Giving Scouting Another Look

A little less than a year ago, I wrote about a new Amazon program called Kindle Scout.

The bottom-line is this:

  • Readers read excerpts of books and vote for their favorites (up to 3 per month). This voting data is used by Amazon to consider the next crop of books it will publish out of Kindle Scout. If a book you voted for is picked, you get a free copy.
  • Authors whose books are selected get a $1500 advance, 50% eBook royalty and a 5 year exclusive Amazon publishing contract (plus marketing promotions, audiobook and international sales,etc.)

According to the Scout FAQ you retain print rights, which you can use to publish the book through a traditional publisher or through CreateSpace. It’s a little unclear if the book would be eligible for Kindle Matchbook (free or discounted eBook copies for purchasers of the physical book) under these circumstances.

Keeping print rights is actually important to me for a couple of reasons:

  • The fractal books were too expensive to produce print copies, so I never got something I could hold in my hand after a year and a half of work. This was understandably a little disappointing.
  • Print copies allow me to gift my book to friends easily, with signed copies.
  • I can take advantage of unconventional local scale marketing by donating books to little library boxes.
  • There’s at least the possibility that I could sell the book to local independent book stores.

The pros and cons of going with Scout seem to be these:

Pros:

  • Money up front.
  • Amazon featured marketing, beyond the programs you can get through KDP.

Cons:

  • Lower eBook royalty.
  • Less control over how the book is priced, marketed.
  • Long Amazon exclusivity. Less flexibility to try other channels.

Truthfully, I’m on the fence about this. I like the control that comes from going “full indie”, but I recognize that can make it a lot harder for a book to be discovered. And there’s a certain amount of upfront interest that has to be generated for the book for it even to make Amazon’s cut.

Have any of you tried Scout? What has been your experience?

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Filed under Books + Publishing, Internal Debate 42, Writing

Getting out of a stall

The last couple of days have not been the most productive. On the one hand I did manage to make some decisions about final changes to Surreality and have even started the formatting for both the eBook and print editions. On the other I haven’t managed to write more than a couple hundreds words a day on the new book.

I’m enjoying the work but I’m used to the more open sky country of 800-1000 words a day (or more). I’d like to blame some of this on my dogs: Murphy who would probably explode if he wasn’t sitting in someone’s lap for more than half an hour, and Riley who seems determined to bark at every perceived threat. But the truth is, I just haven’t gotten a groove going yet. And if anything, my dogs are a restoring force, enforcing calm and simpler thinking when I rile myself up. I tend to frustrate myself by thinking I should be at a certain word count by now, that a chapter isn’t long enough, or that maybe I should wake up early and give my first energies to the project.

These are not the most productive impulses.

So how do you pull yourself out of a situation like this?

Write what you’re thinking about, not what you should be writing – Writing doesn’t have to be a linear activity. My problem usually isn’t a shortage of ideas, it’s making them wait. If your brain wants to go in a certain direction, maybe you should let it.

Remove barriers to entry – Part of my problem is my computer. I’m frustrated with AbiWord in Linux and the problem’s it’s having with formatting and catching up to changes. I chose this method because I wanted to get some use out of my old netbook, and because it’s lighter and less distracting than my other machines. But maybe I just need to go with what works and stick to Word.

Write something – Forward progress is still progress. That can be word count or revision. Making the text better will always help in the long run. The rewards of more words will come soon enough.

Get some sleep – Part of my problem is that I’m tired and a little frustrated. Sleep and taking care of yourself solves most of those problems.

Have a little fun – Give yourself a reward for a hard day’s work. Don’t just write and go to bed. You need something to help you cool down and decompress. Catch up on some reading.

I know these feelings come and go, that writing can be a very week to week activity even for those of us who keep a regular schedule. When you’re in a slump, it can feel like you’ll never write another word again, but those feelings go away. They always do as long as you keep writing.

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Changing a character’s name

Have you ever gotten to the end of a novel and realized that three of your characters have names that start with a K, or that most of your names rhyme? Maybe you’ve come up with a name for a criminal organization that is universally hated by your beta readers. What do you do?

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The theory would be that you could just Find/Replace all of one name with another name and then you’re set. But this can introduce new problems. What if your new name introduces sentence rhymes that weren’t there before? What if a character who had a two syllable name, suddenly has a four syllable name? Sentences have an unconscious flow, and it can be difficult to just pull a switch without introducing hundreds of little tweaks.

I’ve used all kinds of schemes for naming characters. Sometimes I stare at my bookshelves and look for last names I like. Other times I use a name I’ve heard somewhere out in the world. Or sometimes I go through baby name lists online for the most popular names of people of a certain age.

I’ve pulled a couple of name switches and spelling changes in Surreality between drafts. I used to have a three-C’s problem that I solved by changing one C to an S and one C to a K. One name with an “ay” sound was switched for another. Spelling changes are easy, as it doesn’t fundamentally change how a word sounds, only how it looks. Full name switches are tricky, particularly if you’re used to a certain name. Your mind can get fixed on what you’ve already picked, making it hard to find something better.

So what do you do?

  • Have patience – The original name may have been part of a long brainstorming process, or come into your mind fully formed. But chances are there was some unconscious thought behind it either way. Give your mind time to come up with something new.
  • Try to find something that sounds or looks similar – You’ll have less flow tweaks if your replacement name has similar properties to the original. Of course this might make it harder to find something your brain thinks is better.
  • Remember you’re the author – If other people don’t like your name, that may not be a problem. Beta readers are a very small sample size. If you like something, that may have to be good enough.

MacBook_option_keyThis is all by way of saying that after looking at over 1500 different hacker slang words, I still haven’t found something I like better than what’s in the draft. Kyrkas was a contender (it’s Swedish for church, and is a reference to the Mac feature key, see left) until I realized that would give me a four K’s problem. I’m gonna keep looking, but I may also just have to trust my instincts.

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The Old Ways are the Best Ways

I just want to watch a little TV at the end of my day. Why must it be so hard?

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See if any of these stories sound familiar:

  • The Netflix app on both the Wii and the Wii U “gums up” (for lack of a better term), after a while and needs to be uninstalled and reinstalled to be watchable.
  • After futzing with trying to get John Oliver to stream on the Fire TV stick, I plug in my computer which works, but only after I stop streaming in Opera and use Chrome instead. Ironically, the quality is much better than even when the FireTV is working.
  • I increased my download speed, which I’ve tested, yet shows seem to stream worse. Why don’t shows let me set the quality rate instead of trying to calculate what they think is best? They are almost always wrong!
  • A show on Netflix becomes randomly unplayable two minutes from the end and will not reload even after you reboot all your hardware.
  • A video on YouTube is easy to find on a computer, and impossible to find in an app.
  • I try to use my Roku and the TuneIn radio app to listen to the 24/7 stream of This American Life, only for it to stutter and fail after five minutes.
  • Both my Roku and FireTV stick are hot and can only be turned off by unplugging them which causes a really slow boot the next go around.
  • Hulu shows me that damn Windows 10 commercial for the 100th time. I am not going to raise my children to “lick the internet”. It’s just an OS, get over yourself! Also some weird girl who likes “orange crem” yogurt.

That last one might just be me.

I love the convenience of being able to pick any episode of Star Trek and watch it without having to pull out my DVD’s, and I’m kind of bummed the same service doesn’t exist for Babylon 5. My wife and I started watching MASH because it came on Netflix, even though I also own all the episodes on DVD. And I’m glad I still have those disks because there have been several nights where I’ve had to use them instead when Netflix was being a butt.

I have yet to find a dedicated streaming device that is the equal of even a rudimentary laptop. And none of them compare to actually having the physical media. For all our cord cutting, we still aren’t getting the same reliability we used to get for free over the air, or for an exorbitant fee over the wire, or for a mid fee for a spinning disc. Don’t get me wrong, whenever I go back to over the air I’m shocked by the quality dip. But at least I can watch. I like solving computer problems for fun, but not network issues. That kind of stuff just needs to work, or I get cranky.

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Paid by the page, first month results

Those of you who participate in Kindle Unlimited or KOLL as an author have probably been curious to see how per page payouts would shake out versus getting paid a fixed amount per checkout. The reason given for the change was to balance out self-published authors who were getting the same money for 50 page pamphlets versus those who wrote 500 page epics. Reportedly, some authors were abusing this system by putting out a lot of small books. As the author of both short and long books, I can offer a little perspective (and numbers) from both sides of the change.

coverMy “pamphlet” book Fractals You Can Draw is 52 KENP (Kindle Edition Normalized Pages) and sells for $0.99. Before the change I was getting about $1.35 for each checkout, which is four times the royalty I got from someone buying the book, and 33% more than the purchase price. Under the new system, according to the payouts I received for July, each page is worth approximately 0.57 cents. If someone reads the whole book, I get 30 cents, pretty much the same as if they bought it and never read it. Sure, it was nice to get a 133% royalty for a while, but that’s kinda silly.

My other book Fractals: A Programmer’s Approach is 582 KENP and sells for $4.99. Because of delivery fees I make about a 50% royalty on each copy sold. The $1.35 payout was a little more than half that royalty, which at the time was balanced out with checkouts of Fractals You Can Draw, but it was still less money than if I had made a sale. Now, at 0.57 cents a page I make $1.35 if someone reads 239 pages, $2.50 for 439 pages, and $3.32 if someone reads the whole book. Holding a reader’s interest does pay off.

coverHere’s where the loophole might still exist. Both of these books are picture, equation, figure and source code heavy, sections readers will often skim. Now in my case it probably took as much if not more work to create each image as it did a block of text the same size. But they are pages more likely to be read because they have less of an opportunity cost for the reader, at least in theory. A 130 page self-published book of webcomics takes much less time to read than a similar book of text, and might be more likely to be read all the way through.

So, if you’re an artbook inclined person, this is your time to shine.

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Things I’ve Learned In The Last Year

And it’s not even over.

It’s been a busy year with serial novellas, final revisions, book reviews, and myriads of project ideas. Writing is about experimentation, about learning new things, and about remembering the old things we should already know. Here are a few of mine:

Perspective Jumps: For a serialized book like The Sky Below this can be a little tricky to follow (hopefully better once I have the full book complete). But perspective jumps can be a nice way to inject fresh viewpoints, and to give the reader information other characters might not have. It can certainly be frustrating if you really want to find out what happened to one character, but are forced to read another (though one author has a novel solution to this). My current project will probably jump between 2-3 perspectives at fairly regular intervals. This used to be something I did all the time (in my first novel) but got away from because I needed focus, or it was too difficult to follow. And maybe I needed time before I got the hang of it, but I’m loving jumps now.

Research: Want to never get a good night’s sleep again? Check out crime stats for your neighborhood. You’d be surprised what goes on. There was an (attempted?) robbery at a Huntington Bank down the street from me earlier this month. I used to do the old trick of [insert specific term here] or [write description of area there] so I could move on in drafts, but it’s amazing how even a little cursory internet searching can spur ideas for plot threads. Specificity is key to both reader engagement, and writer enthusiasm. I used to try to fumble my way through descriptions assuming my vocabulary was vast and always accurate. My wife will tell you, it is not.

Keeping the flow going: You might be tempted to take a writing break. And sometimes this is needed. But less often than you think I’d wager. Often the grind of getting back into a groove is not worth the recharge period. I finished revising book one on Monday, celebrated by watching The Maltese Falcon and eating some delicious enchiladas, then started writing book two on Tuesday. Granted, I’m kind of a nut. A day or two is certainly okay. Just don’t make it a month.

Read, Read, Read: Articles, blogposts, comic books, books, anything you can get your hands on. Both for ideas and technique. It feels like you’ll never have time, and indeed I’ve had to come up with creative solutions to reading (including my Kindle that reads to me in the car), but the time is always well spent.

Environment: I’m kind of a restless person. I was always looking for the perfect writing spot, which often happened to be the coffee shop closest to a Half Price Books or favorite bad food place. But for the last month and a half I’ve worked exclusively at home in my basement. Sometimes the dogs bug me. Sometimes I get the itch to go out. But it’s kind of nice just working in the same place every day. I try to keep the distractions to a minimum, especially multi-tasking (burns or file sorting, plus miscellaneous internet tooling around). And it helps to have both coffee maker and beer fridge in easy reach.

What have you learned in the last year?

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Recap

As I mentioned yesterday I’m getting a start on the next book of the Surreality series (2000 words so far) while I wait for copy-edits to come back on book one. Since this is part of a series, it has some dependence on events of the first book, though like most mystery stories I want you to be able to pick it up and read it without having read the first book.

Most ongoing series have some kind of reintroduction of the characters, establishing where they are now, what’s come before. Some authors choose to do this in a separate section, particularly long series with many recurring characters (like the Amelia Peabody mysteries). Others just try to drop in information through the narrative as its needed.

For the moment I’m taking this second approach, but its interesting trying to find a balance between info dump and leaving out relevant information. The rule of the moment is if it doesn’t play into the plot of the second book, don’t mention it. But there are a surprising amount of threads I’m picking up again, probably because I’m still coming fresh off the edit of the first book.

By book four or five I’d hope you’d know who the characters are, but mystery series have a long discovery period, refreshed with each new book or recommendation. Not everyone will go back to the beginning (though with digital books going to the beginning is a lot easier).

Do recaps bother you? Are they helpful even if you’ve read the previous books?

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