That Time I Bought a $425 Lottery Ticket

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The Lottery Office. h/t Flickr user Arralyn!

 

In 1978 the Paris Review interviewed Joyce Carol Oates as part of their ongoing “Art of Fiction” series. It’s a fantastic interview that I recommend highly to anyone interested in writing fiction. At one point the interviewer asks Oates whether she subscribes to the old adage that it’s more difficult to write a good story than a good novel. I find her reply instructive:

“There is nothing so difficult as a novel, as anyone knows who has attempted one.”

Preach, sister. And I would expand upon her answer by noting that for a self-published author the task is even harder, because once you’ve written this most difficult of all things to write, you have to turn around and become a publisher, and perhaps a typesetter and graphic designer too. And that’s just to get the damn thing out the door; then, if you want sales above the single digits, you’ve also got to become a marketer.

That’s the phase I’m in now with my novel Blood Family. I’ve written it, I’ve typeset it, a fabulously talented graphic designer created the cover, I’ve published it in two formats on more than half a dozen sales channels, and now it’s time to try to market it. But how? There are entire blogs about marketing self-published books, so I won’t dive deeply into that topic here. I will say that last year I became fascinated with the story of how a first-time author landed a major book contract and film deal by self-publishing his novel first.

This article on io9.com tells how Canadian writer and professional linguist Sylvain Neuvel wrote a science-fiction novel, Sleeping Giants, inspired by what happened when he told his son he was going to build a toy robot for him. Neuvel details his son’s response:

I was expecting a one-word answer, but he wanted to know everything about it before I built it. But Dad, where is it from? What does it do? Can it fly? He wanted a backstory, and I didn’t have one, so I told him I’d think about it. A few days later, we were watching Grendizer, a Japanese anime about a giant robot from outer space—like any bad parent, I made my son watch shows I liked as a kid—and I asked myself what it would be like if it happened in real life, if we found a giant artifact from an alien civilization. I started writing.

After Neuvel finished writing his novel, he spent six months sending queries to more than fifty literary agents asking them to represent it for potential sale to publishers. “Most didn’t answer,” he said. “All of those who did turned me down.” So he decided to self-publish his novel, but even so, he wanted to give it something extra to help it rise above the sea of self-published books released each year.

“I needed a quote to put on the cover to make it look legit, so I sent the book to Kirkus for a review,” Neuvel said. “I wasn’t expecting much, but I thought I might at least be able to use a couple words out of context.”

If you don’t already know, Kirkus is a respected book review organization, like Publishers Weekly. A good review from either one of those places can make a big difference in a book’s fortunes because it functions as an imprimatur of quality. We somehow don’t think a book is a “real” book unless its cover quotes a positive review by some trusted or authoritative source, such as Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, a big-city newspaper, or a successful author. Books published by major publishers or even small presses can get these cover blurbs far more easily than self-published books can.

Kirkus, however, offers self-published authors a way to get a good review quote on the cover—if you’re lucky. For a mere $425, you can pay Kirkus to review your book. Let me answer the obvious question right now: you are not buying a positive review. If you don’t believe me, you can read some of the reviews that self-published authors have paid Kirkus for. My favorite negative review on that page says: “An incoherent work that may be particularly unpleasant for animal lovers.” Ouch. Not only is that a negative review, but the author paid $425 for it.

If you get a negative review through this program, you’re out the money you paid, but the consolation prize is that you can ask Kirkus to bury the review, and it’ll never see the light of day. (I don’t understand why the author of the “incoherent work” mentioned above didn’t choose that option, but that’s their problem.) The hope, of course, is that you’ll get a positive review that you can quote on the cover of your book and elsewhere, helping you gain the attention of the book-buying public.

That’s what happened to Sylvain Neuvel—in spades. “I got a great review, a starred review, and the month that followed was the craziest of my life,” he said. (Kirkus designates books of special merit by placing a star next to the review.) Hollywood movie producers started emailing him the day the review came out, and within a month he had a film agent, a literary agent, and a two-book contract with a major publisher, in addition to selling the film rights to Ridley Scott, director and producer of the Alien films. Pretty good return on his investment, right? So good that it made me wonder whether I should get a Kirkus review too.

I thought about it and thought about it and thought about it, discussed it with my wife, did some research on it, thought about it some more, and after consulting an oracle (more on that in another post) I decided to go for it. Went to Kirkus, created a profile, uploaded the files, entered the credit card number, clicked Submit. Shook head. Tried to think about something else for the seven to nine weeks it would take to get my review back.

But it only took about six weeks for me to receive an email from Kirkus with the subject line “Your review is ready to download.” Instantly my heart and temples began pounding, and my palms grew slick with sweat, and I thought about those psychology experiments where they determined that any emotional response is heightened when your nervous system is already ramped up, and I knew that if I read a bad review in that hyper-aroused state, I would be absolutely devastated. So I closed my eyes and pushed myself back from my computer and slowed my breathing, and I reminded myself that no matter what this review said—good, bad, or indifferent—it was only one moment in a writing career with many years left in it. I repeated that to myself over and over until my temples weren’t pounding quite as hard, and I felt ready to open the email and read the review.

It was a good one. Here are some highlights:

Fantasy and horror blend in Winter’s debut novel about a man who discovers his family’s links to the supernatural. … Overall, this novel has a lot to recommend it, especially its complex set of characters, including protagonists and antagonists who provide clear context to Alex’s life and to the more fantastic elements of the story. The prose is clear and crisp throughout but never rushed, giving the tension plenty of time to build. Winter also makes sure the emotional elements of the story—fear, grief, uncertainty—fully hit the reader. … A clever, engaging view into dark places.

I bathed in a kind of warm broth of relief all day long after reading that review. People have very kindly congratulated me, especially my writer friends, who have told me that Kirkus is famously stingy with good reviews—a fact I’m glad I didn’t know when I sent the review off. It’s not a starred review, so Ridley Scott hasn’t been ringing my phone off the hook just yet, but I’m very happy with it. I’m happy that one of the biggest gambles I’ve ever taken has paid off. Now to actually use it in some marketing …

If You Hate Shopping With Amazon, Have I Got a Deal for You

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E-book formatters hard at work in an Amazon sweatshop.

 

Amazon has taken a lot of abuse in the publishing world, and with good reason. Amazon uses their marketing clout to force publishers to lower their prices, thus reducing authors’ income; they make it harder for independent bookstores to remain in business; their warehouse employees work at extremely high speeds in brutal heat; and whenever you buy a book on a Kindle, you don’t own it in the same way that you own a physical book, because Amazon can delete the book or suspend your account at any time, as a number of users have discovered.

But, in fairness to Amazon, all warehouses are brutally hot in the summer, with punishing productivity quotas. My father-in-law used to be a warehouse manager for a retail chain, and he told stories about workers narrowly avoiding being crushed by tall columns of boxes toppling in the aisles because the cardboard softened in the heat. He used to say that anyone who was still working in a warehouse at age 30 was an “old, old man” in warehouse years because of the physically demanding work conditions.

In addition, the ephemerality of Kindle books applies to many kinds of downloadable online purchases, such as apps and music. Many of the “Buy” buttons you see online really ought to say “Buy a conditional license for use,” according to one tech writer, but that’s a change that should be made across a vast swath of online sales activity, not just Amazon.

Amazon isn’t inherently evil for using their market size to get their way—that’s a feature of capitalism in general, not of Amazon in particular—but when Amazon’s successes hurt independent bookstores, it becomes a question of what kind of world you want to live in. I always want there to be independent bookstores, so I continue to patronize them. But I also share one car with my wife, and I ride a bus to and from work, and I don’t get home until later in the evening, all of which means I can’t hop in the car and drive to my nearest bookstore whenever I feel like it. Also, if we’re talking about driving a car to go buy a book,  a 2009 study by Cleantech found that e-books tend to have a much lower carbon footprint than print books. This is especially true for books bought at a bookstore, because 25-36% of all books offered for sale in bookstores don’t ever get sold, which means they’re returned to the publisher and destroyed. The additional costs of shipping and destroying unsold books are baked in to the U.S. bookstore business model, meaning that every book you buy from a bookstore carries an additional carbon load beyond its own.

So, as a reader, I generally prefer e-books to print books, not only for carbon reasons but also because I relish the lightness and convenience, the searchability, and for nonfiction, the ease of highlighting and taking notes. But one thing I love about shopping for print books in a bookstore is the ability to take a book off the shelf and read the first few pages, to see if it grabs me. At that point I already have an idea of what the book is about, based on the cover art and copy, so when I read the first few pages I’m tasting the book’s prose style. Does the author use apt word choices, solid nouns, evocative verbs, nimble sentences, illustrative metaphors? Are scenes and actions clear? Is dialogue convincing? Does the style fit the subject matter? And above all, is there something fresh and original about these sentences that pulls me in and makes me want to read more of them?

This is where Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature comes in so very handy. From my own desk, or the bus (the GoTriangle buses I ride on my commute have WiFi), or anywhere else that I have Internet access, I can click on a book and start reading to see if it pulls me in. Regrettably, no such feature exists at IndieBound.org, the website and marketplace of the American Booksellers Association (the nonprofit trade association for U.S. independent bookstores). IndieBound.org does have a way to buy e-books from your local bookstore through the Kobo e-book platform, which offers book previews comparable to Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature; but not all independent bookstores participate in that program, and none do anywhere in my home state of North Carolina.

So what’s a picky, pro-small-business, environmentally conscious reader to do? More to the point, what’s a self-published author with all those traits—like, say, yours truly—to do? The whole point of writing a book, at least for me, is to have people read it. And one thing I’ve learned from working in communications and marketing for the past five years is that if you want to reach an audience, you have to reach them where they are, not where they’re not. If they’re buying e-books from Amazon, you need to sell e-books on Amazon; if they’re buying print books from independent bookstores, you need to sell print books through independent bookstores; and so on.

And that’s what I’m doing. As of now, you can buy my novel Blood Family in both print and e-book formats from both Amazon and non-Amazon sources (see the links below). That leaves audiobooks as the last frontier for this book, and I’ve already begun the research to see what it would take to make that happen. In the meantime, enjoy either the pages or the pixels of your preference.

Amazon
Kindle Store (e-book)
CreateSpace (paperback)

Non-Amazon e-books
Barnes and Noble (e-book)
iBooks (e-book)
Kobo (e-book)

Non-Amazon paperbacks
Barnes and Noble (paperback)
IndieBound (paperback)

Here Is a Good Thing That Happened That Made My Head Feel as if it Was About to Pop

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Photo: Chris Breeze (Creative Commons-attribution), weirdness added by me.

There have been exactly two times in my life when my reaction to receiving good news was the bizarre sensation that my head was filled with a balloon that had suddenly been inflated beyond maximum capacity and was about to burst. The first time was when a literary agent responded to my query seeking representation for my novel by asking to see the first three chapters of it. (I actually had two agents respond to my queries by asking to see a portion of my novel, but my head-balloon didn’t fill up the second time; I guess I was already becoming jaded? In neither case did the agents offer to represent my novel.)

The second time I thought my head was going to pop occurred in the final week of 2016. I was in my kitchen, innocently doing dishes, when my wife, Angela, returned home from running some errands and said, “Have you seen this week’s Indy Week? The ‘Best of 2016’ issue?” She was peering at something on her phone as she said this.

“I’ve seen it,” I said, “but I haven’t read any of it. Why? Is Therese in it?” I was referring to my friend Therese Anne Fowler, author of the novel Z, which Amazon is developing as a TV series starring Christina Ricci in the title role of Zelda Fitzgerald. The trailer for Z‘s first season had just dropped and was getting huge amounts of attention, and I thought maybe the Indy had covered it.

“No,” Angela said. “You’re in it.” She held her phone up to me, and lo and behold, it displayed an Indy Week web page saying that my novel Blood Family was named as one of the “Ten Most Fantastical Local Books of 2016.”

Right away I felt as if a band was tightening around my temples, but from the inside, which makes no sense. I read the little blurb about my book, and the sensation intensified. I’ve been alone with this thing for so long now that it feels really strange for the novel to get any attention at all, much less such positive attention; strange, but very, very good. Many thanks to Indy writer Samuel Montgomery-Blinn for the shout-out!

Print Edition Hits the Shelves, if by “Shelves” One Means “an Online Store”

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It’s been a long time coming, but at last all my friends and acquaintances who said to me, “I just can’t enjoy a novel unless it’s been printed in ink on thin sheets of mulched, bleached pulpwood fibers” are in luck. My novel Blood Family is now available in a print edition from CreateSpace.

My CreateSpace e-store page doesn’t have the snazzy “Look Inside” feature that the Amazon store has, but if you’d like to read the first three chapters of the novel, you can download a PDF here. The book is also available through the main Amazon site (CreateSpace is a subsidiary of Amazon), although the author royalties are much higher for sales through the CreateSpace site than for sales through Amazon proper. I guess someone’s got to pay for that snazzy “Look Inside” feature, huh?

If you’re thinking about self-publishing a print book or e-book for the first time and you have a question about what’s involved, please send it to me so I can write a post about it. There was a fairly steep learning curve for the e-book and an extremely steep curve for the print book—and I didn’t even do the covers—so I plan to write future posts about what I’ve learned in case anyone out there can make use of the information.

One thing I’ll say is that doing all this myself (except for the covers) has given me a tremendous sense of ownership over the book. Each new step, each new iteration has made it feel more and more like mine. The more work I put into making this thing real, the more I feel as if I’ve truly created it.

Oh, and if you’re someone who wants a print book but doesn’t like buying from Amazon, I have a non-Amazon print book on the way as well. That edition will be available from IngramSpark, the self-publishing subsidiary of the Ingram book distribution company. If I’ve understood everything correctly, once the Ingram book is live, you should be able to order it from any bookstore that gets its books from Ingram, which is virtually every bookstore in North America and many more all over the world. Then the only thing left for me to do will be to create the Matrix stream of the book, which you’ll download directly into your cerebral cortex for a vivid first-person experience of the narrative. Well, that and the audiobook. Then I’ll be done with all the publishing . . .

. . . and then it’s on to marketing! But that’s another post or fifteen. For now, print book. If you’re a page-flipper, your time has come.

 

 

Statement from a Son of Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District

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Attribution: By Daniel Mayer – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1819489

I was born in downtown Atlanta, Georgia, in St. Joseph’s Infirmary—right in the middle of the current boundaries of Georgia’s Fifth Congressional District. I lived there until I was five, when my mother and I moved to Alabama. I returned to Atlanta more than 20 years later, and that’s where I started my editorial career, met and married my wife, and went back to school to finish my bachelor’s degree. I ultimately decided to leave again and settle in North Carolina, but I never left Atlanta in my heart; so when I wrote my first novel, Blood Family, I set it in Atlanta. I had my doubts about writing Atlanta-based fiction while living elsewhere, but I told myself that if James Joyce could write Dubliners while living in Zurich, Switzerland, it was okay for me to write about Atlanta from one state over. I cannot imagine Blood Family being set anywhere else but Atlanta, with its complicated and tragic racial history, its relentless pursuit of material success, and the undercurrent of darkness flowing beneath its skyscrapers and superhighways.

As research for my next novel, I’m reading Bound for Canaan, a history of the Underground Railroad. The book says the Underground Railroad was “the country’s first racially integrated civil rights movement.” The Railroad surely paved the way for our next civil rights movement, in which activist John Lewis had his skull fractured during a nonviolent protest in Selma, Alabama, in 1965. Lewis went on to become a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for Georgia’s Fifth District, which he still represents today. After Lewis described Donald Trump as an “illegitimate president” for being elected with Russian help, Trump responded two days ago by saying “Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results. All talk, talk, talk – no action or results. Sad!”

I experienced Trump’s remarks as an insult not only against a true American hero whose whole life exemplifies the difference between talk and action but also against my hometown. I thought back to the seven years I spent in Atlanta as an adult. Yeah, crime was higher than I wished it was—my shitty old Buick Park Avenue got stolen there, while parked between a Volvo and a Mercedes, no less—but I never felt unsafe. I never felt like my neighborhoods were falling apart. I remember enjoying the sight of families having cookouts in Grant Park, and hating the sensation of sweating my ass off while jogging up and down the bike path beside Freedom Parkway (on a summer afternoon, like an idiot), and grooving on all the vibrant graffiti and murals and tats and piercings and music in Little Five Points, and trying to act like I knew what I was doing while volunteering as an adult literacy tutor in the Fulton County Public Library, and experiencing pure delight upon getting the singing weather report from Tyrone the crazy weather guy on MARTA.

Atlanta’s on my mind even more today because it’s Martin Luther King Jr. Day. King, too, was born in Atlanta, and as a child he sang in a choir that performed at the 1939 Atlanta premiere of Gone With the Wind, an event that Flannery O’Connor dramatized in her short story “A Late Encounter with the Enemy.” He left Atlanta to go to seminary school and then to pastor his first church in Alabama, but later he returned, and Atlanta was still King’s home when he was assassinated in 1968. It was his home, and it’s John Lewis’s home, and it’s my home from afar, the same way that Dublin was Joyce’s home even while he lived in Zurich. My home from afar has now been added to the long and ever-growing list of people, places, and things insulted by Donald Trump.

Trump’s fundamental approach to life seems to involve devaluing others while assigning himself near-infinite value—an approach that my mother used to call “big me, little you.” Those of us who know Atlanta understand its true value in a way that a New York billionaire never could. Speaking as a writer, I know that Atlanta is a rich, fecund setting for stories that explore the mystery underlying the quotidian world around us, and that’s why I expect all my novels to be set there from now on, the tweetings of a reality TV star notwithstanding.

 

Leaping Off the Page and Into Your Earholes

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I miss those old console stereos; don’t you? Just the sight of one makes me want to go fix Mommy a drink and bring it to her with her cigarettes and lighter, as I used to do back in the heady days of unrestrained excess known as the 1970s.

But I digress. I came here today to tell you that my own voice recently issued from just such a contraption when I appeared on Carolina Bookbeat, a talk show on radio station WCOM-LP FM 103.5. The show’s host, Samuel Montgomery-Blinn, and I discussed dysfunctional families, the metaphysics of the supernatural, and how not to find a literary agent (a topic on which I am now an expert). I also read an excerpt from chapter 1 of my recently published novel, Blood Family.

The episode is available here as a podcast, so now’s a good time to put up your feet, crack open a Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill, light up a Virginia Slim menthol, and enjoy.

Return from the Grave

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Four years! That’s how long it’s been since I last wrote a post on this blog. If I have any subscribers left, you’ve probably completely forgotten who I am. And that’s okay! We’ll just get reacquainted all over again.

My name is Brent Winter, and I’m a writer, and this is a blog about writing. I kept the blog up pretty well for the first couple of years I had it; but once I quit freelancing, got a full-time job, and started writing a novel, something had to give. I still have the job and the novel is now published, and I keep running into people who say “I didn’t know you were writing a book! I didn’t know it was finished! I didn’t know it was for sale! I didn’t know you wrote books! Why didn’t you tell me?” and like that. So I think it’s time I pulled my head out of my whatever whatever and re-engaged with the world.

kindle-cover-thumbnailSo I wrote and published a novel! That’s the cover, to the right. Isn’t it sweet? It’s the fine handiwork of the one and only Alyson Plante, artist and graphic designer extraordinaire. I tried to find an agent for the novel, but after 25 rejections, I decided to self-publish it. It’s a literary occult thriller titled Blood Family, and you can buy it as an e-book through AmazonBarnes and NobleiBooks, and Kobo, as well as some more obscure retailers I’ve never heard of before and whose names I therefore cannot remember. A print edition of the book is coming soon, and I mean really soon; the proof copies are being shipped to my house at this very moment. If you want to learn more about the book, you can visit the Blood Family page on this website.

I’ll be posting here about writing in general, my writing in particular, reading, literature, creativity, and whatever arts-related topics come up. I also expect to be posting about the subject matter that informs my writing, which is usually somewhere in the neighborhood of myth, religion, spirituality, magic, folklore, philosophy, legends, and the occult. Occasional forays into topics political and culinary might also occur. Comments and conversations are most welcome.

If you’re one of the approximately seven billion people on this earth who’s not a subscriber to this blog, you can sign up at the bottom of every page on the site (including this one). If you’d like to know when the print edition of Blood Family comes out, or you’re curious about how my next book is coming along—yes, I have already started another one, more on that in another post—then subscribe so you can be one of the cool kids who gets to enjoy a rousing online conversation about the metaphysics of the supernatural. What could be more delightful?