Countless blogs trumpet indie writers and self-publishing as new and unprecedented, a revolution in publishing. It is and it isn’t. What’s new is that writers are selling their books directly to the public through a licensed online bookstore, instead of to a publisher. In many other respects indie ebook publishing is surprisingly similar to past formats for mass market publishing.

Through the second half of the 19th century and early 20th century the “dime novel” genres provided affordable reading for budget conscious readers, with a taste for adventure. The serialized British equivalent, the “penny dreadful,” often specifically targeted male adolescents. 

Although it has gone out of fashion, the term “dime novel” became a pejorative to describe hastily produced potboilers with no literary value. Nowadays indie publishing conveys similar connotations for people espousing traditional literary values.

The paper bound dime novel was the forerunner of modern paperbacks, introduced, successfully, just before the Second World War: Penguin to the English-speaking world in 1935, and Pocket Books to America in 1938/1939. Both companies acquired the paperback rights to hardcover books, ordered large runs to keep costs and prices low, and marketed their paperback editions to mass audiences through non-traditional markets. Penguin’s first success was with the department store Woolworths, and Pocket Books tapped in the distribution network for newspapers and magazines. Penguin and Pocket Books became almost synonymous with paperbacks, but many other companies entered the market. After early experiments, the Canadian publisher Harlequin became one of the largest publishers in the world by specializing in inexpensive romances, for a predominantly female audience.

Penguin’s association with paperbacks may explain the angry tirades on the internet in 2010 when it announced it had reached an agreement with Apple to charge higher prices for ebooks than paperbacks. The general consensus of the market was that ebooks should be cheaper because the cost of printing is eliminated. At the time some online retailers required publishers to set ebook prices lower than print editions as a condition for listing in their catalogues. Some of those retailers also sold print editions and they wanted to use cheaper ebooks to attract new customers rather than compete with print editions. Both arguments are valid. As the price of paperbacks rose higher and higher, many customers, myself included, stopped buying books or curtailed their purchases. Eliminating printing costs, which are maybe 30% of the total, should be reflected in the end price, and lower prices could encourage people to read again, or buy more books. But that is just my opinion.

The essential point is that for the first time writers set their own prices. They can even give their books away free of charge, if they want to. The price of indie ebooks is typically lower than the price of ebooks from traditional publishers. The reasons for that are complex, but it is generally accepted by even the most successful and talented indie writers, and the rapidly evolving trends in the pricing of indie ebooks hasn’t really affected that basic fact. In that sense, the indie writer at the bottom of the pricing spectrum is the modern equivalent of the dime novel publisher or paperback publisher.

For the most part the production of indie writers has largely been genre novels and the books are often potboilers, to use that old term. One indie writer called them “throwaway novels.” (I suspect that term would also apply to erotica, which has become a popular ebook genre.)

Literary writers still tend to prefer the traditional publishing route, although that is gradually changing, and some traditionally published writers are now using both traditional publishing and self-publishing some of their own titles (the hybrid model).

Indie writers often produce more than one novel a year; they have to in order to earn a living, but some genre writers have always been prolific producers. Both have often been accused of producing hastily written novels, with the implication being that they were poorly written. The same criticism is often made about other aspects of the final product such as editing and proofreading, and the indie writer is responsible for those whether they attempt to do it all themselves or hire professional editors, proofreaders, and cover designers. When a reader sees poorly constructed sentences and typos in traditionally published book it reflects on the publisher almost as much as it does the writer, but in an indie novel there is only one person to blame for any defects: the author. Indie publishing has enabled thousands of inexperienced writers (me included) to publish stories, and the quality of that output has been variable, let’s say. Which may explain why cost versus value discussions within indie publishing more often revolve around the quality of editing and proofreading than storylines, and why some book buyers won’t purchase cheap indie novels or say indie publishing has a bad reputation.

Some things haven’t changed much in the last 150 years regardless of changing formats. It has never been easy to make a living by writing fiction, and indie writers must contend with many of the same challenges and literary prejudices as writers of dime novels or paperback novels for specialist genre publishers.

One thing has changed, though: female writers have a better chance of being successful than male writers. And that is one helluva a big change over earlier eras.




 
 
A couple of weeks ago I picked up a used computer and one of the programs installed on it is itunes, an Apple program for listening to songs purchased from Apple. I think. I have never used itunes, so I’m sort of guessing in the dark here. I ran the program for the first time last night and found I could check on my stories listed in Apple’s ibookstore. The results took me completely by surprise.

The story called Healthy or Else had five ratings. I didn’t think anybody had every downloaded one of my stories from Apple, and immediately fired off a query to Smashwords asking if Apple reported downloads of free ebooks. I made my short stories free to begin building an audience, and Apple is the only store where I struck out, was skunked, or any other metaphor or cliché you care to use for no downloads whatsoever.

My query to Smashwords was premature. My next discovery was that books can be rated without downloading them. That forced my thought process into reverse, maybe none of my stories were ever downloaded from Apple and Smashwords’ records were accurate. 

The second and more interesting discovery was that those five ratings were in the Canadian itunes store. Out of curiosity I checked the American store, thinking it would have the same figure. It didn’t. The American store posted an average score based on 20 ratings.

Some time ago I used a service to generate URL’s for  all of the countries with itunes stores.  After digging out the list I clicked on the links for Great Britain and Australia, but the blurb said there hadn’t been enough ratings for Healthy or Else to produce an average. Okay, that was mildly disappointing, but at least I was getting an indirect indication of the geographical distribution of the story.

Then I decided to explore a bit more and ran across a real shocker. Healthy or Else has been rated 28 times in Germany, one more than the 27 ratings in Barnes and Noble. Not only was the number of ratings a shocker, I saw two short reviews. The reviews are in German, of course. I don’t know what they say, but both were 4 stars, so they can’t be too bad.

Now I am really curious how many times – if any – the story has been downloaded from Apple.

 Healthy or Else was published two years ago today, and my exploration with this second hand itunes program gave me more feedback than I’ve had in the last two years.  Other than the 27 ratings at Barnes and Noble there has been one (solicited) rating on Smashwords, one (unsolicited) rating at Goodreads, and a couple of early reviews on Bibliotastic. Both the rating on Goodreads and the best review on Barnes and Noble were posted in the last month. Interestingly, the rating averages from Apple, in both America and Germany, are in line with the 3.5 average at Barnes and Noble.

I didn’t fare so well in my native Canada. The average for the five ratings was three. But since the story is satirical and is set in one of the Canadian provinces, I regard the lower rating as an inverse compliment. Not that very many Canadians read it.

Smashwords replied promptly the next day and said Apple doesn’t report downloads of free books. I hate data gaps, but what can you do?

 
 
This is a funny video about one of sci-fi lovers favorite themes: a virtual afterlife.
 
 
I first saw a blurb about A Thousand Bayonets on the Internet. Not many thrillers are set in the artificial concrete environment I live in, and I tried to request a copy from the local library system. It didn’t have a listing for A Thousand Bayonets or its author, Joel Mark Harris. So I sent him an email and said a novel set in Vancouver and written by a Vancouver author should be in the Vancouver library, and suggested he contact the acquisitions department.

I thought that would be the end of it. But it wasn’t. Joel Mark Harris replied, said I was right, and asked if I would like an autographed copy of A Thousand Bayonets. The obvious answer to that was: Yes.

An autographed copy landed in my mailbox a couple of days after the Easter holidays. At the time I didn’t know Joel Mark Harris had sent out 300 copies in Goodread’s Free Book program, or that he had a background in public relations. But that doesn’t matter. I regarded it as an act of goodwill. All he asked was that I like A Thousand Bayonets’s facebook page. This blog review was written of my own volition.

A Thousand Bayonets is a good thriller. Returning home from the war in Afghanistan, John Webster, investigative reporter, following up on a tip finds himself literally in the middle of an explosive crime scene. To the police and media, and John himself, it appears to be a gangland hit in a war between criminal gangs.

Despite haunting flashbacks from Afghanistan, a personal life in disarray, subpoenas from the police and threats on his life, John’s journalistic instincts, honed in war zones in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Congo, lead him – not unerringly – to the perpetrators, and help him survive his ordeals. Ordeals those same instincts are partially responsible for, by prompting him to take dangerous – some would say foolish – risks, often while drinking too much.

 The major characters in A Thousand Bayonets are believable and interesting, and Joel Mark Harris develops them skillfully. His narrative style is simple and direct, and there is enough action to keep the reader’s interest alive and thriving – and to make a movie. That is not coincidental. Joel Mark Harris is a screenwriter and producer, in addition to being a journalist and novelist.

Production is underway on the movie version of A Thousand Bayonets.  Joel Mark Harris's first production, Neutral Territory, has won 10 awards and 15 nominations from showings in 23 film festivals.

The trailer for the book (embedded below), radio and television interviews, photographs and a video about making the movie, and other good stuff can be found on A Thousand Bayonets' facebook page.
 
 
Ran across and interesting animation of travelling through a wormhole, on Stumbleupon. It was made by astrophyisct Andrew Hamilton, and published in The New Scientist.  I hope you enjoy the video.  It stands alone, but a short textual description can be found at:  http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/nstv/2012/03/what-a-trip-through-a-wormhole-would-look-like.html
 
 
Finding interesting subjects for blogs can be difficult. A top ten list is hardly original, but I thought a list of stories from Daily Science Fiction might be interesting. Coming up with a top ten list was not all that easy, however, and my list is not authoritative or critical in the literary sense. I just wanted to point out a few stories I enjoyed reading.

The first two stories on the list, Epinikon and The Blue Room, really stand out in my memory. Beauty, Deconstructed was published more recently. For the rest I had to fumble through my list of “keepers,” the stories I’ve starred or put in separate files and folders (my system is still evolving). Putting those seven stories in preferential hierarchical order would be arbitrary and misleading, and not fair to the writers, so I didn’t do it.

When I subscribed to Daily Science Fiction I thought I was going to get sci-fi stories emailed to me on a daily basis. Turns out most of the stories in DSF are fantasy. Fantasy is popular these days, so I can’t blame the editors of DSF. In the past I scrupulously avoided reading fantasy (elves, dragons, unicorns, sorcerers and their ilk). But Guess What? The Blue Room is a fantasy story, and another story on my list is about a sorcerer.

Some types of science fiction stories interest me more than others, except for time travel stories, which I don’t read. If you’ve read one time loop story you’ve read them all. Guess What? One of the stories on the list is a time travel story.

If nothing else, subscribing to DSF has made me aware of the potential for finding good stories in genres I’ve overlooked in the past. That doesn’t mean I read a lot of fantasy and time travel stories now, my literary interests are eclectic and there isn’t enough time for it all (and I still don’t care much for elves, dragons, unicorns, and most sorcerers).

The last two stories on the list are flash fiction, and a couple of the others are short fiction (<2,000 words). Palindrome was actually published December 28, 2010, but I fudged the date because Palindrome is a clever piece of writing I wanted on my top ten list.

Click on the title to link to the stories, and explore DSF website over the holidays. It’s guilt free, as subscriptions to DSF are free.

  1. Epinikion                               Desmond Warzel
  2. The Blue Room                    Jason Sanford
  3. Beauty, Deconstructed    Adam Colston
          Starlight Cantata                Brian Lawrence Hurrel
          Palindrome                           Will Arthur
          Gathering Glory                  Steve Stanton
          And a Bottle of Rum          Melissa Mead
          Apology                                 Sam Feree
          Schroedinger's Outlaw     Mathew W. Baugh
          Safe Empathy                       Ken Liu

 
 
Children No More is the title of science fiction writer Mark L. Van Name’s fourth novel. But it is the first one I’ve seen, and it was an enjoyable read. I burned through it pretty quickly.

I don’t read a lot of military sci-fi, but I guess it is classifiable as military sci-fi. However, it approaches the genre from an entirely fresh, and more serious, point of view. The protagonist, Jon Moore, is a psychologically scarred professional soldier and mercenary, recruited by an old comrade in arms to help free 500 child soldiers from a rebel army. Liberating the child soldiers from the rebels is the first part of the story.

After vacillating, and against the wishes of the group dedicated to deprogramming the child soldiers and returning them to their families and civil society, Jon decides to stay and help in any way he can. His unstated reason for doing so is because he was a child soldier of sorts himself. That story forms a sub-plot told through interspersions within the main story arc, and it is a good story in its own right.

Some of the best parts of the novel revolve around the difficulty of deprogramming soldiers who do not think of themselves as children. Then Jon is forced to save the child soldiers from a politician scheming to use the children against the same rebels who captured them and turned them into soldiers in the first place. Jon’s plan for saving the children from that fate is highly entertaining.

But that is just a skeletal outline of the plot. Van Name provides a wealth of detail to put flesh on the characters and create an engrossing story, with multiple conflicts and personality clashes, and an engaging sub-plot.

Not the least of those relationships, though one with little conflict and good entertainment value, is his relationship with his powerful and sarcastic warship, Lobo. Naturally, Lobo is the most powerful AI in Jon’s society. (Aren’t they always?)

If I have one knock on the novel, it is that while it is a good story with a serious theme, the plight of the child soldiers did not really engage me on an emotional level. But, then, science fiction novels rarely do. It certainly is not because Van Name fails to treat his subject matter seriously or develop it fully. He does both. In fact, he is donating his proceeds from the novel to an NGO or charitable group rehabilitating child soldiers in the Congo. Maybe it is just one of things you can can’t really feel unless you’ve been through it yourself. In all other respects Children No More is a good novel, and should appeal to readers who do not normally read military sci-fi. Give it a try. 

 
 
Trick or Trap is a Halloween short story I published as a free ebook. Halloween is my birthday, so it has special significance for me and is probably the reason I wanted to write a Halloween story. But the horror stories that dominate Halloween literature don’t really appeal to me, and are not particularly in keeping with a birthday or traditional Halloween activities like trick or treating, costume parties, and fireworks. 

Trick or Trap is an urban fantasy, but is a story more in keeping with the modern spirit of Halloween. It is more spoof than spooky, and all dressed up for a fun read. The setting is the Halloween Parade (Carnival) in Los Angeles, the largest Halloween event in the world. Three bikini models and their photographer, who are also crime fighters, are called to the scene to investigate a disruption, and battle the demons doing the disrupting. There is a reason the demons are disrupting the parade, but you will have to read the story to find out what that reason is. I don't want to give too much away in this blog.
The story was first published a couple of weeks ago and is being rolled out to free ebook sites and ebook stores. So far Trick or Trap is listed in the catalogues of Smashwords, Feedbooks, Bibliotastic, Barnes and Noble, and Apple’s iBookstores, with more, hopefully, to come before Halloween.  Feel free to rate or review the story. You can do so on most sites where it is available.

Happy Halloween. 


 
 
Today marks the first anniversary of the publication of Healthy or Else. It was my first and, so far, only ebook. It was listed as an experment not too long after I discovered self-publishing. I think I tried to list it on one site, but nothing came of it. Then I discovered smashwords.com and listed the story on that site. I didn't expect very many people to find it, but the number of downloads in the first couple of days was slightly better than I expected. My initial expectations were soon borne out, however, and the story sank into oblivion. I tried to promote it a bit, but nothing happened. I assumed I had done something wrong in the applications, did a little more research and found manybooks.net and feedbooks.com, and listed the story on both.

The initial response to the new listings sections was better than Smashwords. The reason being that the story was displayed in the new listings section for a longer time. Smashwords publishes so many new stories every day that they get buried quickly. Soon after the listings in manybooks and feedbooks Healthy or Else was listed in Barnes and Noble and other ebook stores in Smashwords' distribution channel. Barnes and Noble has a good free ebook program, and my story did pretty well there.

About two months after the story was published downloads from Smashwords took off. Over the course of one weekend there was close to 300 downloads. At the time that was a lot. Up until then there had been about 120 downloads from Smashwords, and I hadn't yet received the first reports from B&N. I had to search the Internet to find the reason for the surge of interest, and found the story was listed on getfreeebooks.com. It was one of the directories I thought I had made a mistake on the application form or misfiled. At the time I was not aware it had a long waiting list for applications. The wait was well worth it, getfreeebooks kept it on the front page for four or five days, and downloads continued to be strong for weeks afterwards. Smashwords became the best site, in terms of number of downloads, thanks to getfreeebooks. It also prompted me to put some more work into finding ways to promote the story.

Three weeks later Healthy or Else was listed on memoware.com, the first site I had tried to list it on. Memoware must also have a long waiting list, or not approve many stories for listing, because not a lot of new fiction has been listed since. Memoware is a volunteer site, specializing in the PDB format. PDB’s are supposedly becoming obsolete as it is replaced by the ePUB and Amazon PRC formats, but I was very pleased with the listing for two reasons. The PDB format poses a lot of problems for automated translators, so it is especially nice to be listed on a free ebook site that provides a fully formatted edition. Although the format is ageing, shall we say, there are still a lot of Palm and other devices using the Palm O/S in circulation, and hundreds of readers have downloaded the story from Memoware. It has been a good site for me, and I am grateful for the listing.

There was an upsurge in downloads around and after Christmas, probably because millions of new book readers were given as Christmas presents. Since then downloads have slowed to a trickle, but the story has been around for a while, and I am always pleasantly surprised to see it is still being downloaded. Being listed on so many sites helps, of course. Just recently downloads ticked above the 6,000 mark. That is not an overwhelming number, but certainly far exceeds any expectations I ever had. The actual number might be higher, as that figure does not include bibliotastic.com and any copies people made for their friends.

If  anybody reading this blog is one of the people who downloaded the story I would like to thank you. You encouraged me to write and publish again. I hope you enjoyed reading it.

I should have published other stories by now, but I have been working on a novel. Every time I think I am close to finishing it, I find a problem with it and defer publication. It will be posted one of these days. Hopefully soon. I have ideas for a couple of other stories I would like to write.

 
 
When I read that Google Ebookstore had launched their much anticipated ebook site I immediately tried to upload my indie story, and was denied access to the site. A window kindly informed me that I lived outside the United States. Not having any choice, I abandoned the idea of listing my story.

A month or two passed and another ebook site asked authors to use a Google form to complain about a different issue. I won’t go into that here, but I did use the form. To their credit, Google replied to my complaint. The reply explained that to qualify for listing in Google Ebookstore authors had to own the publishing rights and reside in the United States. The second qualification for listing both irked and mystified me.

I can understand why Google might not ship outside the United States, different publishers and distributors hold various rights in different countries, layer electronic rights on top of print rights and it could easily turn into a legal quagmire. Barnes and Noble and Borders don’t ship ebooks outside the U.S., likely for similar reasons.

Google’s policy might have irked me because Canada has an open book market, and that situation long predates NAFTA or any free trade agreements. In the early 1990’s, I took a stab at being a bookstore operator, and at that time about 50% of the English-language books available in Canada were American, and the remainder Canadian and British. The policy mystified me because Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Apple and other American ebookstores and free ebook sites list authors from all over the world. Google Ebookstore’s policy is also a radical departure from the policy of Google Books.

I suspect Goggle Ebookstore has a different policy for major publishing houses; but, of course, without access to the site it is impossible to verify or dismiss my suspicion.

After swapping a couple of more emails with Google, I learned it plans to roll out Ebookstore to some other countries in the future. It will be interesting to see if it restricts listings to authors residing in those countries, or if American, and international, authors can export their ebooks through sites outside the U.S.A.

After swapping emails with Google it was a pleasure to discover a new free ebook site with more liberal listing policies. Compared to the Google whale bibliotastic.com is the proverbial guppy in a global aquarium. Based in London, England, bibliotastic.com was founded by James Crawshaw and is operated by a multi-continental team of volunteers. The site was officially launched February 16th, following a soft launch last November. Ebooks can be read online or downloaded in epub and prc (Kindle) formats.

One of its stated objectives is to be “a forum for writers to publish their work for free and for readers to decide what they like for themselves ... rather than just relying upon the commercial filters of mainstream publishing.”

In that respect, it is similar to other indie publishers / distributors such as smashwords.com and feedbooks.com.

Bibliotastic.com not only listed my book, but somehow found my web site and suggested publishing some of my unpublished flash fiction in a collected stories edition, and adapted my cover to suit the new collection free of charge, since it was exclusively for use on its site.

Bibliotastic does not have the distribution and all the features Smashwords or Feedbooks offer, and there might be teething problems to work out still. I downloaded a novel in prc format , and my computer informed me that it was zipped and when extracted all the chapters were individual files. That was too much for me to contend with, I went back to the site and downloaded an epub, and read it in Adobe Digital Editions. The prc download of my own collection of stories was a smaller file, came unzipped, and loaded directly into Mobipocket Reader. After reading this blog Bibliotastic sent an email to say the file was not really zipped and loads directly into Kindle PC reader software, and can be loaded into Mobipocket by changing the file extension from .prc to .mobi. The FAQ was updated the same day. I changed the file extension and the file loaded and generated a nice Mobipocket Book. The majority of people use Kindles, anyway.

Moving on. A feature indie authors want that Bibliotastic doesn’t have is a dashboard or simple download counter. I hope one or the other will be added to the site in the near future.

The booklist is still small and the number of site visits quite modest. Mr. Crawshaw was up front about that, and cautioned me not to expect a lot of downloads. But the book list and site traffic metrics should improve as more indie authors and ebook readers discover the site. Based on my experience, authors and readers alike will enjoy their experience and return to bibliotastic.com again and again.

The title of my collection is Healthy or Else and Other Stories.
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