Friday, June 6, 2014

PUBLISHED IN AMERICA


In 2008, I finished my first book Snowberry's Veil. I considered finding an agent and publisher but decided instead to use a reputable online publisher to print the book instead.  The idea was that it would give my book some exposure, give me a printed hard copy to establish myself more as a writer, and have something tangible to show to agents when I shopped another book.
I looked around a while, with a few criteria.  First, the publisher should be established, not brand new.  Second it should cost me nothing to get the book published, not once penny for a single aspect of the process.  Not editing, not submission, not art, nothing.  And third, it should produce an actual real copy of a full book with an ISBN and so on; a professional job.
I selected PublishAmerica because it fit all these criteria and it seemed to be a pretty good site.  I searched for complaints and problems and found few - all of them related to delays or misunderstandings involving royalties.  Since I didn't expect to sell enough to see much if anything in royalties, I was willing to take a shot.
THE GOOD
PublishAmerica works fast and is easy to publish with.  They create a cover for you, for free, they do all the typesetting and binding, they buy the ISBN and register it, and they even do a little bit of publicity at first, sending information out to newspapers and such.  Copies of Snowberry's Veil showed up on Amazon, Barnes&Noble, and so on, all around the world.  People could buy a copy online or from PA's website.
I felt good about having my own book, and it certainly impressed my family.  I wasn't just fooling around with writing, I had a real book with a bar code on the back, professionally bound and produced.  I was proud of my first book, and lots of friends bought one through me at the reduced price authors can get (no royalties for me at that price).
THE UGLY
However, I noticed a few concerns right away.  First, they were trying to sell Snowberry's Veil at over $20 bucks a copy.  I understand they had some expenses to cover, but nobody is going to buy a paperback book (especially of just a few hundred pages), for that kind of money, just nobody.  No copies sold over the internet, only a few did from me directly.  Not a single one.  And why would they?  I don't think it is worth that kind of money, and I wrote the thing.
Another concern was that the cover wasn't right.  As excited as I was to get the book out and happy to get the art done, I didn't quibble when they sent me the proof, but its just poorly done.  They took a picture of a forest, tinted it blue, then hand drew some lancers in shadow into the page.  It works okay, but its nonsense for the story.  I've long thought that most cover art doesn't match books and it always made me wonder why writers put up with it, and now I know: they just wanted to get published.
What I requested was an image of what I consider the most dramatic and cinematic scene in the book, where knights charge across the tops of clouds.  I requested that and got misty lancers in a forest.  A group of knights roaring across a cloud toward the reader would look pretty impressive, and if I could afford to get, say, Larry Elmore to paint that for me, I would.
I went with a simpler, more subtle picture for the new edition, focusing on a single color theme which will be used throughout the 5 other related books I have planned.
And the manuscript wasn't quite right.  There are errors in the book that were not in my manuscript.  I edited the thing 5 times myself and someone else went over it once, and while we missed some stuff, we didn't miss that much.  Its just mangled and I don't know why.  Maybe they hand retyped it, maybe they changed some stuff to fit pages better, and maybe it just came down to the changing of formats.  I've noticed that moving Word documents from one version of the program to another, or from Word to Publisher, causes some text to change and I don't know why.
In any case, what wasn't expertly edited to begin with became mangled even worse and I'm frankly embarrassed I let anyone read it but me now.  I wish I could buy all the copies back and burn them, at this point.  People seemed to like the book quite a bit despite the errors but it makes me feel amateurish and incompetent as a writer; I'm ashamed it is out there.
Now, PA doesn't edit your book for errors, at all, and they don't promise to; I knew that going in.  Editing is kind of expensive and I couldn't pay for it then (or now, for that matter).  But I didn't think the book would get worse for publishing.
And the interior annoyed me, as well.  The layout and printing were fine, its just like any other book.  The problem is I did a bit of art for the book and a map of the setting in classic fantasy style. The art should have been strategically distributed through the book (as it was in the manuscript I sent them), and the map at the beginning.  Instead, to make printing easier, they just stuck it all in the middle and refused to change when I requested it.  It was a lousy way to do it, and the art didn't reproduce well anyway.

THE BAD
Then there was the sales.  I didn't mind so much not selling a lot of copies, I hardly expected to.  And I knew PA didn't put a lot of effort into publicity or sales.  My problem is once the book was out there, they put zero effort into sales... to anyone but me.  They sent me 2-3 emails a day for years trying to get me to buy my own book.  You can edit your book and correct errors, just buy 5 copies!  You can get this put into hardback, just buy 10 copies!  You can have your book put into this book show, just buy 10 copies!  On and on it went.
And I mean this literally, I am not exaggerating, every single email from PublishAmerica was an attempt to get me to buy my own book.  And nothing, nothing they did was to get my book bought by anyone else.  Not a single effort went out from the company to help someone else buy my book once it had been set up online.  They didn't seem to want to sell my book to anyone else.
PublishAmerica's entire business model is to get writers to buy their own books.  Period.  They don't have any other plan. And that's just a ridiculous way to run a publishing business.  I got very tired of the constant attempts in all sorts of clever ways to get me to buy my own book.  Finally about a year ago, they apparently gave up on me.  I never responded, didn't buy any more books after a few years, and none of mine were selling (thankfully, as I noted above).
What's worse is that their emails lied.  They would claim the book wasn't going to be available in hardback unless I ordered it by buying books.  Later, they offered it in hardbound online and gave me a cut rate if I bought my own books (10 at a time).  They claimed that the paperback was going out of print, then later offered me the paperbacks at a reduced rate, bulk naturally.  The paperback version never was taken off the PA website or any online bookstore.  On and on it went, with outright lies told over emails to me.  It was ridiculous, I knew I couldn't trust a thing I read from them.
Finally, they offered me the rights for my book back for 200 bucks, to "pay for expenses."  I didn't have the money and didn't care to spend that much for it.  But they did recognize it wasn't selling and I was getting so little in royalties it didn't match the minimum before I get paid (had to earn $100, by the contract, before they'd send me a check.  If it never earned that, I never got paid - and so I never got any royalties).
I waited, and a year later, they offered it to me for $99, their expenses apparently having reduced over time.  At the time I didn't have the cash, but then this year they offered it again when I did have some money.  $99 to end a contract and get the rights back seemed like a fair deal to me, so I took advantage of the deal.  And here's where the final absurdity takes place.
I let PA know I would take advantage of their offer and they referred me to a page.  The page?  Their usual order form.  I ordered the rescinding of our contract, for $99... but since it was their standard book ordering page, I had to choose shipping.  Nothing gets shipped, its just an agreement.  So I had to choose $1.99 in shipping to pay for the nonexistent product, bringing the price up to $109.  Still fairly cheap as contract negation goes but what a cheap, chiseling bunch of gougers.  I mean really, they're digging around in the gutter for a few more pennies.  That's just pathetic.
So in short, I would strongly advise everyone to avoid PublishAmerica, to never use them to publish a book, and to never consider them for a contract.  Not ever.  They have some positives, but overall, its a waste of your time and a 7 year lockdown on your book.  Just don't do it.
SOME POSITIVE
So what did I do right?  Well its a good story, and I'm not just saying this because I wrote it.  Here are some reviews:
All in all, though, Snowberry's Veil is a wonderful tale of magic, valor, bravery, innocent love, respect, and friendship. It is an excellent first novel and not only should Taylor be proud of his accomplishment, but he should give us more of these kinds of stories in the near future!  
-James Huck

If you're looking for World Spanning Epic Fantasy, this ain't it. A small tale about a few people, told simply yet eloquently...it may be a new genre, I'll call it MicroFantasy. Give it a shot. 
-Mike Garfield

Like the author mentions this book is not about world-shaping events, but something you could typically imagine happening in a day to day fantasy adventure.  This is a fast-paced read with humor and action springing from the author's detailed world setting. Careful reading rewards those who like to become immersed in an author's imagination. I can see many adventures in the future for the Ranger of this title.

Give this story a look, you'll like what you find

-Nick Young

"I really enjoyed it and I don't even like fantasy"
-Arie Jongeneel


"Very well written and engaging."
-Pastor Rob Toornstra
Newly edited, with art properly in place and a good map at the beginning, I think this will be something you would really like to read, even if you don't ordinarily care for fantasy.  Most of the most positive word of mouth and personal praise I've gotten have been from women who read it - most of them not ordinarily fantasy readers.  This isn't like your typical fantasy book.
Another thing I did right was the title.  There is literally nothing on the internet called "Snowberry's Veil" except my book.  Nothing whatsoever, and that's not easy to do.  I found a unique title, somehow, and that makes it easy to find and isolate in searching.  That's pretty handy online.  And I wasn't even very happy with the title at first.
So I've redone the book, republished it, and its available on Amazon, Barnes&Noble, Smashwords, and other outlets.  You can find it all over the net, now.
Just don't look for it on PublishAmerica.

*UPDATE: PublishAmerica has changed its name to AmericaStar Books, but they're the same outfit.  There are multiple warnings up all over the internet about why not to use this service now.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

WHAT YOUR READERS UNDERSTAND

For the last time Billy, we're Racoons, not bandits
There's a sequence in my first book Snowberry's Veil that I've thought about quite a bit over the years because of what it says about readers and authors.  The scene is in the forest where the main character Erkenbrand judges then executes a bandit, leaving him dead for the animals.  When I wrote it, I had something in mind, and I expanded on that concept beyond what I had originally conceived of.
But what I had in mind and what at least one reader got from it was pretty different.  Here's an excerpt of the scene:
When he started to come around, I dragged the bandit to his feet and pinned him to a tree with his blade at his throat.
“Bandit, I am Erkenbrand, King’s ranger. I am the representative of the King’s justice and duly appointed guardian of the King’s lands and peoples. You, on the other hand, are a bandit,” I pushed the point of the sword against this throat, upward under his jaw, “who admitted murder to my face.”
He stared at me with hate and probably pain from the rock I’d bounced off his head. He swore at me with a defiant gaze and the blood from his head matted his hair on one side.
“How many men are in your camp?”
“Go climb your ___,” he snarled.
“Who is your leader?”
“My ___,” he snarled. I sensed a theme.
“You’re not going to answer any questions, are you?”
He stared at me silently, proving my point. I didn’t have time to break his will, even if I could. I took a deep breath and sighed, tasting bitterness on my tongue.
“Because we are too far from a standing court or authorities” I said quietly, “and I am unable to hold you prisoner for delivery to the hands of magistrates, I now am passing judgment on you: guilty for the crimes of murder and theft, of banditry, and preying on the subjects of the king. Do you have anything to say for yourself?”
The bandit’s eyes filled with contempt. “Ranger, you’re a ranger? Pretty sad stuff the King is sending out these days. You ran like a goblin.” He repeated his foul oath and spat at me.
“The sentence then is death,” I told him, and drove the blade through his throat, up through his mouth and into his brain with one brutal thrust. He made a sort of wheezing gasp and blood gushed out of his mouth and the wound, then he slid dead to the forest floor.
I cleaned off the blade and sheathed it, carrying the scabbard and sword in my hand. Kaskala stared at me without moving.
It was only then that I remembered that horse I’d seen in the camp. It was Lord Valance’s mount, and it was well cared for. He was either a prisoner as well - which seemed unlikely since I’d seen none of his goods strewn around or on the bandits - or with them in … some other capacity. Probably I should have asked the bandit I’d just executed about that, but I knew he’d never have answered me without some manner of torture and I just wasn’t going to do that.
I tore the patch that identified me as a ranger off the tattered remains of my shirt that I’d been carrying and left it on his body, then Kaskala and I turned to leave. I gave Kaskala the bandit’s sword, and as we walked, he looked at me regularly, as if to see something new in me.
“You killed him,” he finally said.
I nodded. The memory of the jarring crunch through the blade as it drove into his skull made my arm feel sick.
“Is this the way of your people?”
“It is sometimes. I am given the power to capture and determine justice over criminals in lesser cases such as theft, poaching, or assault. I can decide who is guilty and pass sentence on them, usually fines or restitution. The King gives rangers, such as myself, the power while in the wilds to act as watchmen do in cities, to act for justice for the people in places far from magistrates.” I wasn’t exactly sure if the words I was using were ones Kaskala would be familiar with but I didn’t feel like a long explanation either. I didn’t feel like talking at all.
“But you killed him,” he repeated.
“Yes. When there is an emergency or we are too far from cities, when I cannot appeal to any other authorities or must act quickly, I may adjudicate more serious crimes such as murder.”
“He took a life, so you take a life?” Kaskala asked.
We stopped and I took a deep breath.
“That’s not exactly how it works. That’s kind of what happened, but there is more to it than that. He was a bandit, a man who preys on others. He used his strength to take from those weaker than him, he killed and raped and harmed others and stole from them. And in the wilderness, there is no one to appeal to out here, there is no court, and there are no guards. So men like him act without fear of reprisal.
“Because he was so destructive to the safety of others, because the helpless were prey to him, people with power must stop him. It wasn’t so much that he took a life, it was that he took an innocent life to steal from that person, he killed because he wanted what they had. I killed to protect others from this fate, and because justice requires that he pay for his deeds. I killed not because I wanted to kill or because I am so powerful that he’s prey to me. I killed as a representative of the King’s justice, of his authority, and the authority of the people he serves as their ruler.
“If I had not killed him, he would have continued to prey on the weak, continued to kill, and continued to do evil. His past crimes and the threat to others required that his life be taken, justice required that he pay a price for what he had done, and I was acting as an instrument of justice. I wish it were not me, I wish I could have walked away, but I cannot. It is part of the burden of being a ranger.”
“You do not seem happy with what you did.”
“I’m not.” I was quiet a while as we walked, then thought I should explain more. “I don’t like killing. I’ve done it before and unless providence smiles on me, I will do so again in the future. Killing the wyvern was a hunt of sorts but killing that man while staring him in the eye, executing a helpless prisoner is different. It was awful, but it had to be done.”
We turned and walked toward our camp. Kaskala thought about it a while and then put his paw on my back and we walked that way for a while.
“I would not want such a burden to carry.”
When Huck, sometime commenter here, read the book, he reviewed it quite positively, but had this concern:
The one section of the book that I thought was very out of place was the scene where Erkenbrand and one of the Raccoon beastmen have a kind of philosophical discussion about the necessity and morality of capital punishment. If I were Taylor, I would have simply let the story itself be the defense of the necessity of capital punishment, instead of having the characters engage in a dialogue that was inconsistent with any of the other interactions the characters had.
Huck might have a point about the inconsistency of dialogue, which is worth pondering, but he didn't catch what I was trying to toss out there. The scene is kind of a shock based on the previous actions by Erkenbrand who I tried to portray as a pretty gentle, sensitive guy, if a bit rough around the edges.  Here he just offs a guy in cold blood.
And I thought about how that would look to his beastman companion who, after all, was part of a tribe that was essentially holding Erkenbrand on probation.  Further, I wanted to expand a bit on what a Ranger is in my world, since I'd established Erkenbrand and his abilities enough that I could get into another aspect of his life and work.  And Rangers are not just forest warriors, they are actually a branch of the royal military, acting as scouts and explorers, charting the wilderness, cataloging species and plants, clearing areas of threats, and when necessary, agents of justice.
In our world we are comfortable with the idea of the go-to guy for law and justice, and its always a comfortable system.  Life hasn't always been like that, and it wasn't that long ago in parts of the USA even where the law was what you made of it where you were.
Part of the Ranger's job is to execute justice, and if he must, do so with lethal force.  In a monarchy in a lower tech fantasy setting, the death penalty is significantly more common than in ours.  Further, in these circumstances, Erkenbrand can't tie the bandit up and call the cops, or drive him to a jail.  He's several days travel from civilization on horseback (which he doesn't have). 
So I was trying to show how Rangers worked, and what their duties were beyond just being some guy in the forest with a bow.  Politics and arguing capital punishment was the last thing on my mind.  I wasn't trying to argue for or against it.  My only concern was this was going to be jarring and shocking to many readers, who are comfortable with their world and not used to this kind of thing.  In this setting, this isn't particularly noteworthy to the people of Morien, but it could be to modern readers.
So I had Erkenbrand and Kaskala talk it over a bit, trying to show that Erkenbrand felt he had no choice but was awful about it, and Kaskala not really understanding but knowing that he could trust Erkenbrand's judgment.  Up to this point the beastmen have been, if not adversaries, not exactly allies either, and this was a bonding moment.
So to me it was a matter of character development and explaining the setting.  To Huck it was a treatise on capital punishment, an argument trying to justify or support it.  Which brings up a concern for writing.
What you're trying to do as an author doesn't always carry across well to readers, or at least not to all readers.  Some might have strong feelings on a given topic and respond poorly to it, perhaps missing what you're trying to do.  Sometimes what you try to do as an author fails, and you don't get across the concepts very effectively.
And that's just something you have to deal with.  Nobody ever has written a book that everyone loved and understood completely.  In fact, very few will really "get" your book the way you meant it.  Sometimes someone will understand completely, but its going to be rare.  The hardest part is when a reviewer misses your work entirely which can feel unfair.  So far nobody's review has particularly upset me, although sometimes they puzzle me (like the one that gave me 4 stars then spent the whole review complaining about first person).
Its just interesting to me the dynamic between readers and authors.  What you're trying to accomplish often will simply go unnoticed or be misunderstood.  But hey, as long as they're reading, that's good enough for me.

Incidentally, Snowberry's Veil is available here in ebook and here in paperback.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

BIBLIO BIMBO!

No bookshelf was safe

Monday, June 2, 2014

WHERE DO YOU GET YOUR IDEAS?

"You get ideas from daydreaming. You get ideas from being bored. You get ideas all the time. The only difference between writers and other people is we notice when we're doing it."
-Niel Gaiman

I'd like to invite you into my brain for a moment.  Don't mind the clutter.  People ask me where I get my ideas from for my books and I never can give a very satisfactory answer, but here's an illustration.
I was lying in bed not wanting to get up and my mind wanders as it does.  I thought about the idea of how some people would like to go back to high school or college with what they know now and do it differently; I thought about how I would not really care for that.
Then I thought of how time travel is considered in stories, like a short story I read once where someone went back in time and killed Hitler then came back and nothing had changed.  In Marvel Comics, John Byrne (I think it was) came up with the idea that you can't ever change the present by going back in time, because the instant you do so, you've created a splinter, alternate reality.  Any changes you make in that reality like showing up are in that universe, not the one you came from.
Then I thought about a sort of elastic, pocket version of this.  What if time travel worked like this:
You can go back in time, but you create a pocket universe when you do so.  Everything you do there is contained in that pocket, and when you leave, it resets back the way it was.
Then I speculated that it isn't really you that goes back in time, its a copy of you, a duplicate body with your consciousness.  So if you die, you just get booted back to the present.  Even if you die of old age.
Then I thought about what that would mean for a culture and how people would use it.  Folks would use it for entertainment: go back in time to the Civil War and fight in it, go back to the Roman days, go back to Medieval France and fight in a tournament.  If you die, oh well.
Some would go back and live entire lives in the pocket, aging and dying, then coming back with all the memories and experiences.  Travel through time, woo and marry Helen of Troy, prevent the war and have little perfect babies.  Die of old age, and come back.
It would be used by some for research: what was it really like during the Napoleonic wars?  Some would use it for just dark desires in their soul, to experience being a conqueror or murderer.  Some would just use it for weird sexual escapades.
Some would use it to try out alternate scenarios: what if this happened?  What if someone shot Hitler just after he got into power?  What if someone killed Lenin and the Russian Revolution never happened?  You could play out all those alternate history scenarios.
But this technology would almost certainly be available only to the most extremely wealthy or fortunate, not just anyone because it probably would be very rare, difficult to use, and expensive - if not heavily regulated.
Then I thought about how people might use it to try something else: go back in time, say, ten minutes, then live out various alternate scenarios to see what works best.  Should I marry her?  What if I invest in this?  How about if I leave my job and take that other one?  Will this unbelievably dangerous experiment succeed?  Lets try out 600 different slightly changed experiments to see what gives the best results.
But then I thought about what happens after they try this.  Say you want to create an advertising campaign, and you use time travel to test market it, and get the most successful one. Great idea, right?  Except... is your competitor doing the same thing?  Your pocket universe is isolated from the rest, so you don't find out what happens when other people are manipulating time.
So someone could try out the ultimate scenario and get it exactly right in a pocket universe, come back, and find out it all goes horribly wrong.
And there was the plot for a science fiction story.   Someone goes into a pocket universe to test out their theory or scheme, gets the right one in a sort of Groundhog Day type of sequence of trial and error, and then triumphantly unveils it on the world... to see it all go horribly wrong.  A decent short story.
And that's where it all comes from.  I just think about some ideas, follow them through to the next possible event, ask questions about what would happen next and why, and away we go.  Its not always successful, but its what I do when I am going to sleep or waking up or have time to kill.  Thousands of stories I've played out in my head, mostly nonsense and silly stuff but sometimes a good idea pops up and I write it down.  You probably do the same thing, but writers keep track and follow the idea through.
Like the idea of heroic version of Jason from Friday the 13th.  If you can be an unkillable terrifying monster why not an unkillable good guy?  Or the fantasy sea novel; the story of a water wizard (who you've met if you have read Old Habits) in a Horatio Hornblower type series.  Or the series of short stories about a war horse in the pattern of Call of the Wild.  And so on.
That's where I get my ideas.  My brain takes all the weird input and interesting stuff I experience, learn about, and see and sorts them out into little tales.  And some of them end up on paper.