What They Fail to Understand…

… is that–in a free market–the customer is always right.

batteringram_18054_mdIt is a concept understood by many a small and large business alike across the globe, but–for some reason–when it comes to the book industry, this ‘golden’ rule is seen as brass, to be plucked from the wall, trampled upon and sneered at with startling alacrity.

The book customer, apparently, does not know what they want and cannot be allowed to choose for themselves. They must be told what to read, where and how they can purchase and how much they must pay, otherwise humanity is doomed.

In his rather well-researched blog post–consisting of many a prediction about the 2016 eBook market–Smashwords’ Mark Coker inadvertently joins forces with elitist relics of the traditional publishing world in decrying Amazon–and KDP Select indie writers–as the bane of the book industry:

“Yet despite the harm KDP-S and KU are causing fellow authors and the rest of the industry, indies continue to enroll in KDP-S to receive these privileged benefits,”

The above sentence surprised me, greatly. Smashwords was apparently founded on the premise of giving indies a place to publish and sell their work. Why not simply state the obvious: “Amazon’s KDP Select Program cuts out Smashwords completely, therefore I don’t like it.”

Coker then referenced a famous poem–on a subject that should not be trivialized by commercial comparison–inferring that KDP Select writers are likened to German intellectuals that ignored Hitler’s hideous path to power.

“No,” Coker wrote, “Amazon are not Nazis, but…”

It’s a free country; we can write what we like. Statements like the above quote, however, are why I’ve repeatedly taught my children that “bias” is the most honest word in the English language.

(I may be an indie writer without an editor on staff, but I think it’s “Amazon is not the Nazis…” or, perhaps “Amazonians are not Nazis…”)

I honestly don’t see how offering the consumer choices–in how or when they buy, or for what price–is somehow rendered as ‘fascist’ in appearance to those the free market has left behind. Neflix users are not considered ‘nazis’ but, somehow, Kindle Unlimited users are?

What many in the trad-pub industry fail to understand is that every revolution, political or otherwise, leaves some carnage in its wake. Admittedly, carnage is a terrible word and–like “hate” or “nazi”–it should not be used lightly. I’ll also allow that the rather vague notion of ‘change’ is not always for the better–as Neimoller and millions of others would no doubt attest–but in the case of the eBook revolution, I am biased in its favor.I am biased not only as a consumer of literature but also as an author.

Independent writers are now allowed to choose where and how their work is presented, as well as for how much; these are choices never afforded us before, let alone having our titles given equal billing with trad-pub authors. It is so, very sad that Amazon alone offers indies access to such options.

Who’s fault is that? Considering their collective years of experience in the industry and the amount of money they pour into advertising, I am astounded that big publishing firms haven’t invented a better mousetrap.

Consider this: I am merely an organic gardener who writes novels part time–with little more than a decade of business experience to my name–but even I know that in any free market one must adapt or go extinct. Perhaps trad-pub companies aren’t hiring creative people, aren’t firing incompetent people, are unable to change their ways or all of the above.

If trad-pubs are–as they are very fond of reminding their dwindling customer base–the backbone of the book industry, then they need to awaken from their slumber and procure new, young professionals to give them a swift spinal adjustment. They must build a platform that offers both the indie writer and the reader what no one else has. Only a re-invention of the market will attract attention away from the savings Amazon offers. And, they must do it soon. For, if they tarry any longer maybe Amazon will clone itself to Nile (with Congo to follow) in order to show some semblance of competition in the marketplace.

If Coker’s rather scary sentence regarding KDP Select writers is even partially true, then why would any writer sign up, or stay with it for more than a month? It’s elementary, Watson. The massive amount of Amazon website traffic is an enormous draw for indie writers… and something that Smashwords has yet to imitate, a fact I happen to have direct knowledge of.

When my husband and I first began to sell our indie-published Epic Fantasy series, we utilized the Smashwords platform. We were impressed with the stringent formatting standards (something Amazon could learn from) as well as the variety of proffered platforms on which we could sell our eBooks. Despite these choices, the small number of visitors was alarming; we made $143 dollars in three months, even with a sizable budget for google adwords, facebook ads, coupled with copious social media posts. We ended up in the red that quarter.

The next month, we signed up for KDP and its Select program, which required us to take our books off Smashwords… and we subsequently made $14,980 in royalties during the rest of the year (2014) with no further spending on advertising whatsoever. To this day we still make a cool $300 a month–on average–in spite the eBook “glut” and the various squabbles over Agency pricing. Like other indies we’ve felt the drop in readership in favor of more visual stimuli.

Money not only talks, but it happens to be the loudest voice in the room at the moment. Until there is a viable option to Amazon’s KDP platform, then most Select writers will (insert shocked gasp) likely stay where the customers are.

Put the issue of indie writers aside, the customer still is always right. In fact, the customer appears to dislike–very much–being told that they must give up choices for the greater good of an industry that largely turned a deaf ear towards them for decades  while simultaneously extracting huge fees for access to literature.

Not surprisingly, a mass migration has ensued. Customers turned in droves to Amazon and many indies, giddy with their initial success, began a short-sighted spiral down to the 99-cent book. Some books might be worth only 99 cents, but the majority of hard-working indie authors consider that number as much a slap in the face as charging $23 for an eBook is to trad-pub customers.

All that posts like Coker’s tell me is that the trad-pubs of the world didn’t learn a thing from the eBook revolution, one so recent the smouldering buildings are yet visible. The bandwagon they snootily refused to board marched merrily by them. Now, like a gaggle of disinherited adult children of Old Money–flung out into the real world of the free market–the trad-pubs sit and whine about the loss of their old life. A few of them might make a valiant show for the shareholders, using outdated methods to try to break back into the market, but so far none seem interested in going out and building a rival domicile.

I would like to see trad-pubs stop complaining about Amazon and try to outfox them. Maybe they could streamline and offer readers something other than another price hike. Maybe they could offer indies a free platform to upload their work for evaluation–including throwing out their obsolete elitist system of biased, redundant scrutiny–emphasizing to potential authors quality of service over Amazonian quantity.

Customers do want good literature, but they also want the best deal (especially in an economy that is barely recovering) and in such a market as this they will invariably flock to wherever the best deal is, regardless of past loyalties, nostalgia or the misapplication of the ‘nazi’ label.

The book market landscape will likely change again when the US economy begins to show signs of full recovery. For their own sake, may the trad-pubs be ready–in that moment–to emerge from their tired cocoons to display a wonderful inclusive, innovative platform with which to dazzle indie writers and readers alike.

~ ~ ~

L. R. Styles is a KDP Select author with Belator Books

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The Power of Picture Books

children reading under a treeChildren’s reader books, or “picture books” tend to be somewhat overlooked in the busy Realm of Literature. I was guilty of such oversight myself… until I began to have children. But, even then, I simply read through “readers” like most parents would, patiently enduring the infantile prose until the children moved on to more interesting material.

Several years ago, however, one of my middle children began kindergarten and my husband and I discovered–to our utter consternation–that she strongly disliked reading. Now, she loved stories and hearing them read aloud; she’d follow along with me as I read to her; she’d trace and draw letters on paper just fine and she likewise understood the correlation between the letter’s shape and the sounds each made. The action of sounding out letters out loud, however, made her balk–every time–to the point that she began to resent the action of reading altogether. Her father and I were baffled, to say the least; our two older siblings hadn’t any trouble with phonics reader books at her age.

Our daughter’s teacher was not as concerned. Test results showed that she had no ‘learning disabilities’ whatsoever.

“Every child learns differently,” the teacher told us. “Just spend extra time reading with her, until she gets comfortable with it.” And so I did. We read together in the backyard garden, away from the hearing of others. I watched as she would gulp, swallow and fight her way through the sentences, until I finally had an epiphany. My daughter had no problem understanding the words, nor recognizing them, nor seeing them. Her problem was she didn’t like reading for herself. The rather infantile phonics books that her older siblings had used held absolutely no appeal for her… not on little bit. I spent the next day trying to come up with a solution, looking for phonics games or flash cards, but my searches yielded little results for help with “normal” children who just don’t like to read out loud.

Early the next morning however, I realized that an obvious solution already lay within reach.

“I could write her a story,” I thought, as I poured out my first cup of coffee. The idea seemed almost too easy. Children’s picture books were not something I’d ever considered writing, due to their assumed simplicity. However, as I sipped my coffee that morning, a plot began to form in my mind. I squinted out the kitchen window, catching sight of far-off rolling hills, just visible over the industrial buildings on the outskirts of our city neighborhood. A story might work, I thought, if it focused on a little girl  going on a journey, using as many colorful descriptions as possible, and also if I mentioned  some the things she most liked. If I could capture my daughter’s imagination and tap into that inherent Narcissistic strain–a thing all humans possess–then she might just want to read for herself. If the story could somehow hint that avoiding one’s problems was not the solution, that would be icing on the proverbial cake. My husband liked the idea immediately.

I began crafting a story for Sara that day, using the recommended spelling lists provided by her teacher, as well as consulting numerous online articles by children’s book professionals. Late the next night, I carefully copied out my scribbled story and stapled the pages together. My oldest daughter was charmed by the story; she inked a little drawing on the front of it, one picturing her little sister in her favorite dress and backpack, walking along a road with flowers growing along it.

The next day, as my middle daughter sat down with a phonics book–with that same, pained expression–I sat down with her and held up the stapled papers.

“What’s that, Mommy?” she asked.

“It’s a new book,” I told her. “I’m going to read it to you.” My daughter gave me a wide smile. She snuggled up to me and looked at the words on the ‘cover’.

“That’s my name!” she said, sitting up again; her eyes grew wide. “And, that’s my backpack… and that’s my red dress!”

I smiled.

“I wrote this story, just for you. It’s called Sara and the Land of No Letters.

My little girl gave me the biggest smile I had ever seen, and I mentally kicked myself for not thinking of this book sooner. We settled in to read. When we were finished, I gave her the story and told her we could read it again, if she took care of it. She carried it to her room and put it on the special shelf where she kept her precious paper dolls and jewelry box. The next day we read it again, but this time, she wanted to try to read her story by herself. With some whispered hints from Mommy she managed to finish the whole thing, without a grimace, a swallow and nary a gulp. In school, she drew pictures of the scenes of her book from memory and brought them home. She read her story twice a day for a week and gave the family an unprecedented performance, with hardly a mistake in pronunciation, showing confidence in reading for the first time. Mommy hugged her and gave compliments, blinking back tears of real relief.

The teacher was highly impressed; she listened to my daughter read through her story and gave her high praise. Later, she told me that the story was engineered perfectly–as it encouraged parents to read it with a child first; she also liked that it included the right blend sounds and ‘everyday’ words children would need in order to “springboard” them on to other books.

“You should publish this.” the teacher told me. “And, you should more of them.” At the time my husband and I were in the middle of writing our Epic Fantasy fiction series, so I put that idea on the shelf and let my daughter keep her story for herself. True to prediction, she branched out to other books with ease, borrowing her older sister’s C. S. Lewis books (sometimes without permission), pouring through The Hobbit and asking for me to find her some more reading material online.

Today, my little girl’s Reading Comprehension scores on annual tests place her three grades ahead of her peers in aptitude and vocabulary. Likewise, her scores in math, science and social studies began climbing the moment she lost her ‘fear’ of letters, and her teachers couldn’t be happier. As I watch her now, sitting in the corner happily reading from The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, I know that my respect for the ‘simplistic’ picture book has grown exponentially.

Sara and the Land of No Letters was just published this week, and is available on Amazon. My oldest daughter did the colored illustrations for her sister’s book, a thoughtful gesture we appreciate very much. We have two more Sara books planned for publishing: Sara and the Land of No Numbers, and Sara and the Land of No Rules.

~ ~ ~

L. R. Styles is an author with Belator Books

To Each {Writer} Their Own

Writers That Cook.fwThere’s a very good reason why many a writer has–at one point or another–chosen to shrug on the mantle of “recluse” and then acted accordingly. Whether it was Hemingway closeting himself in an attic with a dozen cats and a few cases of booze, or Thoreau living off the grid, sleeping in fields, wandering and mulling lines aloud to himself, or the prose-wielders that merely shielded themselves behind pen names and wrote under the seemingly innocuous employ of “housewife”… writers know that they are susceptible to distraction. And–in this–I am no exception.

Being a recluse would indeed be a relatively easy solution to today’s distractions, but it has several unromantic drawbacks. One could disappear and refuse to answer emails, phone calls, or do anything else other than write, pretending the outside world does not exist… however, one then runs the risk of isolating/ignoring family and loved ones, possibly resulting in not being present for important occasions or–Heaven forbid–a tragedy. Hemingway–to name but one example–could probably have wallpapered the walls of his attic with several sets of divorce papers.

Also, there is the lack of accountability; left to one’s own devices, one could conceivably fritter away the time on non-writing endeavors. Against such arguments a writer must weigh the merit of a distraction-less environment to complete a book (which is by no means a guarantee). For me, the responsibilities of Family, Home and Garden are far more weighty than gaining a small amount of notoriety for myself, or even procuring more of the slim amount of the eBook market that my husband and I already possess (approx. $250 a month in repeating royalties).

All compare and contrast of writers in isolation aside, less-extreme measures do exist; several of my fellow authors embark on writing ‘trips’ once or twice a year, during which they blog almost constantly and–more often than not–return refreshed, with a fair amount of real work accomplished, as well as an impressive slew of photographs. Not everyone can afford such inspirational trysts, however.

My husband and I frequent a nearby Panera restaurant, once a month or so when our oldest daughter  can get away to babysit for a few hours. In an empty corner, we sip hot coffee and munch pastries, sharing a set of earbuds and listening to my recording of the latest book-in-progress (we use Audacity to record). Doing so allow us to edit, prune and graft more quickly and with less distraction than simply reading a word file out loud. In lieu of taking our attention away, the people in the restaurant around us merely galvanize us to work harder; they might be fans, after all… or future types thereof. Our presence acts as a curiosity in of itself; a few discreet inquiries by members of the nearby knitting club moves the needle of hourly web stats a bit further to the right.

In my daily writing grind, however, I cannot boast of rising early in the morning in order to write. Indeed, we do often awaken in the dawn-lit hours, but at that time of day it is difficult for me to form spoken sentences, let alone written ones that would successfully pass the hawk-like gaze of our editor.

The house must be routed from bed, fed and sent on their way, whether for schooling or to work. My ample vegetable garden requires a morning watering schedule and weeding that eats a good hour up. Then comes laundry, washed carefully and hung outside to dry in keeping with our smaller-carbon-footprint goals (which saves us $50 a month in electricity)  and then comes vacuuming, dusting and mopping. I have found that I rather like having a clean home, for not only ourselves but the odd impromptu guest, which seem to appear in tandem with the tomatoes ripening.

Finally, I come to the writing hours. Each day I get 3-4 hours of uninterrupted writing moments. It is then that I delve into the carefully-woven realms, spiced with humanity and action, tears and laughter, work and play all wound about  a column of reality… but not quite touching it. It is absorbing work, and if I did not glance at the clock every so often, my family would arrive back home to find me still under the pergola typing away, with the cleaning not completed, the laundry half-done, the garden wilting and dinner not even begun.

It is with reluctance that I stop writing to work with my hands, but it is essential to the books that I do. My main characters are nearly always common, working folks that are frankly familiar with rain, dirt, sweat, discomfort and disappointment. None know what it is like to be idle, and likewise none are arrogant. If writing what you know is essential to good fiction, then I could not know, unless I worked alongside such imagined companions with my own two hands.

Call my other work distraction, call it experience… call it what you will. I remain yet unashamed of not being able to devote all my time to writing. The books my husband and I write are few and far between; indeed, it takes us a year or more to produce one, but each title is sprinkled with reality, real experiences and poignant, tangible details that most folks–regardless of age, culture or creed–can relate to.

They are written with care and envelope within their twists and turns many a weekend discussion on the merits of one plot point or another, before both writers arise from the booth to return to the role of Parents, Husband and Wife.

To each his own. What works for you, so do… and let neither the scorn nor scoffs of another deter you.

~ ~ ~

L. R. Styles is an author and co-author of fiction with Belator Books

It Pays To Be Swayed

An indie writer is a strange creature, even by the standards of today’s market with the ingrained expectation of ‘multitasking’ members.

Ten years ago, when my husband and I began to devote the majority of our free time to writing novels I did not think I would need to learn marketing, social media, make connections, maintain an online presence or delve into writing genres that I otherwise would have even looked at in a bookstore. But, I have been swayed to think otherwise and–more importantly–to do all of the above.

Marketing on the cheap is a hard sell, but to the average indie writer/publisher it is often the only option until they get more sales with which to pay for better services. It is a huge amount of work, and getting data with which to formulate your marketing strategies takes up even more time and effort. Books sales statistics are hideously expensive but a here and there kind organizations reveal little hints of said information to sort through and glean from. These gems among the rough swayed us to keep looking, gathering and polishing until the beauty of applicable data revealed itself.

To traditional business folk, this sounds all backwards.”They told me to get a business loan”might be found written on the tombstone of many a failed entrepreneur. Perhaps that worked for some businesses, maybe most, but not everyone is in a position–nor harbors the inclination–to shoulder a large amount of debt before their product has been proven profitable.We were swayed to launch our books ourselves, without a loan and without expensive PR services, paying for prepossession editing out of the profits.

A flooded eBook market has its benefits, such as a glut of data. To us, the trends are little more defined as more indie writers enter the market, showing up as trampled digital pathways pointing to what consumers really want. Studying our slowly-garnered free stats, we noticed the alarming dive of literary fiction, the pop-trends of supernatural-type fiction and the rather stagnant line historical fiction wound itself into over the recent years. Epic Fantasy showed promise however, so we were swayed to drop our other novel projects and dust off my husband’s EF series. We sank our time and effort into making those books as good as we were able.

The results surprised us… greatly. After launching in the last week of this February, we’ve made more in royalties int he months since than we thought possible–a little over $14K–utilizing free self-marketing, social media, blog posts and non-obtrusive (no spam) ads.

We’ve been swayed to branch out into other genres as well, to help our brand gain more recognition. Romance Fiction has captured our attention as the rising genre; we’ve released just such a novel for that vast audience in the same month as our 18th wedding anniversary. This winter we’re planning to release the third book in our Epic Fantasy series and have a sci-fi time-travel novel ‘in the works’ for release next year.

In this crowded market, struggling indie writers need to sway themselves to become super business folks: capable of altering their business model in a single season, able to recognize and adapt to the ever-shifting book market, write both relevant and opinion-laden blogs on the industry, search out more free corners of the Web to post unobtrusive ads and, finally, entice (not drive) new customers towards their desired platform profile.

slender floral divider

L. R. Styles is an author with Belator Books

By Any Other Name…

Writer StalledFiguring out the names of one’s character or one’s book makes most writers feel–at one point or another–more than a little stalled out… for lack of a better phrase.

Don’t worry about the name of your character,” one of my English teachers would say, whilst striding down an aisle of desks, hands clasped behind her back. “Call him John Smith or Buffo Neilsen… but just get the story written. A rose by any other name would smell as sweet…”

I spent the rest of the allotted “brainstorming” time that day wondering how sweet a rose would smell if its name was “cactus”… or “dunghill.” It just didn’t sound right, I thought. Shortly thereafter I realized the inherent importance of hitting upon the right name… the sound.

Most folks agree that sounds at least ‘helps’ with defining who we are. Music moves the human soul, eases the inward desire to speak, hear and be heard. Poets sometimes agonize over a single syllable in their prose, illustrating another aspect of sound: its ability to instantly express the differences between one human and the next. Thus, a hearing/speaking fiction writer feels at a loss if said figure in their head has no name bestowed upon them… their very own audible, spoken, readable identifier.

Certainly one can–conceivably–write about _________ (heroine of the book) day after day with a measure of success. It is possible. However, many writers feel as I do, that a person’s name helps shape their character and often can even influence one’s decisions. A character named Cecile, for instance, may turn out very different than an identical-looking one called Griselda, or worse…

Most kindergarten-age children are well aware that one’s name can be a source of endless amusement for their fellow schoolyard inhabitants and can alter their experience of education altogether. A pretty girl named Snot—for example–would likely find very little solace in her looks; she’d be railed upon—unfairly–by her peers, never allowed to be at ease, and probably grow to either hate her fellow human—including the strange people that named her–or grow more mired in misery and depression until she reached the legal age to change it to something less “gross.” Snickers would invariably ensue each time poor Snot appeared, and would maybe keep her from focusing on her studies provoking an incorrect diagnosis of “ADD” or “dyslexic,” leading to even more ridicule.

The names of your book characters notwithstanding, coming up with the piece’s title has caused many a writer grief and elation… often within the same minute. Certainly the piece can be written without it, but you are not alone if you’ve agonized over the title of your book much the same way as a poet has walked in circles–gripping their leaking pen–searching for that exact word that pinpoints the emotion they feel, barking at anyone that dares interrupt with such petty matters as food or water. If the title is not “right”–if it fits not the piece for which it is intended–many writers feel they cannot continue until it is figured out, to the utter amusement of their non-writing compatriots.

Come on… it’s just a title,” a relative/friend/co-worker might say. “What’s the big deal?” The inquirer is–more often than not—mystified by the cold glare directed their way upon uttering the the above sentence, or something like it, which is the milder of the possible replies in a writer’s arsenal (just behind the sharp retort of “Asking that question merely proves your inability to comprehend the answer.”) {writer stalks off stage left}

Would you want to smell a dunghill? No. But a rose… why, yes, you probably would. Maybe you wouldn’t read a book called The Vertically-Challenged Initially Mediocre Fictional Being… but you might just read The Hobbit. Names and titles do matter; perhaps not as much as plot, nor the proper use and placement of adjectives–and their verb counterparts–but labels are pivotal to a writer’s human characters, as well as the title of the piece they have worked so very hard on.

So, bear in mind these rather biased notions from a fiction writer before giving the prose-creator you know a hard time as they stand out on the roof of their apartment building in the rain, grimacing at the parapet wall–mumbling to themselves—inwardly weighing “Drakyr” verses “Gnylor” as the label by which the epic villain in his mind is known and feared. Yelling out “just pick one already” may not deprive the literary realm of a proper foe, but it just might induce the rather damp and irritated writer to turn around and consider your name–not as the strong hero–nor the feared villain, but for the deformed and hated minion everyone kicks to make themselves feel better…

L. R. Styles is a writer for Belator Books