Friday, October 26, 2012

Images, Images Everywhere

After a couple of posts on where to find free images for blogs and even, if you're lucky, for print, I decided to investigate some of the fee-based services on the Web. This is not a comprehensive list by any means, but even my small sample of three revealed some significant differences, so I thought my experience might help others, too. So here is my overview of what you can expect from; its affiliate; and Shutterstock.

First off, why use a paid service at all when so much free stuff is available? My main reason is that I know for certain that if I paid to use the image (these are all royalty-free image sites), that I will not have copyright problems down the road. This assurance is particularly important for print, but copyright problems can undo the best intentions of bloggers and website owners as well. So for book covers, both my own and those we design for Five Directions Press, I prefer paying a small amount now to avoid possible trouble and large amounts later. I do check places like Wikimedia Commons and the WANA Commons Group on Flickr; and if I'm very sure of the terms, I will use what I find there, giving due credit to the photographer or noting the status as public domain. Same goes for the sites (libraries, museums, government agencies, etc.) listed in my previous posts.

But if there is any ambiguity, I look for alternatives. For example, a gorgeous photo of a swan on a dark lake that I planned to make the basis of my cover for The Swan Princess appears on two different photo sites with two conflicting sets of copyright information: I stored them both for future reference, but to be safe, I will substitute a purchased photo when the time comes.

The three sites I'm discussing today differ in terms of price, availability of images, resolution, and requirements. As a result, each of them works well for different purposes.

Web (Blogs, Sites, Social Networks)

The least expensive is, which is great for blogs, websites, and posting to social networks. For about $12.50/month, if you sign up for a year at a time, you can download a ridiculously large number of images (up to 1,000/day), including photos, illustrations, vector images, clip art, and more. You don't have to sign up for a year, either. Subscriptions start at one month.

In addition to, which I'll discuss in a minute, has an affiliated video site (Getty Images) and a link to Animation Factory, both available on the home page. I haven't used either, but they could be useful to bloggers and site designers. also has fonts, although not many and not particularly interesting ones. It lets you search for multiple formats (GIF, EPS, JPG, PNG, Photoshop files, color vs. black and white, and more), categories, and creators. It has a lot of images and maps scanned in from old publications of various types, which is nice for historians and historical novelists. Almost all the images are low-resolution, which is fine for the Web, since computers don't care. And the selection is pretty good, although finding obscure things like "Tatars" can take a while.

Downloading's a snap. Click on the image, click on Download, and you're done. If there is copyright information, it appears on that download page. Often there isn't any. The site will produce a list of previous downloads on command, and the list includes all your downloads. The link is on the home page whenever you're signed in.

Interior of Batu Khan's Tent #77210


When you need a higher-resolution photograph, or even want to see what else is available that won't break your budget, try The Clipart site announces that images at its affiliate start at $1.99, but you have to buy a pretty big package for that. Ten images cost $34.99, which seems pretty reasonable, and you can choose high or low resolution. Twenty-five images cost $80.00, fifty images $134.99 ($2.70/image). One will set you back $7.99. You have twelve months from the time you sign up to download all the images you've paid for. offers subscriptions, too, but they seem pricier than the Clipart version. Most images come in two sizes for the Web and one for print, but some are Web only.

I've found a couple of great shots on a fine alternative for the swan problem mentioned above; this great shot of a Kazakh tent, destined to adorn my cover for The Winged Horse (sequel to The Golden Lynx and about 1/5 of the way through its first draft); and another beautiful shot of Hampton Court for the back cover of Courtney J. Hall's soon-to-debut novel Saving Easton. 

Tent on the Steppe, Kazakhstan

Hampton Court

The site has illustrations and clip art as well as photographs. The main drawback for me is that the photographs themselves are often not as dramatic as Shutterstock's, nor is the selection as wide-ranging. You have to search several times with different combinations of words to ensure you've identified all the options. For a cover image I'd check Shutterstock as a backup, just to be sure. excels in terms of flexibility and affordability, though.

Again, downloading is simple. Click on the image you want, and a page opens with full copyright information (I print the page and save it to PDF for future reference, not least so that I can match the file numbers to the images). Choose the resolution you want and click Download. When you cite the image, you say © <Photographer>/


Shutterstock has low-resolution images as well as high-resolution ones, but at $7–10 per image, who can afford to subscribe just to feed a blog or a website? Sure, you can get a subscription—if you happen to have a spare $249/month ($2,559/year). I don't, so I buy the 5-image/$49 pack and let it auto renew. I download the large size and reduce it as needed with Photoshop's phenomenal "Save for Web and Devices" feature. And while I have a few Shutterstock downloads floating around that I decided didn't work as well as I'd hoped, I try to avoid that problem by making extensive use of the site's wonderful light boxes ( has a light box, too, but everything goes in one place, whereas Shutterstock lets me set up different light boxes for different subjects).

Shutterstock has, without a doubt, the most beautiful and most varied photographs of any site I've tried, and it's blissfully easy to browse, search, and use.  There's a free iPad app if you happen to be an iPad owner. It works great for browsing and adding photos to light boxes for downloading onto your computer next time you're signed in.

Shutterstock also has a quirk not found on the other two sites: you have not only to download all the images in your pack within a year but also to use any individual image within six months of downloading. Once you do, you confirm your right to use it thereafter. If you don't, you lose it. Why a site that charges per image objects to stockpiling downloads, I can't figure out. Maybe the problem has to do with the subscription plans, where you can download 25 images a day, and I misunderstood the small print. In any case, I am safeguarding my right to use the photos below, since the books they're intended to illustrate may not see the light for a while.

Horse on the Steppe


Mute Swan, Swimming


Olive Trees

Shutterstock also has two kinds of licenses: Standard, which lets you reproduce an image 25,000 times; and Enhanced, which allows unlimited reproductions. Enhanced costs an additional $199. If I ever sell 25,000 books, I figure I'll have no trouble justifying the cost for the Enhanced license.

Downloading is easy—similar to, as is obtaining a list of prior downloads. Copyright information is readily available, although the exact wording the service expects is not clearly laid out. I settled on © <Photographer>/Shutterstock, although earlier I used Shutterstock and the image number.

So that's my take on these three services. If you have experience with others, please leave a comment. I'd love to know about them!

All these photographs are copyrighted, so please do not borrow and use them without permission: Kazakh tent © Konstantin Kikvidze/; Hampton Court © Anthony Baggett/; Horse on the steppe © andreiuc88/Shutterstock; Pegasus © Nataliia Rashevska/Shutterstock; Swan © David Benton/Shutterstock; Olive trees © Anna Subbotina/Shutterstock. Many thanks to all the photographers and to the services that host them.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Reviews of The Golden Lynx

Sorry for the delay, folks: I've been swamped with work and fell behind on my blog update this past week. So here is the latest—a short one—and Friday I'll try to get back on track with a comparison of the three paid image services I use:, its affiliate, and Shutterstock.

The Golden Lynx has been selling pretty well for an indie book, but it hadn't picked up any reviews (well, not counting the one I wrote at Goodreads insistence—why does Goodreads ask you to rate your own books?!—and there I just pointed out that I was the author and therefore not a reliable reviewer) until last week, when Bryn Hammond posted this four-star review on Goodreads.

Note that Bryn (whom I don't know outside of Goodreads) is a specialist on the Mongols. You may want to check out her Of Battles Past, which is available for free on Smashwords or for 99¢ on the Kindle Store and draws heavily on The Secret History of the Mongols. I'm reading it now. So if Bryn says the book is accurate, you can be sure she knows what she's talking about.

And without more ado, here is what she said. 

Bryn's Review

I had fun. I’m going to make this a very, very personal review. It may or may not be of use to others.

First off: I came because I’m into steppe history. Mind, I know next to nothing about 16thC Russian-steppe outskirts... though I always thought Russia had the most interesting history on earth; I was happy to visit.

Next: I have a thing for fighting women. When they’re from the steppe I’m a guaranteed read. The more so, as to read certain steppe fiction, you’d think these were masculinist, macho societies where women were dragged by the hair. You’d think wrong: consult the steppe epics, that our girl Nasan knows and loves. When I found fighting women from The Book of Dede Korkut, for instance, cited here as aspiration-figures, the kind of girl Nasan wants to be, I was in.

Her people are now Muslim – in the way they are in Dede Korkut, that is, with strong underlines of their earlier religion. I’ve read about the conversion to Islam hereabouts in Islamization and Native Religion in the Golden Horde: Baba Tukles and Conversion to Islam in Historical and Epic Tradition (that's a mouthful. So, I'm afraid, is the book) - where I learn, conversion is slow and never perfect. So Nasan has her 'grandmothers', whom she feels to guide her, and a spirit doll (doll to Russian eyes) that she feeds daily, treats as holy, draws inspiration from.

But I don’t mean to get abstruse here, because this novel is an adventure. It kept reminding me of old adventure tales that I loved in my youth – Robert Louis Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights, for one, where people go about the night streets in disguises. It has a strong flavour of such fare – to me – and I can’t help but suspect the author is a fan of these old adventure tales too, since her other book is a take on the Scarlet Pimpernel. It’s very plotty. You know from the blurb, the infant Ivan the Terrible is involved ... and that plot blew a breeze of Alexandre Dumas at me, too.

There's what I liked about it: the setting (with sound historical knowledge); our girl hero whose heart is on the steppe though she’s plunked into Moscow to patch up a feud with a marriage; and the adventure, that conjured up to me the old-style books, you know, in the days when they knew how to write an adventure... 

Here is another review, from a friend but unsolicited, sent in via e-mail:
I have the library copy of The Golden Lynx, I started reading it last night, and I’m immersed in the story. The story line is irresistible, and the details are fascinating. I feel like the kid I was when my mother hid my books so I could get my chores done.

And in December 2012, this one appeared on (five stars, Amazon verified purchase):

Adventure, Sociology, and Mysticism in a Single Package
C.P. Lesley has once again brought the past to life as she explores the crafts and customs and mysticisms of Russians and Tartars of the 16th century. But this isn't a history lesson. This is an adventure and a detective story set in centuries past.

Yes, elite clans battle for control of the toddler who will one day become Ivan the Terrible. But this is the background story. In the foreground of this story is Nasan, a 16-year-old warrior princess of a Tartar clan. She is sent away from her family and homeland to a far-off Russian stronghold. There she must play wife to a Russian noble--a renown playboy--who is kin to the man who killed her brother right in front of her. The murder triggered a battle. Nasan is the peace offering.

So how does a warrior princess spend her nights while her husband is away? Heroically, of course. With the aid of her spirit grandmothers she sneaks out of the Russian fortress nightly to do good, Batman-style, and return before breakfast. And what is her husband doing all this time? He's trying to find the real killer of Nasan's brother. If he only knew that The Golden Lynx, Nasan's heroic alter ego, is already discovering the answer.

Adventure, sociology and mysticism in a single package. Well done. 

Two more December reviews from Goodreads:
1. (Four stars)
 This is a novel of adventure set in 16th century Russia that features a young Tatar woman, Nasan, whose family is involved in a blood feud with a Russian noble family. With the death of her brother and the Russian family's heir they the two warring factions decide to make peace by marrying Nasan to the younger son of the Russian family. Nasan reluctantly agrees and travels to Moscow to become a bride of a man whose brother she believes killed her own. A stubborn and head strong young woman she gets caught up in local intrigue while posing as a mysterious hero, The Golden Lynx, while her husband goes on a mission to clear his brother's name.

It is an entertaining read set in an exotic backdrop of the contrasting Tatar and Russian culture, a time and area I know very little about. The author provides a wealth of local colour for both that enriches the story immensely.

2. (Five stars)
I've studied the 16th century for nearly 40 years, so it was quite a surprise to find that an entire world I knew nothing about existed at that time in Russia, just a few hundred miles from Western Europe, where I think most of us were led to believe everything important happened. The co-existance of Christian and Muslim cultures and the fact that both societies were clan-based (with only the beginnings of a sesne of a nation called Russia) was all new to me, and made for fascinating reading.

The best part was the kick-ass heroine, Nasan, made even more interesting by her coming from a Muslim society, which overlayed an older, shamanistic religion. I don't think I've ever seen a female character outside of a fantasy novel dream of being an epic heroine from days of old. These legends, along with the author's vivid descriptions of everything from food to architecture to racing across the snow on horseback makes The Golden Lynx well worth reading. 

Friday, October 12, 2012

The CreateSpace Royalty Structure

Or Why I Have to Raise My Prices on The Golden Lynx

People talk about the great royalties that self-publishers get for their work. Although I am one step away from self-publishing, the small press that my writers’ group put together can survive, in part, because it takes advantage of the inexpensive printing options that the Brave New World of Publishing has made available. So in that sense, we are closer to self-publishing than to traditional publishing.

I assure you, we appreciate every option out there. Yet it’s important to be clear about what each process involves, and that includes being up front about pricing. First off, most people’s mental image of a paperback carries a price in the neighborhood of $7.99. Traditional publishers can charge those prices for mass-market paperbacks because printing is an unusual business: the big costs are in the setup. One copy costs X, but ten copies don’t cost 10X—more like 2X. Once you have set up the job on the phototypesetter, the more copies you run, the less each one costs. Print 100,000 copies, or 1,000,000, and you can make a handsome profit at $7.99, even if you are splitting it with the bookseller and handing off 10% of the wholesale price to the author (who then pays 15% to a literary agent, in mass-market publishing).

In small-press/self-publishing, the situation is different. The print-on-demand (POD) technology that makes self-publishing or small-press publishing possible relies on producing books only as they are needed. Fewer copies, no storage, no returns, lower costs. The system also relies on pre-formatted PDF files, which reduce setup costs. But as a result, there is no reduction by size of job. Each POD-published book is, in effect, a trade paperback, and these typically cost $10.99–$19.99 depending on the number of pages (production costs) of the book. In fact, Five Directions Press exists for this very reason: since we have to charge higher prices for our books, we want to ensure that readers receive a high-quality trade paperback for their money.

You would think that if a publisher can survive on charging $7.99 for a paperback while paying 8–10% to the author, then authors self-publishing at $12.99 must be raking in royalty payments by the sackful. Alas, not so—or not entirely so. The comment about great royalties applies above all to e-books. There, where production costs (although not preparation costs) are near zero, authors routinely net 65–70% of the purchase price. Compared to 8–10% of wholesale, that’s a huge difference. I can charge $4.99 or $5.99 for an e-book and take home $3–4 in royalties. Even for four to six years’ work, that’s a good rate.

But print books do have production costs, and the royalties are calculated after the POD publisher deducts those costs. This makes perfect sense, of course: the POD publisher has to make ends meet just like everyone else. Royalties also vary by distribution channel—which is why, much as I hate to do it, I have to raise my price on The Golden Lynx as of November 1.

The math goes something like this. On The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel (300 pages), I charge $12.99 for the print edition, which nets me a royalty of about $3 per print copy (under 25%).* Although the rate is much lower, the payment approximates that of the e-book version.

If, however, I pony up (as I did, mostly as an experiment) the $25 for Expanded Distribution so that CreateSpace will list Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel with bookstores and allow wholesale purchases, I net not $3 but 70¢ on each sale (5%). I have not worried about this much lower rate, because I don’t sell many copies to bookstores (one in three months, so far). So if I sell a few books for 70¢, well, at least I’m selling books. And maybe one of those purchasers will recommend my book to friends, generating more sales.

The Golden Lynx
is 50% longer than The Not Exactly Scarlet Pimpernel: 450 pages. As a result, the production costs are proportionally higher. At $14.99 (which to me seems like a lot, even for a trade paperback), it nets more like $2.75 (18%) per print copy, compared to $4–$4.50 as an e-book. I consider this rate acceptable, but I didn’t sign up for Expanded Distribution because it would cost me 25¢ on every sale.

Then I realized that for Lynx, I actually need Expanded Distribution. If I want to sell to college bookstores—and I do, because I put a ton of effort into making the history accurate, and it would be wonderful if professors adopted my book for their courses—the only way to make it work is to raise my price to $16.99. I will still net only 50¢ on every bookstore sale ($3 on print sales through, but if I sell enough additional copies, the difference will work itself out over time.

So on November 1, 2012, I will raise the price of the print edition of The Golden Lynx by $2 to cover the costs of Expanded Distribution (the e-book version will remain at $5.99). Until then, the book will cost $14.99.

The Brave New World of Publishing, indeed—and in many ways it is, don’t get me wrong. But perhaps not quite as lucrative as the ads would have you believe.

*Note that these are the numbers for books printed through CreateSpace and sold through Books purchased directly through CreateSpace earn twice as much in royalties (because CreateSpace is not splitting its profits with But since I don’t know anyone who has either bought or sold a book directly through CreateSpace, the numbers are the ones that matter to me. The rates for other companies (Lulu, Bookbaby, etc.) may also differ.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Recreating a Nomadic Tent (Fun with History, Part 2)

As I mentioned in "The Art of the Borgias," I love historical research, even in the frequent cases where the books don't tell me what a historical novelist needs to know. But for the last month at least, I have been tearing my hair out trying to decide what my hero would experience when he returns to the nomadic camp where he spent his childhood.

Thanks to the Internet and some wonderful books I purchased secondhand—most notably, Alma Kunanbay's The Soul of Kazakhstan (with its amazingly beautiful photographs by Wayne Eastep)—I have a good idea of what a Tatar nomadic camp looked like. I can guess what it sounded like: a small group of people on an isolated prairie, surrounded by huge herds of sheep, goats, and horses and intermittently mobilized for war. But what did it smell like? How did the leaders differentiate their tents from the common people's? What distinguished a man's tent from a woman's? When you have to pack everything on a wagon and move it four or more times a year, every belonging must be both essential and deeply valued; otherwise it gets left behind. But how does that knowledge play out in terms of the internal arrangements of a bey's tent? What was essential? What did people value so much that it became essential to them, if not to everyone?

Moreover, my hero left his childhood camp six years ago. In the meantime he has visited and lived in cities: Astrakhan, at the mouth of the Volga, tied into the Persian and Indian trade routes; Kazan, far to Astrakhan's north but still on the Volga, a flourishing commercial city connecting the Siberian hinterland to lands west and south; Moscow, then the emerging capital of a rapidly expanding Russia; Smolensk, on Russia's route to Poland and everything west of Poland. Even Kasimov, the small town where my hero Ogodai has spent the last two years, would have had amenities the nomads could only dream of—books, piped heat in winter, perhaps even internal plumbing systems. He has matured and become cosmopolitan, so things that once seemed normal or even desirable to him may look quite different now. Other things he didn't notice at twelve will stand out, for better or worse.

I have found snippets of information here and there. The Baburnama: Memoirs of Babur, Prince and Emperor (founder of the Indian Mughal dynasty) mentions a visit paid by Babur to his nomadic uncle. I had great hopes of this account, but alas, Babur mentions only that his uncle kept his tent in the old style, with horse tackle piled around the edges and melon rinds scattered on the dirt floor. Indicative, but worth about a sentence and a half even if stolen (and I am not above stealing any useful detail). In another source, I discovered that the steppe nomads used dried animal dung for fuel, which must get pretty pungent as it burns. Milk is also a big part of steppe culture: sour milk, fresh milk, milk spattered to feed ancestors or tossed after departing guests. And meat, which with milk products constitutes a steppe nomad's main food. Butchered meat, cooked meat, tanned skins—you get the picture. Most likely, my hero would not focus on those smells, as his customs would be the same, but he might notice them in passing.

Then I remembered, although I have yet to pinpoint where I read it, that the Mongols traditionally avoided bathing in rivers and streams, which polluted the water and angered the spirits who dwelled there. Nor did they wash their clothes. With water scarce on the steppe, I can imagine that modern standards of hygiene may not have prevailed there, either. By the time of my story, those of the Mongols' descendants who became Tatars had adopted Islam. As a result, they were, on the whole, cleaner in the early modern period than their non-Muslim neighbors (Muslims wash five times a day before praying and bathe their entire bodies after various routine activities). But in the 1530s the nomadic Tatars I am describing were at best nominal Muslims. A visitor accustomed to more stringent application of the purification requirements would certainly notice and deplore near-universal body odor and filthy clothes. And in places where something as basic as water or food is scarce, the elite tend to monopolize it, so that might also mark differences in social status. Not much to go on, but a start.

I am plowing on, trying to create a plausible setting out of these few specks of information. Nonetheless, this is one occasion when I would love to have access to a time machine. Zip in, sniff the air, take notes, zip out. It would make life so much easier.

H.G. Wells, where are you?

A Nomadic Tent, Photographed in Color by Sergei Prokudin-Gorsky circa 1915
Courtesy of the U.S. Library of Congress.

This photograph shows the tent as it would appear in the summer, without the familiar felt coverings, which provide insulation and warmth.