Is your book a high-value item, or a low-value item?

Last week I attended MidAmericon II, the 74th Worldcon, which was held  in my home metro area of Kansas City.

A very small segment of the MidAmericon II Dealers' Room, including a small press booth.
A very small segment of the MidAmericon II Dealers’ Room, including a small press booth.

As the author of a recently-finished (but not yet published) novel, I was a bit more finely attuned to the crosscurrents (perhaps “riptides” would be a better description) of opinion about publishing that could be observed in action at this convention than I have been in some time.

Between the panels, the readings, the parties (such as they were) and the Dealers’ Room, I encountered a wide cross-section of opinion about the “best practices” in publishing today.

More booksellers--or are they author collectives, or are they small presses?--in the MidAmericon II Dealers' Room.
More booksellers–or are they author collectives, or are they small presses?–in the MidAmericon II Dealers’ Room.

One practice I found particularly curious was the free book giveaways. Many of the smaller operations seemed to think that a good way to attract new readers was to give away books.

Samples, you know? So people can see how “good” we can write, and love us, even though we haven’t had a copyeditor look at our work, much less a competent beta reader–or even (God forbid!) a professional editor.

Yeah, no.

If on the first few pages I encounter characters using each others’ names in dialogue (“Fred, as you know, I always write good,” Ellen cried. / “Why of course, Ellen, your writing is always just dandy,” Fred gushed), and alleged words such as “alright,” then SURE, I’m absolutely going to love it (NOT). In such cases, the free sample is worth every penny I paid for it, and it is going to make me take every effort NOT to bother with that person’s work ever again (even if they later take a writing class and get a clue).

This is the kind of “indie” publishing that gives indie-publishing a bad name, because no gatekeeper–no qualified second opinion–was ever allowed in. This is usually because the author is afraid to do so.

"No! Please! Don't make me edit my book! I might have to murder some darlings!"
“No! Please! Don’t make me edit my book! I might have to murder some darlings!”

“They won’t understand” or “I swear, it gets better by Chapter Five” just doesn’t cut it. For God’s sake, people, study the craft! And beyond that, study best practices in marketing! Yes, I know, you are a Creator, and Heaven forefend that you should have to trammel your muse with such mundane things.

You have a choice: go on giving horrible warnings away for free, and dragging down the value of the product for all the rest of us. Or you can take a different view.

Two kinds of products: High-value and low-value

Okay, I’m taking a deep breath now, centering myself, and thinking calm thoughts. The main purpose of this post is to call attention to a basic marketing guideline I learned years ago when I was a direct marketer.

The rule of thumb goes:

If you are marketing a LOW-VALUE ITEM, you give away free samples and offer discounts. 

If you are marketing a HIGH-VALUE ITEM, you offer premiums, up-sell enhancements, and offer tie-ins. 

How does this work in practice? 

If you are marketing a LOW-VALUE ITEM, you give away free samples and offer discounts. A low-value item is a cheap throw-away. It isn’t worth much, but if you sell a whole honkin’ lot of them, you can make a profit on the cost-markup margin, because of the volume. Such an item doesn’t cost you much to give away a free sample, so it makes sense to give away a few, in the hope that people will like it, tell their friends, and buy more.

This is a standard in the marketing world. Experienced consumers (i.e., most of us) know how to interpret a free giveaway. If you give your book away, it places your book in a category I doubt many indie-pubbers want to be placed into.

If your book is a cheap, throwaway, piece of crap, then perhaps the free-giveaway marketing ploy is your thing. Do you write dozens of them a year, and fail to do any research? Okay, then! You’ve found your strategy! In my humble opinion, if you give your book away, you are as good as labeling it dreck.

Is this what you're selling? Then freebies are probably your best avenue.
Is this what you’re selling? Then freebies are probably your best avenue.

 

 

If you are marketing a HIGH-VALUE ITEM, you offer premiums, up-sell enhancements, and offer tie-ins. In this case, the item itself is far too costly to give away, and has a high intrinsic value. It takes a lot of time, effort and (dare I say) skill to create the item, and it can add lasting value to the owner’s life.

I would like to argue that a well-written book is a high-value item. The author has invested a tremendous amount of time, energy, and effort into it.

A book is a high-value item. It should be marketed that way!
A book is a high-value item.
It should be marketed that way!

First, there have been years of learning the craft and creating the best possible story. Then this author has engaged well-read beta readers, possibly a copyeditor, and ideally an outside, professional editor to vet and perfect the product.

In the marketing phase, discernment and effort have led to the production of a high-quality, well-edited edition, with an attractive, appropriate cover, and high production values.

Appropriate premiums might be a first chapter as a teaser (a time-tested approach used by big-name publishers), an author autograph, or perhaps background, “insider” information. Up-sell might include an illustrated, limited edition, a signed and numbered slipcovered collector’s edition, etc. Tie-ins could include an author’s newsletter, pins, prints of the cover or illustrations, short fiction related to the major work, etc.

Your marketing strategy is up to you, of course. But I’d say it pays to think carefully about your approach.

IMAGES: The photos from MidAmericon II were taken by yours truly. The “Wow! Free Stuff” image is from a UK coupon company page called Wow Free Stuff. The photo of  the distressed writer contemplating editorial scrutiny is from Margaret Snow’s blog post on the Damsel in Distress archetype. The “Horrible Negative Example” quote image is from The Quotery. The ironic sign-failure CRAPBOOKS photo is from the Stuck on Stupid Pinterest Board, via Curiousread.com and Thisisbroken.com. The wonderful image of the girl hugging the book is by ToucanPecan, and may be found on ToucanPecan’s deviantART page. Check out the whole gallery, while you’re there!

Readings as Worldcon networking venues?

I first started going to Worldcons in the 1980s. The times have changed, but the World Science Fiction Convention still moves to a different city in the world each year.

HeaderImage_092015This year it’s MidAmericon II in Kansas City, practically in my back yard. Next year it’s Worldcon 75 in Helsinki, Finland.

Wherever they’re held, Worldcons are a great place to meet science fiction fans from all over the world, and network with others in our niche of fandom.

The 1976 Hugo Award base, sculpted by Tim Kirk, changed the look of the award in subsequent years.
The 1976 Hugo Award base, sculpted by Tim Kirk, changed the look of the award in subsequent years.

Worldcon also is a place where innovations happen. Sometimes the innovations are accepted and continued from year to year. For example, at the first MidAmericon, held in Kansas City in1976, the base of the Hugo Award trophy was sculpted by Tim Kirk. Previous award bases had been rather traditional wooden trophy bases, but after 1976 the Hugo bases became more elaborate.

This year one of the innovations the concom is trying is a change in the parties that are held after-hours. Traditionally, these are hotel-room-centered parties, held in hotel rooms and suites by individuals, groups, or publishing companies.

They are traditionally a hotbed of networking between all the various players in sf fandom (bid parties for the right to host future Worldcons, or parties to promote other, regional conventions), and in the publishing industry (writers, editors, agents, and artists).

Arianne "Tex" Thompson came to her reading expecting a much smaller crowd.
Arianne “Tex” Thompson came to her reading expecting a much smaller crowd.

This year, however, all parties are to be held in the event space in Bartle Hall, in adjacent, tent-like lounge areas with couch-like seating and high, small-topped round tables. Traditional sf convention parties last well into the wee hours; these were closed down by the venue tonight at 11:30.

This severely limits both the number of parties that can be held (three, tonight), and the amount of networking that can be done at them (since you couldn’t have heard it thunder in those exhibit-hall parties).

I have absolutely no doubt that individuals will privately host parties in their hotel rooms, although the hotels don’t want them to. However, at the end of the panel schedule a totally new (to me) phenomenon cropped up: Author readings as networking opportunities.

My first glimpse of this was the comparative crowd that showed up for the first of three readings I attended today. The featured author was Arianne “Tex” Thompson, who writes alternate-history fantasy with an interesting twist. Authors are conditioned to expect very few people at their readings–for some reason they aren’t well attended. But so far the readings for this year’s Worldcon have been much better-attended.
C. Taylor-Butler read from the second book in her new middle-grades series, The Lost Tribes: Safe Harbor.
C. Taylor-Butler read from the second book in her new middle-grades series, The Lost Tribes: Safe Harbor.

When I returned for the back-to-back readings by C. Taylor-Butler and Tonya Adolfson (a.k.a. Tanglwyst de Holloway), I was treated not only to more engaging fiction, but also to a spontaneous discussion–actually, a veritable symposium–on indie fiction, audiobooks, and the ways that publishers, distributors, and reviewers game the system.

Tonya and her husband, John W. Farmer, also made a case for better–and better-remunerated–audiobook production values and standards. Their company, Fantastic Journey Publishing, is attempting to set new standards of excellence with full-cast audio recordings of not only Tonya’s books, but also those of other indie authors.

They made the case that indie authors who don’t do the diligent work of learning the craft, being edited professionally, and maintaining high production values for their work are feeding the double standard that plagues indie authors who do strive for excellence. Unfortunately, I completely agree.

Tonya Adolfson read from two of her books.
Tonya Adolfson read from two of her books.

I remember being a graphic designer during the 1990s, when something similar was happening in that field–any fool and his/her sibling thought that because s/he owned a copy of MS Publisher, that meant graphic design was “easy.” Good design isn’t, of course. It never has been. Thank goodness, a certain amount of sanity on that subject has returned–but in the meantime, there was some seriously stinko design foisted upon the hapless world.

It is my fervent hope that something similar will occur with indie publishing. Back in the 1980s when I first went to Worldcons, the only game in town for writers was publishers. You found an agent, you got published, if possible, and you played according to their rules. The networking parties were essential.

Today, it’s a wild new world, but the networking is as essential as ever. Where will we do it? Perhaps at each others’ readings.

IMAGES: Many thanks to MidAmericon II’s website for its logo. Thanks to the Hugo Awards archive for the photo with the 1976 base. The photos of Tex, Christine, and Tonya were taken by me, with their permission.

Space Station DIY: Bernal Spheres?

I needed a plausible space station for my fictional characters to live in. My research yielded such riches, I decided to share them with you in a series of “Space Station DIY” blog posts.

John Desmond Bernal
John Desmond Bernal

Today, let’s consider the Bernal Sphere. It’s an idea originally cooked up by John Desmond Bernal in 1929. Bernal was primarily known as a pioneer in molecular biology, but his concept of a spherical habitat in space seemed plausible enough for NASA to launch a more in-depth study in 1975-76.

Gerard K. O’Neill

That study led to Dr. Gerard K. O’Neill’s proposal for Island One, a relatively small Bernal Sphere. This was followed by the larger Island Two (which, it was hoped, would provide a more practical industrial base). By the time O’Neill got to Island Three, he’d evolved to a different shape, the O’Neill Cylinder (we’ll discuss that design in a future post). Other research rooted in the Bernal Sphere eventually led to a toroidal design, often called a Stanford Torus.

The wine-tasting party doesn't seem to mind if the world is inside-out.
The wine-tasting party doesn’t seem to mind if the world is inside-out.

What would it be like, to live in a Bernal Sphere? Artwork from the mid-1970s gives us a glimpse of an inside-out world, in which you could see the other side of the colony “up in the sky.” I don’t know about you, but I think that would give me terrible vertigo.

Recreation at the poles: nets and micro-gravity sex?
Recreation at the poles: nets and micro-gravity sex?

The artificially-generated centrifugal gravity would fall to nothing at the poles, which some have thought would make those good recreational areas. The illustration above envisions “Zero gravity honeymoon suites,” but doesn’t seem to consider the problems of space-sickness caused by microgravity, or the realities of Newton’s Third Law. Perhaps people would be better advised to enjoy their marital bliss in the 1-G areas, and play Quidditch at the poles.

Perhaps people could play Quidditch at the poles of the Bernal Sphere.
Perhaps people could play Quidditch at the poles of the Bernal Sphere.

The outside view shows a series of rings on one end, stacked next to the sphere. This would be the so-called “Crystal Palace” for agriculture to feed the population of 10,000 (on Island One).

External view of Island One, with agricultural "Crystal Palace" tori at one end.
External view of Island One, with agricultural “Crystal Palace” tori at one end.

Unfortunately, scientists and engineers in the 1970s were not much concerned about the issues involved in intensive farming, so they followed contemporary ideas, and designed their Crystal Palace to be a cow-, pig-, and chicken-hell. I wonder how much concern they had about overuse of antibiotics and methane production (perhaps they could use the latter as a fuel, but what about the smell?), as well as the relative economies of growing plant crops versus livestock. Maybe they just couldn’t imagine life without steak?

Livestock Hell in space? Maybe not such a good idea after all.
Livestock Hell in space? Maybe not such a good idea after all.

Ultimately, I decided the Bernal Sphere was not the design for my fictional space station. If I didn’t want to imagine living there, why would I try to make my characters do so? Might recall O’Neill apparently moved away from the original sphere-focused idea, too, once he looked into it more. But although my fictional Rana Habitat Space Station didn’t turn out to be a Bernal Sphere, the design gave me some interesting ideas. I hope you’ve enjoyed this exploration.

Earlier posts in this series have discussed space stations in popular culture and conjecture, and the idea of Dyson spheres.

IMAGES: Many thanks to the ever-invaluable Wikipedia, for the photos of John Desmond Bernal and Gerard K. O’Neill; to the NASA Ames Research Center for the 1970s-era artwork of the Bernal Sphere interior, exterior, and “Crystal Palace” cutaway detail; to the National Space Society, for the artist’s rendering of the Bernal Sphere recreational area; and to Entertainment Weekly for the Harry Potter Quidditch image. I appreciate all of you!

 

Finished—Sort of

You may have noticed (If so, bless you!) that I didn’t post much on my blog last week. What’s up with that? Massive stuff going on in my life, that’s what.

My first novel, finished in 1979, actually was written on one of these.
My first novel, finished in 1979, actually was written on one of these (manual Underwood).

I very recently finished a full draft of a science fiction novel.

This is the fifth novel manuscript for which I’ve been able to write “The End” in my adult life. The working title of the current opus is Going to the XK9s.

XK9s are forensic olfaction specialists, (dogs) whose universe-class noses make them something of a forensic analysis lab on four legs, and whose genetically-modified verbal-logic enhancements have pushed them over “the line” (wherever that lies, exactly) into sapience.

Rex looks a bit like real-life hero dog Lucas, who in 2015 saved his partner, Deputy Todd Frazier, after Frazier was ambushed by three assailants.
Rex looks a bit like real-life hero dog Lucas, who in 2015 saved his partner, Deputy Todd Frazier, after Frazier was ambushed by three assailants.

My protagonist is Rex, the “Leader of the Pack.” The other POV characters are his opinionated mate Shady and his somewhat beleaguered human partner Charlie.

My logline (still a work in progress) reads: A genetically-engineered police dog must innovate crime-solving approaches on a major case to prove his Pack is sapient and deserves freedom, before enemies—both from the Project that created them and from the criminal underworld—can destroy them.

I’ve mentioned “the novel” in past posts, most notably in the Space Station DIY series (an outgrowth of my research, since a large space station is the primary setting for the novel).

The XK9s were inspired by recent scientific explorations of dog cognition, recent discoveries of dogs’ ability to sense medical conditions by scent, and canine capabilities in search and rescue, drug enforcement, and bomb detection.

Present-day forensic olfaction specialists in training.
Present-day forensic olfaction specialists in training. Photo by Reed Young.

Since I travel in science fiction circles, I meet a lot of people who are “working on a novel.” People who actually have finished one are rarer, but simply finishing a draft doesn’t mean it’s done.

Publishing today: a whole new set of learning curves!

Very few people “take dictation from God” on the very first draft, most certainly including me. Once the novel is “finished,” the editing begins. In my case that means hacking through thickets of luxuriant verbiage to focus, polish, and pare it down to a streamlined, more readable length.

After that, professionals will review it. And after that . . . Oh, my. Publishing has changed almost beyond recognition since I worked with agents and editors in the 1980s. Lots of large learning curves ahead!

But meanwhile, it’s time to celebrate a nice milestone.

IMAGES: Many thanks to PenUltimate Editorial Services for the manuscript-finished typewriter image; to ABC News, for the photo of heroic Belgian malinois Lucas (read his story); to Gizmodo, Smithsonian Mag and photographer Reed Young for the photo of bomb-sniffing dogs in training; and to CyberSalt, for the “Good Luck” road sign.

Looking for something new and interesting to read? Consider these!

One of the things that seems to help our favorite authors more than just about anything we can do (beyond buying their books in the first place) is posting reviews–on Amazon, and on other sites. I know that some Amazon metrics seem to leave reviews out of the picture, but in other ways they help. 

I have been promising myself I’d sit down and write Amazon reviews of some of the books I’ve read recently, and I made good on that promise today. Once I’d started, it occurred to me that I should share some of them here, too. These are all science fiction, fantasy, or mystery novels that I have recently enjoyed. I hope you will enjoy them, too: 

Fluency and Remanence

By Jennifer Foehner Wells

Both of the covers are the work of artist Stephan Martiniere; Wells credits these covers with much of her early success as an indie publisher.

Grabbed me and wouldn’t let go! Thoroughly enjoyable

I ordered Fluency on the basis of a review posted on Twitter, and boy am I glad I did! This is an extremely interesting story of first contact that kept me wondering what would happen next, and happily “hooked” all the way through. I especially liked the complexity of the relationships and the excellent pacing. Jennifer Foehner Wells really knows how to write! (hint: buy the sequel, Remanence, while you’re at it!).

Gripping sequel adds to the stakes–this series just keeps getting better

Sequels often aren’t as good as the first book, but Remanence is definitely an exception to that. Jennifer Foehner Wells takes us deeper into the universe she has created, adds more fascinating non-terrestrials, and adds dramatically to the stakes. I found this just as gripping as the highly-readable first book, and I’m seriously frustrated that she hasn’t gotten the third one finished, as I write this. This is an excellent series. Buy this one when you buy Fluency!

Great news: Valence, the third book in Wells’ Confluence Series, is now in the works!

The Curse of Jacob Tracy 

By Holly Messinger

Supernatural terrors and engaging characters in the Old West 

Engaging characters and imaginative twists on folklore give this western gothic horror novel a special power. Holly Messinger is a promising new writer with interesting tales to tell. The push and pull between the main characters gives depth and resonance, the historical grounding is solid, and the monsters are vivid and challenging. The best news, once you’ve finished? There’s a sequel in the works!

A note about this novel’s cover: Designed by Jim Lin, the cover is an assemblage of images pulled from Shutterstock and Dreamstime. This is an increasing trend with some publishing companies. 

Ready Player One 

By Ernest Cline

The thrill of the game, and a hero with nerves of Adamantium

I’m not a big video game player and I also didn’t spend the formative years of my early adolescence during the 1980s, so at first I wasn’t sure how much I’d enjoy this book, but my son insisted, and even made sure I saw the movie War Games and the documentary Atari: Game Over, in preparation.

I’m glad he did. This is a book about an amazing adventure. The stakes couldn’t be higher–either in the virtual world of the OASIS, or in the gritty reality of a collapsing mid-21st-century world in the grip of recession and the effects of global warming. The story chronicles an epic battle between Big Capitalism and the little man; good versus evil; quick wits, nerve and knowledge versus overwhelming force. You’ll laugh, you’ll howl with outrage, and you’ll love the nail-biting suspense that runs right down to the end.

It took some detective work, but I finally discovered that this wonderful painting of “the Stacks” that forms the background of the cover art is by Joe Ceballos. The Stacks are a compelling image in the book, and I dearly love Ceballos‘ visualization.

The Promise 

By Robert Crais

Suspect (2014) introduced us compellingly to Officer Scott James and his K-9 partner Maggie, who play an important part in Crais‘ new book, The Promise

This engaging thriller lived up to all of my high expectations 

I was eager to read this novel in which Crais‘ longtime series characters Elvis Cole and Joe Pike meet up with Suspect principals Scott James and his K-9 partner Maggie–and it totally lived up to my high expectations.

Elvis Cole makes a promise to a client–not realizing she has many more things to hide than she thought. Scott and Maggie get mixed into the case in the line of duty–but the dangers they face as a result range far beyond their normal occupational hazards.

This book kept me guessing right up to the satisfying conclusion. Scott and Maggie add an interesting new dimension to the adventures of Cole and Pike. I’d love to see all of these characters return for a third engagement sometime soon!

Another note on the covers: These, too are amalgamations from multiple sources, rather than being the work of a single artist. the Suspect cover is the work of MCJC Design, created partially from a photograph by Joseph Baylor Roberts, via Getty Images. The Promise cover is the work of designer Kaitlin Lim, built from the work of several photographers via Getty Images.

IMAGES: Many thanks to Amazon for the cover art for: Fluency, Remanence, The Curse of Jacob Tracy, Ready Player One, Suspect, and The Promise.

The cover painting for Ready Player One by Joe Ceballos is courtesy of Motornomadics

Space Station DIY: Where to start?

That’s no moon . . . 

I needed to create a space station. 

I had a cast of characters, the makings of a plot, and a big-picture concept of how my universe had turned out as it did. 

But now it was time to get down to creating the habitat space station on which my characters would live.

Where does one start?

One goes back to the 1970s, I discovered. That was the era when I first learned the concept of a “space station,” much less that people were seriously thinking about how one might actually build one someday. 

My earliest book on the
subject, with a great
John Berkley cover!

I was a college kid when I went to a movie called Star Wars, for the scandalously high price of three dollars per ticket. My then-boyfriend Pascal (now husband of 37+ years) and I went back to see it over and over again, as often as we could afford to (pre-video tape–but then, I’ve already admitted I’m older than dirt). 

I didn’t know it when I was bankrupting myself at the movie theater, but just a couple of years earlier a bunch of rocket scientists and other geniuses had gotten together at Stanford University for the 1975 NASA Summer Study, to try and figure out how it might be possible to build a space colony. 

They came up with something the shape of a bicycle wheel, with mirrors mounted on the hub. Artificial gravity was to be created by centrifugal force inside the outer ring. Being scientists, they didn’t call it a doughnut or wheel-shape, but a torus. It is still known as the Stanford Torus.

This is Donald E. Davis’s rendition of the exterior of the torus.

According to Wikipedia’s article about the project, it was based on earlier ideas proposed by Wernher von Braun and Herman Potocnik. The concept was known to science fiction writers, but the scientists really got going on it in 1975.

The idea of using centrifugal force to create gravity in a wheel-like structure also was suggested in the 1957 Russian film, Road to the Stars, which is fascinating to watch. Indeed, we’re still speculating on some of the same things they did, and a lot of the speculation doesn’t seem to have changed all that much. The entire 49-minute opus is available for viewing on You Tube. If you have time, take a look.

In 1957, Pavel Klushantsev’s film Road to the Stars included a space station with a torus of sorts, that produced artificial gravity.

If you look at the list of contributors to the 1975 Summer Study, it really did take a village to work out the myriad of details to arrive at something that might actually work. It’s now all freely available online

Although it’s been used in many movies, from 2001: A Space Odyssey to Elysium, the “classic” Stanford Torus isn’t the only prototype space station shape from which the would-be sf author can choose, however. In upcoming posts from this “DIY Space Station” series, I’ll look at Bernal and Dyson Spheres, the O’Neill Cylinder, and Bishop Rings.

IMAGES: Many thanks to TurboSquid for the picture of the Death Star, and to Abe Books for the cover art for Colonies in Space. The wonderful Don Davis painting of the torus, NASA Ames Research Center (ID AC76-0525), is now in the public domain. I got it from Wikipedia. The image of Klushantsev’s proto-torus design is a screen-capture from Road to the Stars, as seen on You Tube.