A Surreal Evening at the ‘Swedish’ Big Box Store…

A few nights ago, upon embarking on our quarterly trip to the local Swedish-themed big-box store–to purchase cheap napkins and European-designed coffee mugs (made in China)–we stopped at the cafeteria as we normally do to purchase some inexpensive-yet-mildly-tasty meatballs, unaware that that night the store was playing host to a “Swedish Crayfish Party”… featuring aOur Surreal Dinnern all-you-can-eat crayfish buffet bonanza.


We made our way to the line between tables full of crayfish munched, crunched and slurped upon by a throng of folks. Tweets must have abounded ’round the Asian community as they made up 95% of the diners present. Having never even seen crayfish before, our kids stared wide-eyed at the ruby-red creatures; their limp claws hung over the sides of galvanized serving buckets in the center of each table. We watched, fascinated, as kids the same age as ours happily twisted and tore at the creatures, expertly drawing out the tender tail meat. Piles of broken red shells sat on each table looking like so many spent cartridges littering the ground–around a machine gun nest–after a 3-day battle.

We meandered our way through the line out of sheer morbid curiosity. The frenzied employees behind the counter shoveled cooked crayfish onto paper plates (they’d run out of the ceramic kind) doling them out to waiting hands as fast as humanly possible, arguing over who’s turn it was to go out and refresh the buffet troughs. We picked up a plate of crayfish to let the kids try and managed to wrangle some real plates for the other food items present. Just getting to the buffet tables took some creative jostling, for competition among the serving plates proved fierce.

Apart from the ubiquitous “Swedish” meatballs, mashed potatoes and gravy, odd, new items met our gaze, ones not normally present in the Swedish-themed cafe: a yellow soup with baby octopus floating in it, whole slightly-gray shrimp in the fetal position, still steadfastly in their peels, cooked fish-heads, whole red potatoes coated in bits of greenery, a sort of salmon seviche (that gave off a powerful odor), plates of cold ham, plates of crackers–of all make and grain–and above all, a giant bowl of cheese cubes. The moment food was replaced in the serving dishes, a feeding frenzy of sorts occurred whereupon tables emptied and folks came running back for more. The shrimp and octopus soup appeared the most popular items–apart from the crayfish–but  most left the cracker and cheese plates untouched. Finding the cheese cubes muenster of good quality, we gladly partook.

After finding an empty table we sat amid a cacophony of slurps, cracking, gurgles, crunches and smacks. The image of one entire table of people with red legs protruding from their mouths, sucking in unison will forever be burned into my memory. The crayfish intrigued us, and taking a cue from our enthusiastic fellow diners, we attempted to twist one open. It exploded, sending mustard-yellow matter of unknown origin over the table. As we ate I noted the large canvas pictures on the adjacent cafeteria wall; the images depicted a peaceful Swedish village populated by accordion-playing folks in lederhosen, standing in fine contrast to the strangeness present in the dining room.

We did not find the cold crayfish pleasing to eat, but slathered in lingonberry sauce (or as Daddy calls it ‘dingleberry’ sauce) they weren’t so bad. After our rather surreal dinner we strolled the marked aisles of the warehouse-like store, trying to work off the ribald mixture of food in our stomachs. We grinned widely while encouraging each other not to vomit, yet eyeballing which vase might accommodate such an action, if necessary. We found ample distraction in listening to Daddy’s critique of the drinking vessel handle designs, debating whether or not one could indeed lift a full cup of coffee with one finger as well as listening to his remarks on the fluff-challenged pillows proffered by the bedroom section.

Finally free of the maze, we left the store and headed home–still reeking of crayfish–wondering when that little voice in the very back would say: “Mommy… I don’t feel good…”

 
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L. R. Styles is an author of Belator Books
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Amazon VS Hachette, Round 7

prime parry~ August 9th, 2014 ~

Like many a KDP author, my husband and I checked our emails over a Saturday morning cup of coffee. A lengthy email from the Amazon Books Team took center stage among the others and we dove in. Impromptu messages from our global distribution partner are rare, unless something is amiss or some new program has been launched. A “reader” version of this email can be viewed here.

The email began with a well-worded history lesson, harkening back to the birth of the paperback and likening its poor reception to today’s ongoing issue with Hachette. Apparently, the traditional publishing industry has prior offenses in marshaling authors to exclude a particular reading medium which it views as a threat. The paperback–now the bread-and-butter darling of the paper book industry–was once painted with leper-like status and bookstores refused to sell them, saying that it would cheapen literature as a whole. Several independent publishers, however, rejected that idea and printed them anyway–as they were very cheap to produce–and sold them at news-stands and drug stores. A huge demand for the humble paperback ensued and–contrary to the book industry’s dire predictions–literacy rates exploded. Yes, garbage was printed along with the good stuff, but the point Amazon’s email extrapolated from its mini-history-lecture was that the price of the paperbacks was in proportion to its production cost.

My husband and I glanced at each other over our coffee cups. My raised eyebrow was answered by his sage nod. A familiar scenario, indeed. As authors we, naturally, don’t want to see eBooks get so cheap that it doesn’t make business sense to keep writing them. To us, charging less than $2.99 would not just be insulting, it wouldn’t be worth the effort considering the amount of time the average writer spends on the actual writing (6 months-1 year per title) let alone the expensive editing services ($900-$1200 per title) and artwork/formatting services, as well as the subsequent website/marketing.

Our books are on the lower end of the scale simply because we self-market and utilize high-quality software for formatting; if we hired those services out we’d have to charge a little more per book. Though we like the control aspect of setting our own prices, we agree that prices should not be raised or lowered across the board, as if they are all alike. Books, like every other commodity is subject to supply and demand. We also strongly feel that $.99 for a full-length novel is just too low, unless used on a temporary promotional basis… which is another thing consumers seem to like, so it stays.

Whether or not you agree with Hachette’s argument or Amazon’s–or have a foot in both camps–most folks agree that the eBook revolution came about because of one industry’s blatant refusal to evolve. The demand for eBooks is there because consumers want them. End of story. Consumers also don’t want to pay paper prices for digital books. Folks are smart, publishers… they know eBooks are far, far cheaper to produce than paperbacks. Consumer knew this long before Amazon’s Saturday email… and yet Hachette seems to be insistent that consumers pay $9.99-$14.99 for their eBooks.

I admit I let out a rather mocking snort upon reading that bit of information, knowing full well I could walk into any bookstore right now and purchase a tangible, paper book for that same price. Having made and formatted my own eBooks for some time, I know that the cost of self-publishing an eBook–for us–is about $2. For Hachette to charge such ridiculously high prices for eBooks brooks of greed.. and arrogance; even worse, it is the kind of arrogance that appears deliberately ignorant of the lessons other companies were able to learn over the last ten years: 1. eBooks are here to stay, 2. publishers must evolve or go extinct… and 3. the customer is always right.

The entire argument boils down to this: in the past traditional publishers refused to give consumers what they wanted… so, they migrated. Amazon was more than wiling to extend a hand to self-published writers in order to meet demand, and then went a step further in letting said writers control what prices they wanted to set their books at. Consumers responded in droves, and still do… and are likely to continue to flock to the mega-online retailer for some time to come, despite its rather mysterious PR system and cloaked industry data.

Dislike or like Amazon as you will. Agree or disagree with Hachette’s many gripes. From the perspective of actual writers, however, my husband and I love getting 70% royalties from our own work, something I bet a Hachette author would just love to have for themselves, and this despite pressure from their contracts/agents forcing them to voice a feeble opposition.

I admire Amazon Book Team’s endeavor to garner the ire of its vast array of indie writers by pointing out anti-trust-like collusion between companies and encouraging both writers and readers alike write to Hachette’s CEO and voice said feelings. I doubt it will do any good. History shows us that most mega-publishers have an ingrained habit of not listening to consumers until its almost too late.

I am certain many self-published writers view the entire Amazon VS Hachette debate with a ponderous grimace. They give a rueful shake of the head, let out a half-sighed remark on the stubbornness of human nature and then move on to check their latest hourly sales figures… whereupon the smiles return once more.

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L. R. Styles is an author of The Road to the King series, On the Way to America & The Inheritance

A Bridge Across the Yawing Chasm

Many indie writers that have been self-publishing since the early 2000s harbor semi-angry feelings toward most, if not all, aspects of the traditional publishing industry. I am one of them, and the formerly-mentioned feelings are–for the most part–nowhere near unjustified.

The disregard that most titans of book publishing displayed towards the eBook industry–when it was in its infancy–erased much of respect and regard that many writers had for the entire process. Many of our own fellow writers leaped towards Amazon’s Kindle platform when it came online just because of the perceived arrogance on the part of the book publishing conglomerates. The vitriol and blame said companies leveled at eBooks, and the indie writer alike, in the years after merely solidified those injured feelings into a heart-felt grudge.

When we first began our writing journey, more than ten years ago, we pursued all the normal, traditional avenues. We sent out query letters and manuscripts to the acceptable addresses. We had a literary agent for two years. The best royalty rate we were ever offered was just under 10%. We were told to change our content to suit more “progressive” audiences. When our agent’s contracts ran out, we did not renew them and work on our novels ground to a proverbial halt.

Then, when all seemed blackest, the self-publishing and eBook industries took off… and the tide was turned irrevocably in the favor of The Writer and The Reader. Folks trolled writer’s sites–looking for new fiction to try–using PayPal to buy and downloading humble PDF novels by the megabyte from authors they’d never even heard of.

Eager to jump aboard the eBook bandwagon, my husband and I learned all we could about the industry, about cover design trends and how to make our books more sell-able. At first we tried to enlist help from the cast-offs of the flailing traditional publishing industry by contracting professional editors among our online business contacts. We offered an affordable rate as well as free advertising on our website in exchange for proofreading services. Such a thing was almost insulting a few years ago; we were accused of “feeding off the carcass of the industry we’d slain” and quoted ridiculously high prices for freelance editing services.

So, whether by our own rebellious nature or by the scarcity of funds–or, a combination of the two–we skipped that part in the process. Instead, we enlisted beta-reading help from friends and family and kept writing, knowing that the yawing chasm between the self-publisher and traditionalists would not be easily bridged.

In February of this year we launched our novels on Amazon and were subsequently amazed at the popularity of our Epic Fantasy series. Despite a few remarks about the lack of professional editing, the books continued to sell beyond our expectations until the summer doldrums slowed the sales a little. Taking some of the eBook revenue, we once again looked around for freelance editing services. Expecting more elitist snark and jibes we were pleasantly surprised to find that the editing climate at least has evolved to match changing consumer demands and fill in the gaps of quality among indie writers.

Throwing off the perceived mantle of snobbery many professional editors have raised their own flag upon the self-publishing hill, offering reasonable rates in lieu of curt quips and polite attitudes instead of ridicule. After garnering several quotes we selected a highly-recommend freelance editor from among our LinkedIn Contacts and were charmed by amount of attention and scrutiny our manuscript received. Looking more polished and honed than we’d imagined possible, our new eBook was uploaded to KDP on August 1st. We utilized the rather mysterious service Amazon provides to select writers to alert one’s former customers by email if “significant changes” have been made to a book. We sent them a lengthy list of said changes, which were enough to convince the good folks of the Kindle Store to send forth the desired emails.

Not all aspects of traditional publishing are spurned by today’s self-publishing indie writer. Industry standards and quality are important to any serious wielder of the pen and–as we’ve proven–good money is still spent on services designed to preserve said standards. Formatting challenges were met and overcome by utilizing Adobe’s Creative Cloud and copious training videos… and a great deal of late night trial and error.

That being said, it is not likely we’d even consider any other option but self-publishing, now. Not only are we in control of the process, but I highly doubt we’d get a offer better than our current royalty of 70%… let alone a consumer platform to rival the one we currently sell from.

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L. R. Styles is a writer for Belator Books