Scarlet Letters

The not-so-private thoughts and rants of Elizabeth Donald, journalist/author and founder of the Literary Underworld.

Wednesday, April 02, 2014

Guest Blog: Peter Tupper

Greetings. My name is Peter Tupper. I’m a writer and journalist in Vancouver, BC, and I’m here to tell you about my new book, An Angel Has No Memory, published by Inkstained Succubus.
“Hello, I’m Rose Chung,” she said, extending her hand. “You must be Ms. Marro?” 
“Teodora. Call me Teo. Welcome to the Fulfilment House.” The other woman shook her hand and smiled a slightly crooked smile. She wore the dark suit which seemed to be the informal uniform for escorts at the Fulfilment House. Rose could see a needle pistol in an underarm holster under Teo's jacket and the ID card clipped to her belt. “I’m here for your orientation. Follow me and let me know if you have any questions.”
The Fulfilment House, which occupied several floors of an office block in the Pasadena arcology, reminded Rose a little of a casino: dark earth tones, no clocks, no windows, nothing to remind people of the outside world. There were also the security cameras watching everything, like the eyes of a tarantula. She could see attractive people in exercise wear doing yoga, exercising or painting. They must be the Assets she’d heard about.
An Angel Has No Memory was submitted as part of anthology, which fell through for lack of contributions. Inkstained Succubus decided to publish it as a stand-alone short story ebook. This gave me pause, as that is a new form of publishing.

How long is a book? SFWA says that a novel has to be at least 50,000 words long, and most novels today are much longer. But a novel isn’t the same thing as a book. A book can theoretically be of any length, contain multiple works by multiple authors, or even just be a compilation of LOLCats.

How long is a story? Hemingway wrote a story in six words: “For sale: Baby shoes. Never worn.” I once asked a romance novelist what was the difference between a category romance and a literary romance. She said, “About 20,000 words.” Category romances are meant to be short, fast reads, compared to more involved reading of literary stories.

I don’t read a lot of fantasy, and I’ll admit it’s partially because I’m intimidated by the sheer size of some fantasy works published today. Looking at the thousands of pages of George RR Martin’s A Song Of Ice And Fire series makes me cringe. Even if I like it, I’m not sure that I’d like that much of it.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Consider the last fantasy novel I read, Ursula K. Le Guin’s A Wizard of Earthsea (1968), the first of the Earthsea books. In less than 250 pages, Le Guin included action, adventure, coming of age, backstory, romance, magic, travelogue and more. A little bit of everything, skillfully arranged into a compact, aesthetically pleasing package, like a bento box lunch. Though this was the first of a six-book series, the narrative stands alone. The reader is invited continue the saga, not commanded. If you visit a used book store (remember those?) you’ll see that most of the older books from the 1960s and 1970s are relatively thin, but in the 1980s and later the books get thicker (and correspondingly more expensive). Each represents a more significant investment in time and money.

The short story has also shifted in how it is published, distributed and read. Apart from the red-headed stepchild format of the chapbook, for the most part the short story was distributed in magazines or anthologies. SF&F magazines are a troubled medium, with pay rates that haven’t changed since the 1980s, and minuscule readerships. My local mega-bookstore has the SF&F digests in the magazine section, on the opposite end of the store from the SF&F paperbacks and hardcovers.

Compare that to a short-story instantly downloaded to your reading device for a few dollars. In the post-Kindle era, we see a wide variety of short works of fiction and non-fiction published alone and for individual sale. It’s too early to say if this format of publishing and reading will last. It might be a fad, or it might lead to a new golden age of short fiction, adapted to our modern, hyper-busy age.

That does come with new challenges. There aren’t magazine editors to act as gatekeepers or taste-makers, who might champion a new writer. You might buy an issue for one writer you know you like and end up reading something new. A given work has to fight for recognition in new ways.

There’s an instructive parallel in the evolution of music publishing in the last few decades. There’s no intrinsic reason a pop song has to average three and a half minutes, or an album has to cover both sides of an LP. 45 rpm records with two singles dominated the market, until the rise of the LP in the 1960s, which allowed the concept of “album rock.” Post-Napster, the single track has surpassed the album as the primary unit of consumption, with listeners assembling their tracks into their own playlists on their music players. This creates new possibilities in both content and format. Popular songs have shifted from strong, flowing rhythms to keep the listener on the same radio channel to sharp, memorable opening hooks to keep the listener from hitting “Shuffle.” The medium informs the message.

My zombie erotica story “The Charge of the Soul” was published by Forbidden Fiction as both a stand-alone ebook and as part of the Touched By Death anthology. The data set of sales is too small to draw any conclusions about whether people prefer to buy their short fiction a la carte.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Sister Day

Lo these many years ago, two little girls in Westfield, Massachusetts decided that if there was a Mother's Day, Father's Day and Grandparents' Day, there should be a Sister Day.

Well, it's sort of backwards. The first Sister Day was a day in which my bratty little sister strangely decided to be nice to me all day. She was sweet and nice and hugged me and even did my chores, which had me checking under my bed that night, let me tell you. I'm not saying we fought a lot as kids, but I will say we had very different personalities as children. I was the quiet one. (Hush you, in the back. I heard that.)

Things were back to normal the next day, of course, but I didn't forget. I wrote about it in my diary. And a year later, on that same day, I did the same for her. And we decided from then on that March 31 would be Sister Day. Being that this was waaaaay before the internet, we had no way of knowing there is an "official" Sister Day on Aug. 3. By the time we did know, it was too late: March 31 was our day.

Time and lives being what they are, the number of Sister Days we've been able to spend in the same time zone, much less the same ZIP code, have been regrettably rare. And this year I cannot even call her, as my voice is pretty well shot from this evil awful cold that wants to kill me, and being the last day of the month she is running madly about doing.... all that mortgage-y stuff that mortgage people do on the last day of the month. I don't know - she has explained to me exactly what she does for a living about eight times and I still don't get it. She is also the smart one, folks.

I've written before that my sister is my personal hero, and so I won't gush all over her again and embarrass her. If I want to embarrass her, I'll pull out The Stories. (Muahahahaha.) But this year it's a bit different, because she's one of the ladies who was willing to stand up beside me in overpriced satin after a long night tying favor bags under the influence of margaritas. Or that's kind of how I think it's going to go.

The 'Maids have had their own private chat going on for a while now, and that's been one of the most fun parts of this whole wedding nonsense: bringing together my dearest friends from the far-flung parts of my life to get to know each other and share the snark and the silliness. In a way, they're all my sisters. I just might tell them so, if you don't think they'll get a big head.

But today... this one's for me and Melanie. Happy Sister Day, squirt. You're still my hero.

Whatever I said, she thought it was hilarious.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Voices in River City

Greetings from Madison, Ind. Well, actually... Carrollton, Ky. It's kinda the same place. But not really.

I was invited to be a guest author at the Madison Author Fair, hosted by the lovely folks at That Book Place in Madison, Ind. I was happy to accept, especially since my good friend Stephen Zimmer was to attend with his crew from Seventh Star Press, and I always prefer events where I know someone. I'm shy.

Right up to departure, however, I was having the biggest trouble finding a place to stay. Madison has a number of chain hotels, all of which were $100 a night or more and I am seriously lacking in hotel points at the moment. There were a couple of independents, which had some fairly negative reviews... and while I am not picky, I do have minimum standards. Safe, clean and no bugs. I've stayed in too many fleatraps where critters rode home with me in my luggage, unsavory gentlemen watched too closely as I entered my outdoor-corridor motel door, and - best of all - that place where the door didn't lock. Yay!

But right across the state line lay Kentucky, which is having an awesome special in its state park lodges: two nights for $90! Can't beat that with a stick. And it was only twenty minutes away! I like state park lodges. The rooms are generally decent, prices are either very good or ridiculous, natural surroundings and usually quite secure.

Um. Except the good folks of Inditucky decided this was a good weekend to tear down the only bridge across the Ohio River.

This had two effects: my drive from Madison to the state park was approximately 55 minutes instead of 20, and the crowds at the book fair were less than half their usual level, according to my compatriots.

No matter. I still had a great time. The volunteers were, I kid you not, the most attentive I've ever seen. I don't think an hour passed without one of them coming by to offer me hot coffee, a bottle of water, snacks from the break room. Sure, most book fairs have volunteers. But this is the first one where I pulled up, opened my trunk to unload the books, and magically FIVE YOUNG PEOPLE appeared as if popping out of a Warner Bros. cartoon to help me unload. They were cheerful, helpful, friendly and honestly seemed interested in books. It's enough to renew your faith.

Sales were... well, let me explain my philosophy. I don't measure the success of an event by the number of books sold. Instead, I measure it by a vague mental ratio of books sold vs. the number of feet past the booth. If only fifty people pass me and I sell 10 books, that means one in five bought. That's pretty good. If 16,000 people pass me and I sell 10 books, that's Dragoncon. (Just kidding, you know I love ya, Atlanta... but please buy books. :))

So in terms of my philosophy, I did just fine. The ratio of books sold vs. feet past the booth started slow, but really picked up toward the end. And I've heard from several other authors at the fair that last year, the weather was awful and you still had to jostle people out of your way. It's the bridge, they said: without that bridge, it's just too hard for Kentucky folk to make it up into Madison and vice versa.

Still, conversation was pleasant and the company was marvelous. The bookstore was more than hospitable (they gave us cake!) and only one customer ran away from my booth declaring I was a "scary lady." (I'm harmless!) Sadly, I had to turn away a customer: a boy no older than ten wanted to buy Nocturne. I told him it was unfortunately an adults-only book. He was quite disappointed.

(Side note: I don't sell my rougher stuff to kids unless there is a parent present and that parent has been apprised of the content of my work. Some of the vampire and zombie shit is not the kind of thing I'd like the Boy to read until maybe last year, and there's one or two things I've written I still wouldn't let him read. Each parent has the right to decide for his or her own kid, but some kids hear "vampires" and think Twilight. Uh, not exactly, kiddos.)

And now I am happily ensconced in my lodge room again. Last night it was a pleasant surprise: while it is unfortunately in the outdoor wing (and of course in the creepy dark unlit far end, thanksalot), it's a lovely oak-paneled room with vaulted ceiling, comfy bed and a balcony. Couldn't ask for more, especially at this price. It was blissfully silent and peaceful.... last night.

Tonight, there's a wedding. The musicians were packing up when I came back after the post-fair dinner with... just about everyone who worked the show. There were guys in disheveled tuxedos and older couples in churchy clothes wandering about. And that's fine... except now I have neighbors in my creepy unlit wing.

They're not yelling or fighting. They're not playing music. I don't even think they're raising their voices. But I can hear. every. word. they. say. Not clearly, not enough to follow the conversation beyond every fifth word. But enough.

It's all right. After last night's marathon drive, four hours of sleep, all day being Author Woman and dinner with the gang, I'm beat. There is no brain for writing. Well, except for long, rambling blog posts. Tomorrow I'll sleep in, and maybe get a little writing time before hitting the road back home.

I hear they've been cleaning.

Tuesday, March 04, 2014

Lenten Ramblings

Ash Wednesday is upon us, and that means it's time for the joyous celebration of Lent.

Yeah, there's not often a lot of "joy" or "celebration" in Lent. Just check out the hymns... whenever we start chanting in Lent, I hear Monty Python's papier-mache God complaining, "It's like those psalms, they're soooo depressing." In years past (and often today) many Christians have chosen to interpret Lent as a season of scourging, of punishing yourself, carrying the woe of humanity's murder of the Christ, etc.

Not me. Ashes notwithstanding.

To me, Lent is a season of reflection, a forty-day period of meditation and self-improvement. I don't think it helps God or anyone for me to wear the (metaphorical) hair shirt for seven weeks. But if you give up something for Lent, there should be an actual reason for it beyond "I'm giving up something for Lent." Otherwise it is a hollow exercise, a public self-flagellation that serves no real purpose.

In fact, in the traditional Ash Wednesday readings, Jesus tells us not to engage in public displays of religious faith, that is only the hypocrites who give alms before an audience and expect applause for their great sacrifices. For that reason alone, Ash Wednesday used to make me a little uncomfortable. It felt like the physical sign of our faith, literally stamped on our foreheads, was an attention grab for our devotion.

In St. Louis, Catholicism is the dominant faith, so no one wonders about the ashes. When I lived in Tennessee, where Baptist churches dominate, I tended to stand out on Ash Wednesday. And frequently someone would say, "You've got something on your forehead, you know."

(My father used to call it "getting your ashes hauled," which makes me snicker inappropriately at the service every year. Thanks, Dad.)

Lent is supposed to be about inner reflection, to make yourself better able to do what it is that you're meant to do in this world. It's not really about punishing yourself. If you choose to deny yourself something, it should be because you believe this thing interferes with your life, holds you back from your calling or is somehow detrimental to your relationships.

For example, if you give up chocolate, it should be because your fondness for chocolate has taken on a disproportionate weight in your life. Sounds silly when you put it on chocolate, doesn't it? Now replace chocolate with too many beers in front of the television at night, huddling on the back porch with a cigarette in your mouth, endlessly ranting and fuming about stupidity on the internet, or any habit/obsession/addiction that draws you away from health, away from your loved ones and denies you the peace that I truly believe God wants for us.

What is it that weighs on your life? I don't mean money problems or work issues, unless you can identify something in you that is causing them. What problems do you have that you know, in your heart of hearts, you are creating for yourself? This is not about condemning or punishing yourself for your natural humanity. It is about finding the crazyman running around in your head screwing up your life and putting him in harness, to paraphrase Stephen King totally out of context.

It can be something simple, like my family's habit of eating fast food too often. It's expensive. It's unhealthy. It happens because we get busy, we are all on staggered schedules and sometimes I fall behind in the planning. But if we can stop for forty days, we might find that we feel healthier and our bank accounts will be better off. It is not denial simply to punish ourselves; it's identifying the source of a physical and financial problem and attempting to solve it.

It would be easy to say I'll give up Facebook for Lent, because I recognize it has a disproportionate weight in my life and it is too easy to get drawn into stupid, nasty discussions that eat up time and emotional energy. But it would be impossible to actually do it, as my presence there is required for my job, necessary for my writing and important to maintain contact with family and friends who are far away. But does it have to have that disproportionate weight? Does everything have to be about Facebook and what this is going to sound like online? Is there not a balance to be found between the positive aspects it brings and the negative weights?

(As a friend of mine once said: "The hardest thing about explaining the future to someone from the past would be, 'In my hand I hold a device that allows me to access the sum total of human knowledge. I use it to start arguments with strangers and look at pictures of cats.'")

I follow the rituals and customs of my faith because in all their traditional and sometimes strange ways, they remind me on a daily or weekly basis of the kind of person I strive to be. A person who leaves the world a better place than she found it. Of course I often fail, because I am human. But the key is not perfection; the key is constantly striving to do better. Lent is part of that.

On Ash Wednesday, I aim to take a look at myself and see a way to improve myself, mentally or physically. A way to improve my life and my family's life, something practical with measurable results, to make me into a better, healthier and happier person - and therefore better able to go about doing the things I'm meant to do in this life. Not an arbitrary self-denial that merely punishes me without actually improving me; something that makes my life or someone else's life better in the end.

The idea, I guess, is that if you can do this one thing for forty days, it should be that much easier to keep doing it.

Sunday, March 02, 2014

Literal Letters

Today we were shocked, shocked I say, to find a small card in the mail.

Not a come-on from a dentist or politician. Not another (eternal) medical bill. Not ad No. 531531593 from wedding vendors seeking our business. Not that thick bundle of grocery store stuffers we get each week (it would kill you nerds to put them in the newspaper where they belong?)

A hand-addressed card, sent to both of us and sealed in an actual paper envelope that did not involve a cellophane window. I got all excited for a moment.

Then it turned out to be a gracious card from the jeweler where we bought our rings. He thanked us for our business and said he was very excited to see our final choice on my wedding band. Yeah, me too.

It occurred to me that we very rarely get actual letters. I send them from time to time, to my grandmother who does not partake of the internet. Everyone else is on Facebook. What would you say in a letter that won't reach your friend for days or even a week, when you will talk to them three or four times by 'net beforehand?

And yet there's something lovely about actual mail. Something tangible and real.

Jimmy knows my antipathy toward the mailbox: it's a box full of stress, of bills and statements and pending headaches and really, the water bill is up AGAIN? I can only deal with the mail at certain times, when I am well-caffeinated and at my desk. Bringing in the mail and dumping it on the dining room table is sure to send me from zero to bitch in 2.5 seconds. I do NOT want to deal with it right now, and now you've made a mess. Poor Jimmy.

Why? Because that's all that ever comes in the mail. It's always give me money, give me money, give me money. It's a pile of recyclable stress and annoyance. Once I got a fortune cookie that said "Good things will come to you by mail." I taped it to the inside lid of our mailbox, in hopes of creating positive energy around the mail. It didn't work.

The nice little card from the jeweler reminded me that there was some kind of month-long schtick wherein the participants would send letters, postcards or some kind of written something to people every day for a month. It was a bad month for me, so I didn't participate. However, I thought the idea was lovely, and eagerly watched its progress. Alas, nobody sent me anything. Sniff.

Now I'm thinking about doing it myself. Maybe not every day - after all, March is insane for us and I can't even tell you how the Desk of Endless Tasks (tm Allan Gilbreath) has taken over my life lately. But if I sent a letter once a week, and not just to my grandmother... wouldn't that be lovely for others? And then might they be spurred to send a letter a week to other people? Or even to me?

I'm sure I can come up with something more interesting to say than the stuff on Facebook. I mean, how much FB can we really take before the headdesk gets to be too much? A little sanity, a little old-fashioned "hello, how are you?" can't kill us.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Ye Olde Book Tour... how does it work again?

This post started life as an email to a friend who was getting ready for his first bookstore signing and had some questions. Unfortunately, I had my phone on silent all day for a journalism conference, and I missed it. My apologies to my friend for the laaaaate reply.

Then I realized this might be useful to other new authors. His question was about bookstore signings, and how they work. And my answer is an unsatisfying "it depends."

• There's the traditional model. For major chain bookstores, and a large number of independents, it's the preferred choice. The bookstore orders copies of your books in advance from Ingram (sometimes Baker & Taylor, but they really like Ingram). They have the books on hand for your signing, and you show up with a pen. The readers buy the book from them. Eventually they pay the distributor and your publisher, and your publisher pays you your regular royalty.

This model is the time-tested standard, but it has some problems. If you're self-published, good luck on getting the signing in the first place. If you're published through a small press that doesn't use Ingram, they might or might not book you, depending on the level of hassle they'll face in ordering your books. (In one famous case, the bookstore trying to order my books was told the discount was only 5 percent. They ordinarily discount all new books 10 percent. My signing would have caused them to lose money. So I struck a deal with them directly.)

If the bookstore can't return the books to your publisher, they're probably going to turn you down. No returns means that if they order 40 books and sell three, they have to eat the cost. Not only will they never book you again, but it's embarrassing as hell. Unless they're willing to consider...

• The new model. You provide the books, either in advance or on the day of the signing. The bookstore sets up the display, people buy them at the register, and then bring them to you to sign. After the signing, you collect the unsold books (plus or minus a few for their stock) and the bookstore cuts you a check, minus their commission. This can vary from 10 to 40 percent. I would never agree to more than that, save once, and that was an unusual situation.

Note: You must negotiate this in advance! If you skate along happy on your cloud that a real live bookstore accepted you, you will be very unhappy to show up and find out they want a 50 percent cut and you will receive less per book than you paid for them. Frankly, I usually can't do 40 percent either, because that's often my whole discount. However, since the bookstore isn't risking anything in this model, they'll often split the difference to a nice even 20 percent.

Most of the time the bookstores cut me a check on site; in a few occasions they do the books later and mail me a check. When it was a small family-owned store in Memphis, I got the check within 10 days. When it was the Atlanta Borders.... not so much. Seven years and counting, they still owe me $175. Dear Borders: I want my money!

Downside of this model and the next: You provide the books. That means unless your contract says otherwise, you're paying the wholesale rate for those books in advance. You're investing in stock, so you hope that pays off. Order wisely, friends.

• The true indie model: The bookstore hosts you, but you sell your books directly. You set up your stock, the customer gives you money, you sign. At the end of the day, you give the bookstore the agreed-upon percentage.

Most bookstores don't like this model, because they want to encourage people to buy their existing stock as impulse buys along with your book. That's the real value of a signing for them: feet in the door. It is most common in very small stores, used bookstores and places that don't sell books as their primary product, like coffeehouses or specialty shops. Sometimes these venues don't even ask for a percentage; they allow you to set up as a way to gain free advertising and get more feet in the door.

The latter two models are the ones that really make the most sense for you financially, if you're a small-press author. For one thing: they don't require setting it up six months in advance, which is probably the best plan for the traditional model. There's less pressure, since no one is losing a fortune if you only sell a few books.

And, of course, there's the issue of royalties vs. hand sales. I've sung this song before, but the fact is that on a book-by-book basis, you will make more money selling your books yourself than you will through your small-press publisher. Until you land a publisher that has the distribution and marketing capability to get your books nationally and internationally distributed among bookstores, the small press author does better selling them herself: 7 percent royalty vs. 40 percent profit margin on hand sales, for the typical contract.

The latter two models allow you to take advantage of that, to a certain extent. Twenty percent still beats 7 percent on any spreadsheet I've ever developed. Of course, you have to balance the costs of transportation and maybe housing, but that's the cost-benefit analysis you develop after years of selling boxes of books out of the back of your car.

This is on my mind again this year, of course, because we're deep into planning the year and I'm faced with the usual conundrum: cons don't pay off unless they pay your way, no matter how much fun they are, which is why many artists and authors I know are cutting back or eliminating cons from their schedules. Personal appearances and whistlestop tours are the key to getting your books out there, along with ebooks.

Or so I'm hoping, because Ariane is looking for places to visit in her inaugural tour season...

Friday, February 14, 2014

Mr. Romantic

HIM: *pokes head up into office* I'm about to go to work.
ME: Uh huh.
HIM: What?
ME: Remember about two hours ago, when I said there was inventory to be done? And you conveniently vanished?
HIM: *grins* Well.
ME: Yeeeeah. There's still inventory to be done. And it has to be done before the convention next weekend.
HIM: We can do it this weekend.
ME: Oh yeah? When?
HIM: Tomorrow, before I go to work.
ME: I'm at the journalism conference tomorrow.
HIM: Oh yeah. Well, Sunday then.
ME: *stares*
HIM: What?
ME: Really?
HIM: ... What?
ME: You forgot.
HIM: What are we doing Sunday?
ME: You really forgot.
HIM: What did I forget?
ME: Uh uh. I'm not bailing you out. You just sit there and remember.
HIM: ...Are we going on a date?
ME: Remember when we decided that we would go on a date every month and take turns as to who planned the date? And remember a month ago, when we realized that Valentine's Day was on a Friday when you're working, and we thought we'd go out Saturday but I had the conference? So we said we'd celebrate Valentine's Day on Sunday, and it's an even month so it's your turn to plan the date?
HIM: Um.
ME: Yeah. Good planning, sparky.
HIM: Well! We'll... we'll ditch the boy, go out to dinner at 54th Street, and then go see the romantic time-traveler movie.
ME: Oh really? And we're paying for it with good looks and charm, of course.
HIM: Of course.
ME: You wanted to do inventory on our Valentine's Day date.
HIM: You are not going to post that, are you?
ME: Oh yes.
HIM: Noooooo!
ME: See, everyone thinks you're the super-romantic Perfect ManTM, and they have no idea that it's all a sham, and you're really the same clueless male as all the rest of the guys who didn't notice the giant freaking Valentine's Day signs for the last six weeks.
HIM: ... I love you.