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What They Read (Kids) May 11, 2014

Posted by bobv451 in business, e-books, education, ideas, iPad, sense of wonder, VIPub, web & computers, writing.
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Discoverability is an important part of any author’s excursion through the profession. How do you get eyes on your work? A study on what kids in K-12 read makes for fascinating reading, especially when you dig down into it and find the youngest grades are more amenable to ebooks than other groups. I’d always said ereaders would never become commonplace until the earliest grades read using them. It has happened.

The report What Kids Are Reading is downloadable as a pdf and takes a while to go through.

Here are some of my takeaways.

Many of these books are assigned by teachers and, to my way of thinking, aren’t of much use to us as writers of VIPub original fiction. A student reading To Kill A Mockingbird as a class assignment is less important than finding that Hunger Games has found itself a high ranking over the past few years or that the younger students read Dav Pilkey. Those are hardly revelations but give direction to our hunt to garner new readers. One trend that seems obvious to me in the younger readers (pre 6th grade) is the number of “outcast” stories. The kids want stories in the little tailor vein, Heinlein’s ordinary person who overcomes great peril to triumph as an individual. Superheroes are ok (are we being force fed them?) but the kids read stories about solitary heroes and heroines, probably because they see themselves that way (a fight between Katniss Everdeen and Percy Jackson?). No super powers, just outcast and subpar and wanting to do great things. Stories of accomplishment seem to rate higher than those of ordering the kids to have self-esteem. SF looks important in this extracurricular reading.

As long as I have been in science fiction fandom, there has been the semi-joke about the golden age of sf being 12. This report bears that out when you look at the number of words read by each grade group (page 55). The sixth graders read the most. You might make the argument later grades are reading more challenging books and are therefore reading less due to the time it takes to wade through. Maybe so, but if you want to capture an audience and keep it, find what appeals to a 6th grader. By that age they have access to an ereader, are becoming autonomous and developing their tastes in reading, and probably have more money to spend on their epurchases than the authors writing the stories.

Mostly, I need to sift through this report and find what is being read for pleasure, then figure out how to capture some of the market.

Playing In My Own Sandbox (part 2) April 13, 2014

Posted by bobv451 in business, e-books, Free, ideas, VIPub, westerns, Wild West, writing.
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Nothing is certain but change. That’s the way of life, but not necessarily so in series. If you intend to do a limited series, say a trilogy, your protagonist can have a character arc where all kinds of flaws are corrected or augmented by the end of the series. The protagonist usually grows as a person and responds to the vicissitudes of the plot thrown at him/her. This makes for a satisfying conclusion but presents a problem if the series stretches to more titles.

Readers get invested in the character. Watching one grow and change is fine if the series ends in a predetermined number of titles. If the series has multiple entries, this isn’t such a good idea. A reader coming into the series after 5 or 6 titles (or 50 or 60) can fall in love with that character, go back to read earlier titles and find the character doesn’t measure up. End of interest. Ebooks have the advantage of always being in print so a reader can scrounge up the first book and ride the wave through all the titles and enjoy the character development. But in a print series, this isn’t an easy thing. Print books go OP (out of print) in a few weeks.

Some many-authored long-running series like the Jake Logan books insist that the main character (in this case, John Slocum) never change from the traits listed in the series bible. Authors don’t have to deal with changes or details a book or a hundred books earlier. But what’s an author to do with a static protagonist?

The answer comes in the secondary characters. They can change (or even die). The protagonist carries the plot and everyone around can learn and grow or devolve. End of book, satisfying character changes, but not in the protagonist who moves on, as is, to begin a new adventure.

I am trying something a bit different in a western series starting in October. The protagonist in The Great West Detective Agency is a gambler and something of a wastrel whose liking for the ladies always gets him in trouble. It’s a print series so Lucas Stanton’s not going to change much, but I hit upon the idea of publishing short stories using secondary characters to augment the plot. What are the histories behind the characters in the book? The dance hall girl or the bartender? The sidekick or the femme fatale? The curious “source of all information” or the hellfire and brimstone preacher or the sweet young thing who entices Stanton into a new mystery? This volume (the first will be called 4 Lives) will be an ebook and maybe PoD. But it gives a chance for the behind the scenes look at the characters and how they got to where they are in the book, leaving the protagonist free to push the plot.

If you want a free copy of 4 Lives when it is ready in a month or so to see what I’m doing, drop me a line via my website at http://www.cenotaphroad.com and mention it. Be sure to tell me what your preferred format is.

Great West Detective Agency

Great West Detective Agency

Playing In Someone Else’s Sandbox (Part 5)(mosaic series) March 16, 2014

Posted by bobv451 in e-books, ideas, outlaws, westerns, Wild West, writing.
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Imagine a stained glass window, only every piece is cut and installed by a different artist. That’s the way a mosaic novel is done. Each author writes a chapter or two in an overarching plot, then the pieces are strung together like a pearl necklace. (A single author can also do a mosaic novel, loosely interconnected short stories telling a greater story. My favorites in this technique include Edward Bryant’s Cinnabar and Joe Landsale’s The Magic Wagon.)

But that loose congregation of stories isn’t exactly what happens in the Western Fictioneers’ series, Wolf Creek. Editor Troy Smith, a Spur Award winner, comes up with a plot and then each author takes his own special character and stirs it up in a chapter or two to advance the story.

Each novel stands on its own but the entire series progresses well in developing not only the town of Wolf Creek, Kansas, but also the major characters. That each book stands on its own allows change in the characters but readers choosing “out of sequence” won’t be too shocked by differences. My character is a lowlife named Wilson “Wil” Marsh, the town photographer always on the outlook for the quick (and shady) buck. He takes blue pictures of the town’s most prominent women because he knows their secrets. He sells lurid photos of dead outlaws and slain Indians to magazines back East hungry for such notoriety. And he even manages to get photos of bank robbers, not to use as evidence in court but to blackmail them. He’s not a nice guy, but he drops money in the poor box at a church he hates and has some empathy for the downtrodden. Why is slowly coming out as I work in my miniature stories within the mosaic novels.

To date I’ve done chapters about Wil in The Quick and the Dying
and Kiowa Vengeance with a new story about a Sand Creek-like massacre on tap. And yes, Wil has a new way to profit off his photographs not involving blackmail but still fraudulent as hell.

What is strange about this for me, at least, is that my Jackson Lowry pen name, has a pen name (Ford Fargo). Others taking part include some of the finest writers working today in the western field. Frank Roderus, Robert Randisi, James Reasoner, Matthew Mayo, LJ Washburn, Cheryl Pierson, Jory Sherman, Meg Mims, Bill Crider, LJ Martin, Jacquie Rogers and a whole lot more.

What you get in every book is a spectrum of top writers and a complete novel-length plot. And an exciting read.

Wolf Creek #2

Wolf Creek #2

Playing In Someone Else’s Sandbox (Part 4)(series books) March 9, 2014

Posted by bobv451 in business, ideas, sense of wonder, serial fiction, Wild West, writing.
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There can’t be any character development in the main character. That puts a damper on a lot of things, but it shouldn’t be a killer for a series. I’ve done more than 125 titles in a series I’m not at liberty to name, but I can recommend a new book or two (ahem).

The series bible is set up so that independent authors can write without needing to read every other title to keep details straight. With the one/month publication schedule such attention to details (or changes to the canon) by other writers would be impossible, especially if there are a half dozen in the pipeline. So, no mention is ever made of any other book in the series and only what is in the bible counts as canon. This isn’t as onerous as it seems. The main character might end the book the same as when he started, but there are a lot of other possibilities.

In spite of what the reviewer (who didn’t seem to have read the book rather than getting it as a gift) said, the plots are where the fun can come in. I haven’t duplicated a situation in all the books I’ve done, though some of my favorite settings have been reused in different ways. My very first title was set in San Francisco amid a tong war. A “giant” had to do with returning bones for burial to China and most recently among the published books I used the same setting for a prison break (or unbreak, actually). What might well be the last of my titles has to do with a huge silver theft from a San Francisco-based railroad. More than different plots and locales to explore and history to unveil, the other characters can get story arcs where they change motivation and alliances/allegiances. They can grow or devolve. After all, only the protagonist has to emerge unscathed emotionally and with his motivations the same at the end as when he started (so the next author doesn’t have to explain why the hero suddenly likes to drown puppies or no longer drinks trade whiskey).

The same dictum worked when I did eight titles in the 1980’s Nick Carter: Killmaster series. These were told first person, which further limited the changes, but wildly strange bad guys were the mark of this techno-oriented spy series. They weren’t likely to change as much they were to be killed. Hence the series name: killmaster. (This reimagined series had a completely different character from his earliest origins in the nineteenth century–that changed but in the incarnations of the series, the Nick Carter character remained static)

This unchanging main character worked in other series books I’ve done. I ghosted an Executioner book and only had a short time to pick up details on the series (only a few additions rather than changes from ones I had read years earlier). But what you get out of these series are nonstop action, great supporting characters and the feeling you’re one of the gang taking part since you know the protagonist so well.

I also did a title in the ’70’s Baroness series that never saw the light of day. But I love the feel of those old series and started something similar with new characters, as much at the behest of others in the yahoo Baroness group as because they are fun to write. I did this one almost 3 years ago and the Navy is just now getting around to deploying some of the gadgets mentioned. Love the techno speculation! One of these days I’ll get back to these characters, so it won’t merely be the first in the series.

Hot Rail to Hell Deluxe

A: The Clone Ranger February 9, 2014

Posted by bobv451 in business, death, ideas, sci-fi, science, science fiction, sense of wonder, serial fiction, writing.
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Q: What goes hi ho, Silver, Silver, Silver?

My dreams tend to be pretty worthless for thinking up plots or characters. A while back when I had trouble sleeping, I tried melatonin. This worked wonderfully well getting me to sleep but it gave me the most vivid–and boring–dreams ever. The vibrant colors came through unmatched by any other dream, but the sequence itself tended to be unthrilling, boring stuff like waiting in line at the supermarket. That was it. Just standing in line.

Recently I had a bout of dreams about clones. Who knows why? Something about the dream theme set my conscious brain to thinking in terms of sf stories (none of this was in the dream itself–that all came later). The variants on Heinlein’s “All You Zombies” are obvious but the moral considerations (and legal ramifications) are what boiled up in my head.

If you have sex with your own clone, is this masturbation? If you kill your own clone, is that suicide? (The truly scary ending on The Prestige is a take on this) If clones are considered separate entities, what does this do to DNA solutions for crimes? How do you prove it wasn’t you but your clone that did the crime? Could a clever criminal use his clone as an alibi for actually committing a crime? If you create your own clone for the express purpose of a sex crime (on the clone), who is the victim and who is the perpetrator? Is this even a crime? Could therapy for a serial killer be killing his own clones rather than other people? What are the ethics involved of trying risky medical treatments on clones to find the proper one for the “original?”

Cloning certainly eliminates the need for estate planning. Just will your clone your fortune. Skip a few hundred years into the future. Would all the wealth be consolidated in the hands of a few clones?

I need to get to work on a science fiction book. Not dealing with clones, not exactly (could a clone be used as a surrogate to serve a prison sentence?)

The Times They Are A’Changin’ January 26, 2014

Posted by bobv451 in history, ideas, sci-fi, science fiction, web & computers, writing.
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As they always do. We have lived through a unique span in history where we can watch (and know) major upheavals in the world. The Internet is as big as the Gutenberg printing press. The new Industrial Revolution is happening with 3D printing. A house in 2 days. No problem. An iPhone? I’ll print it for you today. Replacement organs? Feed in the DNA template and that kidney will be yours next week. What a chance to see and understand major influences driving our world.

To a lesser extent, there has been a change in writing, or rather in writing technique. In sf the late ’60s and early ’70s saw the New Wave. Story became less important than the characters, much as literary fiction was almost 100% angst and no idea. SF didn’t go that far but ideas took a backseat to the more literary emphasis on drilling down into the character. Somewhere in the early ’90s another change came about. This one hasn’t been touted or given a name, but it is there.

Thesis, antithesis, synthesis. Thesis=pure idea sf of the ’40s. Anthesis=New Wave. Synthesis=now. SF has always been interested in the “what if?” playing with ideas–and still is. Social commentary or hard science extrapolation, doesn’t matter. SF is an idea fiction. But in the early ’90s what the readers expected changed. The “now” is a equal merging of the idea with the character.

I’ve had some sf stories from the 1980s reprinted and I cringed when I saw how little characterization there was in favor of the sweeping idea, the grand space opera adventure. But that was ok then. Readers expect more now with background on who is engaging in that grand adventure–and what drives them. Flaws? Better have them since this is more realistic, even in a superhero story (or maybe especially in a superhero story). Villains have to be more than bad because they’re bad or they turn into parodies as in Despicable Me.

I stand by what I did in, say, Alien Death Fleet because that was right for the times. But I much prefer putting in characters to go with the derring-do, as in Fate of the Kinunir

Not only do I enjoy writing the more complete package of idea married with characterization, I prefer reading it now.

You can still enjoy the galaxy smashing style of earlier space opera but today’s work has to be more complete, a synthesis of space opera and New Wave to stand out. And that’s not a bad thing.

Analysis Paralysis January 19, 2014

Posted by bobv451 in business, e-books, ideas, money, VIPub.
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“If you cannot measure it, you cannot improve it.” Lord Kelvin’s statement works for things technological. If you can’t measure it, what do you really have, anyway? When it comes to matters like psychology, mathematical analysis gets chancy. (Mike Stackpole tweeted on this article earlier today) Can you mathematically define happiness? Considering that they used chaos theory ought to give a clue to that. The starting point (boundary conditions) affect the outcome. Begin a wee bit differently and you get, possibly, a hugely different result.

VIPub (Vertically Integrated Publishing) authors have to choose not only where we start but what our desired outcome is. That decided, how do we measure it?

For years I have followed investment newsletters. The more I look at them, the more contradictory the advice becomes. The recommendations turn into Johnson-Nyquist background noise. For every one saying “buy” another says “sell.” It comes down to my gut feeling and how I see the future. The best that can be done to avoid the analysis paralysis is to choose an advisor who produces the best result, however imperfect, and ignore the rest. It all averages out to average mush otherwise.

The big question in VIPub is how to get eyes onto your book. I’ve tried lots of schemes and will try many more to find better ones. But the analysis of how to say one is better than the other technique shouldn’t be too hard. It shouldn’t be just what sells books. You can rack up impressive numbers by giving your book away for damned little. A different metric is to my liking. The money in the bank is the counter, the measurement, the end result of various experiments. The Laffer Curve might well pertain here. How much should we spend on promotion/advertising for the biggest monetary return? (I won’t entertain political argument on this–I think the Laffer Curve is a model of reality and don’t care about your opinion). If pricing low and selling huge numbers works better than higher prices and fewer sales, go for it. But it could well be the other way around. The measurement: total money in your pocket.

The trouble comes in analysis paralysis, having too much data. Reading other blogs on this gives me the impression nothing works–and everything works. David Morrell once said at a WWA panel, 10% of your time ought to go for promotion. And no more. Your time is better spent writing (and I agree). But what kind of promo? Another bit of advice was to make a list of all the possible promotional gimmicks you can do–then pick 3 to pursue. A new wrinkle is introduced with paid advertising. Do FB or Google ads work? Maybe not if an ad has to be seen 7 times to be effective. They can sell more ads than you can afford. Again, what return do you get for your money? The maximum bang for the buck?

You as a VIPub author have to decide, but if you read too much and think about what you can actually do too little, you are going to end up in a sea of despair. Analysis paralysis. Pick and choose. What works for you won’t necessarily work for others. But do choose. Then do it. (And if it doesn’t give you the money (not sales) you expected, try something else.)

analysis paralysis cartoon photo Fin16s.jpg

Triage March 17, 2013

Posted by bobv451 in business, e-books, fantasy, ideas, money, sci-fi, science fiction, VIPub, writing.
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Ideas are easy, developing them isn’t. Worse, choosing which to work on is even more daunting. I have a row of notebooks filled with ideas accumulated over the years and, as good as some are, I will never try to use them because others are better.

This segment of a Dilbert cartoon seems appropriate.

Did you ever have to decide?

Did you ever have to decide?

So how do you choose? Excitement has to be a factor for any writer. All you have in way of capital is time that must be spent properly. An idea that won’t let go of your imagination is a good candidate, but writing and rewriting it in your head isn’t good enough if you want to sell it to a publisher. Think of a Venn diagram of all the ideas you want to write and ideas that are salable. The intersection of the two sets is where you write. That’s not to say any other point in your “what you want to write about” set isn’t worthy. But to sell to an editor, that overlap has to be there.

Otherwise, VIPub (Vertically Integrated Publishing) is the way to go. Do it yourself. Damn the commercial sales, full steam ahead! This opens vistas galore, but the money isn’t likely to be as good (face it, not every book is going to be 50 Shades of Gray, which, depending on your outlook, is a good thing. But I am talking sales, not content.)

So, traditional dead tree publishing requires that overlap in idea/commercial. That eliminates a lot of what is always kicking around in my head. For a year or two I’ve wanted to do a Gormenghast type fantasy but it doesn’t have the feel of something that would sell. But it would be great to write (from my personal standpoint). Likely, it’ll stay on the backburner until a mystery and an sf book, both dancing on tippytoe through my head for years, are done since both strike me as great fun to write and commercial. One way of deciding if an idea is “good enough” is the test of time. Does it endure in your head and even grow? Or do newer ideas supplant?

You’ve got to decide, then stick with it to finish the writing before moving on. Don’t be seduced by the Siren’s lure of a “better” idea or you’ll never see a completed story.

The Top of the Iceberg January 7, 2013

Posted by bobv451 in business, e-books, ideas, VIPub, web & computers, writing.
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A lot of electrons zip around about how Amazon might really screw VIPub authors by taking a bigger cut of the pie on ebook and CreateSpace sales. A few percent would go a long way toward boosting AMZN revenue, but I don’t think it is going to happen. Why not? Amazon’s business model is unlike anything we’ve ever seen.

Giving away razors to get users to buy razor blades is a tried and true method that has migrated to the e-realm, but this isn’t exactly what AMZN does, though it appears to with the Kindle. Frankly, it doesn’t care what VIPub authors do with their books as long as it drives traffic to the site.. Most of AMZN revenue comes from the obvious. Most profit comes from the part of the iceberg we don’t see.

Low-margined items draw in the people, and their rental of this digital platform is where the immensely high margin delivers the $$$. The more who flock to buy, the greater the value of their digital services.

That’s the beginning. AMZN’s Web Services rent capacity to other business (ie Netflix–and over 300 of the S&P 500 companies). Monetizing this excess web service gives a profit margin pretty close to 100%. Breaking even on the sales of physical products is good enough since new sellers flock to use AMZN computers more and more (financing the expansion of the server farms) and cloud services to major corporations costs almost zero extra.

AMZN wants to drive lots and lots of commercial traffic to Amazon.com so it can expand its servers and lease out the excess capacity for big bucks at little or no added cost to AMZN. Hey don’t survive selling widgets (or e-books). They survive in the cloud.

It’s a different business model and is working. Sales drop at AMZN? Doesn’t matter since this revenue doesn’t contribute that much to the profits. What is AWS doing? That is what we should all look at.

So, want to drive more traffic to Amazon? Support VIPub authors? Click here.

Twinkies Document #1890 December 10, 2012

Posted by bobv451 in business, charity, e-books, ideas, VIPub, web & computers, writing.
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…and what it means to publishing.

Hostess Inc’s bankruptcy sent shock waves through the snack food world. Who would have ever thought Zombieland was going to be a documentary? Parts of the bankruptcy filing, though, point up something that can be of immense value to those of us in VIPub (Vertically Integrated Publishing) and in so many other fields.

Banks have pretty much stopped lending money, even to the most qualified. There are a lot of reasons for this but Dodd-Franks is part of it, requiring banks to have immense reserves against failure. With the Fed only giving, well, zero, interest, banks won’t give much in the way of interest on their deposits. Come the first of the year Tier I reserve requirements change significantly, too. This will soak up even more money that might go for loans. (The banks will buy gold).

But the Hostess bankruptcy brings out a new way of financing. Or not so new, merely gqthering steam. The buzzword for it is “private equity.” This can come from hedge funds or individual investors (think Warren Buffett) but they operate at levels swapping billions of dollars not hundreds or thousands. One of my favorite charities, if you want to call it that (and I don’t, really–I see this as what capitalism is all about) is http://www.kiva.org Muhammed Yunas won a Nobel Prize in 2006 for the idea of micro loans.

We’ve seen crowdsourcing bring in $200meg to save PBR at BuyABeerCompany.com Document #1890 is a proposal to use crowdsourcing to buy Hostess.

If you have a few bucks you can finance a painting or Twinkies or … a novel. Steve Sullivan’s recent kickstarter project financed his Death Tournament project. Matt Forbeck financed his “12 in ’12” project, writing 12 novels in 12 months, one trilogy at a time. With the Big 6, er 5, publishers pulling stunts like backing Author’s House rather than authors, we don’t have to be left out in the cold. Small amounts of money (relative to keeping Twinkies afloat or at least something more than put into time capsules) is within our grasp using the same technique. Find a project. Back it. Or get ambitious and start one of your own.

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-twinkies

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