Friday, September 28, 2012

Liebster Blog Award

Last Saturday I was both surprised and delighted to receive the Liebster Blog Award. Pathetic as it sounds, I was not even aware of blog awards until this one came my way, and now I’m happy to pass along the good karma to other hard-working, under-appreciated folk. It took me a few days to find the right mix, because so many good candidates had already been nominated. But I finally came up with a list. (For my nominations, see the end of the post.)

The Rules

The Liebster Blog Award is supposed to be given to smaller, deserving blogs with 300 or less followers in hopes of sharing that blogger’s hard work with the rest of the world. You are supposed to thank the person who nominated you as well as nominate 3 to 5 blogs yourself. Finally, you can answer some questions about yourself that your nominator either came up for you or used in their own acceptance blog. I have borrowed some of my nominator’s questions. 

So, to get started, thank you, Pixie Bubbles, for nominating me! This is my first blog award, and I am so happy to receive it, especially from someone I had not known previously. Not only do I appreciate the award, but I am happy to have discovered your blog,, which I will be following from now on.

Questions and Answers

What keeps you writing when you have writer’s block? I hardly ever have writer
s block, strictly speaking (writers procrastination is another story). When I do, I stop and think about my novel and what's wrong with it—whats tripping me up, in other words. Usually, I’m trying to force a character. Sometimes Im not really immersing myself in the scene, so the writing feels clichéd and flat. If I can identify what the problem is, then Im energized to go on. If not, I go back and edit a previous section. That almost always gets me back in the flow.

Most writers have a literary counterpart—a character from their stories who reflects themselves. Tell us about yours.Nina Pennington from The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel, my first novel, is the most like me: a historian, better with books than with people, socially awkward, serious, a bit literal minded. I
m not shy now, but I used to be when I was younger. And Nina was more like me in earlier drafts, but I learned from writing Nasan (in The Golden Lynx—my second book, just published) that its easier to write someone whos less like me.

What are your passions? Writing, reading, taking classical ballet classes. Cats—I have two, and they
're great. I also have an odd weakness for new software programs.

You’ve had a fight with your significant other and you want to fix things. I do the opposite of what my characters do! I try to listen to my husband
s point of view—not immediately, while Im still angry, but as soon as I can—and try to keep talking until I can imagine what the problem looks like to him. And apologize, even if I think hes exaggerating. Theres almost always something to apologize for, and it helps get past the emotional barriers of both people trying to prove they're right.

What’s one injustice you see in the world that you would fix in a story?Most of the injustice in the world comes from one group of people judging others on the basis of superficial characteristics. Even when my characters start out doing that (and most of them do, in one way or another), all my stories encourage people to see past those outward differences and recognize others
humanity. Characters who make that leap succeed; those who dont, fail.

If you could change one thing in your life, what would it be?I would have started writing fiction earlier, so that I could have learned more and established professional ties sooner. And I would like to write full-time, or at least half-time, from now on. I can’t afford to do that yet, but I would love to one day.

What’s important to you at this point in time?Finishing the series I
ve started and finding a way to have more free time to do the things I love, including spending time with my family.

Do you make it a habit of telling others what you thought of their work, even if your experience wasn’t good?I never offer critiques un
asked. If people do ask me, then I tell them the truth, but the truth includes the good as well as the bad. So I start by looking for what I liked in their work, then I offer positive, specific suggestions for how to fix the problems. For example, I would say, “I don't understand why this character reacts this way to this event” or “If someone treated me this way, I would want to kick him,” not “this character makes no sense” or “I hated this section.” Even if its true, its not helpful. The person wont hear what the problem is or know how to fix it. And in most cases, it is not true. More often, a vague response expresses laziness or frustration on the part of the critiquer, who didnt take the time to figure out exactly what s/he was reacting to.


Last, here are my nominations. I will notify each winner personally. As Pixie Bubbles noted when she nominated me, I selected these people because they seemed to have put time and effort into creating interesting, thoughtful blogs that deserve to be better known. Some of them I know, others I dont, but quality, not friendship, was the deciding factor. I also tried to pick sites that had not already received awards. So check them out. You should find something you like!

Here are the five people I nominate:
Karen Adams:
Julian Berengaut:
Stephanie Carroll:
Courtney J. Hall:
Sandi Sonnenfeld:

And so that the winners do not need to ask (as I did), being nominated is the same as winning. So start investigating the blogs you yourself would like to nominate!

P. S. Karen Adams writes to me that she can’t participate at this time, so I would like to nominate in her place Bryn Hammond’s blog: I just discovered Bryn’s blog last night, after making my choices and writing this post. While I think it will interest many people, it has a special meaning for me. My Legends of the Five Directions series explores the lives and culture of Genghis (more properly, Chinggis, Jinggis, or Jenghis—that g is soft) Khan’s descendants, so it deals with similar topics at a different time.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Does It Really Cost Nothing to Produce an e-Book?

The Rationale behind Five Directions Press

This is not a new question, but it resurfaced for me with a recent post I saw on Goodreads. Someone was objecting to paying $20 for an e-book because, to paraphrase, e-books cost nothing to produce.

Well, I too object to paying $20 for an e-book. In fact, I object to paying $20-25 for any book, even a hardcover or a nonfiction book. In the days before e-readers, I routinely borrowed hardbacks from the local public library or waited a year for the paperback release rather than shell out full price. For an e-book, which requires no paper and no physical storage, existing solely as a tiny bunch of electronic data on huge servers that would be running anyway to meet the world’s computing needs, $20 indeed seems excessive.

But does it follow that because electronic books cost negligible sums to store and to read and nothing to print, there are therefore no costs associated with e-publication? That e-books should be free or $0.99 or some other negligible sum? That proposition is much more difficult to sustain.

In their defense of high prices, traditional publishers note that they maintain staffs of editors, cover and book designers, compositors, art directors, marketers, and more. They pay rent and upkeep on buildings, furniture, and equipment. They pay taxes. They run advertising campaigns to promote their titles. They hire freelance copy editors and proofreaders to ensure that the books they produce correspond to house style and go to press as free of spelling, typographical, and other errors as is humanly possible. These people are meticulous and often extremely talented. Their expertise is the reason that print books produced by traditional publishers look professional—and their absence explains why self-published books often, regrettably, don’t. But they cost money. Lots of money, even if you don’t pay them full salaries and benefits but just hire one as you need him or her for a specific job. Those costs are reflected in the e-book price, just as they are reflected in the print price. There are additional expenses for printing and storing and distributing physical books, but they are much smaller than you might think.

Of course, self-pubbed authors and small presses don’t bear all those costs.  Their offices exist within their homes; they write their books on their own computers using software they purchased for other purposes or dedicated novel-writing programs that sell for $30–$60. Unless they hit it big, their royalties are folded into their taxes. ISBNs cost little or nothing; CreateSpace, Kindle Direct Publishing, PubIt, Apple, and Smashwords do not charge for uploading or storing finished files. They do take a portion of the sales, but compared to the amount retained by traditional publishers and literary agencies, these fees are low—especially for e-books, where the author can easily pocket 60–70%. In that sense, you could argue that a self-pubbed e-book costs nothing to produce, and a print book costs $5-10, depending on length, trim size, color vs. black and white, and certain other factors. (These prices refer to print-on-demand publishing; the math for traditional publishing differs.) If the author is willing to discount the time s/he spent in writing the book, formatting the file, and plugging the e-book to everyone s/he knows, then a person could claim that a self-pubbed e-book should sell for author royalty plus whatever the platform charges, and a self-pubbed print version should sell for that sum plus the actual production costs (the $5-10). 

But that argument also assumes that the author can manage all the different tasks required to produce a result professional enough to attract a reader accustomed to the beauty and elegance of traditionally published books. As soon as the author falls down on one of the tasks—editor, book designer, art director, cover designer, publicist, advertising specialist—and has to hire help, the math breaks down. A good copy editor charges $3-$10 for a 250-word page, which works out to $1,200-$4,000 for a typical 100,000-word novel. Graphic designers, publicists, and techies who can figure out the intricacies of HTML, MOBI, and ePub have their own pricing schedules. To get a sense of the high end of potential costs for self-publishing, see this article from Poets and Writers Magazine. Either the author recoups those costs through the purchase price, or the author absorbs them: there is no other choice.

So what is an author bent on self-publishing to do? 

What my writers’ group decided to do was to establish Five Directions Press. We bill ourselves as a writers’ cooperative, because no money changes hands. Instead, we pool resources. One of us has experience editing and typesetting (and has been funneling a portion of her paycheck into Adobe software since Adobe came out with PageMaker 6.0). Another is a graphic designer; a third worked with art museums and supervised card design for an international agency; a fourth had a career in advertising before she began writing fiction. We’re hoping to add another editor over the next year.

Because we don’t charge one another for our services, we can’t operate according to an open-business model and accept outside clients. That’s why our website lists us as closed to submissions. But we do charge for our books, including our e-books. Not $20, but not $0.99 either. Because the amount of time that goes into editing, designing, typesetting, proofing, creating appropriate covers and ads, maintaining and updating the website, and developing promotional campaigns runs into hundreds of hours per title that we could devote to writing—and that doesn’t even count the years of effort that went into creating and critiquing and revising each book before it ever reached that stage. The payoff, we hope, will be high-quality books that people will want to buy.

That solution won’t work for everyone. We were lucky in that we happened to have a unique blend of skills associated with publishing. Even so, it’s an idea worth considering. As the recent launching of the WANA Commons group on Flickr shows, creative people often have artistic skills in more than one area, and if you ask around, you may find other writers willing to barter graphic design for advertising or proofreading for a good character critique. Which brings me back to my original question.

Do e-books really cost nothing to produce? No. Behind the scenes, vast amounts of effort go into publishing even the simplest e-book. Into any book, by any author who devotes months, if not years, to developing a story and studying the craft and making the effort to imagine multidimensional characters that s/he can shove into conflict-ridden settings and force to grow. Worlds take time to create, much longer to nurture. And as my first boss once told me, “time is also money.”

Come to think of it, maybe $20 isn’t so out of line after all. 

(Joke: Five Directions Press will not be charging $20 for its print or its e-book editions anytime soon.)

Sunday, September 16, 2012

On the Prowl: The Golden Lynx

For those of you who have been following my blog posts, this won’t come as a huge surprise. Nonetheless, I’m happy to announce that I have crossed the publishing Rubicon and my new novel, The Golden Lynx, is now available for everyone to read. You’ll find the links to the print, ePub, and Kindle editions below. And for those who skipped my post on “The Art of the Blurb,” a capsule description of the book follows.

Here's your chance to learn about a fascinating period in a faraway world without studying! 


Russia, 1534. Elite clans battle for control of the toddler who will become their first tsar, Ivan the Terrible. Amid the chaos and upheaval, a masked man mysteriously appears night after night to aid the desperate people.

Or is he a man?

Sixteen-year-old Nasan Kolychev is trapped in a loveless marriage. To escape her misery, she dons boys' clothes and slips away under cover of night to help those in need. She never intends to do more than assist a few souls and give her life purpose. But before long, Nasan finds herself caught up in events that will decide the future of Russia.

And so, a girl who has become the greatest hero of her time must decide whether to save a baby destined to become the greatest villain of his.


Friday, September 7, 2012

The Great Cover Hunt Continued

So far, most of my discussion of covers has involved copyright and my attempts to avoid violation thereof. But what about creating the cover itself? If you’re a self- or indie-published author, cover creation probably doesn’t rank high on your list of marketable skills. I have a career in editing and typesetting, coupled with a jill-of-all-trades’ need to perform occasional feats of design, but I still wouldn’t consider myself rich in the kind of experience needed to create a professional-quality book cover. Yet here I am, with three under my belt, two more planned, and another four sketched out. I certainly don’t claim expertise, but in the interests of sparking discussion, I thought I would share some of the story behind the covers I created for my two novels—one already in print, the other due to release for sale as soon as I approve the print proofs (expect an update when I see what that cover looks like once attached to an actual book).

With The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel, I had a design in my head from the beginning. It took me a while to get it right, but even in its earliest formulation (the one now roaming the Web as a pirated graphic), the red velvet and the 18th-century sword figured prominently. Adding, then doubling (to represent either the dual nature of Ian/Percy or the heroine’s equality with the hero—take your pick), the scarlet pimpernel; finding the right sword and velvet; then making sure I wasn’t stealing anyone’s image—all these details took time. But the basic idea was already in place.

Not so with The Golden Lynx. The story contains three lynxes, for starters: a spirit animal who takes the form of an actual lynx, a gold necklace in the form of Scythian jewelry given to the heroine at a crucial moment by her older brother, and the heroine herself, who takes refuge from her troubles by becoming a female Scarlet Pimpernel whom the locals dub the Golden Lynx. I was so excited the day I discovered that Eurasian lynxes really are golden brown. And when I found the perfect circle (a Scythian panther) to represent the gold necklace.

My early versions of the cover featured all three: lynx front and center, girl shadowy in the background, jewelry next to her. Unfortunately, in my early period of ignorance, I failed to consider the copyright status of my first set of images. The lynx turned out to be the work of a Czech photographer. The girl came from a video published on Youtube by the Republic of Tatarstan. Public domain? No way to tell—I swear I looked, but there was no information even about the person who uploaded the video. The jewelry belongs to the State Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, which does allow people to download its images, although not for commercial use. And the Hermitage site does not include that particular image, which now no longer shows up in Google Images at all.

So in the best case, I would have had to find alternatives. A bigger problem, though, was the design itself. As my invaluable critique group pointed out, the actual lynx took over the cover. In the end, the story is about a girl, not a wildcat. The cover did not make this clear.

I shifted the elements around to emphasize the heroine and relegate her spirit guide to the background, then began trawling Shutterstock for images of girls around my heroine’s age. This one had the right attitude, although nothing about her screams “16th-century Turkic princess.”

This one at least sports a costume plausible for my heroine masquerading as the Golden Lynx. But the girl’s demeanor, if culturally correct, seems rather demure for a tomboy defying every social convention because she’s mad at her new husband. 

Finally, I wised up and ran a search on Shutterstock for “Tatar bride.” Bingo. Rather surprisingly, even if we exclude the pictures of raw beef and sauce for fish, Shutterstock carries a remarkable number of photographs of actual Tatars.

With the addition of an Ottoman dagger, also from Shutterstock, and a beautiful Eurasian lynx courtesy of Bernard Landgraf (reused under a Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike 3.0 Unported license), I came up with the cover below. Perhaps a bit spare, but everything I tried adding made the result look cluttered. So in the end I left it as is. The black background will carry over nicely into the other books in this series, becoming a unifying theme. And the elements catch the eye even when reduced to thumbnail size, not an unimportant consideration in this day and age.

And please note, that although the manipulated lynx can be reused under the same terms (attribution/share-alike) as the original, the other images in this post were purchased from Shutterstock, so using them without buying your own license violates that company’s copyright.

For up-to-date publication information on The Golden Lynx, see

For the story of the back cover, see my previous post, “The Art of the Blurb.”

Photographs: Teen Girl on White Background © Vita Khorzhevska/Shutterstock; Middle Eastern Beauty © Galina Barskaya/Shutterstock; Tatar bride © Ilia Chungurov/Shutterstock; Ottoman dagger © Özgür Güvenç/Shutterstock.