September 17, 2018

Book Review: Among Thieves by Douglas Hulick

Since I’m not a huge fan of fantasy, Among Thieves isn’t the type of book I’d normally pick up. After reading a string of novels I did not particularly enjoy, my editor recommended this one. With all the tact in the world, I asked, “Why the hell would I read that?”

So without further ado, my review of one of my editor’s favorite books.

Among Thieves by Douglas Hulick
My rating: ★★★★☆

Drothe is a member of a thieves guild and works as a nose--someone who seeks out and verifies whispers and rumors. When there’s talk of unrest in the city of Ten Ways, Drothe is sent out to get more information. Suddenly, he’s the target of a string of assassins with uncommon means and powerful magic. When he obtains a book filled with dangerous information, it becomes the only thing keeping him alive as important people try to get it from him and his allies abandon him.

Even though Drothe is a thief and one of the ‘bad guys,’ he’s honorable and tries to do what he believes is the right thing, making it easy for the reader to root for him. I especially enjoyed his relationships with the other characters, from his sister who may have tried to kill him but is someone he can rely on when there’s nowhere else to turn, to his closest friend who is constantly saving him from trouble.

Although there’s magic in this book and it takes a pretty big role in the story, there wasn’t too much of characters actually practicing and using magic, which made them more relatable. Instead, the book is filled with richly detailed sword fights and combat, placing the reader in the middle of the action. I only have the most basic knowledge of swords thanks to the Maryland Kunst des Fechtens presentation I went to, so I imagine combat enthusiasts would appreciate the amount of consideration the author poured into every altercation.

My only complaint is with the pacing. The first half is more of a slow burn where the reader gradually learns about the world while inexplicable things happen to Drothe, all of which made it a little hard for me to get into the story. Then, the second half contained a ton of reveals in which multiple characters explain to Drothe what was actually going on in the first half.

I can definitely see why this is a much-loved book. Anyone who likes fantasy, medieval settings, swords and sword fighting, or complex characters will enjoy reading this novel.

September 10, 2018

Why I Don't Pay for ISBN


If you’re an indie author, then you’re probably already aware CreateSpace is getting absorbed by KDP. However, the rest of you probably have no idea what that means.

CreateSpace is a print-on-demand company owned by Amazon that helps creators produce and sell their work, whether that be CDs, books, or DVDs. I use them for my paperback books, so I’ve uploaded each cover image and PDF of the interior for all of my novels to their website. When someone orders my books, CreateSpace prints a single copy of that title and ships it to them.

Kindle Direct Publishing is Amazon’s publishing service for eBooks, which recently started offering POD books as well. And instead of operating two book printing services, they are now combining them into one.

I received an email stating that my books will be automatically migrated to KDP in the next few weeks with no disruption in their availability on Amazon. Cool.

Then I got a bunch more emails. Because I chose X option on Mental Contact, it will change to ‘draft’ status and removed from sale on Amazon. Because of Y option, At Fault will cost more to print in the UK. Since In the Lurch isn’t published yet, I should go ahead and do that or it will also go into ‘draft’ status and potentially mess up my launch schedule.

Sigh. I actually thought it would be easy. Instead, I’ve pretty much had to update and republish all of my books so that the transition will be seamless. Although I don’t have high hopes that everything will go through without a hitch.

Change is always hard, but I’m sticking with this since Amazon is the main sales avenue for books, KDP is still the most affordable option without doing a print run of 1,000+ books, and I used the free CreateSpace ISBN.

I used the free ISBN. Cue widespread indie outrage.

"You should always purchase your own ISBN!"


So many self-published authors state this as an outright fact. ISBN is just that little number on the back of the book encoded in a barcode. Since it’s standardized, anyone can scan it and look up the book. Even those QR scanning apps will identify the title, author, and publisher (and link to an online retailer where it’s sold). By purchasing your own ISBN, you are shown as the publisher on record. It looks more professional. You’ll have the same identifier through all printers if you use multiple. It will be your own! If you don’t, then you’re a hack!!

For some authors, sure, using numbers you purchased yourself makes the most sense. My problem is with those who consider using your own ISBN as the ‘right’ way and look down on those who opted for the cheaper option.

Instead of analyzing every detail of both sides of the debate, I’m going to go over the main factors of why I use the free ISBNs provided by POD companies, and why I plan on continuing to use them in the future.

ISBN are stupidly expensive


Bowker has a monopoly in ISBN in the United States so they can charge whatever they want. They’re only $1.50 a piece if you purchase a block of 1,000. That’s a huge upfront cost, though, and probably way more than an indie author would need in their lifetime. However, a more reasonable amount, say 10, cost $295. For a list of numbers.

For that price, I’m going to make absolutely sure it’s necessary, especially if there’s another option.

My books are already strongly branded


Many authors say that having their own publishing imprint listed as the publisher on record helps brand their book. I’ve been publishing under “Beth Martin Books” and have my little logo on the title page and back cover. Also, my name is on my books—I even use the same font for my name on all my covers.

And what about the authors who are published by larger houses that put out thousands of titles every year? Having Random House listed as the publisher doesn’t help build the author’s brand.

A single number does not stick to a book forever


I’ve read some pretty ridiculous scenarios where having your own identifier would be advantageous: Amazon shuts down, readers will only have the ISBN for a book—and somehow not know the title or author name—and won’t be able to buy a copy, book clubs will request wholesale copies by looking up the ISBN then contacting the publisher instead of just grabbing the easily available information from the back cover, spine, and copyright page…

Look, I’m not prepared for a zombie apocalypse. I’m also not prepared for the largest company in the world to suddenly go bankrupt.

The thing that really bugs me when people talk about the long-term impact of having a POD ISBN is that these identifiers aren’t particularly long-term. Each edition of the book will have a new number—it isn’t one and done with only one number ever associated with a title. The Harry Potter books have already had several editions, each with different ISBNs, and the variety of identifiers haven’t made the books hard to find.

I can still get my books into bookstores


Do you know who else does POD? Barnes & Nobles. They also offer free ISBNs and even have the option for hardcover copies. In fact, you can purchase a hardcover of both The End of Refuge and Quality DNA on their website. I haven’t made the push to have my novels stocked in their physical stores, but if you go into one and request a copy, they’ll order it for you.

I know there are other bookstores, but they’re the big one. Also, smaller bookstores are more willing to do a consignment deal with local authors.

Readers don’t care


I’m not trying to impress the book industry, which seems to be the only group that actually cares about this whole charade. When looking over a copy of my book at an event, I’ve never had anyone ask who the publisher on record was or which printer manufactured my book. Only a few people have asked if my books are self-published, and when I proudly declare, “Yes they are!” I’ve only gotten positive responses.

The only companies I’d like to impress with my novels are the big five. Even then, I would have to impress them with sales. If my novels make mad sales, I’d totally get offered a fat contract for printing rights with wicked royalties. Totally.

I can always change my mind later


If something in the future persuades me that my current ISBNs are no good and having my own is the best option, then I can make that change. It’s as simple as putting out a new edition with a new identifier.

August 27, 2018

Book Boxes: An Author's Perspective


I think subscription boxes are a fabulous idea—and when I say subscription box, I’m really only considering those with books. Each month, you receive a box with a new book to read and a handful of goodies. Pretty neat, right?

I haven’t actually subscribed to any of these boxes, because I much prefer reading things on my kindle. Also, I only have enough time to read about a book a month and want to pick the books I read, and although I would love a mountain of nice, new hardcover books, I absolutely don’t have the shelf space. I’ve also been burned by a ton of subscription services in the past, including the local newspaper1.

However, there are tons of avid readers who collect beautiful books and revel in bookish goodies. I love watching videos of people opening their new box and fawning over all the items inside.

When a fellow indie author announced that their debut novel would be featured in a particular box, I realized I could potentially get my novels in a box as well. It would be an excellent opportunity to get one of my books in front of new readers. The company organizing the box would have to buy a bunch of copies of my novel—already making it a sweet deal for me—and their customers might like my book from their box enough to purchase my other books. I had to look into this avenue both for the exposure and profit.

I sent review copies of Quality DNA to two different box curators and was accepted for both. Then both of them fell through.

With all the stumbling blocks I’ve navigated in my indie author career, I’ve always done my best to keep my head held high, and this is no exception. Since the whole book box idea is still really appealing, I decided to give the model a closer look.

On a writing forum, another author mentioned that they started their own book box and marketed the subscription box, so when their debut book came out, they had all the logistics of creating curated boxes full of goodies down and were able to produce a special pre-order box for their book, which sold really well. I’m already stretched pretty thin and can’t imagine setting up my own subscription service, although I did find the idea tempting.

However, I could certainly put together a one-off box. Several authors have offered pre-order swag. After pre-ordering the book, a reader can email the author a picture of your receipt and shipping address, and the author will send a package of goodies. For physical books, pre-orders count as release-day sales, and launching to a large number of sales increases both the book’s rank on online retailers and the odds of making national best-seller lists. It’s a pretty smart business move and I can see why authors take advantage of it.

Since I use Createspace to print my books, I can’t set up a pre-order. I could do something similar for ebook preorders, but since the royalties made per book aren’t super high, even the postage to mail an envelope would make a big cut into my profits. Also, ebook preorders don’t help a book’s rank on release day, so there’s no real reason to promote them. Other marketing activities have already eaten up most of my launch budget, and I’d prefer not to lose a ton of money on book launches, so an ebook pre-order incentive is out.

If I wanted to do a book box, I’d have to wait until the book is actually out so I could order copies, sign them, tuck them into pretty boxes with other cool items, and ship them to fans. I would have to charge extra to cover all the shipping costs and additional items, and hand-selling copies instead of directing readers to Amazon actually hurts the book’s rank.

Basically, I’ve looped back around to, “Well, I should try to submit my book to an existing subscription service,” which is definitely something I will still pursue. But I haven’t given up on creating a cool new promotion idea for my upcoming novel, In the Lurch.



1. Funny story, after they considerately renewed my daily paper subscription for 6 months, the paper sent me a bill along with a threat to send my account to collections. I had only received 2 papers. Customer service told me one of my neighbors must have stolen it… every day… for nine months. Apparently, I was supposed to call the carrier every time my paper didn’t arrive. Only after pointing out that I had no way of getting my carrier’s phone number (and customer service certainly didn’t have it), and I had never consented to any sort of renewal, was I told that I should send a snail mail letter to billing so they could maybe waive the new bill.

August 20, 2018

Making a Book Cover: Do You Get It?


Having an eye-catching, memorable, and genre-appropriate cover is absolutely necessary in order for a book to succeed. This is why the general rule for indie authors is: DON’T MAKE YOUR OWN.

I totally get it. It’s rare for someone to excel in both crafting memorable stories and graphic design. Also, the person who wrote the book is just too close to the story to objectively assess whether or not a particular cover idea will help sell their book. Authors can also run into this problem when working with a professional designer who does whatever the author asks without considering the marketability of the cover.

Saying all this, I must admit that I’ve made all of my book covers so far.

I absolutely love watching people create the art for a cover. There are videos which demonstrate the technical aspects of making artwork, describe the fundamentals of design, show a speed through of the entire creation process, and teach how to mark the bleed, trim, and safety areas for a print cover. However, all of them focus on the final product, and I find the iterations of different ideas and mock-ups fascinating.

So, to give you an idea of how I came to the final cover for At Fault, I’ll share some of the other ideas I kicked around. I did a similar post with The End of Refuge, which you can find here.

A QUICK SKETCH



While drafting the novel, I came up with a quick and dirty cover to go with the title I had settled on. Since “fault” can mean a couple different things (and I like the title since both meanings fit), the cover needed to clarify that this story was primarily about fault lines.

I started with this cover template from Canva, dropped in a photo of the San Andreas Fault Line along with my name and title, and voilá, instant cover. It’s not very exciting or eye-catching and would be better suited to contemporary literature. But it’s a cover. Clearly, I needed to do better than that.

TIME FOR SOME STYLE



Since I couldn’t find any stock photos of an existing fault line that I liked, I decided to experiment with a typography-heavy cover. I tried a few different fonts, textures, color schemes, etc. but none of them were really impressive. The cracked earth texture and larger crack down the middle were cool details I’d revisit, but the overall effect was too vague.

DO YOU GET IT? EH?



Although fault lines were an obvious direction for the cover, something that alluded to earthquakes would also be appropriate. But how do you convey ‘earthquake’ in an image? A Google search came up with plenty of photos of the aftermath of major earthquakes. However, destroyed buildings and roadways along with sad-looking people could be from a variety of natural disasters. More importantly, the novel is about scientific research and geology, not human suffering.

But there is one thing that says research and earthquakes! Do you know what it is? Do you recognize the picture above?

It’s a seismograph! The only reason I know what one looks like is from watching Bill Nye the Science Guy when I was a kid. I don’t believe this style is used any longer since it’s much easier to record seismic readings to a computer. It’s not a particularly iconic image that a lot of people will recognize, so this was a pass.

However, I had finally settled on fonts and their placement, so it wasn’t a total miss.

PUMP THAT OIL



Was there anything else that related at all to fault lines? Going even further afield, I tried an image of an oil rig. Actually, a number of people suggested using one for the cover. When I looked up stock photos, all the images were of rigs and pumps in front of beautiful skies or sunsets. Since the novel doesn’t portray drilling for oil in a particularly positive light, it would be entirely misleading to have a glorious pump silhouetted against streaming rays of sun.

I tried sticking a rig on there anyway and adjusted the colors and added textures, but in the end, it missed the tone of the novel. I did like the aesthetic of a black silhouette over the sky and just needed to try a different approach.

ALMOST THERE



After ditching the seismograph and oil rig, I came back to putting a crack through the middle of the cover. There was still space between the title and my name that needed an interesting focal point. Something that all the previous iterations were lacking was a human element. I decided on a couple in a non-romantic pose on a desert landscape. The image I settled on has the Milky Way in the background which adds a nice bit of texture without being distracting. The original colors were pretty meh, so I added the red filter.

I sent this version to a few critique groups to get some feedback. The only change I made upon their suggestion was to offset the title on each side of the crack, which leads to the final cover.


I’m really happy with how the cover for At Fault turned out. It looks particularly stunning in print, so if you haven’t read it yet, consider getting a signed copy here.

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