One Year after twenty

This blog began about a year ago as I started to replicate what I was told I had to do to begin marketing my first novel. I was told I had to have a website, someplace to describe myself and my work. It was a clumsy first post as I tried to find my voice.

Voice is what animates anything we write. It can be a passion, a goal, a journey, a cause célèbre, a drive to communicate with someone other than our own inner voice. I am still searching for my voice in this blog.

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They Met at Shiloh

I published my first novel in November of 2011 in both paperback and Kindle format. I sold my first Kindle eBook to someone who has become a good friend and fellow author for the ridiculous price of $9.99. His was to become my first review. He was a brave man, buying an eBook at that price from a random Facebook posting. That first review has over 27 votes and is the top review yet of the 20 I now have. I knew little of how to market at that point and even less of how to find my audience. In November 2011 I had a few free kindle titles on my iPad and very little knowledge about how Amazon was better at selling Amazon than I would be. My wife and I hit publish and hoped that we would figure it out as we went along. I knew one other person at this point who had self published and she was an old friend who had finally written and published her first work a year before. I sold one whole eBook that month, November 2011.

It is December 2012. A year and a month have gone by in a journey I undertook twenty one years before in college to write a novel with all of my friends as characters set in a civil war battle. I never finished it. Twelve years later I undertook to rewrite the novel from scratch and for the next eight years worked on it on the odd weekend or trip, in coffee houses and in hotel rooms, airplanes, and cars. I wanted to finish it. Other than having written stories or stage plays for fun most of my life I had little to go on other than instinct with this rewrite. I knew the story I wanted to tell and I learned to let the story tell itself. I wanted the soldiers to speak their minds and speak about what comradeship and loss meant to them. I wanted confederate and federal to tell why they volunteered and treat both sides with equality of voice, not turning all confederates into antagonists and all federals into protagonists. Men volunteered to follow their own ideas of patriotism and duty and each believed they were serving a higher cause.

I was doubtful that I’d succeeded. The story was written from stream of consciousness and from the point of view of each character, allowing the thoughts and fears, doubts and struggles to be laid out for the reader to experience along with the fright and rush that was civil war combat. The majority of the reviews have confirmed a level of success in that endeavor, that the reviewer was transported int the ranks and experienced the life of the soldier and experienced the common faith that most soldiers shared on either side.

This year has been an eye opener. Many say that you need four things in order to sell an eBook. A good cover, a good book, a good blurb and luck. Now most would say that it is the luck part that can make the difference between a huge seller and an average seller. I do not know if I fit the huge seller or the average even, but we met our goal for this year financially and that was a big thing. It was luck that KDP Select was introduced and for the first part of the year the Amazon selling environment favored the extra exposure from a successful free giveaway.

As I ready my first book launch (we unceremoniously launched They Met at Shiloh with no plan and no promotion) this next year and finish my third novel I do look forward to what 2013 will bring.


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Kindle Select from Amazon

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Kindle Select, what’s an Indie author to do?

If there’s a blog topic of choice this week for writers, it would be the new select program at Amazon. The information is all over the KDP website and the KDP author forums. It has been going for over a week now. If you’re not on a side yet, you soon will be.

The upside? Another way to reach the consumer.

The downside? An exclusive arrangement with KDP for e-book distribution.

Let’s be honest, Amazon and KDP drive the e-book revolution. It is their market to have and to hold, till death do they part. If you sell titles at all on multiple devices (multiple distribution channels) it is at least 75% to 90% of your sales. The other platforms neither have the reach or the market in devices (thanks to the Kindle Fire that gap will only widen).

So, adding your title or titles to select is going to do very little to your bottom line and may even increase it. It will drastically put the heat on their competitors, and this is one of the gripes coming from authors who, for very good reason, do not want to put all their eggs in one basket. That is probably the logical answer, the emotional one being freedom. If there is to be a primary, visceral reaction to this, it is the question of freedom and what the system is doing to the rankings of those who are not in. Rankings have suddenly skyrocketed (in the wrong direction for many) as everyone who opted in took advantage of the free promotions and there are lots of questions being asked about how this affects rankings. The upshot is that your free book will rank with the other freebies and go back to the paid ranking where it left off. Some are seeing positive numbers after the fact and others aren’t. The end result, as with all marketing is make your plans and know what it is that you wish to accomplish.

This leads to the other great deal for the indie author, the ability to offer a free promotion for up to five days every ninety days. This costs the author nothing at all and will even benefit them from the Amazon slush fund to be shared out among all who participate? This is probably the best perk in the system, second to the Amazon Prime lending library giving you one lend per month with no due date (for those prime members who own a Kindle).

For indie authors, freedom is the very reason we have taken this road. We want the control over every aspect of our creativity and the reward that our hard work produced. The Select agreement still palls in comparison with the normal exclusivity contracts one signs with a traditional publisher when you give them the rights. You will own the rights, but not the ability to sell in other e-book distribution channels.

The buzz is pretty strong with emotions running high; Select acolytes spreading the gospel vs. those who refuse to surrender any freedom at all. The latter, seeing their rankings dissolve, are understandably frustrated at the change and becoming more so. Those who are benefitting from the new exposure are also admittedly wondering what the big deal is with everyone else not in. In the middle are all of those, like me, trying to evaluate what is right for us. I don’t myself agree with the thought that Amazon is doing something illegal and against anti-trust laws, but that remains to be seen.

As I mentioned, Amazon Prime members can “borrow” your book as part of their membership, a very unique way of exposure. Lends may not lead to purchases, but word of mouth is what we thrive on for sales. Like this program or not, Amazon has added another avenue for indie authors to make money and compete with the Big Six published authors.

If you are in, what have you found? If you are not, why not. If you won’t, what are the issues for you?

Addendum, 12/23/11

It’s been a week and more information has become available from those authors who have jumped aboard the Kindle Select train. The following thread has some information on how one author garnered an impressive number of free downloads:
http://www.kindleboards.com/index.php/topic,96561.0.html

From feedback here and on the other Kindle boards, the results from Select seem to be a positive boost in exposure for the Indie. If you already have work up on the other ebook distribution channels I would take a long, hard look at the sales data before pulling your work from them. Money on the table is still money on the table.

Another word about the negative hype regarding this program. I read an interview with the CEO of Smashwords regarding the Select program. Honestly, why even ask him? Of course he’s going to say that what Amazon is doing is bad, horrible, anti-competitive, bordering on monopolistic, yadda yadda yadda. I would expect that from any one of the CEOs of the other distribution channels.

Would you expect to hear the CEO of Random House lambast one of his competitors if they filched one of his cash cows? Perhaps. Kindle, Smashwords, Kobo – these are distributors not publishers. They deal with everyone. I think the hype surrounding this is a tad overblown. Only time will tell if its impact on indie publishing is real or imagined.

Update 12/30/11
Read and understand what the exclusivity clause means
http://www.kindleboards.com/index.php/topic,97561.0.html

From a strict interpretation of the contract, the meaning is for any distribution of the agreed upon content that could include excerpts published on other blogs, full digital media sent to a reviewer (if the content did not originate with KDP, you have just distributed an electronic version of your work to someone else outside of the agreement), excerpts published on your own blog, excerpts and teasers published on other distributors web pages. Exclusive means what it says.

I actually hadn’t even considered an excerpt as applying. I thought it would only mean I agree to not sell the work from any other distributor. But, giving a print book away isn’t giving the means to reproduce it away, it is just a product of the process. A .pdf or .mobi file IS the means to reproduce and selectively distribute the same content. People need to carefully read the fine print.

The penalty? Amazon will withhold the lending royalties for the period covered or limit royalties in retrospect if you willingly flout the contract. How can they? You said exclusive, didn’t you? You agreed to it. https://kdp.amazon.com/self-publishing/help?topicId=APILE934L348N

Caveat Emptor; buyer beware.

What Inspires me

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Byrne’s Mississippi Battery, Shiloh National Battlefield Military Park. copyright Jennifer Bryant 2011

What inspires me? Many things have in the past.

Julia Cameron inspired me to keep going and to recognize that the editor and critic are dark parts of myself that need to be controlled, just as the creative part of myself needs to be freed from control. I control it with a heavy hand but give free reign to the editor. Somehow that is natural to the point of being creatively blocked. We learn it from the criticism of parents and our friends and it has to be unlearned through painful practice, like the muscles learn to run each extra foot further than they have strength for. Her gospel frees the creative soul from the pit of creative darkness. It has mentored me through the days where I would have given up on completing They Met at Shiloh. I believe she is a universalist when it comes to faith, believing that there is a God but perhaps not the God that I know and Christ who allows me to know him, but she has nailed it as far as truth, that we are best when we are under faith and not works, that there is a spirit who whispers to us the stories we tell. I do not quibble with questions of her christianity or not, she isn’t speaking a gospel of what saves us but what saves our creative souls and that I can follow as it points me back to the owner of that creativity, even Christ.

Many things are inspiring me now.

My wife inspires me to press on, encouraged me to quit the national guard after 15 years and pick up the old book again. She isn’t just a fan, she’s a partner with me as we both try to adopt and adapt to what it means to be self employed (a hobby as Dave Ramsey would call anything that doesn’t make money yet) but has not just dutifully followed me but joined me by my side, taking care of what I am an avowed idiot with; money.

I would not soon trust myself with our finances because I am too single minded of purpose. I see something and decide that I want it. If we have money in the bank, cost is no object! Thankfully, she has taken it on herself to manage our household in this regard and I have to say is now encumbering herself with yet one more thing that has to be managed, a growing book selling business. She has withstood much from me over the years and still does, I can be irascible and moody when something is puzzling me or when I am getting impatient for an outcome. I can only thank God that she still loves me when I am on a terror.

The Official Records of the Rebellion inspires me. I have found more than just a few incidents recorded on these dusty (now digitized pages) to lead to scenes and fancies for my characters to behold. I write about individuals who are part of organizations, regiments and brigades. I’m interested in the soldier’s experience as they react and interact with one another and with the specter of wounds and death each time they put on their traps and take a line of march. When I am researching a unit and what it did, going back a month or so before a battle I look up that unit or its leader in the official records and find little tidbits of daily activities to include in my narrative and often if I’m stuck, I go to these pages to just get an official glimpse of what it was like to have marched along with these soldiers. These are bereft of emotions, being communique’s and battle reports, telegrams and such, but they often fill in some of the gaps.

@sarahwitenhafer has been an inspiration for me. We write in the same genre and I’ve known her since 1989. I’ve been following her own progress as she was further ahead than I have been in both publication and marketing. I’m still floundering around at the moment, but keeping tabs on her progress has kept me going. She has a manner that is winning and has found a way to inspire others and a grow a fan base.

Another is @jakonrath who has experienced a renaissance of sorts in e-publishing and is inspiring hundreds if not thousands to follow his lead and shake off the shackles of the traditional publishing world for the freedom of self publishing. The success seen by those two, and a host of others, thanks to Amazon and Kindle, have opened the doors for the revolution to happen in the publishing world. Good or bad, it is happening and making unknown authors a living as the consumer chooses who to keep buying books from, not the publishers. You can say whatever about the lack of gate keeping going on and why or why not that is a bad thing, but in my experience, gate keeping is a defensive strategy by those inside the gate. It assumes a zero sum game for a limited pool of resources. E-publishing has changed all of this in a big way thanks to Amazon.

Inspiration, like exercise, takes training as we relearn to react to the world as we did when we were children and not encumbered by cares, worries, economies, and family. We were fed and clothed and sheltered so that aside from chores to do and rules to obey we were freed from the things that distract us.

We played and usually with whatever we had on hand. I used to use a music stand, one of those foldable wire stands for a machine gun. It could be an MP40, the German sub-machine gun or it could be a British Bren Gun.

We had our toy figures from Star Wars or GI Joe and the hallway would become our battle ground. Cardboard boxes became whatever the imagination would allow for. We didn’t care that it really didn’t look like a tank, or a house, or whatever because our imaginations filled in the gaps.

Creativity is as natural for a child as becoming blocked by the cares of this world come to adults. Christ told his disciples that the Kingdom of God was made for such as these, children that surrounded him one day. One can imagine what that scene might have looked like, the adults trying to control the situation and the children trying to chaos it.

He said if one did not approach the throne of the most high God as a child, one would never enter into the gates. Why is that? Exactly why it takes a child to be creative, because the child has to trust the authority over it, be protected by it, be drawn to its love, and aside from the rebellion that is born in us, all we as children laid our cares down at His feet. As we create or struggle to be creative again as adults, we approach the throne as children again no longer as independent beings but as dependent.

Taming the wild horses

Can you see the allure of the traditionally published author? Do they sit around all day and do nothing but write or attend book premier parties complete with champagne and good looking people clamoring for a look at you? Now I can. After all the hard work it is easy to just want to write and not market.

Going it alone means going it alone. One can die in obscurity with dignity intact much easier than flaming out for all the world to see a la (insert latest celeb flameout). No one wants obscurity but no one wants to flounder around in discouragement either.

Putting together a long range plan has been tough. I think long term but not in minute detail sometimes. I want to do everything at once because it feels like I’m doing something when in fact I’m not doing much at all. If you can get something by an agent and happen to sell it to a house, they do all of this for you and take their cut. Taking charge of your own destiny has been scary. No one to blame but myself but no time frame to live up to either. The wild horses are constrained by the need to be the business leader of the enterprise. The creative hat comes off and the planning and calculating hat comes on. I don’t know if it is easier for some to do, it has not been easy for me to do.

The process as a whole has been straightforward enough. Editor supplies final document, upload it to Create Space and KDP, walk through the menus, set the price, choose the distribution channels and behold, it’s up for sale! After that? Where to begin!

No one knows about it and will not until you figure out how to reach them. Amazon has done for self publishing what Apple has done for digital media. POD and other printers have been around for years. Self publishing has been around since the printing press. But, the power of distribution has not always been available. Now, it is making the possibility of making money without the traditional process that much more attainable. Honestly, I was on this route before Amazon and its Kindle and its ebook distribution revolution was in full swing. I am gratified that I actually have a chance at reaching more people and of actually making some money on the effort, but the choice to go self publishing was made long before.

Without the benefit of a marketing department or a publicist, you have to spend more of your time fronting your work than otherwise. You get to keep what you make in a large part, but one can only decide for themselves if the trade off is worth it or not. I cannot say either way at the moment as the process is only just beginning.

The 150th of Shiloh is in April of 2012 and I plan on attending the reenactment and looking to meet some bookstore owners and park historians in person with copies of the book and media materials. This will be the first big push at some of the trappings of the traditional market. Until I reach out I do not have any idea if the effort will pan out. There are roadblocks to this. Getting a bookstore to sell your work is almost a universal pan if it is self published, so getting into the book distribution channels is a must if you want to approach libraries and bookstores. But, I hope to capitalize on the event and some of the smaller bookstores who can make their own local choices on books they carry (each NPS bookstore can choose what it sells) and on doing educational monologues with signings. I won’t know until I try.

My self publishing journey

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We (my wife and I) started looking at self publishing in 2007 as They Met at Shiloh neared its completion. At the time we had several reasons for looking into it as a friend of ours who runs a successful publishing company for homeschool science curriculum sold us on the importance of retaining control over ones own work. We had our own ideas as to why, some based on facts and others based on assumptions, but we never really considered the traditional route. I’d looked into the process of finding an agent, finding a pitch, and crafting a query letter but the further I dug the further I was convinced that I’d have to sacrifice something (don’t we all when we want something) in order to get something.

This was when being self published was still like admitting in a crowded room that one had cooties. Might was well paint a sign on your forehead “second class citizen”. POD companies were springing up and there were printers who would print your book in bulk if you had the money and the storage space to house them. Other companies like Ingram Direct, would take you on and offer some relief from the various chores a publishing company had to do like warehousing, point of sale, distribution, etc. but they were marketing to the smaller specialty publishing companies who still had a foot in the traditional door. At the time, we didn’t know how much we’d be able to afford and the book had not been edited yet, but we did know that it might take us a good while to save.

Of my own research into historical fiction (christian and non) 98% (not a scientific approach, just perusing titles and descriptions on bookshelves and Amazon) fall into the romance category. I’m not writing romance works or intended to have any. This may have been a fallacy on my part, but from what I already knew of the system, if I wanted to sell my work (another reason for not going the traditional route, the loss of rights) I might have to make major changes to the work to market it to the traditional audience for historical fiction. Now, do not get me wrong. It is not a good guy vs. bad guy thing. I understand that the publishers are in business. Each new novel purchased is an investment waiting to happen. If I were to give my own money to something on the chance that it may or may not pay out, I’d be darn sure that it was going to meet the highest potential for my own profit. As it stood, I did not believe that the work met the mass market for historical fiction.

What I was writing was character, and in particular, soldier centric. It was also to look at how a battle could exert its own influence upon the characters, treating it as a character itself. There is a niche market for military and historical fiction but Civil War fiction has remained primarily romantic in material. I told myself if I was to self publish for the sake of control, then I’d be able to write what I wanted to write, sans market in mind. I also began to accept that this would remain a hobby and not a full time endeavor. I had a job that I liked and it was fine to treat this as such. I decided that the gatekeepers can keep their gates, I wasn’t in it for the fame and fortune. I also knew that the process from a business standpoint wasn’t interested in making kings either.

Flash forward to today. We invested heavily in a professional editor. Though I might be going it alone I also knew that quality mattered. An editor can’t change the overall tone of what is written or its message (at least at this point) but would sharpen what was already there. The editing was done by Preciseedit.com, a good friend of mine I’ve known since college and doing well for himself as a freelance editor. The cover was also professionally done. We knew what our limits where and when to seek help. Thanks to those like Joe Konrath and others who have begun to pioneer the indie self publishing industry via Kindle Direct Publishing and the Amazon Imprints, I can even follow some who have hit the water ahead of me and glean some insight and knowledge about the process. We have even begun to contemplate what would not have been thinkable before; the possibility of marketing other short stories and other novels in ebook formats to see where things lead.

I’m sanguine about this last part. There is a lot of luck that has to be struck before being able to pull some of the numbers Joe and others are. The bigger the market the greater the chance. Still, there is a market to be exploited and we are beginning to see what the real possibilities are beyond what we would have just a few years earlier.