Tag Archives: marketing

The return of the serial story

Serial fiction is not exactly a new form. Charles Dickens, Alexander Dumas, Henry James, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle… they were all at it a long, long time ago. In the last few decades the serial story has been very much out of favour. Indeed, in most genres short fiction itself has dwindled to almost non-existence.

The Ragged People: a story of the post-plague years - post-apocalypse fiction from Nick GiffordShort science fiction has persisted, and while short stories often return to previously-used characters and settings, true serial fiction has been a rarity.

Is the rise of the ebook changing this?

Perhaps.

Serial fiction, and short fiction, have generally been viewed by commercial publishers as dead areas, but one significant change with the advent of e-publishing has been the rise of the long tail: previously unviable niches are now sustainable, with production costs minimised and global reach maximised.

For the writer, serial fiction is an intriguing proposition.

For starters, the form is different. Serial fiction isn’t just a novel cut into shorter blocks and published at intervals. With a novel, the reader has generally invested up front and is more likely to give a book a chance. With serial fiction, readers have only invested one episode at a time: if that chunk doesn’t deliver, and if it doesn’t hook the reader, then why should the reader bother with subsequent episodes? Think of serial TV drama: most aim for that Eastenders ending, the set-up for a big revelation or dramatic conflict that the viewer can’t afford to miss and then, duh, duh, d-d-duh the theme music kicks in.

Some writers will wing it with their serial fiction: write an episode, wait until it has been published and then write the next one – real seat-of-the-pants writing. Others take a more planned approach. But however you do it, the considerations are different, and for me that makes it fun.

It also lets you try new things. You’ll often find that writers really push the limits with their short fiction, while their novel-length work plays it a bit safer. This is partly a result of commercial pressures, of course, but is also because a one-off short story gives you the opportunity to push boundaries; failure with a short story does not usually end careers.

Serial fiction lies somewhere in between: in my Ragged People serial (written for teenagers with my Nick Gifford pen-name), I’ve started with a fairly self-contained story. I have some ideas for what will happen next, I have characters I want to write about, and I’d love to carry on, but then there are lots of writing projects I’d like to work on. By publishing the first story I can gauge response before committing to writing more. (Or, of course, I can ignore response and just plough on regardless…) My hope is that I’ll keep getting nudged for more episodes until I find that I’ve written a novel, almost by accident.

The new Aethernet Magazine showcases serial fiction from some fabulous writers (Eric Brown, Chris Becket and Tony Ballantyne for starters) taking a variety of approaches, from the carefully plotted to the winging it approach, and I’m really looking forward to seeing how it develops. What’s more the Aethernet blog is publishing interviews with the authors about their approaches to serial fiction, which promises to be particularly interesting for writers interested in the form – most recently Chris Beckett, talking about his serialised sequel to Dark Eden (shortlisted for this year’s Arthur C Clarke Award).

As a writer, it’s great to see serial fiction getting a new opportunity. Let’s just hope that readers find it just as exciting!


Snapshots: Linda Nagata interviewed

What’s recently or soon out?
The Red: First Light by Linda NagataIn any other month, the big news would be the publication of my short story, “Through Your Eyes,” in the March/April double issue of Asimov’s Science Fiction. It’s a near-future story with a theme focused on technology and civil rights, and it’s the first story I’ve ever had in Asimov’s, so I’m pretty pleased about that. But the news that supersedes this is that I have a new novel also out this month, called The Red: First Light—and in a nice bit of synchronicity, “Through Your Eyes” was the direct inspiration for the novel.

Sometimes characters just walk on stage and demand attention. That was the case with James Shelley, the protagonist of “Through Your Eyes.” Though I was done with the short story, I was not done with the character, and within a week of sending the story off to Sheila Williams at Asimov’s, I was writing the novel. Like the story that precedes it, The Red: First Light is concerned with the impact of evolving technologies, but the novel takes a different approach. It’s a boots-on-the-ground military thriller that engages with warfare, politics, and other, stranger things.

Near-future fiction has its own special challenges. Given the ongoing, rapid rate of technological change in the world it’s easy to imagine a near-future novel becoming obsolete almost overnight—or perhaps reclassified as an alternate history. Despite the risk, I like the immediacy of the subgenre. I’ve written in the near-future before, in particular with my novel Tech-Heaven, but also with the more recent Limit of Vision. I’ve also written about armed conflict on occasion, but The Red: First Light is my first true foray into military science fiction. That was pretty intimidating for me, but I really wanted to write this book—for the adventure, for the tech, for the politics.

What are you working on now?
Mostly I’ve been working on promotion for the new book. The Red: First Light is an indie book, published under my own imprint, so the responsibility for getting the word out is all mine—and of course I’m finding that publicity is even more challenging than writing a novel. But I’m also well begun on the follow up to First Light. No publication date yet for The Red: Trials, but the goal is to have it out within a year, and sooner if possible.

I also have several short story ideas brewing. In my early career I was never very interested in short stories, but over the past year and a half all that has changed and I’ve really come to enjoy reading and writing them.

Tell us about your experiences with publishing – both traditional and the new e-publishing environment that’s emerging.
Looking back, my experience with traditional publishing seems like a psychological experiment designed to test my sanity, with each incident of sublime luck countered by disaster. On the plus side, my first four books sold to Bantam Spectra, where I had terrific editors. The books had great covers by Bruce Jensen, most were picked up by the Science Fiction Book Club, one won an award. On the downside, I had three different editors for the first two books. All were published as mass-market originals, and despite good reviews, they were out of print in short order. At Tor I was better paid and I had hardcover editions, but a failure of communication made it a tough ride.

As far back as the nineties, though, I was interested in being a publisher. At some point I decided to learn the page layout program InDesign, thinking I would do a new print version of my novel, Vast. At the time, I couldn’t figure out how to make that work economically, but circa 2010, the technology arrived. I’d spent nine years working in web development, and ebooks are just HTML (web) pages wrapped up in zip files. So it wasn’t a big leap for me to start putting out my backlist in electronic format. I remember being shocked when some of my books sold in the first week they were available. I put out everything in ebook editions as quickly as I could, and by early 2011 I released my first print book, using the print-on-demand services at Lightning Source. Bruce Jensen, the original cover artist for the Nanotech Succession books, very generously let me re-use the cover paintings, even putting together new front covers for me. Now almost all my books have print editions.

Sales are modest, but I’m happy with this new approach. With traditional publishing, my work was in someone else’s hands. I had no real input on the production of the books, and simply had to accept the result, whether it turned out good or ill. Now I’m in control and I like it a lot. If I mess something up I’m in a position to fix it, which is also grand. Book covers that don’t work out can be changed, book descriptions can be revised. It’s wonderful. I would like to find a solution to the distribution issue—right now you will not, to my knowledge, find any of my print books in bookstores—but new options may be emerging. We’ll see. For now, I intend to stick with indie publishing.

Describe your typical writing day.
Up very early, regardless of when I went to sleep. Consume coffee and squander time on the Internet. Note in shock that a large portion of the morning has slipped away with nothing accomplished. Force myself away from the big, beautiful Mac desktop and plant myself in front of the aging Toshiba laptop that I use for writing. Try to get into the zone. On good days this happens very quickly. I become completely involved in what I’m doing and it’s hard to pry myself away to fulfill other obligations. On bad days every word is a struggle. When I’m working regularly on a draft I do try to produce some minimal word count. A thousand words is the goal, but sometimes I have to be happy with five hundred. Much of the time I don’t know what will happen in the next scene. It takes time to work that out.

At any rate, if it’s a good day I’ll generally keep writing well past my goal, taking advantage of the zone while I can. If it’s a bad day, I’ll struggle along until I get my thousand words. If it’s a really bad day, I’ll quit early and go mow the lawn.

What would you draw attention to from your back-list?
For those new to my work, the first back-list book I point to is The Bohr Maker, which won the Locus Award for Best First Novel, and is the first book of The Nanotech Succession story world. As an alternative, and especially for those new to science fiction, I recommend Memory, a far-future, coming-of-age tale. Or for something completely different, the Puzzle Lands books, starting with The Dread Hammer—my experiment with fast-paced, scoundrel-lit fantasy.

Which other authors or books do you think deserve a plug?
Chaz Brenchley recently re-released his novel Dispossession through the writer’s cooperative Book View Café, of which I’m a member. Mildly curious, I started reading it, was immediately hooked, and enjoyed it immensely.

If you were to offer one snippet of writing advice what would it be?
Flee! Run away while you still can! …but if it’s too late for that and writing is already in your blood, then don’t stop. I more-or-less stopped writing for roughly ten years. It’s true I was intermittently working on a fantasy novel during this time (The Wild, now being serialized on my blog), but I wasn’t publishing anything, I wasn’t diversifying, I wasn’t learning anything new about writing, I wasn’t even following the genre, and I fell way behind. What readers I had must have assumed I’d given up and gone away. So don’t stop. Keep pushing yourself to try new things.

So… the easy one: what’s the future of publishing? How will writers be making a living and publishing in five or ten years? What will readers be reading?
Ha! Well, in my best scenario, droves of readers will be preordering the next Linda Nagata novel (FYI, preordering isn’t currently possible for indie print-on-demand books or ebooks). But I suspect the future of publishing will be a diversity of options, with more and more writers working both sides of the fence—indie and traditional—along with the ongoing development of some cool new trends like enhanced ebooks that include more art and maybe even music. As always the big question will be how to earn a living from our creative endeavors. That’s a question I’ve never managed to answer, but during my occasional bouts of optimism, I keep imagining it will work out.

More…
The Red: First Light by Linda Nagata

Linda Nagata is a Nebula-award-winning author of both science fiction and fantasy, with multiple novels and short stories. She grew up in Hawaii, in a rented beach house on the north shore of Oahu, and has been a writer, a mom, a programmer of database-driven websites, and lately a publisher and book designer. She lives with her husband in their long-time home on the island of Maui.

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Our Friends: The Machines

A very serious documentary piece, by the wonderfully off-beat Nir Yaniv, has just appeared.

There’s only one kind of machine which does not exist!

More information about said contraption can be found here:
http://www.lovemch.com


A novel, by any other name

Harmony by Keith Brookealt.human by Keith Brooke

Spot the difference?

Same cover, same novel, different titles.

My big novel about aliens, the Fermi paradox and extreme alternate history, alt.human, will be called Harmony for the North American market.

Confused? It’s all about marketing.

Fairly late in the day, just before covers were finalised, my publishers presented the novel to distributors in the UK and US. Everyone loved the cover, and the novel itself. The US distributors, however, were less keen on the title – to the extent that they would make smaller orders than anticipated.

Simple. I can be fairly pragmatic about these things. I’ve had book titles changed before, as a result of a marketing department’s feel for the market or the response from distributors. While titles matter to me, what matters most is that I get my work out to readers. And while I might not agree with the distributors’ judgement on the title, their decision to make smaller orders was very real!

So I proposed a new title, Harmony. I actually like that title, quite a lot, and would have been happy for it to be adopted worldwide for the book. US distributors agreed, and promptly committed to bigger orders.

The UK distributors, however, loved alt.human, and really didn’t want to change it.

And so: same cover, same novel, different titles.


Seven things I hate about e-publishing

E-publishing is a rapidly growing and changing field* and we’re all learning and adapting. Or, at least, we should be. Here, in no particular order, are a few of my least favourite things.

1. Sloppy conversion and lack of checking. This one really bugs me. As owner of an electronic publishing imprint and a book reviewer – and, hell, as an ordinary reader – I see a lot of ebooks, and it still staggers me how poorly they can be produced. With electronic publishing being such a democratic endeavour, this is hardly a surprise: just because someone has mastered the technology for self-publishing their writing it doesn’t mean they’ve also mastered the basics of formatting, proof-reading, etc. But what really bugs me is how frequently I buy an ebook from a major commercial publisher only to find that it’s full of conversion errors. These include characters that have been converted into gibberish, paragraphs split in the wrong places, screwed up alignment and indents, and more. This kind of thing happens all the time when you convert from, say, a Word file to an ebook format. And if you give the slightest little toss you check for them and fix them. I’ve lost count of how many books from major publishers I’ve seen that still contain far too many of these errors and clearly haven’t even been checked after conversion. Which brings me to…

2. Pricing. Too many big publishers still charge far too much for ebooks, sometimes even more than the paperback edition. This irks even more when the amount of work – and checking – put into ebook production has clearly been kept to an absolute minimum. But while some publishers still try to charge too much, audience expectations that they should be able to buy a complete novel for 99 cents, or even get it for free, are particularly damaging to the livelihoods of writers, and therefore to the future availability of their work. Is it really better to get a free novel that, to be frank, probably isn’t very good, rather than spend $5 on a novel by someone far better? To some people, the answer would be “yes”, which is depressing, to say the least.

3. Poor covers. So many ebooks just look… well, pretty crap, don’t they? Do you really think it’s okay to spend a year writing a novel only to put it out with a cover that looks like it’s been made by a 12 year-old with a copy of Paint and ten minutes to spare? Actually, and I’m in danger of arguing my way out of this one, maybe this isn’t such a bad thing, after all. If someone thinks that crappy cover is a good advertisement for what’s inside, chances are they’re right. Maybe this is one of the filtering mechanisms that are slowly emerging: a good cover only means the self-published author has found a decent cover designer; a bad cover says far more.

4. Poor quality control. So much of it comes back to this. Self-published authors can’t be good at everything, and the successful ones know when to call in help, be it for cover design, production, editing, proofing, or whatever. But have I mentioned how much it bugs me when the big commercial guys get it so badly wrong, too? They’re cheating their authors, and their readers. When a publisher clearly doesn’t give a toss, it’s so much harder to give the book itself the chance it deserves.

5. Alternative revenue models, aka screwing the authors. I’m all for exploring alternatives – anyone familiar with my work at infinity plus over the last fifteen years could hardly question that. But one sub-current in the e-publishing/self-publishing/indie world that I really don’t like is the tendency for authors to start exploiting other authors. At its best, writing and publishing is a huge collaborative endeavour; I owe so many people in the business huge debts, and I’ve been told more than a few times that others feel the same about me. But this whole business of authors, for example, building up successful blogs and then asking other authors to pay for their work to be reviewed there, or even to get an “other books we’re vaguely aware of” mention there… well, I don’t feel that it helps me as a reader in the slightest, and it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Worse, most readers aren’t aware that this is going on, and so take mentions and reviews on these blogs as recommendations, or objective listings. Is this any worse than the common practice of bricks and mortar bookshops charging publishers for display space? Perhaps not, but it’s so far removed from the mutually-supportive culture of writing and publishing that I’m accustomed to that, well, it’s another of those things that bug me.

6. I’ve got a book and I’m going to publish it. One of the great things about modern publishing is that authors can get their work out to small niche audiences, through the concept of long tail publishing: while the big commercial publishers concentrate on the books that they hope will sell in the tens of thousands and more, there are still a lot of people out there with more specialist tastes, the long tail that will never shift huge numbers. At infinity plus most of our books fall into this category: short story collections rarely sell enough to interest the big trade publishers, for instance, but steady sales of smaller quantities both satisfy that niche audience’s demand and provide a nice little income for the authors. Another category of book that fits the long tail model, is the early trunk novel. Lots of successful authors have very good novels that, for all kinds of reasons, never found a trade publisher, and e-publishing gives us opportunities to finally make these available. This is a Good Thing. However, most authors don’t sell their first novel; or their second. The key thing is how we determine whether the value in an unsold novel lies in the interest it has for that author’s fans and the fact that it won’t damage the author’s career or if the book’s value only resides in it having been a learning exercise and it rightly belongs back in that trunk in the attic. It’s a tough one to call, and we’re back to quality control again.

7. Ignoring the big guys. I’ve criticised the big commercial publishers here a little, haven’t I? And deservedly so. However, one of the big mistakes authors make now is in the rush to self-publishing. I feel the pull myself. When I’ve finished a new novel it can take a year or – usually – more before a big commercial publisher can bring it out. At infinity plus I’ve received a book’s final content and had it available for sale within a couple of weeks or so, on occasion. It’s hugely attractive to authors to be able to make their work available so quickly. But I’d argue that such impatience can be a dangerous thing. While I think commercial publishers have an awful lot to learn from this new environment, I’m a big advocate of working with them while they do so. For a start, you get to work with designers, editors, copy-editors, proof-readers, marketing teams, sales teams and far more – professionals; experts in their area, all of them. You get bricks and mortar distribution. You get far more coverage and publicity. You get the kudos of having a big publisher, that sense of validation that you’re working to the kind of standard that means a major international company is willing to invest significant money in your work. As a writer, if you break into commercial publishing, you get to learn and improve so much faster than if you’re out there doing it on your own. Yes, writing careers can be forged through indie publishing, but far more successful writing careers are still being launched through the traditional trade route, and whatever publishing models emerge in the near future I reckon that writers would be short-sighted to ignore it.

So… do these things bug you too? Have I overlooked anything? And yes, I’m just waiting for that first response to point out a typo; it would only be fitting when I’ve gone on at such length about quality control, now, wouldn’t it?


*And blog posts like this do a lot of stating the bleedin’ obvious.


Simultaneous release, or not?

It’s a simple question: as infinity plus starts to release both print and ebook editions of some* of our books, should the two versions be launched simultaneously or not?

The ebook edition is so much speedier to produce: we could release ebooks of our next books from Iain Rowan and Eric Brown within a few days if we chose to. The print editions take much longer: right now we’re waiting for physical proofs of these two to be delivered; when we finally give the go-ahead for distribution, it’s likely to take a few weeks more until they’re widely available.

So: should we delay the ebooks so that both editions can come out together, or should we just plunge in as and when the different editions are ready?


* Why will only some of our books have print editions? We decide on a case by case basis. In many cases, we have electronic rights but another publisher still has print rights, so we can only do the ebook edition. In other cases, while the print rights may be available, if a print edition has already been produced that format might be less viable for us to re-release. Our first three print books have never had a print edition before, and only one of them has been out as an ebook: Ghostwriting, a new collection of psychological horror from Eric Brown will be published for the first time in ebook and print editions, as will Iain Rowan’s Crime Writers’ Association Debut Dagger-shortlisted novel One of Us; Kaitlin Queen’s adult crime debut, One More Unfortunate, appeared in an ebook edition just over a year ago, but has not previously had a print edition.


Essential writing tools

Not so long ago, the answer would have been simple: all a writer needed was a good stout notebook and an Underwood typewriter. But now, where would we be without our laptops and smartphones, our iPads and internet-anywhere? Surely you can’t put words together in a coherent and entertaining manner without all these essential tools of the trade?

That’s bollocks, of course. Give a decent writer a pen and a cleanish surface and he or she would be able to do their job. But there are lots of tools nowadays that can make the job easier. And if it’s easier, hopefully it means we’re freed up to concentrate on writing better.

So for me, in no particular order, these are the tools that I could certainly live without, but would really rather not.

  1. Dropbox
    I do like this. Working on my main writing laptop, I save a file and instantly it’s saved to the cloud via Dropbox: instant back-up, instant availability from anywhere on the internet (as long as you have the account details). Switch to a different machine, say my day-job office PC one lunchbreak, and I can open up that file, work on it, and save it back to the cloud. I can open the file via the Dropbox app on my smartphone and see the latest version. Screw up, and Dropbox saves older versions I can revert to. No one should rely on a single back-up solution, but the Dropbox cloud makes backing up easy and instantaneous. They even give you plenty of space free to start with, and you can share folders with others. My only reservations are: security concerns (are my files really safe out there?); and the way Dropbox can sometimes chew up CPU resources when it’s running in the background, so much so that Windows Explorer becomes unusable and I have to close Dropbox down to allow me to work again.
  2. TextPad
    I use Word for my writing. I’ve used it for years, I know how to make it do what I want, and so I have no reason to change. A lot of my work involves writing HTML and other code for websites and ebook production, though, and Word just isn’t the best tool for this. There are lots of programs out there you can use, but I always come back to TextPad: a nice, clean text editor that makes it easy for me to streamline the often laborious process of, for example, stripping out all the junk-code Word generates when it saves an HTML file.
  3. Dedicated writing software
    I’ve dabbled, but I’m not really one for tools like Scrivener or Ywrite: story-writing programs developed specifically to suit the way writers work, incorporating story-planning, note-management, etc, into the more basic act of processing lots of words. As I say, I use Word and am happy that it does what I need, but I’m still open to the possibility that these specialist tools may offer a better way; I know a lot of successful authors who swear by them, and that’s enough to convince me of these tools’ merits.
  4. My netbook
    Mobile computing has made such a difference to my writing life. I have a pretty demanding day job, and often find that I have to fit my writing into odd slivers of time, and I need to take every opportunity I can. Only a couple of days ago, I found myself stuck in a motorway traffic jam for three hours, with the road completely blocked. While our driver took the chance to catch up on some sleep, I whipped my netbook out and worked on a story. Laptops are great, but a netbook is so much more transportable, and so I’m much more likely to have one with me when I’m out and about. Others might prefer a tablet like the iPad, but I’m happy with my netbook for now.
  5. iPhone
    Until a year ago, I kept all my notes in a hardback Moleskine notebook and I loved it. It made me feel like a real writer. But when I got my iPhone all that changed. Without planning to, I realised that I had stopped using the notebooks; instead I used the memo feature on my phone. It’s so handy. Now I have several memo files on the go at once: a to do list, notes for stories I’m working on, a general ideas file. When the memos get a bit long and I start to get paranoid about what would happen to them if I lost my phone, I can mail them to myself with the press of a button. It’s more than just a replacement notebook, though. With all my writing, editing and publishing activities I always have lots of projects on the go at any one time. I hate to be a slave to my email, but it’s great to be able to stay in touch with people when I’m on the road – literally, as I was in that traffic jam the other night!
  6. Social media: keeping in touch
    Not so long ago, writing was a solitary activity: we authors shut ourselves away for hours on end and might not talk to another human being for the entire working day. Now? Now I’m on Twitter and Facebook, I’m checking my email, I’m chatting to people on Messenger. It can be a tremendous distraction, of course, but it can also be hugely energising and inspiring. Writing now is a community activity: we may still shut ourselves away to write, but whenever we want a water-cooler moment we can switch to see who’s online and, blimey, interact.
  7. The wired world
    Near-constant broadband connectivity has hugely transformed how I work. Until a few years ago, even the shortest first draft would generate a scrawled list of research notes; much as I might research before embarking on that draft, there would always be gaps emerging as I wrote, blanks in the manuscript that I would need to fill in later with some detail, queries scribbled in the margins, facts to check. Now? Every time I hit one of those points I just switch to a web browser and Google it. Increasingly, you see authors tweeting requests for help when they hit these sticking points. Yes, it interrupts the flow, but for me, getting things right at that stage makes a big difference in the way I write: if the world is more vivid, less filled with gaps and queries, as I write, then I believe that it comes across as a richer, more fully-formed world to the reader, too.
  8. Kindles and other e-readers
    Perhaps not a writing tool, as such, but still a significant part of my armoury. I first came to e-readers when I was establishing infinity plus ebooks: I recognised the growing market and taught myself what I needed to know in order to start exploring it. And then I was given a Kindle. It completely changed my reading habits. I can take my Kindle on a trip and have access to any book I want – if I don’t have it with me, I can read the same ebook on my phone and it’ll synch with my Kindle so I never lose my place. When I’m reviewing, I greatly prefer to get a Kindle format book, so I can make notes in the text as I go along. I can even convert a story draft to Kindle format and read, and annotate, it on the go. Indeed, perhaps the boom in ebooks is starting to change my approach to writing, too. E-readers encourage people to dip into a book… and then out again. They encourage people to sample for free before they buy. Now, it’s even more important to hook readers, and keep them hooked. But equally, there are opportunities to write different kinds of books: a single short story can be packaged as a cheap ebook; story collections become viable, or shorter bundles of three or four stories; novellas and short novels have a revived market again; and there’s scope to experiment, as I’m doing with a kind of near-future, mosaic-structured, short novel I’m working on in between projects. So yes, my Kindle is part of the toolkit, and I’m still learning new ways to use it.
  9. A changed attitude
    Okay, maybe we’re straying away from actual tools here, but give me a chance. What I mean by including this is the way my whole approach to the publishing business has changed in recent years. Twenty years ago, when I was setting out, authors wrote, and only a small proportion actually treated their work as a business. Now, it’s a rare writer who doesn’t get involved in every aspect of publishing. Whether we’re published by the major commercial publishers or self-publishing – or far more typically, working with a complete portfolio of publishing modes within that spectrum – authors should be involved in marketing, promoting, designing and brand-building, as well as actually committing words to paper. That might sound brash and unartistic to many, and put like that, it does to me, too: but look around at your favourite authors – how many aren’t tweeting, Facebooking, publishing in a variety of ways, etc? You don’t look down on them for doing so: that’s how it is to be a writer in the early 21st century. And it’s exhilarating, and fun, and endlessly fascinating to be a part of. I’m writing some of my best fiction these days, and at least partly I put that down to the new energy that’s around in publishing now. So yes, attitude is a tool.

That’s my list. Have I missed anything off? Tools that work for other writers? I’d love to hear what works and doesn’t work for you. My essential toolkit today is very different to the one I would have listed even five years ago. In five years’ time it’ll be different again, because I’ll be learning from everyone else and adapting as the environment changes. And hopefully I’ll still be writing my best work, just as I am now.


Lord of Stone – an extract from Keith Brooke’s fantasy novel

A few days ago I wrote about my dilemma of how to publish the electronic editions of three of my earlier novels, Lord of Stone and the two books in the Expatria series. Bring them out as part of the infinity plus imprint, at the risk of people seeing that imprint as an exercise in vanity publishing, or bring them out separately and miss out on the opportunities for cross-promotion that a venture like infinity plus offers?

I settled for a compromise. I’ve brought out the two Expatria books separately, and restricted myself to just including Lord of Stone on the infinity plus list.

Lord of StoneLord of Stone is a novel to which I’m particularly attached. My first three novels were published by Gollancz and the next one I wrote was Lord of Stone. I saw it as my big novel, where I tried to combine literary ambition with strong story-telling. I was pleased with the result but my timing was awful. Gollancz were taken over by a dictionary publisher and cut their fiction list drastically; all I had to offer them was a hard-to-market fantasy novel about the death of magic… a fantasy without, at first appearances, much fantasy.

Despite this, I still believed strongly in the novel and ended up publishing it online myself, my first venture into indie publishing way before the term had even been invented.

A few years later, the US imprint Cosmos approached me about the novel. In the end, not only did they publish the first print editions of Lord of Stone (still available from their parent company Wildside), they also took on four other books from me.

And now, at last, we have the first electronic edition.

One of the nice things about working with Cosmos was that they also invited me to produce covers for three of the books. I was pleased with the two Expatria covers (which I’ve retained for the new ebook editions), but never quite so satisfied with the one for Lord of Stone. The ebook edition gave me the chance to address this, and so it now has a new cover.

This was another interesting challenge. An eye-catching generic fantasy cover would have been great for marketing (strong covers are vital for online book-selling), but not really appropriate for the novel. Most appropriate, perhaps, would have been a grainy black war-time image, but that hardly conveys the fantasy elements of the book. I settled for a pastiche of a Spanish bull-fighting poster: in the novel there are similar festivals, and the book mentions posters on the walls, both for these events and as part of the increasing religious fundamentalism that takes over during the story. Hopefully the resulting cover catches the eye and conveys some of the atmosphere of the book.

And now, without further ado, or waffling, or digression, here’s an extract:

Summer: The Year of Our Lords, 3964

1

‘And out of the mayhem the Lords will arise…’
The Book of the World, ch.18, v.29.

The ragged people were all around him, staring and shouting and waving their fists. Bligh looked down at the rounded stones lying scattered in the fire. Had he kicked them there? He did not know.

He remembered hiding in the ruins, looking down at all these people as they performed their calling to the Gods, the Prayer of the Body.

Yet now he was here in their midst and the people were enraged by his incursion.

“No!” he said, again. Nobody moved. The only other noise was the incessant clatter of a small radio, tuned in to a southern music station. “This is wrong,” he cried. “You can’t do this. It’s sick. Do you think that if the Lords were among you they would recognise – ” he gestured ” – this as anything but a cheap sham? Do you? There is nothing Holy about this charade. Nothing! It’s sick…” He was losing track. He did not know where he had found the words, or even what they meant.

He looked around at the people in their filthy tatters, gathered in the ruins where they were forced to make their home. These poor people were desperate, they needed something to believe, something to give their empty existences some kind of meaning.

As he studied their faces Bligh realised that the time for violence had passed and he was safe, for now. The mood of the gathering was returning to the passionate fervour of before, only now the atmosphere had been subtly transformed.

The people moved away, found their drinks and started to talk and laugh. Lila, kneeling at Bligh’s feet, hooked her hand into the waistband of his trousers and pulled him towards her. Her cheeks were smeared with tears and dirt from the ground. Her daughter was there too, pressing a jug of wine at him, small eyes pleading with him to accept it.

He did not understand these people’s response. He had wrecked their ceremony but they hardly seemed to care any more. He drank, long and deep, then passed the jug to Lila and watched as she pressed it to her lips.

She paused to touch the corner of her mouth. It was swollen, engorged with blood. He did not remember striking her – had it been him?

Someone turned the radio up louder, its music insistent, shrill. Bligh tried to come to terms with what was happening to him. The steady pressure in his head was frightening, a sure sign that he really was insane. He felt himself to be right on the edge of some mental precipice. It would not take much…

“I hear voices,” he said quietly. He had to explain, had to find the words from somewhere. “My head … I can’t keep track of it all. I see bodies, too. All day, all night. They talk to me.” He drank more wine and focused on its heat in his belly. “I’m mad,” he said. “Mad.”

He drank some more.

Later, the old man started his chant again. Nobody paid him any attention at first, but gradually the people stopped talking and silenced the radio. In their ones and twos they turned to watch, then started to clap out his complex rhythm. Bligh felt no anger now, only a mellow sense of well-being that centred in his gut and rippled outwards.

He did not object when Lila rose from where she had been sitting, head on his shoulder, hand on his thigh. He watched as she found the movements of her dance once again, her eyes locked unblinking on his. He drank some more from the jug of wine.

After a few minutes, she started to wail that twisting note that had reached right inside Bligh earlier in the evening. She wrapped her arms around her body, pulling at her clothes, teasing, and all the time her eyes were fixed on Bligh’s.

It crept up on him stealthily.

Sitting, watching, drinking … then suddenly he was out in the cleared dirt space with Lila, crying aloud, the old man’s chant pulling Bligh’s body about as if he was a marionette jerked by some mad puppeteer’s wires. He clutched at his head, trying to interrupt the pattern and stop, but still his body jerked and twisted and that awful chant pounded through his head. All he knew was the fire, the insane twitching of his body, the undying, timeless rhythm battering the inside of his skull.

At some point – he knew no sense of time – things started to change. A new rhythm, a new chant, supplanted the old. The voices of the people were all around, the people with whom he had shared this grim little shanty town. All chanting a single word, over and over again. “Who?” they cried. “Who? Who? Who?”

He did not understand, but he sensed that he did not have to understand.

“Who? Who? Who?

Somewhere in his head: the pressure, transforming. Rising through the levels of his mind, bursting forth to take over his senses and submerge all that he was, all that he had ever been.

“Who? Who? Who?

Expanding, a force that would destroy him and know no different. Rising up to take over.

“Who? Who? Who?

He stood and spread his hands, and then there was sudden silence.

“Who?” said the old man, eventually, his chin glistening with saliva and sweat.

“I am…” said Bligh, who was no longer Bligh, in a voice no longer Bligh’s. “I am the second of the Lords Elemental: I am Lord of Stone.” Now, he smiled. “I am,” he said, “your Saviour.”

Autumn: the Year of Our Lords, 3963

1

‘A man answers the call of his people … and so he answers the Call of the Lords.’
The Book of the World, ch.8, v.68.

They heard the first gunshot as the train pulled into the station.

Bligh’s grip tightened on Madeleine’s hand just as the shot was answered by three more. Facing them, a woman stared back blankly, her scrawny arms wrapped like honeysuckle around the tall wicker poultry basket resting on her lap. Two young girls by her side giggled and hid their faces when Bligh glanced in their direction.

The train lurched to a halt and Bligh and Madeleine joined the throng by the carriage’s door. Movement brought life back to Bligh’s legs, numb from an hour or more on a narrow wooden seat. At the exit he realised Madeleine was watching him closely. They had been lovers since the summer yet still he felt a self-conscious heat prickle his skin. He leapt to the cobbled platform and used his bulk to steady himself against the flow as he helped Madeleine down.

“Anasty.” They spoke the name of Trace’s capital city together and then laughed. The whipcrack of another gunshot sounded – far too close – and they allowed the crowd to sweep them through the station-house and out into the street.

“We should find somewhere in which to stay,” said Bligh, his Traian distinguishable from that of a native only by its grammatical correctness.

Madeleine slung her light bag over Bligh’s shoulder and kissed him tenderly on the cheek. She flicked dark hair back from her face and turned a full circle to look at the city. “The boarding houses won’t be full,” she said. “We have plenty of time.”

Holding hands, they walked on the pavement, heading in the general direction of the Old Town. Crooked buildings lined the street, three or four storeys high and perhaps two centuries old. Boards covered some of the small windows and bullet-scars and soot marked the stone facades. Here and there, outside shops and seemingly ordinary houses, long lines of people stood resolutely in turn.

They rounded a corner, Madeleine navigating from memories of earlier visits to Anasty, and there they came across their first barricade. Bligh looked immediately for a pennant or banner to identify the militia responsible. They had come from Dona-Jez that morning, a town held by the Landworkers’ Alliance. Because of this, there might be problems if their papers were examined by Government troops.

Above the broken line of rubble and sand-bags, a chequered blue and white flag drooped in the sultry air and Bligh said, “Syndicalist, it’s okay.” The Syndicalists, with their aggressively confrontational history, were at the more extreme end of the revolutionary spectrum, but infinitely preferable to a Government jail.

“You have papers?” said an unshaven guard, somehow contriving to look a fine figure in his shabby corduroy trousers and coarse woollen coat.

Madeleine handed over their train tickets and her employment card, Bligh his passport.

On seeing that Bligh had Wederian nationality the guard beamed approvingly and said, “You like our girls, hmm? In that case you will like Anasty, Friend, you will like it greatly.”

“One of them, yes,” said Bligh. “I hope to like Anasty, too.” There were more gunshots now, but faint in the distance. Still, Bligh searched the rooftops and windows. He found that in some perverse manner he was actually enjoying the sense of danger. He had never come so close to the fighting before.

“Ah, you are in love.” The guard’s smile grew even broader. “That is very good.”

“Is the fighting bad?” asked Madeleine. From her tone Bligh could tell that she did not find the guard amusing.

“For the Government and the Queen it is,” said another soldier, joining them from a nearby building.

“A piece of advice, Friend,” said the first, placing a hand on Bligh’s arm and standing so close that the smell of sweat and cheap wine was almost unbearable. “If you want to have love tonight then don’t go near to the Old Town. That is where the Army are, for now, and there is much fighting. Go there and you might end up in a hospital or in a wooden casket – a young man with the love juices flowing doesn’t want a thing like that.”

Bligh stepped away and tried to thank the man, but they could not leave without their papers. For a moment, the guard held ticket, employment card and passport aloft and then he brought them down with a grand flourish. “Enjoy our city,” he said. “If you find the time.”

Bligh retrieved their documents and at last they passed through the barricade. They walked on for some time, easy in each other’s silence, nothing to hurry them. The afternoon stretched out ahead.

Then, with no warning, they were fired on for the first time.

…continues in Lord of Stone. Available from:

Trace: a country where magic is dying out. A country at war with itself. A country where the prophecies of the Book of the World have started to come true.

Bligh: a young foreigner, drawn irresistibly to the war in Trace. A man who has rejected religion, yet appears to be possessed by one of the six Lords Elemental. Bligh thinks he’s going mad, but if he is then it’s a madness shared by others…


Back-list dilemma…

I have a dilemma.

I’ve just had rights to three of my earlier novels reverted and want to put them out as ebooks. The obvious thing is to do that through infinity plus, but I already have some collections of short fiction under that imprint and I don’t want it to look like a vanity venture.

For exactly this reason, I’ve already put out a couple of standalone short story ebooks (Queen Bee and Sweats) separately.

The novels concerned are:

  • Expatria and Expatria Incorporated: my 2nd and 3rd novels, telling the story of an isolated colony world as it renews contact with Earth;
  • Lord of Stone: my 4th novel, the story of the death of magic in an increasingly secular, civil war-torn world, and a book I still consider to be one of my best.
The options would be to do them all through infinity plus; do just Lord of Stone through infinity plus and the other two separately; or keep them all separate from infinity plus. What do you think? All comments gratefully received!

10k at Amazon, and still shifting: One Step Closer

I’ve written here before about experiments with ebook pricing and marketing, but some time last night we hit a landmark with one of our experiments at infinity plus.

Back in March we published Iain Rowan’s first collection, a set of crime stories called Nowhere To Go which included his Derringer Award-winning story “One Step Closer”. The collection received some excellent reviews and blog coverage and performed reasonably at Amazon and our other distributors, but Iain and I wanted to give it a boost and so we discussed various options.

We decided to take that Derringer winner and produce it as a standalone ebook, priced initially at 99 cents but with a view to persuading Amazon to drop the price to zero. At those prices there’s a very different audience: casual browsers making impulse buys/downloads, readers who may like the look of something but not want to buy the complete book, readers looking for a quick lunchtime read, and so on.

What we didn’t know was how much crossover there would be. Would a reader with a liking for scraping up the freebies also be the kind of reader who would spend $2.99 on a book by the same author if they liked the free offering? Would there even be that kind of author-recognition once the quick read has been read and put aside?

One Step Closer went free at Amazon in September, and very quickly overtook our other free offering, the infinities anthology (which, itself, had been a big success, hitting number two in the free anthology charts in the US, and holding the number one slot in the equivalent chart in the UK for several weeks, a position it still holds).

To be honest, I don’t really understand why Iain’s short story has been such a big success. It’s a fine story, of course, and being an award-winner must help establish its credentials for anyone unfamiliar with Iain’s work. It has a great cover and is nicely put together. Iain has a strong social media presence, and has worked hard at promoting his various books. There must be lots of elements of good fortune involved, too, and a key thing is that success can be self-perpetuating: once a story hits number one, it becomes far more visible, which keeps the success going.

Whatever the reasons, some time last night Iain’s short story hit the landmark of 10,000 downloads through Amazon. It’s occupied the number one free story download slot in the UK for several weeks, and for that period has been a fixture in the top 20 free downloads of any kind at Amazon UK, against some tough competition.

What remains to be seen, though, is just how this translates into commercial success. What we do know is that more than 10,000 readers have liked the look of the book enough to download it. Some of those will have read it already; some will read it over the coming months; others will lose it among all the other freebies they’ve downloaded.

Of those who read it, some – a large proportion, I reckon – will like it a lot, because it’s a hell of a story. But how many of these will immediately follow up by clicking on a link to Amazon to find Iain’s other work? How many will intend to do that, but because they didn’t do it immediately, will become increasingly unlikely to follow through? How many will remember Iain’s name next time they’re browsing and so click on a link to his other books?

It’s incredibly hard to answer these questions, as it’s just not possible to track purchasing decisions back to their origins. Amazon gives us good reporting, but not that good!

After success like this, though, I’m certainly looking forward to trying to make sense of it all over the coming weeks and months!


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