Monthly Archives: February 2012

Pricing Your E-Book: What’s the Sweet Spot?

Authors who self-publish their work must weigh a number of considerations when determining a price for their book. Among these are:

  • Perception of quality
  • Consumer appeal
  • Author royalties
  • Marketing
  • Time spent

Let’s examine these considerations:

  • Perception of quality. Does the 99-cent novel consign our work to that wasteland of low-quality, error-riddled novels? Are you banking on savvy consumers to somehow pick out your high-quality novel among the scores of amateur efforts? I decided to price my first novel, Small Change, at $2.99, which is the lowest price on Amazon for which the 70 percent author royalty applies. Why? Frankly, I thought it was worth at least that, but as a new author, I didn’t feel confident pricing it above that level. My thought on perception is this: if you believe your novel is of a high quality (don’t we all?) and you have put a lot of time and resources into your work, I see no reason not to price it at $2.99 or higher. That’s less than the cost of a latte at your favorite coffee shop.
  • Consumer appeal. The 99-cent novel has great appeal. It is low risk (no risk, really)/high reward for the consumer. If the consumer doesn’t like the book after finishing the first page or chapter, what has he lost? The consumer has paid less than he would for a pack of gum. The price point matters to consumers. Just ask Amanda Hocking or John Locke. I haven’t ruled out dropping my price to 99 cents, but I would like to have a second book out there before I do that.
  • Author royalties. If you are confident your book will sell and are willing to put in the time and effort to market it, you are leaving a lot of money on the table by opting for the 99 cent price. Amazon offers authors a royalty rate of 70 percent for books priced at $2.99 or above through its Kindle Direct Publishing program and 30 percent for books priced below $2.99. The example often cited is John Locke, who sold one million e-books at 99 cents, but would have made a lot more money by setting his price at $2.99. Of course 99 cents is part of a deliberate marketing strategy, which brings me to my next point.
  • Marketing. 99 cents is seductive. An author doesn’t need any descriptors like “only” or “such a bargain.” The price speaks for itself. Put on your marketing hat and ask yourself: is it possible to underprice a book in these times? I don’t think so, especially when authors are offering “free” promotions to get their work in the hands of readers. However, it is possible to over-price your book. If you are a first-time author and you are charging $4.99 for your book (just to pick a number out of the air), why would a consumer want to take a chance on you when he could buy the hot new 99 cent novel? Besides, if you charge 99 cents and sell a ton of books, a publisher will take notice, as was the case with Amanda Hocking, who was signed by St. Martin’s Press.
  • Time spent.  Here’s where things get dicey. You have no problem charging 99 cents, but then you think about all the time you spent on your manuscript. Let’s say you spent 1,000 hours on the first draft. Figure another 1,000 hours on revisions, editing, proofreading, and polishing your work. These are conservative estimates. Throw in 50 hours for marketing and coordinating your cover design. That’s 2,050 hours. I’ve made close to $60 on my book so far. If you calculated an hourly rate for the time spent, I’m making pennies on the hour. And that’s fine with me. This is a passion, not a job. It all comes down to your goals and how to achieve them.

So what’s the bottom line? Authors should experiment with price. Err on the low side. Don’t get caught up thinking your book is the best one ever written and the reader will gladly pay eight or nine dollars. It’s not going to happen, unless you are Jonathan Franzen or Stephen King.

How much would you pay for an e-book by a first-time author? How much would you pay for an e-book by a renowned author?

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Book Review: “The Night Circus,” By Erin Morgenstern

Book Review: “The Night Circus,” By Erin Morgenstern.

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Book Review: “The Night Circus,” By Erin Morgenstern

One of the strongest elements of JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series was the setting. Rowling created a highly detailed and sweeping world that was both magical and scary. In her dazzling debut novel, The Night Circus, Erin Morgenstern attempts a similar feat. Like Hogwarts, Le Cirque des Revers (Circus of Dreams) is vivid, whimsical and highly developed. That’s where the similarities end.

Unlike Harry Potter, the stakes in The Night Circus do not involve the fate of the magical world. The stakes are personal as Morgenstern explores issues of love and obligation, competition and collaboration, fantasy and reality, free will and coercion, and the pursuit of one’s dreams.

The story centers on a bet between two illusionists in the late 1800s: Prospero the Enchanter, also known as Hector Bowen, and the mysterious Mr. A.H., also known as Alexander and the man in the gray suit. Prospero puts up his daughter, Celia, against a gifted orphan, Marco Alisdair, handpicked by Mr. A.H. The venue for the competition is a fantastical night circus, designed by theater impresario M. Chandresh Christopher Lefevre (you’ve got to love the names Morgenstern gives her characters).

The two stern taskmasters train their protégés without divulging the rules or the nature of the competition. They don’t even tell their competitor the identity of their adversary. Telling a tale like this is tricky high-wire act for any writer, but Morgenstern’s writing has a seductive quality that cajoles the reader into going along for the ride.

The strength of this story is the highly imaginative and detailed world of the circus. Morgenstern evokes all of the senses in her description of setting, making the circus come alive in the reader’s mind.

Eventually, Celia and Marco catch on to the game. They fall in love and, instead of competing, they decide to collaborate. But they must figure out a way to end the game without triggering a catastrophe.

I’m a fan of ambiguous endings because real life is that way. Rarely do people live happily ever after. However, this ending felt a little too ambiguous. It was as though Morgenstern wrote herself into a corner and couldn’t bear to end the story by making a more painful choice. That’s as much as I can say without spoiling the ending.

My only other criticism is that Morgenstern spends much more time describing every detail of the setting than she devotes to character development. In particular, I would have liked to have seen more about how Celia and Marco fell in love. It seemed to happen quickly without a lot of contact between the two rivals.

Still, these are minor flaws. I found The Night Circus to be an unusual and enjoyable novel.

How important is the setting to your novel?

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It’s Here! My First Novel: Small Change

Small Change. A Novel. By CG Blake

I launched my first novel, Small Change, over the weekend, culminating a five-year journey. I don’t even know where to begin in sharing with my fellow writers what I learned on this journey. Instead of one of those obnoxious “buy my book, buy my book” posts, I am going to highlight some of the major lessons learned:

The book you start out to write may not be the book you end up writing. Small Change began as a short story I wanted to bring into my local critique group. The premise was the wonder a small child feels when he experiences his first family vacation. I was going for a Jean Shepherd-type story. Jean Shepherd was a writer, radio talk show host and raconteur whose book, In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, was the inspiration for the TBS classic, A Christmas Story. My main character was John Sykowski and his family was from the Chicago suburbs. As I began developing the characters and the boy’s family, I realized I needed another family for them to meet on their summer vacation at a lake resort in Wisconsin. This family would be the opposite of the main character’s family. That family became the Crandales, from rural Iowa, headed by a second-generation minister. As I began writing, I realized the story of these two families had more potential than I imagined.

Do outline, but don’t be afraid to make mid-course adjustments. After I abandoned the short story in favor of a full-blown novel, I prepared a bare-bones outline of about a dozen milestone scenes. I’m more of a pantser than a plotter when it comes to outlining. The first draft served as my outline. I made one major change during the first draft. The character Rebekka, the daughter of the minister, was originally envisioned as the classic “wild child” of a clergyman, who drank and got high and had promiscuous sex. The problem with that was that I already had such a character, her younger brother, Ben. I completely redrew Rebekka as a painfully shy child and I explored the possibility of a romantic relationship with the main character, John.

Your first draft is only the beginning. I completed about eighty percent of the first draft during a period of feverish inspiration and activity in the fall of 2007. By the summer of 2008, the first draft was done. I put it aside for four weeks and then began the revision process. I realized how far I was from a finished product. I began sharing selected sections with members of my critique group. In the spring of 2009, I sent the first 50 pages to two agents I had met at a writer’s conference. They were extremely helpful, but passed on the project. One agent told me I sounded like an adult trying to sound like a 10-year-old child. John was 10 when the original story began. After numerous attempts to fix that problem, I decided the story started in the wrong place. I wrote a new chapter that started the story when John was 14, an easier voice for me to write.

Don’t be concerned if the theme is not immediately apparent. I worried constantly during the writing of my first draft about the theme. The story didn’t seem to have a theme. It wasn’t until a comment made by John’s mother on her deathbed that the theme hit me in the face. The mother, Marge Sykowski, tells John that every family must have its secrets. It’s what keeps families together. It was an “ah-ha!” moment for me. Once I knew the theme I embellished it during the revision process.

Build in plenty of time for the editing and critique process, but set a schedule. This was where the project got way off track. I sent the manuscript out for review and then I just waited. I didn’t feel comfortable setting deadlines for my reviewers since they were graciously volunteering their time. I lost more than a year while I waited. In the meantime, I started and finished the first draft of another novel. I lost my focus on Small Change and it was difficult to get back into it.

Weigh your publishing options carefully. I really wanted to go the traditional publishing route. I believed strongly in this work and I was confident I could secure a publisher. However, all of my queries were met with polite rejections. In researching the publishing industry, it became apparent that first-time authors faced long odds in the current environment. In deciding to go the self-publishing route, I was heavily influenced by a guest blog post by Victorine Lieske on JA Konrath’s blog. A self-published author, Lieske said she initially queried a handful of agents for her novel, Not What She Seems, and was relieved when they rejected her work. She said she knew it could take five years for her to get published and she didn’t feel she had the time to wait. She also didn’t want to sacrifice her other responsibilities in the pursuit of traditional publishing. I felt the same way. As an author in my mid-50s I don’t have five years to wait. I want to get published and write more books. So I decided to publish through the Kindle Direct Publishing program.

Writing a novel is a team effort. You cannot do it alone. So many people helped me along this journey, from my local critique group, a friend who is a graphic designer, my family, my book editor, our state authors and publishers group, and many friends who offered encouragement along the way.

I will be sharing other lessons in future blog posts. If you do want to buy the book:

Buy Small Change

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The Mean Editor

As an author I have a split personality. The writer side of me has the imagination and curiosity of a small child. I enjoy putting together the first draft. It’s like taking out a box of building blocks and experimenting until I build something beautiful. It’s fun to try different things, write scenes from different characters’ points of view, invent alternate scenarios, and different endings. When I’m finished I stand back and admire what I’ve created.

Then the editor side of me takes over. If the writer is the child, the editor is the adult. He’s a mean SOB. The editor takes the small child’s wonderful creation and tears it apart. If a chapter is too long, cut it. If a scene doesn’t work, out it goes. If a character doesn’t move the editor, the editor moves the character right out of the manuscript.

Info dumps? Back story? Don’t even go there. Adverbs? Forget it. Cute dialogue tags like “she opined?” Not a chance. Stick with “he said” and “she said.”

Through numerous rounds of editing the manuscript of my first novel, Small Change, it shrank from an unwieldy 126,000 words to 103,000 words. And the paring down process wasn’t just about getting the manuscript down to a publishable word count. There were scenes and chapters that I thought were clever when I wrote them. Upon further review, the clear-eyed editor decided to delete them. I reworked the first page and the opening chapter at least ten times. And then I lopped off the first four chapters after deciding the book started in the wrong place. The opening scene in my final draft wasn’t even in the first draft. I added it because it foreshadowed the first dramatic event in the story.

I cut anything that smacked of telling or rewrote it in a way that “showed” the scene to the reader instead.

What did I learn? These are some of the “big picture” (macro) issues to look at when editing:

  • Pointless dialogue. Dialogue should either reveal something about the character, the relationship among characters, or move the story along. Asking about the weather or how the other person is doing doesn’t belong in a novel.
  • Unbalanced scenes. Readers get bored with scenes that consist exclusively of dialogue. The same with scenes that are non-stop narrative. Writers need to strike a balance among narrative, action, and dialogue. Raymond Obstfeld’s book, The Novelist’s Essential Guide to Crafting Scenes is a great resource on balance in scenes.
  • Subplots that don’t connect to the main plot. Fiction writing experts say the longer a subplot goes on without connecting to the main plot, the greater the chances the reader will lose interest in the subplot, the main plot or both. Bring the two together.
  • Unnecessary scenes. Ask yourself this: what does this scene achieve? Is it really necessary to the story? Does it add anything? If not, it has to go.
  • Research dumps. You’ve heard the admonition against info dumps. Research dumps are just as bad. You may conduct exhaustive research on how a nuclear submarine works, but you will quickly lose your readers if you describe it in every detail. Include only those details that are central to the story.
  • Fantastic coincidences. Dean Koontz warned against this in his book on writing. Here’s one: a guy has a crush on a girl in high school and always regrets he didn’t pursue it. Years later, he finds himself divorced. On a trip to China, he runs into his old crush from high school, they hit it off and get married. Not likely. That’s what the reader is likely to think.
  • Bad endings. This is a broad category that includes the following: So what? endings, Happily ever after endings, Too neat resolutions endings, didn’t you (main character) learn anything? endings.

Often the writer feels so strongly about his prose that he cannot let anything go. That’s when the editor has to step in. You may read this and think to yourself, ‘Wait a minute. I’m the writer. I’m in charge. I make the final decision.’ I respect that opinion, but as far as I’m concerned, the editor side of me is the boss. He makes the final decision.

This dynamic changes when you submit what you think is your final manuscript and your publisher tells you to make some changes. In those instances, your publisher is the boss, though you should stick up for yourself if you feel strongly about your work.

Are you a mean editor? When there’s a dispute between your writer and editor sides, which one wins out?

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An Interview with A.D. Bloom

One of the benefits of belonging to a writer’s group is the opportunity to meet talented writers. Aaron Bloom is a fellow member of the West Hartford (CT) Fiction Writers Group. He is an inventive and imaginative writer. Here is my interview with him as he has published a new science fiction fantasy, The Bone Blade Girl.

An Interview with A.D. Bloom, author of The Bone Blade Girl

This month readers get their first look at A.D. Bloom’s new, 111 page, science fantasy novella, The Bone Blade Girl (Stitch: Book One). I took the opportunity to ask this Indie author about his main character – an ultra-violent eleven-year-old. – CB

CG Blake: So before I ask you about Molly, tell us briefly about The Bone Blade Girl and the world it’s set in.

AD Bloom: The Bone Blade Girl is set five hundred years after the end of the world, in a dark age where noble families are kept in power by Stitchlife gene-witches who rewrite them to post-human perfection. Molly is a young peasant girl from a walled town in the wilds who is rewritten for fantastic speed by a renegade Stitchlife and becomes the people’s champion in the struggle for power.

CG Blake: Okay, so why did you make your protagonist a cold-blooded, little girl with a knife?

AD Bloom: I chose to make Molly a little girl because I wanted a character who would make violence harder for the reader to accept as normal behavior. As readers (and movie and TV viewers), we’re pretty used to the idea of adult heroes killing people (especially for a cause), but when a little girl like Molly kills, I think it makes the horrific nature of the act more apparent.

CG Blake: Right from the first page, Molly seems quite easily capable of killing. Did you write her to be some kind of a sociopath?

AD Bloom: Although Molly does possess a cold calm that enables her to kill without what you and I would consider normal empathy or mercy, she isn’t a sociopath in the strict sense if only because she cares so much about the well-being of the people around her. It’s actually a sense of social responsibility that drives Molly to action. That’s the same reason why a lot of people throughout history have committed heinous acts – to make the world better, or at least what they thought was better. It’s a recurring theme throughout all three books in the Stitch Series.

CG Blake: Are all three books about Molly?

AD Bloom: Molly is the main character of all three books, but the story isn’t only about her. It’s about Power. It’s about situational ethics, too, and there are lots of other characters. The Stitchlife Witches, the Populist guerrilla general, the nobles, and my favorite: the bear. After I finished Book Three I realized they’re all dark-hearted heroes – each and every one of them is capable of doing terrible things for a good cause, and none of them have unstained hands.

CG Blake: It seems like you always write your characters to be a little dark? Why?

AD Bloom: I think I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t at least partly in response to the last decade when I think a lot of us (here in America) became shockingly comfortable with the idea of doing something we know is wrong (torture, for example) to achieve an outcome we think is beneficial (saving lives with information we gained). That the ends should justify the means is in no way a new thought, but the level of comfort we have with it now is pretty appalling. Many of us (like Molly) have been seduced into believing that it is honorable to sacrifice oneself for a cause by doing things we know are wrong in order to achieve a noble end. I can see now how it crept into my characters – not just Molly, but others. I’m thinking of Father Doogan from Morituri, Bonnie Levi Mei from Bring Me the Head of the Buddha, and Harry Cozen from Cozen’s Call.

A.D. Bloom’s The Bone Blade Girl (Book One), The Fall of the Haunted City (Book Two), and The Stitchlife Rebellion (Book Three) are available on Kindle for $1.50 each.

http://www.amazon.com/Bone-Blade-Girl-Stitch-ebook/dp/B0077CZK7M

http://www.amazon.com/Fall-Haunted-City-Stitch-ebook/dp/B0077D75LU

http://www.amazon.com/The-Stitchlife-Rebellion-ebook/dp/B0077D75ZG

They can also be purchased bundled together for a 33% discount ($2.99) as Stitch: All Three Novellas in the Stitch Series.

http://www.amazon.com/STITCH-Three-Books-Stitch-ebook/dp/B0077D9D06

 

 

 

 

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Author Spotlight: Anne Tyler

This is the first in an occasional series of articles on authors I admire.

Anne Tyler, who recently published her 19th novel, The Beginner’s Goodbye, is one of the most prolific and respected authors of the late 20th and early 21st Centuries. Best known for her Pulitzer Prize winning novel, Breathing Lessons, (1988) and Pulitzer finalist, The Accidental Tourist (1985), both of which were made into movies, Tyler writes with uncommon depth and uncanny perceptiveness about families and the struggle for individual identity within the whole of the nuclear family.

In a profile on Tyler that included a rare interview with her, Jessica Strawser of Writer’s Digest wrote: “Her books are about families and the complications therein—marital discourse, sibling rivalry, resentment, and underneath it all, love. Tyler’s eccentric and endearing characters are so intensely real, so thoroughly developed, they come to life on the page—both for her as she writes and for the reader, who suddenly can see a bit of his own mother, father, brother or even self in their blurted-out words, their unspoken impulses, their mistakes, and with any luck, their moments of triumph.”

Read Anne Tyler’s Tips on Creating Strong (Yet Flawed) Characters in Writer’s Digest

Her unique style is on display in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, which Tyler considers her finest work. In a review of Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant in her book, Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel, fellow author and literature professor Jane Smiley wrote of Tyler’s style: “Tyler is subtle and retiring as an author. Her style is precise and insightful, her incidents are full of interest and psychological weight, and her structure works to lay bare the workings of the family.”

Although I found Dinner a satisfying work, my favorite Anne Tyler novels are Earthly Possessions (1977) and The Ladder of Years (1995). The two novels explore similar terrain—a  mother who is unappreciated by her family and has lost her sense of self. In both cases, the main character leaves her family, which in the hands of a less skilled writer, could come across as an act of selfishness, but in these two works it evokes empathy in the reader. In Earthly Possessions, Charlotte Emory decides to leave her husband. She goes to the bank to withdraw some money and is kidnapped. She decides during her ordeal that she doesn’t want to return to her family and actually begins to like her kidnappers. In The Ladder of Years, Delia Grinstead walks off the beach during a family vacation in Delaware and simply begins a new life without her family. Her long journey culminates in self-discovery.

As an author Tyler doesn’t follow trends or write big, grandiose novels. Her subject matter is the every-day travails of families and individuals. She once said that, “there aren’t enough quiet, gentle, basically good people in a novel,” words that are anathema to most agents and publishers. And yet there are few authors who can match the consistent high quality of her work.

In the Writer’s Digest interview, Tyler said she doesn’t think of her audience while she is writing a novel. “I’ve learned that it is best not to think about readers while I’m writing. I just try to sink into the world I’m describing. But at the very end, of course, I have to think about readers. I read my final draft pretending I’m someone else, just to make sure that what I’ve written makes sense from outside,” she said.

Tyler was born in Minneapolis but grew up in North Carolina. She graduated from Duke University at the age of 19 and completed her graduate work at Columbia University in Russian studies. She lives in Baltimore, where many of her works are set.

What is your favorite Anne Tyler novel and why?

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