Sunday, March 27, 2011

Writing a book: How hard can it be?

With all the discussion about e-books and self-publishing going on, I’ve started to think about assumptions that people make about writing, namely that writing is easy. Several people have told me that since I love to read books so much, I should write my own. After all, I know what I like to read, so I should be able to write something I would love to read. As flattering as the idea is, quite frankly it sounds like a ton of work to me! Writing is NOT easy, and good writing is even harder. I’m just not sure everyone’s aware of how difficult it can be.
For example, in an earlier post I mentioned teaser chapters and described some of my favorites. For a teaser chapter to be successful, an author has to have already thought out at the very least the basics of the plot for the upcoming novel, and written and revised a chapter from that novel. Sometimes the teaser is the very first chapter of the novel, which has to be one of the hardest parts of the book to write. Just think back to school when you had to write papers: wasn’t the introduction the most difficult part of the paper? In fact, I often tell my students to write an intro, write the paper, then go back, toss out the intro you began with, look at the body of the paper, and re-write the intro. The reason for this is that often in the process of writing, we discover new ideas and what we started out with is nothing like the finished product. A good first chapter of a novel has to accomplish a lot. The author has to capture our interest immediately, set up the story, and create a character. In a great book, this character will develop throughout the novel, and sometimes the best books have characters who take on lives of their own. But the basis for that character has to be there from the beginning, and sometimes in the process of writing, a character changes, which requires revising earlier chapters. So for an author to include the first chapter of a novel in a previously published book implies that all this time and effort she put into creating the novel has already taken place. Quite frankly, there’s a good reason books, paintings, and music are referred to as “works of art.” Writing is hard work.
In another previous post I mentioned a few thoughts on the difficulties of writing a series. There are two possible ways of constructing a series: planning out the entire series beforehand a la J.K. Rowling and developing a series as you go along. I am in awe of anyone who plots out a series in advance, because I’m just not that organized, nor am I creative enough to establish new, fictional worlds and know how my characters will act and react within those worlds. I would have to develop a series as I went along, perhaps choosing secondary characters who interest me in the process of writing the first novel and then exploring that character. And I suspect that this is what happens with many new authors, although when pitching a novel to a publisher, I’m sure that discussing how a series could come from that first novel would be wise. Either way, a great deal of thought has to go into creating a series and maintaining it – both of which require hard work.
This leads me back to my first paragraph and how the discussion of e-books and self-publishing prompted this post. Romance author Connie Brockway announced on Friday on the All About Romance blog that she will be self-publishing her books from now on. I haven’t read Ms. Brockway’s novels, but I see her books in all the bookstores and wholesalers, so she clearly has achieved quite the degree of success. She mentions several reasons for leaving the legacy publishers (legacy publishers = big name publishing houses). She states that she wants to write several sequels that the publishers weren’t interested in and feature different locales in her novels. What I find most intriguing about her comments is that she says that the publishers are now requiring authors to take up much of their own publicity through social media, such as Twitter, Facebook, and blogs.
In the past, the reason for going with a publisher was that the publisher would take care of the editing, publicity, distribution, and cover art. With the success of social media, computers, and e-readers, authors can now do all of this themselves. Ms. Brockway mentions a fascinating discussion between Barry Eisler and Joe Konrath about Mr. Eisler’s decision to leave legacy publishing and self-publish. Mr. Eisler has a lot of good reasons to do so, namely his desire to control prices on his backlist and improve speed of delivery to his readers. However, I’m not sure how realistic his and Ms. Brockway’s expectations are.
My question is why would you want to do all this for yourself? My sister and I discussed this last night, and she compared self-publishing to renovating your house. You could hire a contractor to do everything for you, or you could save money by doing the renovations yourself. Of course, if you do the renovations yourself, you will invariably end up spending more time, because you will have to find individual plumbers, carpenters, etc. to do the work and/or learn to do all of it yourself. Similarly, self-publishing requires you to do all the work yourself. If you want to publish a good final product, you MUST find a good editor and spend a lot of time drumming up interest for your work. All of this then takes time away from what the artist should be focusing on: her writing.
Amanda Hocking is a famous example of one of the rare self-published authors who has been successful. I find it really telling that she has just signed a deal with St. Martin’s Press to publish her books. Here’s her blog post in which she defends her decision: Amanda Hocking blog.
Ms. Hocking and Mr. Konrath have both experienced commercial success through self-publishing. But the truth is that they are very rare examples. Writing is really hard work, and the ease of self-publishing an e-book does not ensure a quality product. In fact, I would argue the opposite. I think good writing is a process, and the advantage of going with a legacy publisher is that you have to go through editors to get published. When I compare some of the 99 cent novels I’ve read on Amazon with some of the books published through the big name publishing houses, it is clear that the latter is a superior product.
Both Connie Brockway and Barry Eisler are established authors who have decided to leave legacy publishers and go the self-publishing route. I’m intrigued go see how successful they will be and if the quality of their writing suffers. I suspect that it won’t, at least initially, because they have made their decisions so public and readers will be scrutinizing their future work. However, I’m not sure that new authors will have as much success with self-publishing, because new authors are the ones who need time to hone their craft. Either way, all of this discussion leads me to believe that the publishing industry is headed for some drastic changes, which is exciting!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

E-Book pricing update

So as I was searching the blogosphere this morning, I ran across several interesting blog posts about e-book pricing that were really informative. I’m listing the links here so you can check them out for yourself. I think the bloggers make some interesting points, and it certainly is food for thought.

Traditional romance author Stephanie Laurens has a blog ( that I have just started following. She’s posting a series of thought-provoking blogs about the publishing industry, why we read, and pricing. I’ve read many of her novels (she’s published 47 books), although I haven’t read her most recent one. Her comments are insightful, especially her most recent post about story-telling, and how e-books are merely one more format change in the evolution of stories. In one of her recent posts, she argues that print publishing will be here if not to stay, then at least for a long while, because readers want to see an author’s product in the format to which they are accustomed. In my earlier post on e-book pricing, I questioned why publishers would get so upset about e-book prices when you can purchase a book at Walmart or Target for a discounted price. Ms. Laurens made this comment in her blog about that very topic:

What will significantly impact the speed at which e-books replace p-books is the contraction of shelf space in wholesale.
The day either Walmart or Target axes the floor space they currently devote to genre paperback bestsellers is the day genre fiction publishing starts on the downhill run to e-book + POD only.”
I think Ms. Laurens is dead-on in her comments, and I encourage you to check out her blog.

There’s an interview with author Zoe Winters on ( about authors who self-publish and how offering low prices on books could be hurting the market. I read Ms. Winters’ first novel, Kept, on my Kindle last year, and I believe I downloaded it for free, although I can’t remember. It was not a bad read, although I haven’t purchased any of her books since. She explains in the interview that offering books at such a low price is often done to entice readers to try out a new author, in the hopes that they’ll then purchase future books at a higher price. Ms. Winters argues that this is actually counter-productive, because it devalues the work done by all authors and gets readers used to such low prices that they come to expect these prices. I’m not sure I agree completely, although I do confess that I often expect the quality of writing in a 99 cent book to be lower, which is not always the case.

In my experience, it does seem that the cheaper ebooks (less than $4.00) are usually self-published or from what appears to be a vanity press (you pay to get your book published). Typically these books are of an inferior quality, and I admit that I’m a much more forgiving reader for these books, because I haven’t invested a lot of money in them. If the writing is good, I’ll continue to purchase books by that author, and I would be willing to pay more, which in a way contradicts Ms. Winters’ argument. This has actually happened with authors Kinsey Holley and Heather Killough-Walden. I enjoyed their books, and paid more for Ms. Holley’s second novel, Yours, Mine and Howls, than her first. I’ll definitely continue to read her books, as I felt this second novel clearly demonstrated growth as a writer and have reread the book several times since I purchased it. I also like Ms. Killough-Walden’s books, but she continues to offer them at 99 cents or a dollar. She could easily raise the price and I would purchase the books, because she’s a good writer.

Blogger Jane at has also written a post about her thoughts on economics and value of books. (what-is-the-right-price-of-a-book-print-or-digital-part-one) She offers some comments about how we as readers decide if we will purchase a book based on how we value it. For example, if you had limited funds with which to purchase a book and someone you didn’t know well recommended a book or a close friend recommended one, you would choose to purchase the book recommended by the friend first. I agree with her comments, but I also have discovered that with my Kindle I’m more willing to try new authors I wouldn’t have read in the past. This could be for various reasons, but  I suspect much of it has to do with the ease of purchase on the Kindle. Even though the cost to me is the same as if I were making the purchase in a store, it’s dangerously easy to sit in bed and click on a link to download the book. Getting dressed and going to the bookstore involves much more work, and is far less likely to happen. So I’m wondering how the ease of purchase would affect perceived value as Jane describes it. It’s an interesting blog, and I recommend it.

Finally, regency romance author Sabrina Jeffries has several articles about publishing on her website,, that offer useful information about publishing terms, timelines, and the economics of writing. Her article, “The Big Misunderstanding About Money" is really funny and chock-full of information about the realities of how much an author really makes. Her point is that unless you’re a frequent New York Times bestseller, such as Nora Roberts, who seems to have more than 5 books out on the shelves at Walmart at any given moment, you’re probably not making a decent living by writing books. Ms. Jeffries doesn’t address the ebook issue in this article, but it’s definitely worth reading, just to see how much authors really make on a book.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Dog Days of Spring Break

As I watch my geriatric beagle stumble around the house with a lampshade cone around her head, I'm reminded of several of my favorite books that feature dogs. My go-to author when I need some laughs is Jennifer Crusie, and she has some great dogs as secondary characters in her books. In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve met some of the relatives of these mutts. They tend to be very loving but not too bright, rather like a certain beagle I know. I particularly like her books because unlike a lot of books featuring dogs, no one dies in the end and there’s a fun romance involved. Some days that’s exactly what you need!
The premise of Crusie’s The Cinderella Deal sounds completely unrealistic. Daisy, a starving artist, meets Linc, an uptight history professor, and helps him get a tenure-track job at a small liberal arts college in Pennsylvania by posing as his fiancée. In return, Linc pays her enough money to cover the rent. I’m sure you’re thinking this could never happen, but the reason Linc needs a fictional fiancée is that the chair of the history department at the college makes it clear that he will not be hired if he’s single. Of course, most people wouldn’t then fake an engagement… and then a marriage! Linc and Daisy decide to get married for a year, which will allow Daisy to paint and Linc to keep his job at the college.          

Fortunately for Linc, who is cursed to wear all black and have track lighting in his apartment (how horrid!), Daisy’s a free spirit. She rescues the most bizarre animals, including Jupiter, a truly ugly mutt with a bad hip and only one functioning eye. At first Linc feigns disgust, but both Jupiter and Daisy wear him down with their warmth and love. Daisy realizes she’s lost when she spies Linc singing to Jupiter (to the tune of B-I-N-G-O), “Daisy Blaise had a real dumb dog, and Jupiter was his name-o”. And who can resist a hero who sings to ugly dogs while going on to live a life free of track lighting?

Another favorite Crusie novel with lots of lovable mutts is Getting Rid of Bradley. The novel begins with Lucy divorcing the absent Bradley, who apparently is a real cold fish and wanted by the police. After the divorce is finalized, she and her sister go to a diner across the street from the courthouse for lunch, and Lucy decides she is going to stand up for herself from now on, darn it! Her first act after making this decision is to beat off an attempted mugger, a disreputable but sexy looking Zack. Sadly, Lucy’s efforts are in vain, because Zack is a cop. WHOOPS! While Lucy defends herself from Zack’s attempts to say hello, a shot rings out and he tosses her to the ground. Lucy can’t believe that anyone would actually be trying to kill her, but several subsequent attempts are made on her life, and Zack decides that he absolutely must move in with her to protect her. Someone (Bradley or someone more sinister) wants desperately to get into Lucy’s house.          

Clearly this is not your typical burglar, since he  would probably avoid Lucy’s house like the plague because of her 3 dogs, Einstein, Heisenberg, and Maxwell. Zack finds them a nuisance at first, since Einstein is constantly knocking things over, particularly the telephone, and Heisenberg is constantly following him around wanting Zack to help him perform his one trick. Rat-fink ex-husband Bradley apparently found them a nuisance as well, even going so far as to attempt to drive Heisenberg away and drop him off in another location. So it’s no surprise that marriage didn’t work out. Eventually, though, Zack finds himself envisioning a life with Lucy and the dogs, even bringing her a truly disgusting mutt that he names Pete. Really, what more could a girl ask for?

But my absolute favorite Crusie novel is Agnes and the Hitman, which is co-written with Bob Mayer. I laugh out loud nearly every time I read this book. Agnes is a syndicated food columnist who’s just purchased River Oaks, an old southern manse in Keyes, South Carolina. The novel begins with an attempted dog-napping of Rhett, Agnes’ drooling basset hound, and soon turns into a complete farce, complete with the mob, a wedding, and honking flamingos. Agnes has to throw a wedding for her best friend’s daughter at River Oaks or lose the house to its previous owner, Brenda. Sadly for the bride, Brenda is her grandmother, completely bonkers, and determined to cheat Agnes out of her home. When a photo of Rhett wearing a truly hideous necklace appears in Agnes’ column, old mobsters pour out of the woodwork to try and discover where she’s hidden the necklace and $5 million from an old mob job, making it even more difficult to pull off the wedding.

Agnes, although as cranky as her eponymous column, has friends, and those friends are determined to find the money and protect her. Shane, the titular hitman, comes to River Oaks for a job, but stays for her excellent cooking, among other things (it is a romance novel, after all!). Perhaps I enjoy this book so much because I’m a Southerner married to a Yankee myself, and watching the New Jersey mob clash with South Carolina culture is a hoot. Or maybe I just want to live vicariously through Agnes, who puts her frying pan to good use by assaulting 2 cheating ex-boyfriends and saving Rhett from that dog-napping. By the end of the novel, Agnes owns the name “Cranky Agnes,” and that’s just the way Shane likes it.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

eBooks and the Publishing Industry

As an avid reader and Kindle owner, I’ve recently become interested in the economics of the publishing industry. When I first received my Kindle in February of 2009, one of the advantages of owning a Kindle was the discount on paperbacks and hardbacks offered by Amazon. All hardbacks were $9.99, and most paperbacks were discounted either 10 or 20%. However, about 6 months or so after getting my Kindle, I noticed that books that were available for pre-order for the Kindle were now no longer available even though the printed text was. I soon learned that certain publishing companies were protesting Amazon’s reduced pricing for the Kindle. The end result is that now many of the prices for ebooks published by certain companies (Harper Collins, Penguin, and Random House, for example) are fixed at the cover price, and the electronic version of hardbacks is usually $12.99.

            I must confess that I am hardly the first person to blog about the publishing industry’s pricing wars, but I’ve never understood the publishers’ stance on ebooks and e-publishing. Since owning my Kindle, I purchase a TON more books than I did before, and I suspect that a good case could be made by my husband for my attending some sort of “resort” that aids those with addictions. There’s no doubt that the ease of purchase associated with the Kindle makes my addiction that much more difficult to quit. My husband should give thanks that I’m not giving up my Kindle for Lent, because Kindle deprivation could lead to some nasty side effects, namely finding things to add to the “Honey Do” list. Bottom line, I’m spending a lot of money on books, and since Amazon recently announced that their ebook sales have surpassed mass market paperback sales, I’m at a loss to explain why the publishing industry seems determined to raise ebook prices.
This decision becomes even more bizarre when I can walk into any Walmart or Target and find mass market paperbacks and hardbacks at reduced prices. The publishing companies are clearly not losing money by selling to these stores or they would have raised a stink about the prices and fixed them at the cover price as well. So my question then becomes, what’s the difference between purchasing the paperback at a Walmart at a reduced price and purchasing the Kindle version?
My sister and I recently discussed this phenomena, and we both admitted that we’re far more likely to try a new author on the Kindle than in a physical bookstore. I’ve also seen an article that said that romance novel sales have soared with the growing popularity of ebook readers. I’m not ashamed to admit that it’s a bit embarrassing to purchase a low-brow romance novel with some half-naked stud and a woman with enormous breasts hanging from her strategically placed dress! I once purchased a Georgette Heyer romance and a Frida Kahlo book at a Waldenbooks, only to have the cashier make a comment about that being a strange combination. I certainly don’t have that problem now! And since Waldenbooks is now defunct and Amazon is rolling in the dough, I have to think that there’s something to Amazon’s business model.

            Another troubling issue I’ve noticed with books is the move from mass market paperback to trade paperback. For a long time, I thought the trade paperback format was reserved for either academic texts that had been on the market in hardback or erotica. This could very well have been an entirely erroneous assumption on my part, but that was the impression I had. But lately I’ve begun to see a lot of novels that would probably have been published in mass market paperback being issued in trade paperback format. Since the trade paperbacks tend to sell for $14.99 and the mass market ones for $7.99, I have to assume that this is a ploy to get more money from readers. However, I pretty much refuse to purchase trade paperbacks, and I certainly don’t try new authors in that format. $14.99 (or $9.99 on the Kindle) is a lot of money to risk on an unknown or even a known author. I haven’t purchased any of Nora Roberts’ books in trade paperback, even though she is usually one of my auto-buys. And Amazon kept recommending Chloe Neill’s Chicagoland Vampires series for me, but I didn’t want to try them because of the high cost. I did find one of the Neill’s books on a bargain table at a Borders (and Borders is another subject for another rant) for only $3.99 and for that price, was willing to give her a try. I’m glad I did, because it’s a great series and she’s a good writer. It just seems to me that launching a new author in trade paperback, while perhaps intending to indicate a higher quality product, is just going to make people reluctant to try that author.

            The publishing industry’s reluctance to embrace the technology of ebooks seems extremely impractical to me. Ebooks clearly are not “killing” books; more people are buying books than before, just in a different format. I understand that late last year Dorchester decided to stop issuing paperbacks and only issue ebooks. I think that’s as much a mistake as engaging in pricing wars over ebooks is! I also recently learned that Harper Collins is now limiting the number of times libraries can lend ebooks to 26. I don’t understand this decision either, because once a library purchases a printed text, the publisher receives no more profit from it, so why would an ebook make a difference? Now Amazon is allowing Kindle users to “share” ebooks purchased with others, which again is no different than if I purchased a paperback and then passed it to my mother-in-law (which I do frequently). I understand that the publishing industry has been struggling economically for years, but the growing popularity of ereaders seems to be a possible solution, rather than signaling the death of publishing. I’m certainly curious to hear what others think on this issue, so please share your thoughts!

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Not Quite Human Heroines

Two new releases this week rescued me from certain death by daytime television while I recovered from the flu: Patricia Briggs’ River Marked and Seanan McGuire’s Late Eclipses. After finishing the books, I realized that the heroines of these two series seem to get the stuffing beaten out of them on a regular basis. Fortunately, neither one is completely human, so they are able to make speedy recoveries. And, really, are the authors going to kill off the reasons for the series? Given the excellent writing in both novels, I certainly hope not.
            If you’re looking for either of these books in your local bookstore, you won’t find them in the romance section. They’re considered Sci-Fi/Fantasy, but both involve some romance. River Marked (the sixth book in Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series) definitely features romance: the novel takes place during Mercy’s honeymoon. (Note: this isn’t a spoiler – the honeymoon aspect is discussed on the book’s jacket.)
            For those of you not familiar with Mercy, she’s a walker, a shape-shifter who turns into a coyote. She was raised by werewolves and in this novel she marries Adam Hauptman, the alpha werewolf whose house is right behind her trailer. Mercy’s a lot of fun. She has a history teaching degree, but works as a Volkswagen mechanic and is fiercely loyal to her friends, an eclectic mix of humans, vampires, werewolves, and fae. Mercy is, like the great Coyote, impetuous, but she also believes in doing the right thing, no matter the cost to herself. She is frequently injured when she gets drawn into dangerous situations because she is defending her friends.
            In River Marked, Mercy and Adam are on their honeymoon when they rescue a man attacked by a creature in the river. This novel strays a bit from the other novels in the series, in that Mercy and Adam are on a trip away from the werewolf pack and their other friends. The conflict in River Marked stems from the fight with the river creature, but we also learn about Mercy’s Native American ancestry, something that hasn’t come up in the previous novels. This difference leaves me feeling somewhat conflicted. I enjoyed the novel and felt that it continues the arc of the story in the series well. However, like other reviewers I’ve read, I did miss the interaction with the pack and other secondary characters from the series.
            Seanan McGuire’s Late Eclipses doesn’t have the central romance between main characters that River Marked has, but there is certainly some sexual tension between the secondary characters and the heroine, Toby Daye. Toby’s story takes place in a San Francisco that coexists with the world of Faerie. But Toby isn’t a shape-shifter. She’s a changeling, with a pureblood fae mother and a human father. Just like Mercy, Toby stubbornly insists on being loyal to her friends and doing the right thing no matter the personal cost. Unfortunately for Toby, these character traits have had harsh consequences: she no longer has contact with her teenage daughter and several close friends have died.
            Toby is definitely a hero, but she’s come to the role kicking and screaming. In this fourth installment of McGuire’s series, the Queen of Mists has named Toby the Countess of Goldengreen, a faerie knowe. This is undoubtedly some sort of trap, since the Queen hates Toby, and very quickly two of Toby’s most powerful friends are poisoned in such a way that it implicates Toby. In her attempts to help her friends, Toby suffers injury and loss, but manages to recover. What is intriguing about Toby, however, is her ability to face unpleasant truths and move forward with the knowledge that she gains.  
            Both Mercy and Toby are likeable, flawed heroines who try to do the right thing with mixed results. In their worlds, they are at serious physical and magical disadvantages because of their human halves, but it is those human halves that make them believable. These heroines are fun to read, because they face very real dilemmas that often cannot be resolved in an easy fashion. Their loyalty to their friends is reciprocated, and while the situations they find themselves in often involve magic and monsters, their relationships and decisions are all too human. As readers, we don’t have to worry about faeries who make life-altering decisions about our lives or monsters who destroy our loved ones, but we do live in a complex world and have to make decisions when there is no one right answer. And that’s why it’s so very satisfying to read about Mercy and Toby: they get knocked down by monsters over and over again, but they keep getting up, even when it hurts.