Monthly Archives: April 2010

Kirkus Discoveries and Vanity Reviews

With all the hubbub over Harlequin Horizons late last year, I’m surprised that more attention isn’t paid to Kirkus Discoveries. This service is a division of the established and formerly (by me, at least) respected Kirkus Reviews. For a mere $425 for 7 to 9 week turnaround or $575 for 3 to 4 week turnaround, self-published and independent authors can have their book reviewed by an “experienced” reviewer.

The site is filled with the same hollow claims that raised ire far and wide against Harlequin. They offer to publish the review on their website “which has a wide audience of librarians, major publishers, agents, rights representatives, booksellers and film and television producers.” They go on to say that their reviews help “many authors” boost sales on Amazon and BarnesandNoble.com, and that each month they include a lucky few in their Discoveries e-newsletter.

They also make great pains to indicate that while these reviews cost money, this doesn’t impact their content:

Though all our reviewers are experienced professionals, not all Discoveries reviews are glowing. Kirkus Discoveries is a caveat emptor service that gives honest, impartial evaluations of the titles we receive. The resulting reviews can be positive, negative or anywhere in between. By upholding Kirkus’ rigorous editorial standards, we ensure that an enthusiastic review is meaningful in the publishing community. Our long-standing editorial policy of anonymous reviews also applies to the Discoveries program.

Why would anyone commission a piece of writing and then not be able to dictate its content? This seems to be designed for the pure and simple purpose of separating writers from their money. Kirkus is preying on the same hopes that vanity presses are notorious for abusing, and they undoubtedly often add insult to injury once the review is delivered. One can only wonder what the reviewers must think who get these books. Are they the same reviewers who write the regular Kirkus reviews?

Kirkus defends the review-for-pay scheme with much of the same rhetoric that Harlequin used to defend Harlequin Horizons. As the world of publishing changes, they need to look for alternative revenue streams.

They’re right: the world of reviews has changed. We don’t need Kirkus anymore. Customer reviews written on sites like Amazon and the slew of great book bloggers that have emerged can quite nicely replace much of ye olde booke review guarde. These new venues review both traditionally and self-published books, and they charge nada. If a book–no matter who publishes it–is noteworthy enough to merit review, it should be reviewed. Period.

And whatever did happen with Harlequin Horizons? They yanked Harlequin from the name, relaunching the self-publishing imprint as DellArte Press. But it’s not clear if they’re still marketing self-publishing services when they reject a manuscript from the traditional Harlequin lines. They may not be, a search on the main Harlequin site did not bring up anything about DellArte.

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Top 3 Things I Learned at SCBWI

It’s hard to believe that it’s been more than a week since the SCBWI conference ended. Though now that I’ve had a little time to digest all of it, I can whittle down the two-day conference into the top three things I learned.

Try not to confuse the reader. Ummm… yeah. I had a personal critique of a work in progress with Laini Taylor, who was a finalist for the National Book Award and one of the keynote speakers. She was fantastic, gave lots of encouragement but also pointed out where my story had gone from good confusing (ahh… intriguing) to bad confusing (argh… just confusing). Poor Laini. I left her in the weeds. The bigger problem: I’m a repeat offender. I’ve heard this before. I’ll do six or seven drafts of a piece, and by the end of it lose all track of what I’m doing at each point in the story. I told Laini that I need feedback from other readers to identify the confusing bits. “Yup,” she said, “but come on, you can do this without them.” She’s right. I just need to make a point of reading specifically for what I want the reader to know at each point in the story. Laini gave some great pointers along with a bunch of plotting advice that she’s since posted on her blog. Check it out as well as her books. I recently finished Blackbringer which I can sum up in one word: awesome.

Method writing. Sundee Frazier, author of the award-winning Brendan Buckley’s Universe and Everything in It, had a break out session on writing believable boy characters. There were some ideas on the differences between boys and girls that were interesting, as much for life as for fiction, but she also offered a writing tip which I’ve since come to think of as method writing. When a scene should capture a certain emotion, think back to a spot in your own life where you felt that emotion. Then write it down, get it all on the page in a great non-thinking flurry. Use that as clay that you can mold into something workable for the character. Sundee also thankfully told us that the “sensitive boy and snarky girl” duo have become so commonplace in kidlit that they’re practically a cliché. One of my projects has exactly that in it, and once she pointed out this cliché, it clicked why I’ve been struggling with it.

Enter contests. Jay Asher, bestselling author of Thirteen Reasons Why gave another keynote speech. He spoke of the ups and downs of his 12-year struggle and the four agents that he worked with until finally landing a publishing deal.  His strategy seemed to involve wearing costumes to writer’s conferences and entering every contest he could find to help build recognition. His speech was heralded as inspirational. I found it just the opposite: depressing. Curse ye fickle publishing industry and how random ye award success! As he was speaking, I thought: I’d give up long before I ever got to that point. I’m doomed. It wasn’t until I got home and was reminded that money and publishing have nothing to do with why I write that I realized two things. First, I have fantastic support for my writing at home. Second, I already gave up writing once. No publisher ever came crashing through my front door to implore me to write. I just started again because I want to write, and that’s what I’m doing. Though that said, I could also start entering contests again too.

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Do We Need a Bookstore Day?

My post about the fate of physical bookstores in an ebook world gets much love from Google. It’s not just writers who are concerned about our beloved bookstores, it seems.

On the radio this week, I’ve heard frequent mention of Record Store Day. It’s tomorrow, Saturday, April 17. Record stores? Ahhh, yeah, I remember those. Apparently this is the third annual Record Store Day, which is a grassroots effort between independent record stores to promote music in vinyl and disc form. From their site:

This is the one day that all of the independently owned record stores come together with artists to celebrate the art of music. Special vinyl and CD releases and various promotional products are made exclusively for the day and hundreds of artists in the United States and in various countries across the globe make special appearances and performances.

Those in the US can find a participating record store on the Record Store Day site, along with more information about the origins of the program. Will bookstores one day need a Bookstore Day? Do they need it already? Record Store Day highlights one of the strategies independent bookstores can employ. They can’t compete on price, online will always have something cheaper. They can’t compete on convenience, downloading is the be-all and end-all of instant gratification. But they can create a community in the online world and inject this into the physical world to pull customers into their stores.

Powell’s is a great example of an independent bookstore that has not only survived disruptive change, but thrived as chain bookstores fail in their local Portland market. Megan Zabel wrote a fantastic article on this strategy for Publisher’s Weekly last October. Seth Godin also offers great insight in another Publishers Weekly article from the same month.

If I ran a local bookstore, I would pick a dozen or so categories that have natural affinity groups in my town and assign staff members to blog about them and create an e-mail list of people eager to hear from the store. The store then becomes the center of an idea universe, the connector, the initiator, the place to be. Invite book clubs to hold gatherings in your store and organize special events. Celebrate Julia Child by challenging local cooks to meet up and exchange recipes in your store.

Bookstores will indeed survive, just as record stores do. They just need to change how they think about their business, a practice where cookie-cutter corporate tactics will come up lacking. Independents can indeed thrive. The list of participating record stores for Record Store Day in the Seattle area alone is impressive.

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Is This the iPad Version of a Picture Book?

The SCBWI conference was both amazing and exhausting. I learned tons, and will write a full post about it later. For now, check out this snippet from the newly released Alice for the iPad.

I’m not sure what to think about it. On one hand, it entirely misses what reading the book is all about, fancy animations are nothing more than fancy distractions. Narrative has never been interactive, and it’s not because we haven’t had an iPad to get us there. Interactive narrative could have happened just fine while humans still enjoyed their stories exclusively around campfires.

On the other hand, there’s no denying that it looks cool. The iPad is indeed a snazzy device for games. But you don’t read games, you play them–which makes me wonder about picture and board books. Some already are mildly interactive. What would the wild rumpus from Where the Wild Things Are look like on the iPad?

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SCBWI Conference This Weekend

I’ll be at the SCBWI conference this weekend, in Seattle (Redmond technically, but that’s getting a bit nitpicky). This is the third year that I’ve attended. Two years ago I went for inspiration and had yet to get back into writing, just toying with the idea. A year ago I was prone to fits and starts on a  novel. This year I’m all in, looking forward to a weekend of bumping elbows with others who trade precious things like sleep for scribbles.

Hope to see you there! Oh, and if you want to say hi, here’s a little insight into where you’ll be certain to find me… at some point.

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What Not to Get for a Day Job

I accepted long ago that first novels don’t vanquish the day job. With average first advances coming in at $5,000, they’re financial successes if they pay the rent for a few months. But it still surprises me when I hear of authors with multiple titles out, even those who win awards, who still have day jobs. They’re here to stay, it seems, so we had best find something that works.

I’m in a good spot now, but that’s not what this post is about. It’s about what not to get for a day job. I’ve had a few:

Writer. After a brief stint waiting tables, my first real job was as a writer. I thought I had it made. Only problem: the writing wasn’t really mine. I was ghosting huge tomes  on stuff like international citizenship, tax legislation, and investment advice. It drove me bonkers. Each book got significantly more difficult to finish than the last, and I soon realized that I only have so many words in me each day. Once I’d finished my paying gig, there was no juice left for fiction. It was a thrill to see my words in print, but aside from developing the discipline to sit down and write every day–which is huge, admittedly–I learned nothing about fiction.

Bookseller. Once I realized that I’d rather beat myself to death with one of my books (they were heavy) than write another one, I got a job in a bookstore. I worked part time, and got health care. This was grand for a little while, and I got tons of writing and even more reading  done. Only problem: no money. As splendid as the picture of the starving artist is, it isn’t all that much fun in practice. Even worse, I started to see myself as a failure, some guy who dreams about publishing a novel, but works retail. My fiction became responsible for my happiness. On days when it went poorly–and there are always these days–my whole life was a shambles. My writing crumbled under the pressure, and what began as a productive phase ground to a halt.

Proofreader/Copyeditor. Following this, I entered the corporate world and got a gig as a web proofreader, then a copyeditor. My writing came screaming back. Yes, I was much busier working full time and writing, but who needs sleep? Only problem: I started to hate the work. I felt, maybe even correctly in a few cases, that the people whose work I was copyediting was vastly inferior to my own. I could do so much better than this! How dare they treat me like I’m nothing more than an underling? Ultimately I ended up making the same mistake I made right out of college, and got back into a writing gig. This time it would be different, I thought, since I would be writing about something fun. It was fun, but no different, still there were only so many words in me per day.

Mini Poobah. It was shortly after this that I decided to give up on writing entirely. I got a gig managing a team, and my day job soon overflowed into nights and weekends. My cell phone rang whenever I wasn’t, and even often when I was, in the office. My inbox always had a thousand unread mails waiting for me. Though I did make decent money for the first time in my life. I had stock options. Only problem: I had nothing else. I knew I needed help when I was heading into work on a Monday, and thought that I had better put in for the vacation day I took the day before. I hadn’t worked that Sunday, the first day in weeks. It took me a while to realize that Sunday wasn’t a vacation, it was just a Sunday. I quit a few weeks later, and really didn’t come to understand how unhappy it all had made me until many months down the road.

I’m now hooked up with a day job that gives me a comfortable living, fantastic benefits, and my nights and weekends to myself. I write for work, but only a bit. Yes, my day job is sometimes boring, but it’s not so boring that it tires me. It’s also sometimes engaging, but not so engaging that it overpowers me. And I’m writing again, after a five year hiatus, I’m back at my desk each morning before work.

Who needs sleep?

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Is the iPad a Kindle Killer, or Mouse Killer?

Apple announced sales of 300,000 iPads as of midnight Saturday, the first day it was on sale. More than 1 million apps and over 250,000 ebooks have also been downloaded, in spite of reported wifi woes. TechCruch’s list of the best apps for the iPad includes the iBooks app first, and the Kindle for iPad app second.

No word yet on whether anyone has started reading any of the books they downloaded, or if they’re too busy playing all the cool games. My hunch is most folks are still tinkering with the Captain’s Log, which turns your iPad into a Star Trek (à la Next Generation vintage) social networking device, and not getting much reading done.

All this only underscores the veracity of my bold prediction that the iPad would only appeal to a niche market. Ahem, I confess bewilderment at all the hoopla, though reviews in both the New York Times and Wall Street Journal did get me thinking that I’ve missed the point. The iPad is for those who consume content, not those who produce it. It’s a super-fancy, interactive, mini TV that hopes it’ll not just be a Kindle killer, but ultimately a mouse and keyboard killer.

It’s just not a device for techies, which I must reluctantly admit to being. (I do use three different laptops and two different desktops between work and home… and my e-mail account to pants ratio is a tad lacking, a sure indicator per David Pogue in the New York Times.) The iPad isn’t meant for me. The lack of a USB port and Flash support, along with the hefty price tag, are all deal breakers. Though the Apple Store still seems to be shipping the devices in just 5 to 7 business days, if I change my mind.

Overall, the best bits in all the iPad frenzy are videos. One where Stephen Colbert points out that Apple got the cover of Newsweek for free, while Amazon had to pay for the back cover. And then there’s this one, which answers the question that had to be asked:

Yes, definitely feeling a bit techie. There’s no need to buy an iPad for mindless entertainment, hours of it can be found on the Will it Blend? site, featuring the guys originally of YouTube fame. Hmmm… maybe I should get me one of them blenders.

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