Thursday, December 29, 2011

Self-publishing: Changing the channel

eBooks make self-publishing much easier. Both print and ebooks offer formatting challenges, but in the print world, the truly hard part is getting the books where readers will see them. You can use a print-on-demand (POD) service, of course, like Amazon's CreateSpace, but the problem is the books are sold only online (or by you, if you are willing to buy them and resell them) and you can't price them any cheaper than traditionally published books (often sold at a discount!) without losing money. Some day there will be POD machines in every bookstore and it might be worth it to self-publish in print, but right now it's an iffy thing.

eBooks are still iffy, of course, in that you're never guaranteed success. But the distribution channels are easier to manage with ebooks partly because all ebooks are sold online, not just self-published ebooks. Also, Amazon and Barnes & Noble both offer easy-to-use self-publishing platforms (KDP and PubIt, respectively), as does Smashwords,

Smashwords is unique (to the best of my knowledge) because it is a retailer that sells only self-published books and because it offers three major advantages over the other DIY publishing platforms,

The first is that aside from Smashwords itself, once your book is loaded there, it offers the opportunity to push it out to other retail platforms, specifically (as of now) Sony, Kobo, Barnes & Noble Nook, Amazon Kindle (although this does not seem to be fully implemented), Diesel, and Apple iBooks. It's true that Amazon is still the gorilla of ebook sales, but all the other platforms added together can make it worthwhile to pursue this option.

The second advantage of Smashwords is that, unlike KDP and PubIt, Smashwords lets you make your book free, either by offering a code for downloading or just by making the price zero. Further, once you have done that, some (but not all) of the other retailers will also make the book free.

Making a book free might not seem much of an advantage. You could post a book on your own website and make it free to download, after all. But readers troll the online stores for free ebooks, and if you have more than one book, giving one away for free can get you sales on your other books (especially if the free book is the first in a series).

The third advantage of Smashwords is they make your book available in multiple formats, without DRM. Surprisingly, that's related to the one disadvantage of Smashwords. They require a Word file be loaded that corresponds to their guidelines and then they convert that file to the other formats they offer, and this gave the writer less control over how the book looks in the downstream retail outlets. However, Smashwords recently announced they plan to start supporting ePub uploads, so that might help because the other retailers will want ePub.

Perhaps because they only sell self-published works, Smashwords actually reviews each book that is uploaded, not for editorial quality (now there's a loaded term!), but for formatting. They make the distinction of having a premium catalog, and only well-formatted books are assigned to it. Your book cannot be pushed to major retailers like iBooks unless it is in the premium catalog (some retailers also require an ISBN).

In many ways, Smashwords acts more like a publisher than the other platforms; when they push books to other retailers, their name appears as the publisher of those books.

In the eight months since I started publishing, the one platform that has been a total disappointment has been PubIt; unlike Amazon, I don't think Barnes & Noble treats self-published books the same as traditionally published books. Ergo, I recently decided to pull my books from PubIt and use Smashwords to sell on Barnes & Noble. This will provide me considerably less swift feedback on any sales, but I would rather have slower feedback and more sales. I'll post about the results of this experiment after a while, but I'm not taking the books down from PubIt until Smashwords has shipped them to Barnes & Nobles, so that might be a few weeks.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

A Merry Christmas to all!

I recently read an interesting article that said by coincidence, when Charles Dickens was a boy, England had a string of really cold winters and more snow than usual. Ergo, when writing his nostalgic novella A Christmas Carol, he gave Scrooge and the Cratchits a white Christmas.  In actuality, London doesn't get that much snow and has only had snow on the ground for Christmas seven times since 1900.

Well, the story has ghosts, too, so I think we can safely call it a fantasy in more ways than one. Maybe that's why I love Dickens' story of Scrooge and his redemption? In fact, I aced this quiz on it. I got 10 out of 10!  See how you do!

And have yourself a Merry little Christmas!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Death Comes to Pemberley: a review

Death Comes to Pemberley, by P.D. James
Hardcover: 291 pages; also available as an ebook
Publisher: Knopf

It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to write a sequel to one of the most well known and well-loved novels of the English language. Pride and Prejudice probably has more TV and movie adaptions than any novel except perhaps Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley (I'm talking through my hat here. I haven't actually counted). In written form, P&P also has numerous sequels, prequels, alternate tellings, and mash-ups.

As you might infer from the title, Death Comes to Pemberley is a murder mystery. From reading the blurb on Amazon, I thought it was Mr. Wickham who was murdered, but in fact he is more suspect than victim. I was disappointed, as I had thought he would get his just deserts. Well, he does suffer, but not nearly enough for me. And when it comes to murder mysteries, P.D. James knows her stuff.  I thought I had caught on to the true motive, but I was a bit off.

It turns out Baroness James also does a pretty good job with early 19th century English. That, of course, is the true test for the writer. Austen wrote P&P as a contemporary novel, but since she died in 1817, that gives you a sense of how far back in time James had to look. On the whole, DCtP does very well at keeping the reader in the early 19th century, with narrative like this:
The entertainment and seasonal diversions of country living are neither as numerous nor enticing as to make the social obligations of a great house a matter of indifference to those neighbours qualified to benefit from them . . .

A couple of times, I thought she slipped just a tad, as when Darcy says he needs to "make sure Bingley is fully in the picture. . ." and when a magistrate says, "The constables will need blankets, and some food and drink to see them through—cold meats, bread, the usual.” The phrases make sure, fully in the picture and the usual struck me as too modern for the time. Mind you, I don't know that they are, but they sound wrong to me.

On the other hand, this passage, where Elizabeth Darcy (nee Bennett) is recalling that phase of her husband's courtship where she abruptly changes her mind about him impressed me as being on target and rather clever:
If this were fiction, could even the most brilliant novelist contrive to make credible so short a period in which pride had been subdued and prejudice overcome?
She even worked in the title of the original novel! There were several places where it was almost as if she were channeling Austen, as when she describes Mr. Collins' letter to Elizabeth:
He began by stating that he could find no words to express his shock and abhorrence, and then proceeded to find a great number, few of them appropriate and none of them helpful.
It's apparent, too, that James has done her research about the times. At one point, in order not to disturb Darcy's sleep, the servants wrapped chunks of coal in paper before putting them in the fire, so that they would burn with less noise. I have read a fair amount of historical fiction, but I had never heard that,

When the story begins, it's about six years after the Darcys' and the Bingleys' marriages, and both Elizabeth and Jane have children. I was pleased that James didn't feel compelled to tinker with circumstances too much. She did marry off Mary Bennett, who is little seen in this novel, but appears to be happy as a clergyman's wife.  The only unmarried Bennett sister still at home (and happy to be there, in full possession of her parents' time and attention) is Kitty.

If I have a complaint about the book, it's that I knew the original novel well enough not to need the retelling of the P&P backstory that James felt compelled to include. I thought it slowed things down too much, and considering the book was written in the style of the 19th century, that made it darned slow in places. On the other hand, I can see why James didn't want to exclude from her audience people who either never read the book, or haven't read it recently.  I also agree with a few commenters I saw on Amazon who complained the ending felt a little rushed. It did seem to me James might have spent a bit more "ink" in the ending.

If I were giving out stars, I would say 4 out of 5. An excellent job on copying a master, and an enjoyable mystery, too.

Addendum for Kindle owners: I read (naturally) the Kindle version. The formatting was excellent.

Friday, December 16, 2011

One thing Amazon needs to do . . .

My family is a multi-Kindle family. My husband and I each have a "real" (e-ink) Kindle and we each use a Kindle app. He has an iPad and I occasionally use the app on my Android phone. My dad has one of our old Kindles, so we're bumping up against the six-device limit that Amazon allows on one account.

That's not really the problem. The problem is that Amazon makes your latest (most recently purchased) Kindle into the default for your account, the one new purchases will go to unless you change the setting before you click the buy button. There doesn't seem to be any way to change the default Kindle! I really think they need to let you click the buy button and then make you select a Kindle to send the book to.

I keep sending books to the wrong place! It doesn't cost me any money, but at different points in time, my husband and my dad have both gotten books I know they don't want. I have two good friends who write romance, and I can tell you neither guy is interested in their books.

So Amazon, listen up! Change the buy button so if you have more than one device registered, it makes you pick a Kindle after you buy!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Never wish an author many happy returns

It's going out of style, but it used to be that on your birthday, your friends would wish you "many happy returns of the day." I assume that means many more birthdays, but I confess I'm not sure, as I've never heard that phrase used for anything else but birthday greetings.

Returns in the print book world are a bad thing. If a bookstore doesn't sell all the copies it has of a given book after a specific amount of time, the bookstore can return those copies to the publisher for full credit. Supposedly, this practice started during the Great Depression, when bookstores were reluctant to buy stock if they were stuck with it for good because almost no one had any money. The practice of allowing returns is still with us, and it's one reason why it's hard to make money publishing books. But in general, the concept of returns doesn't apply where ebooks are concerned. The beauty of "digital stock" is that it's delivered when it's ordered by replicating a single copy.

However, in a click-to-order world, it is possible to buy something by mistake. And most vendors will accept the customer's word and refund their money if they report a mistake. The Kindle Direct Platform lets authors see right away when then sell a book, but it also shows when a book is returned. It just happened to me! Usually the "Units Refunded" column is zero, but this month someone returned a copy of No Safe Haven.  I can't imagine why! -)

Actually, this is a pretty rare event because ebook vendors allow downloading a free sample before you buy the book, so generally, people who buy a book want that book.  But now I can tell that return is going to eat at me.

Look before you click, people!

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Why an ereader is a great tool for a book reveiwer

I've started reading Death Comes to Pemberley, and I'm enjoying it so far, but one thing I had decided before I started reading was that I would most likely post a review of it. With that in mind, I have been using the Kindle's annotation and highlight features, two very handy things if you plan to review a book, and with the Kindle Touch, very easy to use.

To create an annotation, you simply press your finger to the screen where you want to annotate and hold it there for a second or two. You will get a menu showing the definition of the word you touched and menu buttons to create a highlight or a note. Once you press "Note," the on-screen keyboard appears and you can type whatever text you like and then save it.  In the book it appears rather like a footnote, but with the number in a box

For a highlight, unless you want to highlight a single word, you press the screen on the first word and after half a second, you move your finger to the right and then down. When you reach the end of the area you want to highlight, remove your finger from the screen, it will ask if you wanted to create a note or a highlight (or to share via social networking).

Notes and highlights can be read and reviewed from within the book itself using the Kindle's menu, but for writing a review, one reason they are a real boon is that they are also available on the web as part of your Amazon account.  You go to the special Kindle area of Amazon, login to your account,  and click "Your Highlights" to see them, in chronological order, most recent book first.  From there you can copy and paste directly into the review. It's a wonderful function!

I know a lot of other ereaders and ereader apps offer annotation and highlighting (iBooks even does different colors), but I am not clear on whether they offer web access to just the highlights and annotations. If anyone out there knows, feel free to chime !

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Did you know Kindles can be rebooted?

I had to do a house call for some Kindle support yesterday. All my friends know I go way back with the Kindle (the Kindle Touch is my fourth Kindle; I have had every model except the DX and the new bare-bones Kindle, which some folks are calling the Kindle 4) and they often ask me for advice on what to buy and how to do things on the Kindle.

Anyway, my friend had had her Kindle 3 for almost two years and had had no problems, but she said suddenly it wasn't charging. She was about to go on a bus trip, so she had plugged it in to be sure it was fully charged, and the little yellow charging light did not come on. When I went over there, I discovered the Kindle was in sleep mode, and would not come out of sleep mode. I plugged my own charger in to be sure my friend's charger wasn't the problem, and still no yellow light.

I suggested rebooting it, and discovered she didn't know Kindles could be rebooted. eInk ereaders are very easy to use, and pretty much single purpose-built— reading— but they are basically very simple computers with operating systems. Kindles run under a Linux operating system, and truly geeky types have even hacked them to do other computing tasks not sanctioned by Amazon.

The Kindle 1 was rebooted by sticking the end of paper clip (or something similar) into a small hole on the back, but ever since the Kindle 2, this function has been accomplished via the power switch. On the K2 and the K3, you slide the power switch to one side, but on the K4 and the KT, you press it. To reboot, you simply slide or press and hold the power switch in place for about 15 seconds, and then release it. It can take a few seconds to see a response, but the screen will go blank and then you'll see the entire screen become the Kindle logo (someone reading under a tree) with a progress bar that advances as the reboot progresses.

In my friend's case, once her Kindle 3 was rebooted successively, the yellow light came on, and a minute later it turned green, which told me that the device had in fact, been recharging all along, but because it was hung, the light had not come on.

My friend was good to go and all set for her bus trip.