Friday, December 26, 2014

The Year in Review

Time for the annual roundup, as I write the last post of the year. Hard to believe 2014 has already gone from Christmas Future to Christmas Past (and I hope yours was lovely). So, what do I have to show for another year on the planet?

Quite a bit, as it turns out. I completed my two challenges for the year, reading fifteen pure history books (actually more, but I stopped counting at fifteen) for the Sail to the Past History Challenge and twenty-six books from my To Be Read pile to sit atop the summit of Mont Blanc for the Reduce the TBR Mountain Challenge. Of course, I added two books to the TBR pile for every one I took off, but that’s what it means to be a bookworm. And doubling the number of books required for the status of historian in the History Challenge seems just about right for an actual historian. Most of my colleagues were rolling on the floor at the thought that anyone would read a mere seven full-length historical studies in a year.

In addition, of course, I conducted thirteen interviews for New Books in Historical Fiction, for which I read at least sixteen books. I published three of my own: The Winged Horse in June as planned, followed by a spur-of-the-moment decision to revise and release Desert Flower and Kingdom of the Shades to test the new Kindle Unlimited (KU) program introduced by in July. The last two books came out on August 29, just before Labor Day, and did very well their first month—while many people were using their 30-day free KU trial, I suspect. Since then, they have languished. Even my recent attempt to run a Kindle Countdown Deal on them was a flop, although this result seems to have more to do with the effects of KU than with me personally. Many authors are complaining of dramatic declines in their earnings from books enrolled in KU since October; for one example, see this post by M. Louisa Locke. In a similar vein, Countdown Deals unaccompanied by pricy ads apparently don’t do well.

Nonetheless, Desert Flower has garnered some good reviews, the whole thing was an experiment, three giveaways of The Winged Horse went much better, and my novels as a group sell slowly but steadily, so I have no inclination to complain. For the moment, I intend to wait and see what the next year brings. Meanwhile, Five Directions Press is growing: it now has eight books by four authors, with Courtney J. Hall’s Some Rise by Sin complete and ready for production in January. We hope to expand further in 2015.

With Winged Horse in flight, I turned to Legends 3, The Swan Princess. It took a surprisingly long time to get going, in part because I needed to research medieval medicine and certain specific medical conditions that play a part in the story, but more because I needed to figure out what the emotional story was. I knew which characters I wanted to feature from previous books, and I had an idea of what they should do, but I had a much harder time figuring out how they had grown since I last spent time with them and therefore what they next needed to learn. As a result, I spent months tweaking an outline that, as usual, I abandoned (except for the general direction) within twenty pages. But thanks to my inestimable critique group, I’ve more or less figured it out now, and with two lovely weeks of writing vacation to work with, I’m hoping to turn my initial four chapters into twice that by the first Sunday of the new year—at which time work returns with a bang.

Last but not least, I have written fifty-five blog posts since this time last year, including this one and several guest posts on other sites. I won’t say that has been my greatest triumph, because the interviews are fun and having five novels published and a sixth underway makes me feel pretty chuffed. But I do love these weekly posts, and I hope to keep them up throughout 2015. (For more goals, check back next week.)

Wherever you are, thank you for reading my ramblings for another year. May your holidays be merry and bright. And now, where’s that egg nog?

Image © 2009 Michael Wade, via Wikimedia Commons. 
Creative Commons Attribute 2.0 Generic license.

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Art of Life

One of the difficult steps in my expansion from writing history to producing historical fiction was mastering the art of the historical detail. Not in the sense that historical novelists often get themselves into trouble: by insisting on cramming every factoid they have carefully researched into their books regardless of whether it fits the story or turns it into the fictional equivalent of a Strasbourg goose. As a scholar of an unfamiliar time and place who stumbled into a fantastically specialized area of study while writing her dissertation, I long ago mastered what Sir Percy calls the “cocktail party spiel”—the ability to summarize a complicated project in twenty-five words or less. The alternative was to watch people’s eyes glaze over as they edged for the bar (literal or figurative—and if you’ve ever wondered why I write novels under a pen name, it’s to protect innocent readers from my academic work). So as a novelist and as a historian, I am a big fan of “look it up,” as in if readers want to know more, that’s what they’ll do.

No, the difficulty I had was in mastering the concept of the emotional detail. Historians look for facts, to the extent that we can extract them from often-biased documents, and the facts of a historical event often fail to convey how that event affected the people caught up in it. The lower a person’s social standing, the less likely we are to find written documentation that reveals that person’s inner life. Or, as Laura Morelli puts it in her interview with New Books in Historical Fiction, we know about the lower classes (in her case, the boatmen of sixteenth-century Venice) mostly when they get themselves into trouble with the law.

Of course, roustabouts and troublemakers are more fun to write and read about than prissy heroines and noble youth who never harbor an unkind thought. But our necessary reliance on the skewed record left to us by history requires us novelists to use our imaginations creatively to develop, within the framework of what we can know about the general attitudes and life situations of specific groups in specific times and places, a creative understanding that we can apply to the circumstances of individual characters—themselves our inventions.

The results, when we get it right, sweep the reader into the past as no dry-as-dust treatise ever can. Take, for example, these two paragraphs from The Gondola Maker.

Peering further back into the shadows, I observe what appears to be years’ worth of neglected belongings: furniture covered in drapes, shelves stacked high with discarded tools, household goods, and more. Within this jumble, my eyes begin to make out the shape of another gondola stored in dry dock, turned upside down on a pair of trestles. The boat is partially covered with a large swath of canvas, but from the portion of the craft that is visible, I see that it is very old and neglected. The paint is dull and scratched, and part of the wood is split on one side, probably the result of some long-ago crash.

My heart leaps as I notice the carved maple leaf emblem on the prow of the boat. Even through the darkness, I would recognize it anywhere: the old gondola was made in my father’s boatyard. (107)

The rest of this post comes from New Books in Historical Fiction. If you listen to the interview, the NPR story I mention is also available online and free of charge.

As the son and heir to the workshop of sixteenth-century Venice’s premier gondola maker, Luca Vianello has his career, his marriage, and his place in society mapped out for him. True, his stern father still grieves for Luca’s older brother who died in childhood. And Luca’s left-handedness—viewed in Renaissance Europe as sinister, even demonic—provokes blows from his father even as it causes him to lag behind his younger brother in developing his skills. But it is only when tragedy shoots Luca out of his family’s boat-building business altogether that he can envision the possibility of change.

Through luck, Luca lands a position in another Venetian boatyard, far less prosperous than the workshop to which he was born. He loads boxes, succeeds as an errand boy, and befriends an older, more experienced gondolier determined to introduce Luca to the charms of wine, women, and on-the-side deals. Before long, Luca has become the private boatman of Master Trevisan, painter to Venice’s elite. There Luca encounters  both the beautiful Giuliana Zanchi (and Trevisan’s portrait of her) and the abandoned, broken-down gondola that will become his personal restoration project.

Laura Morelli is an art historian and the author of, among other nonfiction works, Made in Italy and Artisans of Venice. In her award-winning debut novel, The Gondola Maker, she draws on her extensive knowledge of the Venetian past and present to recreate a lost fictional world that will astonish you with its rich, varied, endlessly fascinating detail.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Red Fish, Blue Fish

I was answering questions last week about Five Directions Press, the author collective my writers’ group founded in the summer of 2012. The questions are for an article that fellow-novelist Deb Vanasse has agreed to write for the monthly magazine IBPA Independent, so we are flattered just to be included. Once I know when the Independent Book Publishers Association plans to run Deb’s article, I will post the information here. But the questions got me thinking about the place that author collectives occupy within publishing as a whole. 

The question that struck me involved the relative advantages and disadvantages of traditional publishing and author collectives. The question rests on an implicit dichotomy that crops up a lot in discussions of the new publishing climate. Traditional or self-publishing: Which is better? Which will triumph? Which best serves authors? A lot of energy goes into defending one’s own choice and running down the other side.

But why? Surely publishing is big enough to include self-published authors, author collectives, small presses, and large corporate publishing houses. Trade publishing houses and author collectives serve different markets and as a result operate differently. They don’t compete; they complement one another.

The Big Five are huge corporate enterprises. Their employees have extensive experience producing and marketing books. Once they sign an author, they can offer a level of support that self-published authors, even if they set up a collective, can’t hope to match. A trade publisher works with the author to develop a manuscript, provides copy editing and cover design, turns the edited text over to its production department to design and compose the printed book and produce the e-book version, then sends the finished book to a publicist who will organize the marketing campaign.

Furthermore, a trade publisher has connections and prestige that get its books reviewed by major publications and into bookstores; radio and television broadcasters compete to interview its authors. Its titles have a far better chance of being noticed than those of writers who publish on their own or through a small press or an author collective, whose works can easily sink beneath the waves generated by the thousands of books released online every day. Self-published authors can break out of the pack and make as much—or even more—money than traditionally published authors. It’s not easy, though, especially as the market grows.

Still, there are downsides to “big.” All that support is expensive, and trade publishers can’t afford to take chances on books that aren’t guaranteed to sell millions of copies. Inevitably, good projects fall through the cracks. And if a book makes it through to print and doesn’t sell? The steadily chugging publishing train rolls over authors struggling to build an audience. Six months or a year, and the books are pulled from the shelves and pulped. After a while, the author’s contract is not renewed. It’s someone else’s turn in the sun.

In short, trade publishing not only does but must focus on the mass market. What about writers who have put in the necessary time to learn their craft but don’t produce something that millions of people want to read? These are the people who benefit from self-publishing, small presses, and author collectives.

Now I am the first person to admit that the problem with self-publishing is that, because it’s so easy, many people put out what are in essence first drafts. These first-time writers don’t intend to publish before the book is ready. The flush of finishing a first draft gives a writer a tremendous high. You can’t wait to get the book out into the world to soak up the praise you’re so sure it deserves.

Alas, the sad truth is that everyone’s first drafts stink. Yes, even the first drafts of published, professional authors. Sooner or later, the high dies away, the author receives comments and suggestions, and—assuming the book has not been published—the hard work of rewriting begins. Self-publishing too often short-circuits the essential revisions that turn a sketch of a book into a rich and rewarding reading experience.

But if the author resists that initial temptation to send the book out into the world and hires an editor or joins a (good) author collective or finds an innovative small press, that author can experience the benefits of “small.” A collective can define success as a hundred copies sold—or fifty. It can keep books in print throughout the author’s lifetime, building a reputation slowly as more books appear and readers discover them. It can take chances, because the stakes are low: mixing genres, taking the readers along less-traveled paths, publishing novels set in medieval Russia or modern Greece or the reigns of Tudor England that no one writes about because books about Anne Boleyn sell in the millions.

Some people hate joint enterprises. For them, author collectives are no solution. Even a small press is too constraining. Self-publishing is their most appealing option. Others instinctively tune into the zeitgeist and produce books that can and should be picked up by trade publishers, whose skills and experience can connect these authors to their mass-market readers. For those in the middle—the ones who don’t want to go it alone and like having the group’s imprimatur on their work and the knowledge that other writers have their backs—an author collective or a small press may be the ideal match. (The main differences between an author collective and a small press are the financial arrangements and a certain egalitarianism among the members.)

In short, publishing is a big pond, filled with many fish of different sizes and colors, all swimming along yet each in its own little eddy. Which is a lot more fun than a world where one size fits all, don’t you think?

 Thanks to ClipArt Panda for the free fish that became the basis of this week’s image.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Pre-Christmas Sale

So the early results of making two books available for Kindle Unlimited are in: more than twice as many borrows as e-book sales and three times as many e-book sales as print sales. So I’ve decided to experiment with a Kindle Countdown Deal to see what effect that has.

Remember: this is all research, as the two books in question—Desert Flower and Kingdom of the Shades—were a project that I had expected never to publish until I hunted down the books, revised them heavily, and decided to use them to test the results of going Kindle-only for e-books. I’m glad I revived them, because I had forgotten how much I loved their joint story—and I’m happy with how the revisions came out. But any amount I earn on them is more than I thought I’d make, which keeps my expectations suitably low. And if they attract new readers to my other novels, so much the better.

So here’s the deal. Beginning today and going through 8 AM PST on Monday, December 8, Desert Flower costs 99 cents. From Monday through 4 PM PST on December 12, the price rises to $1.99. After that, it returns to its regular price of $2.99. Kingdom of the Shades will cost 99 cents from 8 AM on Friday, December 12, through Monday, December 15, then go up to $1.99 until Friday, December 19. Then it too returns to $2.99. Closing times for the second promotion are the same as the first.

Apologies to my friends in the UK, the only other marketplace that currently allows Kindle Countdown Deals. Amazon declared the price of the books (set by itself to equal the US dollar price) to be too low by 16p to qualify for a countdown deal. I changed the price to the minimum allowed for such a deal, but then I couldn’t set it up for thirty days. So bear with me, and I will run a countdown deal for you in January. Post-Christmas instead of pre-Christmas, but hey, you need an outlet for all that lovely cash you’ll get for the holidays, right?

So stock up while the price is right. Gift your friends for the holidays. If I get a good response, I’ll try other promotions. And whether you buy these books or not, I do wish you a lovely time preparing for whichever winter celebrations you celebrate.

By the way, the print versions are prettier. They just aren’t on sale. But you can still find them on the sites.