Book Announcement and Mea Culpa

Well, I finally admit defeat. I did the ebook thing. I spent some months shopping my dark fantasy novel, Soul Exposure, to agents without catching anyone’s interest. I must say that form rejection letters are more polite than I expected.

The thing that finally got me to try the ebook route was my wife’s recent accidental seating on a plane next to a successful mid-list author with several published novels to her credit. They got into a conversation. This woman had been around long enough that she got into the game by the traditional route of paper manuscripts and snail mail, but told my wife that these days about the only chance anyone new has is to go with an ebook and hope for some traction.

Since it is such a hassle to get these things set up for digital submission, and the two main ebook vendors, Amazon and Barnes and Noble have somewhat different formatting requirements, I went with Amazon’s Kindle. Amazon has most of the market share and offered the perk of letting readers peek at, in my case, all of Chapter One and most of Chapter Two. (It would have been much easier had I been using Microsoft Word, since even after I jumped through multiple hoops with Libreoffice and HTML files it was clear that Amazon’s conversion software would have been much, much happier with stuff made by a Microsoft product. If I make enough from the book, I might buy a full-featured copy of Word. In fact, I should start saving my pennies today.)

I’ve had to do all this on the cheap because I can’t afford to have it professionally polished. I decided that the main thing was to get the text out there and see if anybody likes my stuff. My wife took a photo of a creepy old house in New England that my daughter and a friend of hers turned into the book’s cover. I think it’s pretty cool.


  1. Before you write your book go to the link below and carefully read the requirements for formatting your book. Follow them. It is much easier to have done it as you went along rather than have to reformat your book from scratch.

  2. Bite the bullet and write the book using Microsoft Word because that is what everybody is set up to process. Yes, I know that there are some other word processors, some of them available for the low, low cost of free, that work beautifully for traditional paper manuscripts and will turn out DOC and HTML files, but apparently there are subtle differences in the digital files that create minor hiccups when they hit the conversion software.

  3. Unless you are already a well-known author who can jump right into getting your book out in paper, don’t waste your time with the traditional route. Whether you like it or not, and I don’t, we now live in the world of ebooks.

And now, for a bit of shameless self-promotion, I give you Soul Exposure!







They know what you might be willing to pay

“For the past decade, e-commerce sites have altered prices based on your Web habits and personal attributes. What is your geography and your past buying history? How did you arrive at the e-commerce site? What time of day are you visiting? An entire literature has emerged on the ethics, legality and economic promise of pricing optimization. And the field is advancing quickly: last September, Google received a patent on technology that lets a company dynamically price electronic content. For instance, it can push the base price of an e-book up if it determines you are more likely to buy that particular item than an average user; conversely, it can adjust the price down as an incentive if you are judged less likely to purchase. And you won’t even know you are paying more than others for the exact same item.”

So if I can convince Amazon that I believe “Achy, Breaky Heart” is the greatest piece of music ever written, I might get a better deal on that CD of Hillary Hahn playing J.S. Bach I’ve been lusting after?

Next stop, 1934

There is a delightful, possibly apocryphal, story that in 1935 a man named Allen Lane, an employee at a British publishing house—who was returning from a weekend party at a country house that included Agatha Christie, no less—stood in a train station worrying about the book business. The Depression was on, and books were too expensive for most people. Book sales were weak. However, he noticed that cheaply printed magazines in the station sold briskly.

Junk fiction of the “penny dreadful” type had been around for decades, but anything like a proper novel or work of non-fiction got printed in hardcover. It occurred to Lane that legitimate books could be sold at much lower cost if they were printed on cheaper paper and without expensive hard covers. As he thought about it, he became convinced that there had to be millions of working-class people who would buy books if they could afford them.

His employer wanted none of it, so Lane struck out on his own. He priced his books at about the cost of ten cigarettes, which he decided was within the means of working-class adults and teens and left him a profit margin, albeit a tissue-thin one. His new company, Penguin, began by printing works by writers such as Agatha Christie, Ernest Hemingway, and Dorothy Sayers. Penguin sold millions of the new paperback books, often to people who had never before been able to own a book. (Lane was later accused by Britain’s Conservative Party of corrupting the minds of the poor.)

Now it looks as if cheap paperback books may soon be a memory. Big publishers are making no secret of their desire to convert completely to ebooks, at least as far as the niche once occupied by mass-market paperbacks goes.

Although I think some paper books will survive in the form of over-sized art books and beautifully made, but expensive, hard-cover books for those who can afford them, books for those who must carefully calculate the consequences of even a small purchase may soon vanish.

People tell me that ebooks are cheaper. I fail to see how spending at least as much to merely lease (read your “purchase” agreement carefully and forget about leaving your “library” to your spouse or your kids or donating it to a charity) an ebook that you would have once spent to own a mass-market paperback is cheaper.

I fail to see how a book that can’t be read without the purchase—and frequent replacement due to breakage or carefully plotted obsolescence—of a gadget that costs at least as much as a major monthly utility bill is cheaper than a book that is ready to read as it is.

Book ownership and the example of parents buying books and reading in the home, factors that encourage respect for literacy and academic effort, are about to become too expensive for many families.

About one child in five in my country lives in poverty. In a used-book store I used to frequent, I often observed moms who were obviously counting every penny lovingly buying used paperback books for their kids. We affluent folks are about to take that experience away from those children..

I suppose I need to learn not to think about that the way I’ve learned to avoid thinking about how the nifty laptop I’m using to write this was assembled by someone in a sweatshop so hellish that the desperate people working there often kill themselves. After all, as a writer and someone able to afford ebooks, the end of cheap paperbacks could be a good deal for me. I’ve got mine, to hell with you. Right?


That will teach Amazon to send me emails!

I got an email from Amazon the other day offering me a chance to click on a list of their 10 best-selling books for 2012. I did. I found that I have read none of them.

I’m glad.

I am basing my comments on blurbs of the books from the Amazon website and on the comments of reviewers who allegedly did read these books. As I have said before, anything like a star rating or a review should be treated with extreme skepticism, so my assessment of these books may not be fair. Anyway, here goes:

Fifty Shades Freed by E. L. James AND the Fifty Shades Trilogy sold as a set.
Spank me again, O Rich Master, I’m a bad little girl unworthy of your virile greatness!

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
Has the husband murdered his missing wife? Okay, kids, if you believe you could sit down right now and sketch out the plot in about five minutes, raise your hands.

No Easy Day by Kevin Maurer and Mark Owen
How we killed Bin Laden. Excuse me, but didn’t good newspapers cover all that at the time?

The Marriage Proposal by Jennifer Probst
Obscenely rich guy has to quickly marry somebody to keep his billions. Yeah, that happens a lot. I’m not sure if the prospective bride has to show up in a pumpkin coach at a ball while wearing a gown made by magical mice, but I wouldn’t bet against it.

Reflected in You by Sylvia Day
One reviewer said this was very similar to 50 Shades except it has a story line . . . of sorts. I’m not sure I would have added an actual plot. Why tamper with perfection?

The Racketeer by John Grisham
A Federal Judge has been murdered. Who did it? Why am I seeing Pelicans wearing briefs?

Defending Jacob by William Landay
An attorney’s fourteen-year-old son is charged with murdering a fellow student in a small New England town. I will not make light of this one. It’s too similar to the recent horrors in Connecticut. In one of my jobs, I sometimes had conversations with real murderers. I didn’t find it entertaining.

The Innocent by David Baldacci
Hit man decides to take a pass on an assignment and must run from his employers. How many hands do I see, class?

Amazon is a huge seller of books, so this sample of what sells is statistically significant.

It tells us that if you want to become a best-selling author your books should include lots of gunfire, a statistically improbable number of lawyers among the characters (when was the last time you saw a best-selling novel where the protagonist was a chemist or bricklayer or short-order cook or clerical worker or licensed practical nurse or mail carrier?) and women who yearn for insanely rich, narcissistic men who will paddle them and send them to their rooms without their suppers.

To be fair, as I said, I haven’t read any of these books. For all I know, some of them may be models of beautiful prose. Maybe some of them contain an idea or two or address some ethical or even spiritual dilemma in a meaningful way. But I doubt it.

This list tells me that even if a book sells by the ton, that doesn’t mean I should take it seriously.

If I were more inflated, I’d be the Goodyear Blimp

I have a query letter on the way to a literary agent and have my book in a traditional novel manuscript format.

(In case you are interested, that means using a 12-point, standard monospace font such as Courier, Courier New, or Liberation Mono, one-inch margins all around the text, double spacing, half-inch indentations for each new paragraph, underlining words you mean to be in italics, using a # symbol to indicate white space,and adding page numbers, chapter headings, etc. If your final product looks as if you wrote it on an old typewriter, you have probably done it correctly.)

I have no illusions about how thin my chances are of getting published by the traditional route. Big publishers are in financial trouble and would prefer to publish only established authors who have already made money for them. New authors make them very nervous.

However, I am going to give the traditional route a try.

What I’m seeing in the self-publishing world is something akin to grade inflation in schools. In case you have been living in a cave for the last few decades, I should explain that, for a lot of complicated reasons I won’t go into here, many teachers now routinely hand out an A for work that once would have gotten the student a C or D. If a student has a 3.85 grade point average out of a possible 4.0, it doesn’t necessarily mean she is a good student. It doesn’t mean much of anything. It’s become impossible to distinguish good from bad students on the basis of GPA.

Getting published through the traditional route means that experienced professionals—who might lose their jobs if they are wrong—believe that real people will be willing to put down cash to read your stuff. That is a tough hurtle to get over. I will probably fail.

But the more I learn about self-publishing, the less impressed I am. Self-publishing allows writers to assign themselves an A grade ( “I published online!”) for work that may or may not be any good at all.

I don’t doubt that there are some gems buried in the giant avalanche of self-published books, but how on earth do you find them?

Before I try self-publishing, I’m going to see how I do in a contest run by people inclined to turn me down. I’d rather make an honest C than an inflated A.

Are ebooks a mistake?

Yesterday I spoke with someone working on a PhD who is trying to decide whether he has any choice but to purchase another computer. The one he has works fine, and he’s happy with it. However, his university has cooked up software that he really needs to use that doesn’t run on his platform.

Even though our electronic toys cost less than half of what they would if the people who made them were being paid a just wage and living and working under conditions where suicide didn’t look like such an attractive option (try not to think about the people who made them when you open your shiny new electronic toys on Christmas morning), a new computer’s price is a lot of money for a poor student.

After our conversation, I remembered an article by Lewis Mumford that I read about forty years ago. He wrote it not long after the United States decided to go bananas with interstate highways.

Most people thought it was a wonderful idea. As I recall, Mumford pointed out that it was going to kill passenger rail service, something that at that time worked quite well over the entire country (I am old enough to remember such a train trip with my parents), create huge problems with traffic congestion, cripple public transportation in cities by diverting finite funds into projects to benefit the auto industry, and force millions of people to buy cars who didn’t especially want one.

His point was that there would be a high price to pay for becoming a car-centric nation, and that the people who paid it would receive few benefits in return.

I have an ebook reader. If I have nothing else going on, I can burn through half a dozen books in a week, so when I travel it’s convenient to be able to carry books in such a small package.

However, as I watch the stampede into ebooks, I wonder whether we are making a serious mistake.

If you have paid money for an ebook you probably believe you own it. Think again.

In the fine print from the publisher there is probably language along the lines of your having “limited, personal, non-exclusive, revocable, non-assignable, and non-transferable license to view, use, and/or play a single copy of the Materials.”

Translation: you can look at it, but you can’t sell it, share it, or give it away. On the other hand, we, the publishers, can take it away from you whenever we feel like it.

Compare that to a paper book you bought from a brick-and-mortar store. If you want to loan it to a friend or donate it to a local hospice, go ahead. The bookstore can’t send goons to break down your door and steal your books while the police stand by grinning.

Other clauses in the fine print allow the publishers to make changes in the books. If you are reading an ebook, it’s on a device connected to the internet at least some of the time. This means that someone could reach into your device and alter the contents of a book you think you own.

Someone with serious muscle doesn’t like what’s in a book? No problem, we’ll just delete the offending passage from all the copies everywhere. History says so-and-so happened? Don’t care for it? No problem, we’ll just re-write the history books.

All of them.

It’s a lot harder to hack someone’s bookcase.

And what about death? Suppose you have a library of ebooks. You may have spent a lot of money on those books. Want to leave them to your kids? Forget about it.

And privacy? Today it’s still possible to pay cash for a book in a brick-and-mortar store. With ebooks, not only is there a computer record of what you bought, but the damn thing may be tracking whether you’ve read it or not and even what page you’re on.

Sixty years ago, we started forcing people to buy cars who had been doing well without them. Now, we are doing the same thing with our electronic toys and our ebooks.

A paper book, especially if the paper is acid-free, can handle decades of normal use. Our electronic toys and their file formats have the life span of mushrooms on a summer lawn. If the stories and ideas we create mean anything, we should not make their preservation dependent on this week’s fashionable computer platform or file format.