Category Archives: self publishing

The Magic of Words

Richard Powell (1908-1999) is one of my favorite authors. PowellHe grew up in Philadelphia, started as a newspaper reporter, then went into advertising, before becoming a popular novelist in the 1950s and 60s.  He also taught creative writing at Syracuse University.

Powell’s most famous novel was The Philadelphian.  In 1959 it was turned into a movie, “The Young Philadelphians,” starring Paul Newman.  My favorite was his last book, Whom the Gods Would Destroy (1970) about the Trojan War epic.  If you like ancient history, it’s a classic, not only for the story, but for Powell’s brilliant writing style.

PhiladelphianOver the years I’ve hunted down and read all 20 of Powell’s novels.  When I was teaching high school English I was delighted to learn that he also wrote several magazine articles for The Writer magazine. Reprinted below is my favorite among his articles.  It provides some nice advice for novices and pros alike…


The Magic of Words
Richard Powell
The Writer (October 1967)

Of course it will never come true, but I keep having this dream in which the President of the United States sends a message to Congress demanding civil rights for words.  In it, he points out how badly words are abused, and calls attention to the fact that our language is a national resource that is being mistreated even more than our rivers and air.  It is only a dream, however, and I do not look for the War on Poverty to be extended to the spoken and written word.

The trouble is that the poverty pockets in this case are too hard to get at, because they are not in city slums or Appalachia, but inside people’s heads.  People are willing to use their brains on many difficult problems—avoiding income taxes, beating the horses, sneaking an extra coffee break—but apparently most of them couldn’t care less about the problem of how to use words clearly and dramatically.  Among these people are scientists, educators, lawyers, government officials, doctors, businessmen and housewives.

Is it possible that there are also writers among them?  Yes, friends, there are writers among them.

Impact

Let us skip the problem of writers who do not know how to use words clearly.  Nobody can help them, and perhaps the published writers among them do not even want to be helped, because a murky style of writing may sometimes win critical acclaim.  Let us, instead, take up the problem of writers who use words clearly, but with no more impact than that of a wet dishrag dropped on the floor.  There are many such writers.  They may do a fine job of plotting and characterization, but they handle words like a cook ladling out alphabet soup: the first collection of letters that comes out of the pot goes into the dish.  Here is an example of alphabet-soup writing:

  • I got up this morning as happy as a lark and, as usual, ate breakfast like a horse.  I sat at my desk and worked like a mule all day and ended dog-tired.

I have given you a lot of information about my day, have I not?  I have also given it clearly.  But how many people would be interested in hearing about my zoological day?  I have used words that bored you stiff and were as dull as dishwater, including the expressions I used in this sentence.  I have used old, worn-out groupings of words.  I have used words in a lazy, thoughtless way, picking up expressions once new and shiny, but now so overworked that they have no power to hook reader attention.  The sad thing about this is that there is a magic in words when they are used with a touch of imagination.  What I should have done, if I wanted anybody to pay attention to a very ordinary collection of facts, was to call on the magic of words.  Perhaps I might have written:

  • When I got up this morning I felt like the bubbles in champagne, and breakfast tasted as if I were just coming off a diet.  I spent the day beating a typewriter ribbon to rags, and ended up as tired as the clichés I was trying not to use.

Now I have dressed my dull facts in bright clothes, and so people might pay attention, I have thrown out my collection of zoological clichés and developed some new expressions.  A cliché is an expression that, when it was new, sketched a vivid picture for people.  The first man who used the expression ‘dog-tired’ no doubt impressed his audience; they would have pictured how a dog looks when he is panting and his tongue hangs out and he flops down.  But, with use, the term dog-tired lost its force.  Nobody who reads or hears it for the tenth or hundredth or thousandth time gets a vivid picture from it.  It has become a cliché.  It is now merely a crutch for lame brains; it is a mental sleeping pill.  It is a way to avoid thinking.  There is no word magic in a cliché.

I don’t want to pretend that, when I developed some new expressions to replace the zoological clichés, I simply made a flourish and pulled them out of a hat.  In the first place, I wouldn’t pull them out of a hat, because that’s another cliché, perhaps invented soon after the first magician pulled the first rabbit out of the first hat.  New expressions do not come easily to me; my brain is lazy, too, and approaches the idea of work like a teenager asked to do the dishes.  But I have learned that if I play the harsh parent with my brain, it will go to work, even though grudgingly.  It took me an hour to work out those new expressions, and if I had spent two hours on them they would undoubtedly be better.  I don’t advise writers to spend an hour on every sentence they write, because they might never finish a story or article.  But, when you need to grab attention, you must spend time and thought on the job.

It is not difficult for a person of normal intelligence to write in a colorful and dramatic way.  One summer, several years ago, I taught a writing course at Syracuse University.  Included in the homework I assigned were some problems in colorful writing.  I explained to my students that one method of colorful writing is to describe Item A in terms of Item B: for example, describe a mountain as if it were a living creature.  (It could be an old lion crouched in the distance, or a vulture hovering over the valley.)  None of my students were professional writers, and none had previously known any tricks of colorful writing.  But, when given a method of doing it, they produced such examples as these:

  1. (Describe a young girl, at her first dance, in terms of another type of living thing.)  “Jane sat in the small gilt chair beside the dance floor, thin, angular, unmoving, eyes carefully blank, legs straight out before her like knobby stems.  She seemed as much a fixture as the potted palms.”
  2. (Describe a society matron in terms of another type of living things.)  Mrs. Cheyney was, he thought, like a faded rose, even to her hands with their thorns of fingernails.
  3. (And the same.)  “Mrs. Culpepper looked for her name in the society column, easer as a St. Bernard sniffing at a hydrant.”

 This is good writing.  It is professional.  Anybody who can do this on demand could have a successful career in some form of writing.  The trick of describing one thing in terms of another is much used by good writers.  Carl Sandburg wrote a complete poem by using this trick merely one time.  The poem contains six lines and twenty-one words, and has been reprinted in many anthologies of American poetry.  It is titled “The Fog,” and Sandburg describes the fog as if it were a cat.

Some years ago, in writing a story, I wanted to describe gulls flying, and I wrote of them in terms of ice skaters:  “Gulls figure-skating against the sky.”  This happens to stick in my memory because Reader’s Digest used my words on its “Picturesque Speech” page and paid me ten dollars, the first of many delightful checks from the magazine and Reader’s Digest Condensed Book Club.  While writing this article I wanted to see if I had exhausted the ways of describing gulls in terms of something else, and I came up with these descriptions:

  • The gulls went tobogganing down the snowy clouds.
  • The gulls did a waltz in the ballroom of the sky.
  • High up, a gull wheeled and curved, writing a message against the blue paper of the air.

This experiment seems to hint that there may be as many ways of describing gulls in flight as there are gulls.

Mood and atmosphere

When does a writer use such colorful expressions?  Always?  No.  That might be like a steady diet of fruitcake.  Colorful writing is used to create a needed effect – perhaps of mood or atmosphere or character – and when the effect has been achieved, it is a waste of time to do it over and over.  Nor should colorful writing be used merely to show off.  It must contribute to achieving the writer’s purpose in his piece of fiction or article or poem or speech or whatever.  I would not use colorful words to describe the ringing of a telephone, unless I needed to create a certain mood; if the mood had already been crated, I would simply say that the telephone rang, and then get on to more vital things.  But if the call was going to be important and I had to get the reader in the right mood for it, I might write:

  • I reached for the ringing telephone as if getting my first lesson in snake charming.
  • The telephone bell echoed in my head like a dentist’s drill.
  • The telephone bell made a little apologetic murmur.
  • The telephone jingled pleasantly, like an old hurdy-gurdy.

Each of these sentences contributes to the establishment of a different mood or atmosphere.  They could not be used interchangeably.

The same method, of course, can be used in describing people.  In my latest novel, Don Quixote, U.S.A., I wanted to describe my hero’s physical appearance, and at the same time create a mood and tell something of his character.  This called for colorful writing and for the expenditure of several hours of mental sweat to produce two sentences. As I say, these things do not come easily to me; getting them out of my head is often like trying to shake the last dime out of a piggy bank.  After four hours, I had these two sentences:

  • Mine is not the grim, strong face of the typical Goodpasture.  Such a face is spare and angular, as if welded from steel plowshares, whereas my features look as if they had been hastily whittled out of balsa wood.

In those two sentences, I provided a good deal of information about my hero’s physical appearance, the family from which he came, and his character.  I doubt that it would have been interesting to readers if I had merely written:  “All of my family have strong, grim faces, but mine is rather weak and nondescript.”

Another way to write colorful language is to exaggerate to achieve an effect.  It is not very striking merely to write that somebody is thin.  If you want to create a dramatic effect, use exaggeration.  Draw a word picture of how that person is.  For example:

  • She was so thin she could have taken a bath in a fountain pen.
  • He was so thin he could have lurked behind a needle.
  • He as so thin he could have crawled through a pencil sharpener… and with a pencil in his pocket, too.

Effective parts of speech

In trying to make magic with words, it is wise to beware of the adjective.  Nouns are good words to use in sentences.  They are like bones, providing the needed skeleton.  Verbs are good words.  They are the muscles, providing the action.  But adjectives are in most cases merely the clothing or ornaments of a sentence, and it is easy to overdress a sentence.  Let me quote the beginning of a famous speech, and count the adjectives in it:

Friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears.
I come to bury Caesar, not to praise him.
The evil that men do lives after them,
The good is oft interred with their bones.
So let it be with Caesar.

How many adjectives in those opening lines of Mark Anthony’s speech?  Shakespeare didn’t use any.

So in trying to put magic into your words, don’t think that piling up adjectives will do the job.  One well-chosen adjective may be perfect, like a diamond ring on the hand of a pretty woman.  Too many adjectives may be like too many diamond rings; not only does the display seem crude, but also it may hide the fact that the woman has lovely fingers.

Words should be a source of never-ending mystery and delight to any writer.  All of us should be forever curious about how words were invented and evolved and what they used to mean and what they mean now.  Another term for a cliché is a hackneyed expression.  Think a moment about the word “hackneyed.”  Do you know how it originated?  Well, back in the days of horses and carriages, a horse that was kept for hire was called a hackney.  Such animals were overworked, and were often tired and slow and thin.  Somebody started applying the term to phrases that were also tired and slow and thin: hackneyed phrases.  When first used, the term was colorful and called up a picture in the reader’s mind.  But how good a picture does it evoke now?

Are you the sort of writer who can look up a word in the dictionary without ever being lured into looking up others?  Can you run across such words as “boycott” without digging out the sad tale of Captain Charles Cunningham Boycott?  Can you hear the term “halcyon days” without discovering the pleasant old Greek myth from which it come?  If you are not fascinated by words, I feel sorry for you, because you must find the use of them a dull and tiring job.  To make magic with words, a writer must know what they mean.  And, if he hopes to use words in a new and colorful way, he must be able to recognize the old drag ways in which they have been used.

Words are like Cinderella:  sad little drudges, wearing rags and dirtied by soot.  It is in the power of writers to play Fairy Godmother, and make those drudges into shining creatures.  Words can sing and dance, growl and roar, tiptoe and march.  They will do all these things for any writer who is willing to wave the magic wand of his imagination over them.

Absolute Write or Wrong?

AWAs a reader and a writer I enjoy reading other author’s blogs.  By doing so, I pick up valuable advice, and you come across the current issues facing the independent writing community.   The big issue of the day is the Amazon v. Hatchette debate, but I’ll save my thoughts on that matter for another post.

One of the other issues I’ve seen cropping up is the controversy over the writers’ website, Absolute Write.  On their site they have an extremely well trafficked forum called the Water Cooler.

The site was created in 1999 by an admirable freelance writer named Jenna Glatzer (who left in 2007).  Absolute Write (AW) boasts 60,000 users, and averages 8,000 posts a week, all on issues dealing with writing and publishing.

Over the past few months I began noticing AW popping up in a lot of conversations.  Some people claimed to love it, that it provided them with assistance finding an agent, getting a query letter polished, or critiquing their writing—while other’s absolutely hated the site, even going so far as to say they’d been banned for speaking their minds or they’d been the victim of cyberbullying by the members there.

Not belonging to any writers’ forums, I decided to check out AW.  Please understand, I did not go to their site with an axe to grind or any pre-conceived agenda.  I’d seen people speak for and against the site and was simply curious as to the truth of the matter.  So I put on my journalist’s hat and decided to do a little field research.

I spent a week ‘lurking’ to see if the site looked worth joining.  What I found was a bit overwhelming, a touch of information overload.  There are eighty active boards in the forum covering a plethora of subjects; everything from dealing with rejection, writer’s block, grammar, research, publishing scams, novels, short stories, poetry, literary agents, publishers, freelancing, songwriting, script writing… their list of topical areas is extensive.  Whether you want to talk to other writers working on westerns or greeting cards, you’ll find a home for it on AW.

Most of the areas of the site are open to everyone, but a few require you to have a minimum number of posts or six months of time logged on the site to access.

There are so many topical areas on AW that I’m willing to bet that most users gravitate toward their areas of interest and hang out there.  To visit all of the boards and read all the new posts everyday would be virtually impossible.  The boards that I visited, while some of the threads were silly, for the most part the users were respectful, encouraging and supportive of one another.

After two weeks I decided to join, and was a bit surprised when it took them three days to ‘approve’ my registration.  Not that it truly mattered.  Not being approved simply meant I could not post anything.  There was plenty to read.  Each board had their stickies with instructions and there were a mountain of FAQs to peruse.

Once approved, there is a board for new members, so I created a thread there and introduced myself.   About a dozen people welcomed me aboard.  So far, so good.

Over the next week or so, on the various boards I visited, I began to notice a certain amount of negativity pervaded many of the conversations.  People were depressed because they were getting rejection letters, upset because they had too many ideas and didn’t know which one to work on, gridlocked by writer’s block, unable to write because they were dealing with ADD…

In an attempt to be helpful, I decided to create a thread on ‘Famous rejection stories,’ and shared about a half dozen stories about famous writers like Stephen King, Agatha Christie, Dan Brown and J.D. Salinger, who were rejected numerous times before ever getting published.  My thought in starting this thread was to try to encourage people by showing how all authors have to deal with rejection.  It’s something all writers share in common, even the famous ones.  And if you persevere, you just might get lucky like they did.

After creating the thread, someone posted a response saying that he’d heard God had been rejected numerous times before ever getting the Bible published.  Ha, ha.  Sarcastic, but not a personal attack.  Next someone posted a comment that they hated hearing that J.K. Rowling was only rejected 12 times before Harry Potter found a home.  They went on to say they’d been rejected 400 times.  Someone else picked up the idea and added that that J.K Rowling was a horrible example of a writer having a hard time getting published, that her experience was nothing compared to the pain and suffering the average AW writer experienced.  Oi.

At this point I commented that if the posters were having such a hard time dealing with rejection and getting published, why not try self publishing?

This is where my experience with AW went horribly awry and I began to understand why certain people accuse them of cyberbullying.  I was too new to the site to realize it, but I’d stumbled into one of AW’s pet peeve subject areas.  All I had to do was mention self publishing and a dozen people, most of whom had in the neighborhood of 1,000 to 15,000 posts on AW, jumped on me and began ripping me to shreds for daring to even suggest such a course of action.

The basic line of thinking expoused by the hard core AW members was, self publishing is for losers, self publishing is too hard, self publishing is too expensive, self published writers don’t get read… on and on.

In response, I posted that self publishing might be difficult or expensive for some, but if you know how to follow instructions it’s actually fairly easy and doesn’t have to cost you a dime.  I went on to quote a recent research study by a group called Author’s Earnings that states 31% of the sales on Amazon are by self published authors and cited my sources.  You can find them here and here.  There are numerous articles in the media on the subject.

Unfortunately, it seems you cannot have a rational discussion on AW, not if you take up a position that goes against the convention wisdom of AW’s tenured elite.  Trying to back up what I was saying, merely caused more old timer’s to pile on.  It was as if I’d been thrown to the wolves, or perhaps more accurately, was being beaten by a bunch of old biddies using their canes and walkers.  People could see I only had made a couple of posts on their site, I was a noob.  You’d think someone, like a moderator, would have interceded and at least attempted to defend or rescue my bloody carcass, but nope.  I ended up at the bottom of a large pile without a voice raised in assistance or even in pity.

One person, with over 5,000 posts on AW, posted a novel length dissertation on the Author’s Earnings report claiming it was grossly inaccurate and that he and the other old time AW members had already concluded, self published authors never got read.  This line of thought was quickly supported by several other long time AW members.  They rather snidely told me that they’d disproved the Author’s Earnings report weeks ago.  Where had I been?  Living under a rock, no doubt.

I replied, asking as innocently as possible if the group had ever heard of Hugh Howey.  That got them howling.  I quickly learned that trying to argue or provide verifiable proof or evidence of what you are stating means nothing to the elite on AW, it only causes them to froth at the mouth.

Here I was trying to offer some simple information, stories about famous authors who had persevered and succeeded, with the goal of trying to dispel some of the negativism I saw on AW—and I was tar and feathered.

At that point, I threw in the towel and gave up posting anything additional.  I’d made a grand total of 12 posts on their site and felt like a group of vigilantes had run me off with pitchforks.

Do I see value to AW?  Yes.  Am I impressed by their long-standing members?  No.  I got the impression that they are an exclusive club, with a preset list of beliefs that you either subscribe to or they burn you at the stake.

Will I go back to their site?  For the past several days I’ve been licking my wounds, pondering that question.  If I do, it will be to read, not to share what I know.  What’s the point, when it appears their entrenched elite already know all the answers?

writing_jealousy

The Good, the Bad, the Mediocre: Amazon Reviews

 Cartoon%20of%20the%20Day

Good Reviews: The Bubbles in the Champagne

Since publishing The Wandering King in April of 2013, approximately 2,000 copies have been distributed through various booksellers.

Ninety-seven percent of the sales have been e-books rather than hard copies, and 99% have been through Amazon. A distant second is Barnes & Noble (20 sales), and behind them is Apple iBookstore (2 sales). Dead last is Smashwords (1 sale).

The success The Wandering King has received on Amazon has been largely due to the reviews.  The average rating of your combined reviews gives your book a ranking under the ‘top rated’ listing and a special spot on Amazon’s web page.  This ranking has placed my book in the #1 to #3 spot under the Ancient Greek History category for the last 9 months.

To date, the book has received 40 reviews on Amazon.  Here is a breakdown of the number of 5-star through 1-star reviews:

                (28) 5 stars
                (9) 4 stars
                (2) 3 stars
                (1) 1 star

It has been a delight to read reviews such as:

  • Turning the last page of a good book, ending a good read, is like saying goodbye to a dear friend. One relishes the experience of both and longs for more time together…                    

                                       Dianne Smith

  • Many thanks to the guy who wrote this book. Really enjoyed it and have recommended it to all my friends. The book is something special, great character development; this man can really write.  

                                      Steve Fowler

  • Well-crafted historical fiction both educates and entertains the reader. Stephen Marte’s ‘The Wandering King’ achieves those goals. I’m looking forward to reading more of his story…

                                      Gregory Stoltz

  • Fantastic story, absolutely loved this. It is the story of a young Spartan growing from boyhood to manhood. The author portrays a character raised in a harsh world, but who still dares to defy tradition and what is expected of him. Brilliant, I cannot wait for the sequel…

                                      Tomas

A heart-felt thank you to everyone who has taken the time to write a review.  You have greatly contributed to the success of The Wandering King.

I do not know Dianne, Steve, Greg or Tomas, or the vast majority of my reviewers, which makes reading their reviews immensely gratifying.  Knowing people you’ve never met in Pittsburgh, Dallas or Portland enjoyed the story so much they can’t wait to read more, is music to any writer’s ears.

Admittedly, I do know four of my reviewers. My mom, my brother and two friends have reviewed The Wandering King, but they all read the book and enjoyed it, so their reviews are legitimate. Knowing Amazon will delete your book and toss you off their site if you try planting fake reviews, is all the motivation any author should need to play it honest.

I wish I could get more of my family, friends and co-workers to post reviews. When someone tells me they’ve read the book and loved it, my stock response is: “Put it in writing. Post a review.” Unfortunately, the majority of people who have told me they’ve read the book, never post anything.

Bad Reviews: The Worm in the Apple

The Wandering King has received only one bad review. After a year of nothing but good reviews, I received this in May 2014:

  • This is one I put down early. I’ve read Herodotus a number of times and have wondered what Doreius [sic] and His [sic] adventures to the lotus eaters could have looked like. The author tells his story rather than shows. The writing lacks even basic description. I do not have any idea where the other reviewers gave this book even a score higher than 2. It’s that briutal [sic].

                                    Sparta Fan

If Sparta Fan had an axe to grind with me, he succeeded.  His 1-star review succeeded in knocking The Wandering King off its perch as the #1 top-rated Ancient Greek History book on Amazon.  Seems hard to believe one review could knock me out of the top seat, but it did, which has adversely affected book sales.

As a professional writer who has spent a lifetime researching The Wandering King and three years writing and polishing his work, it is distressing to read, “the author tells his story rather than shows” and “the writing lacks even basic description.”

I refer Sparta Fan to the first chapter of the book, which appears here in my blog, The Planistai. To quote a sample of showing versus telling:

  • While we waited, I noticed Gorgo was trembling beside me. “Are you all right?”
    She looked at me wide-eyed. “I am so excited!”

If I wanted to tell the reader how Gorgo was feeling, all I had to do was say, “Gorgo was excited.”  Instead, these two lines show her trembling and wide-eyed.

Also in the same chapter appears:

  • “No girl is going to tell me what to do,” my cousin Pausanias snorted. Especially not the daughter of Cleomenes. Pausanias was a husky boy, with a thick neck, gloomy, deep-set dark eyes, a face full of pimples and a broad, pug nose that had always made me think of him as a wart hog.

If I wanted to tell the reader Pausanias did not like Gorgo, all I had to say was, “Pausanias did not like Gorgo.” Instead you see how Pausanias feels through his dialogue. Also in the paragraph is a brief description of Pausanias’ appearance. Why Sparta Fan would state the book “lacks even basic description” makes me wonder if he even read it.

Rather than continue to quote additional excerpts from The Wandering King, if you want to make up your own mind on the matter, please read the sample chapter on this site: The Planistai. It’s free.

I apologize if I sound defensive. I am. Writing is an intensely personal experience. Your books are like your children. Insult my son and like any good parent, my reaction is to leap to his defense.

A friend who read Sparta Fan’s review called it a ‘hatchet job.’ In looking over the other books Sparta Fan’s has reviewed on Amazon, I see he’s highly rated a number of books by British author David Gemmell. I’ve tried to read Gemmell’s work, but I don’t care for his style. I would describe his writing as, ‘historical fantasy,’ which doesn’t interest me. To be fair to Sparta Fan, I am guessing he was expecting historical fantasy like Gemmell’s work and instead got historical fiction. 

In the end, what I’ve learned from reading Sparta Fan’s review is that everyone has different preferences, and you can’t expect to please everyone.  It’s like looking at a painting by Picasso. One person sees an odd collection of blocks and colors that remind them of fingerpainting, while another person sees a woman weeping that is so evocative the viewer is moved to tears.

I suppose all I can do is be thankful that the majority of my readers appear to enjoy my writing.  On the flip side, I’ve learned that reading negative reviews can destroy your motivation.  Who wants to spend all of the time and energy required to write a book if some stranger with an axe to grind is going to piss all over your work?

Mediocre Reviews: The Flavorless, Chewy Steak

The Wandering King has only received two 3-star reviews. In one, the reviewer had nothing but good things to say about the book.

  • The Wandering King is an entertaining read that paints a different picture of the principal families of Sparta than other books of the same genre. Interesting stories, good detail, and enough action to keep the pages turning.

                                          David Nolletti    

David appears to have enjoyed the story.  Why he gave it an average rating is a mystery.  Perhaps to him a 3-star rating means it met his expectations or maybe some people are just tough reviewers.

The only other 3-star review commented that the book was “entertaining” but he found it troublesome that I used some modern language that he did not feel was appropriate to ancient Greece. Wish he had given some examples. If he had, I would have corrected them.

* * * * *

Where initially I loved seeing a new book review appear, I am now a lot more tentative about reading them.  It’s tempting not to look them at all lest it sap my energy to keep writing.  That said, I have no intentions of quitting.  Yes, I write so others will read what I’ve written, but first and foremost, I write to create something I would enjoy reading, and that feeling is not likely to go away.

If others have had similar experiences or advice regarding book reviews, would be curious to hear them.

Stealing Helen

stealing helen cover

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Co-Authoring a Work of Fiction

In March, I placed a new short story titled, Stealing Helen, for sale on Amazon.  It was co-authored with my cousin Richard LaVerghetta.  I wrote about growing up with Rich in my blog post, The Calling.  Rich’s mother and my mother are identical twins, so Rich and I spent a lot of time together when we were young.  In the process we developed some similar interests, such as our love of ancient history.

One night while Rich and I were watching the movie Troy, we spent the majority of the time groaning at all of the movie’s errors.  For instance, in one scene the Greek city of Sparta appears on the coast.  In actuality, Sparta is inland, about 30 miles from the sea.

Sad to say, Troy is about as accurate as Sarah Palin’s 2011 comment that during the Revolutionary War, Paul Revere rode to warn the British, not the American colonists.  While laughing at the movie’s many gaffs, we wondered if the film had a historical consultant (it doesn’t).  If it had, we postulated that the poor fellow probably demanded his name be deleted from the credits as it would serve as a black mark on his career.

Thus the idea for Stealing Helen was born.  It’s main character, Donald, is a fictional history professor at Princeton University, and the historical consultant on the film.  Most of the characters are based on real people involved with the film, including; Brad Pitt, Orlando Bloom, Peter O’Toole, Diane Kruger and the director Wolfgang Peterson.

To let people know this is not journalism, this is farce, we added a sub-title on the cover, “A satire about the movie Troy,” and we added a disclaimer on the copyright page stating, “This is a work of satire.  All characters and events in this story, including those based on real people, are entirely fictional.”

To write the story, Rich and I adopted a technique we used when we were teenagers.  I wrote a scene of the story, sent it to Rich, who wrote the next scene, and so forth.

What began as a project to poke fun at Troy, became something else as the story progressed.  I’m not sure how it happened, but as we were writing we began drawing parallels between what was going on in ancient Troy and what was going on in Donald’s personal life.

The end result, particularly the ending of the story, was a surprise to Rich and I, as it concluded with a scene we had not foreseen when we initiated the project.  Chalk it up to the magic of writing.   Sometimes delightful things happen that you hadn’t anticipated.   What started out as comedy, ends with something poignant to say about relationships.

Decision to Place only on Amazon

The story appears only on Amazon.  At this point, I see no reason to place it on Barnes & Nobles or Smashwords, as neither book seller yields anywhere near the number of readers as Amazon.  From what I’ve noted over the past year, Amazon truly is king.

One additional note.  It appears that Amazon’s ‘free book’ promotion is drying up.  It’s no where near as effective as it was a year ago.  In April 2013, when I offered The Wandering King for free for five days it yielded approximately 900 downloads.  When I did similar with the short story Inherit the Flames early in 2014, it yielded about 150 downloads.  Stealing Helen yielded only 75.

From what I’ve read, Amazon has woken up to the fact that they don’t make any money by offering free content.  So it seems they’ve changed their mysterious algorithms related to book rankings yet once again.  Where in the past, after offering your book for free it ended up placed high in its book category, now there is no lift at all after the book’s free promotion is concluded.  Which gives authors one less reason to give their book away.

What Amazon is now pushing is their new ‘countdown deal’ promotion.  Instead of offering your book for free, this new deal enables you to lower the price of your book for 5 days.

I imagine these changes will help Amazon accomplish its goal of eliminating the mountains of free content on their site, and make them more money.

My apologies for not posting something here in my blog to let people know when Stealing Helen was free.  If you are interested in reading an amusing short story, the good news is that it’s only .99 cents.  That’s a bargain in any historical epoch.

Inherit the Flames

flames3

In an author’s blog, I recently found a comment that after she had written three books she noticed a dramatic increase in sales.  She now has 12 books out, but it was after her third book hit the shelves that she felt she gained more reader attention and things began to take off.

It is going to be several months before I finish the second book in The Wandering King series, and possibly another few years before the third book in the trilogy appears. 

So I began wondering how I might be able to get a few more content on Amazon without taking too much time away from working on my Greek story. 

Don’t know if it’ll make a difference or not, but I’ve decided to publish a few short stories on Amazon.  The first of these is titled Inherit the Flames.

It’s a modern re-telling of the Biblical Cain and Abel story about a good brother and a bad brother.  Bad brothers tend to get into more trouble, so there is more opportunity for conflict, so the story follows one day in the life of Cain’s modern day counterpart, Conor. 

Both 18-year old Conor and his 21-year old brother Aidan are equally intelligent and talented, but each have chosen a different path in life; Conor to become a rock guitarist and Aidan to go to med school.  Take a guess at which one their religious parents favor and which is the outcast? 

The story is set in and around Atlantic City in 1978.  I lived in that area when I was young and as this was the year before gambling was legalized in Atlantic City, it provides a gritty backdrop to the story.  In those days my friends referred to Atlantic City as ‘Sin City’ as it was overrun with drugs, prostitution and racial strife. This is the enviroment that Conor is trying to esacpe and he’s got one day to do it. Will he succeed?  That question propels the plot forward.

Juxtaposed against Conor and Aidan are two female characters, Miriam and Alyssa, one from the wrong side of the tracks and one from a wealthy family that has given her everything. I’ve included them to add depth to the central theme of the story: do we inherit the sins of our fathers?  Are Conor and Miriam doomed simply because their fathers were evil men? Or will they escape their fate?

Though the short story only costs .99 cents on Amazon, if you’re reading this blog and tempted to buy it, wait till March 1.  I’ll be offering it for free through Kindle Select from March 1 through March 5.

Market Your eBook: Ereader News Today

entThis week I opted to try promoting my book through Ereader News Today.  They send out a daily email to their 400,000 members advertising 1-3 ebooks and provide a link to your book on Amazon.  Their service is strictly for Kindle users.

To get promoted in one of ENT’s emails you have to agree to two things:  lower the price of your book so that their members are receiving a deep discount and pay ENT 25% of whatever sales you make that day.

For me, that meant lowering the ebook price of The Wandering King from $3.99 to .99 cents.  Not sure yet what they will charge me, but I can see that over their one-day promotion I received approximately 270 ebook sales.  I’m guessing I’ll owe ENT something like:  270 x .99 = $267 x 30% Amazon royalty rate = $80 x 25% fee = $20.  Twenty dollars is a negligable price to pay for getting my book into 270 additional readers’ hands.  Plus, their fee is coming out of new sales, so it’s not really costing me a dime.

ENT also has a Facebook page where they encourage authors to interact with their members.  By doing so, ENT claims it helps get your book noticed.  I posted 2 messages there.  Whether it helped increase sales, I have no way of knowing, but I figure it didn’t hoit.

All in all, I’ve been quite happy with ENT’s service, and have noticed that even after I raised the price back up to $3.99, I continued to get a spike in sales, possibly from their members who spotted the email after the promotion.

If your primary goal is to make money, ENT may not be the way to go.  But if your goal is to get read,  ENT can help immensely.  I also have 270 additional word-of-mouth advertisers out there promoting my book and 270 potential reviewers that I may never have found otherwise.

bookbubThere is similar service called BookBub.   Like ENT, they offer to send out an email promoting your book to their subscribers.  What’s different is that:  (1) they’ll provide links to Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Smashwords, (2) you don’t have to discount your book price, and (3) you do have to pay a fee for their service.

The price BookBub charges is based on the number of subscribers they have in your book category and the price of your book.  For instance, they have 430,000 historical fiction subscribers.  If your book is free they charge $200, less than $1 they charge $400, $1-$2 they charge $600 and over $2 they charge $1,000.

If I were to keep the price at $3.99 and to receive a similar number of sales that I got through ENT, I would spend $1,000 and end up making $800.  Odds are, at $3.99 instead of .99 cents, I’ll get less sales, so it could end up costing a pretty penny.  Even if I were to lower the price to .99 cents, and even if I received 270 sales, it would end up costing over $300.

Might sound foolish, but I am determined not to spend money marketing my book.  So for me, I don’t see where BookBub makes sense.  If others have tried it, I would love to hear about your experience.

Smashwords: Access to Multiple e-Bookstores (sort of)

smashwords

Though initially excited about getting my book, The Wandering King, onto the web site of the e-book seller Smashwords, ultimately the results have been disappointing.  To explain…

Getting your book on Smashwords is an ordeal akin to one of Hercules’ labors.  Like Amazon, they provide you with a free guide on how to format your e-book for Smashwords.  Unlike Amazon’s clear, concise booklet, the Smashword’s manual is over 100 pages long.  Oi.

Not wanting to go through their novel length ‘how to’ book, I tried uploading my existing e-book file that had worked with Amazon.  No luck.  Tried the same with the file I used for Barnes & Noble’s Nook.  Strike two.  All right, time to crack open their 100-page opus.

Smashwords’ distribution channels

One of the things I didn’t realize about Smashwords, is that when you format your e-book for their site, if you do it according to their specs, you can qualify for something called ‘premium status.’  If your book makes the grade, not only can you put it for sale on Smashwords, they give you access to 12 sites like Apple’s iBookstore, Kobo, Sony, Diesel, even public libraries. 

The first thing they recommend in their formatting guide, is to strip out all of the current formatting in your MS Word doc.  You can do this by copy/pasting the entire book into a program on your computer called WordPad.  Putting it into WordPad knocks out all of your italics, tabs, links, font styles, etc.  Then all you do is select your entire document in WordPad and copy/paste it back into MS Word.  Then you begin the laborious process of adding back all of your formatting. 

Smashwords’ guide walks you through each step, including how they want you to set up the links in your table of contents.  As every ancient Greek word in my book was italicized, it took me a long time to get all of the formatting back in my book, but according to Smashwords, by starting with a clean copy, you eliminate any possible quirks that may have wormed their way into your original MS Word doc. 

Too, because every e-book seller seems to use their own format (such as ePUB, PDF, MOBI, LRF, RTF, etc…) it’s wise to follow Smashword’s instructions to ensure it meets their formatting requirements, because when you’re done, if successful, once you upload the book to Smashwords, their internal programming automatically saves your book in multiple formats (such as ePUB, PDF, MOBI, etc.) giving you access to Apple iBookstore, Sony, Kobo, etc.

Though it took a while to fix all of the formatting in my book, it was well worth the effort.  The third time I tried uploading the book to Smashwords was a charm.  It passed their internal checks and even qualified for their premium status, giving me access to a number of new booksellers.

Should you format your book first for Smashwords instead of Amazon? 

In hindsight, I wondered if I should have started working with Smashwords, instead of Amazon, as both Amazon and Barnes & Noble are among the distribution sites that Smashwords gives you access to. 

Once my book was on Smashwords and they began distributing it to other e-book sellers, I realized, no, I was glad I started with Amazon and did it myself with Barnes & Noble.  Why?  The main reason is you have more control over your book and how it appears for sale on those sites.

Amazon is the biggest bookseller on the planet.  That’s where I’m getting 95% of my book sales, both e-book and paperback.  If I want to change my book description or the search engine keywords, it’s a snap on Amazon.  You make the changes online, and within hours they are live.

This is where I have a problem with Smashwords.  Yes, my book appears on their site and they’ve gotten it on most of the sites they advertise, but I’m guessing they don’t send along the keyword search string to these sites.  For instance, when I do a search on Kobo or Sony under ‘ancient Greece’ or ‘Sparta’ my book does not appear.   In fact, the only way you can find my book on these sites is to do a search for my name or the book name, ‘The Wandering King.’  Otherwise, my book is invisible on those sites.  Nor has it ever shown up on the Apple iBookstore. though Smashwords claims it is there.  I guess I just need new glasses.

To smash or not to smash?

I don’t know that Smashwords’ services are quite as good as advertised.  Nor are the sales.  In the 2 months my book has appeared on their site and the multiple other sites they distribute to, I’ve made a whopping single sale.  Whoopty-do.

The other area where I have a problem with Smashwords is the description of the book that appears on sites like Kobo and Sony.  Smashwords asks you to write a long book description and a short one, both of which appear on their site.  Unfortunately the short description is about three sentences, and that’s what they feed to most of their distribution partners.  Make a change to your book description on Smashwords, it’s hit or miss whether it gets posted on the other sites.

So although it sounds great that Smashwords will help you get onto all these other e-bookstores, you end up with no keywords for people to find your book, and you end up with a minimal book description.  No wonder I have not received any sales from these sites.  Readers have no way of finding my book, and when they do, there is very little to tease them into buying a copy.

About the best thing I can say about Smashwords is that they format your book into multiple e-book fomats for free.  If you need an ePUB or MOBI file of your book, Smashwords does the heavy lifting for you.  Other than that, my experience with them thus far has been far from a smashing success.