is that all this information is served with a heaping portion of delusion-busting, real-world common sense.  “…[Amanda Hocking’s] success has been truly amazing...but there's only one Amanda hocking, and if there's ever another one, the odds are you won't be it.”

Catherine does, however, point out that, while dreams of millions should remain dreams, the idea of earning a respectable amount is clearly within your reach—if you do it right.  And ‘right’ is not what she purports to teach you; she is merely showing you how—and just as importantly, why—she self-published Mousetrapped and sold over 4,000 copies in the first year.

If you are thinking of self-publishing, you must read this book.  If you are as confused about social media as I was, you could do worse than read this book.  And if you are tired of the “How to Make Millions Publishing Your Own Books While Sticking It To the Big 6 Publishers” manuals, and are ready for some real-world, real-life advice that will leave you chuckling, you definitely should read this book.

Catherine’s books are available as both print and ebooks.  Visit her website for more information, and a few more chuckles.

Catherine Ryan Howard's blog:

Self-Printed website:

POSTSCRIPT:  I uploaded a condensed version of this review to Amazon just now and had another revelation.  I do not consider myself a good book reviewer; I never think about reviewing a book unless it really makes an impact on me--a good impact.  Therefore, all of my reviews are 5-star, which makes me a rubbish reviewer--the suspect type who appears to be reviewing books for his friends.

Rest assured Ms Ryan Howard is not a friend, nor an acquaintance, even;  we have never so much as exchanged e-mails.  I simply, and honestly, think she is a good writer and that Self-Published is a great book.

But, in order to build up some credibility, it seems I'm going to have to find some books I don't like and post a few "this book is crap" type reviews on Amazon.