Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Getting Found In the "Other" World

One huge problem writers face nowadays is being able to "Choose a BISAC Category". Or, in simple language - Where the hell does my book fit in this big long list of categories that don't fit my book?

My SO writes a lot of male/male romance. But there's no such category on most of the common publishers' lists. We have things like "Gay" but that doesn't really fit, because the stories may not be about "being gay" as much as they are about being human.  Okay, so we move on to "Erotica." But that doesn't really work, because a large majority of the population automatically envisions a heterosexual pairing, and so your work will get panned by the uber-conservatives who still think love only exists between a man and a woman in the missionary position (and everyone else is going to hell, just ask 'em). Moving along, we come to "Romance."  But again, that probably isn't going to work for the same reasons that "Erotica" isn't going to work. Preconceived prejudices and false belief systems to protect and all that. So then we come to the inevitable "Other" category - into which go things such as "Auntie Mae's Reviews on Maps" or "Things To Make Out of Rain." Put simply - placing your book in the "Other" category ensures its obscurity despite what your old professor in college may have told you. Truth is - he doesn't want the competition, so he's probably not your best friend when it comes to marketing.

What to do?

Sometimes we need to let go of our
original idea and rebirth a book in a new
format. Sons of Neverland was such an
What I've found in my own work is that categorizing it may not matter nearly as much as we think it does - at least not to the general readers, who tend to browse by keywords rather than trudging through pages upon endless cyberpages of a publisher's online catalog. I could be wrong.  My SO tells me I often am. So take my comments with a large block of salt (iodized sea salt is generally best).

I finally got so annoyed with the whole idea of trying to label my writing (most of which fits into NO established category) that I listened to some "experts" who say that the category of "Literary" is the absolute WORST, as far as selling books is concerned. Hmmm. So as an experiment, being the rogue I am, I decided to list one of my books as "Literary > General"  Just about as generic and nondescript as one can get.

Sold more copies of that book in the first month than I had sold in the 3+ years it  had been listed as "Gay>Paranormal>Science Fiction>Romance>Naughty Naughty Naughty>Men With Aliens on Crack>Don't Read This Or You Will Go Blind" or whatever absurdly absurd category in which it had been previously listed.  (Don't be too impressed. It had only sold maybe 10 copies in 3 years - largely because it couldn't be found, so selling that same amount in a month is no cause for balloons and cake.)

I'm not saying that listing in the Literary category will help you sell your books. I'm just saying (just sayin'!) that stressing over what label to stick on your own butt is generally a waste of time and energy. One likes to HOPE (a lost art) that readers have the good sense to take a long, hard look at the "Look Inside" provided by many publishers and distributors. And if the obscure e-book site YOU use doesn't believe in a "Look Inside," then drag yourself over to Amazon despite your abject hatred of All Things Corporate, and use their "Look Inside" even if you never buy a single book from them. It's free to look, after all, and it will (maybe) save you a lot of grief down the road.  Returning an ebook can be like trying to step in the same river twice. Good luck with that.

Of course, another problem is that bad writers have gotten savvy to the fact that Amazon (and others) generally tend to offer the first 10-15% of the book as their "Look Inside." That being the case, writers who know they can't rub two words together to create an original thought have taken to working and re-working that first 10-15% so that admittedly readers can be fooled. Some writers even hire professional editors to revamp the opening chapter(s) of their book, so that when we buy it, we're impressed with the beginning, and then we are treated to all the spelling errors, grammatical terrors, and complete inability to punctuate, paragraph, or otherwise create a single sentence that isn't full of glaring mistakes (as well as being full of another sticky brown substance we would all rather not step in). And, yes, I know that's improper grammar. But ya gotta know the rules before you can take the liberty of breaking them, and far too many "writers" simply don't. 

So that brings us to Keywords. And therein lies a whole other can o' worms, just waiting to gnaw at the crisp white pages of your brand new book. What the hell is a keyword anyway? And how do you decide what keywords actually fit your book? If you've written about your cat-on-a-long-journey-home through the ghettos of Los Angeles and the penthouses of San Francisco, you've got it somewhat easy - or so it seems at first. Keywords might include: cat story, ghetto cat, penthouse cat, treacherous cat journey, long journey home" and the usual boring things we might come up with just to get to the end of the prep work and finally get the book in print. But... a writer who wants to sell her books is going to consider not just the obvious list of "easy" keywords, but think how your customers might think.

First of all, before you even write your book, if your goal is to sell it (and it may not be - some writers claim they write "strictly for fun" but I usually find writing about as much fun as a bucket of angry scorpions), you may want to stop and ask yourselves just how many people really want to read your cat-on-a-long-journey-home book. Sure, if you get struck by lightning (or your cat does) and your book goes viral and straight to the top of the New York Times Bestseller's List, then everyone on Planet Earth (and neighboring planets) will beat a path to your door despite your boring keywords. But if you're like most writers, you're not going to be the one struck by that lone bolt of lightning, and neither is your book about your cat. So - while I'm not discouraging writers from writing about any subject that interests them, it's important to define your own goals before you waste months or years writing a book that is going to languish in obscurity (trust me - I'm an expert on that!) What do you want from the book? Are you looking to be a professional writer and make a living at your craft? Is it a hobby, and you don't give a fat rat's shiny hiney if you sell a single copy? Is it something you're writing to impress your mother-in-law in lieu of getting a real job? Define your goals or don't be surprised when you are disappointed down the road. There's no right answer. The only "wrong" answer is to not have a clue.

But back to keywords and your heart-warming cat-on-a-long-journey-home story. What might readers search for if they wanted to read about your cat?  How about... "cat hero, cat left behind, cat comes home, stranger in a strange land, fish out of water story, survival in the wild" and on down the line of infinite possibilities. And remember - most sites don't restrict keywords to one word. Phrases are generally acceptable, so for my vampire novel (for example), I realized that readers were searching for phrases such as "I want to be a vampire," or "I want to live forever," or "I want to be immortal."  It's always about them - and knowing that can give you an advantage you might otherwise overlook. It's impossible to know what readers really think, but it's a good challenge for writers to at least consider it when working on keywords and fighting to keep their book out of that dreaded "Other" category. Use some of the obvious (because most people will go straight for the mundane) but think outside the litter box, too!

The first step is knowing which hat
you actually want to wear...
The bottom line here is simple (and kinda scary). We now live in a digital age where the indy writer has to wear all the hats. Writer, editor, publisher, typesetter, cover artist, marketing director, publicist - and probably a dozen more I've forgotten (because my brain is addled from wearing too many hats). At present, the field is wide open - which is both good and bad. Good in that writers no longer have to be entirely dependent on a publisher in order to see their work in print. Bad in the sense that the market is glutted with a lot of books by a lot of bad writers, but even worse - that mountain of crap is often obscuring the gems and jewels hidden behind it. Readers have been burned too many times by too much flaming horse shit and are now wary - and who can blame them?

There's no easy answer, of course. The major indy distributors (such as Amazon, just for example) really can't afford to hire an army of editors to weed out the weeds, and so there is no quality control standard -  not a standard to determine the social/cultural merit of books, but to determine whether or not the writer is in third grade writing bad porn in study hall and then publishing it as BDSM on the internet. That's another subject for another day, alas.

For now - start with this. 

Ask yourself what you want from your work. Once you have the answer to that question, a lot of the other chaos sweeps itself up into a nice pile... only to get scattered to the four winds all over again when you ask yourself the next question.

Do you  have the stamina, or even the desire to wade through snake-infested jungles just to get to the first sentence?

It really is a dark and stormy night.  But don't forget - I told you that in the first post of this dark and stormy blog. You can shoot the messenger, but the message will still be all too true.

So go write.  If you dare. And only if you care.

copyright 2014 by Della Van Hise
All Rights Reserved

Eye Scry Publications
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Saturday, December 20, 2014

Once Upon a Mad, Mad Time...

Once upon a mad, mad time in my life, I wanted to be a writer. I was eleven years old, and had fallen deeply in love with Star Trek, much to the dismay of my mother, my friends, and just about everyone who knew me. It's called an obsession, and it's an ugly thing. Very. Very. Ugly. It turns an otherwise sane human being into wild-eyed fanatic who can think about nothing else, talk about nothing else, and eventually drives those around her so certifiably insane that they stop answering the phone and go the other way when they see you coming. At that point, the only remaining outlet is to finagle a way to get one's hands on some manner of writing device.

Back in those days (she said with a toothless, evil grin), that device happened to be an ancient typewriter, original equipment in the Parthenon, and guaranteed to slice through even the most determined little fingers as they banged out story after story about Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the crew of that awesome starship known as Enterprise.

My mother said it wouldn't last. "In ten years, you won't even remember this Star Trek thing," she said one fine Sunday morning when she was trying to convince me that church was a good thing. "It's a fad. A flash in the pan. A lark."

So I spent that morning in Sunday school taking notes for my next grand writing project, all the while pretending to be studiously jotting down the names of the eight tiny reindeer... or maybe it was the twelve disciples. Don't rightly remember because my mind was filled with Romulans and Klingons and wondering just how in all the scattered worlds I might actually find the Guardian of Forever and beg his holiness to transport me out of that church pew and drop me somewhere in the general vicinity of Spock's quarters.

I was pathetic.

But somehow I survived those initial years of obsession, though I can't say it ever completely wore off. To the contrary. even after Star Trek was taken off the air and disappeared into obscurity for many years, I remained deeply involved in the love affair I had going with it - through my writing. All of it was absolutely dreadful, you realize. Pure, steaming crap. I ran across a smattering of it stuffed far in the back of a closet not long ago, and was horrified to realize that I could have died and been subject to deep embarrassment at my own funeral. The only hope for it was to burn it, so that it might at least provide some small manner of warmth for the ravens who sit on top of the chimney and speak in tongues about things of great importance.

But here's the thing. It was that obsession which led to the writing of my first pro book, KILLING TIME. Now generally accepted as the most controversial Star Trek book ever published, it nonetheless was published, and at the age of 24, that felt like a major accomplishment. I was a published, professional writer, and damn proud of myself. Puffed out my chest. Spoke with a vague hint of a British accent for a few weeks (even though I was born and raised in the deep south of Crazyville, aka Central Florida). Considered smoking a pipe and getting one of those corduroy jackets with the funny leather patches on the elbows.

Of course, for anyone who already knows the story, my victory was short-lived, for it wasn't long before the book was recalled by the publisher, re-edited, and re-issued... all without so much as even explaining to me precisely what the hell was going on.  Turns out, because I was a known writer of K/S fan fiction, it was an Absolute Fact that KILLING TIME was a professionally published book wherein Kirk and Spock were doing the nasty dance on every other page, while McCoy peered in from the sidelines with a twisted grin and Nurse Chapel mourned piteously because clearly Spock was spoken for by El Capitan.


That's what it really was.  Yes, I wrote fan fiction. Yes, I wrote some of the most explicit K/S out there at the time, though it would probably be considered tame by today's standards, and I have no regrets.  But I did NOT include any of that in KILLING TIME - and whoever chose to see it in there was just choosing to see it.  So, for the record, there never was any "super secret version" of KILLING TIME. I've heard all the rumors. I've even been called a liar for daring to say that the rumor is as ludicrous as those who choose to believe it.

But no matter. Despite all the infamy of KILLING TIME, anyone who read the book and later saw the first reboot Star Trek movie (2009) might just recognize the plot of the book on the great big screen. Captain Spock. Ensign Kirk. Time-tampering Romulans altering the past and therefore changing the future. Sound familiar?  It did to me... but, hey, I'm just the black-listed writer of a very old book.  KILLING TIME came out in 1984, and it is a fact that the contracts on those books were iron-clad.  Bottom line - the writers of those books retain NO rights, receive NO royalties beyond a certain point, absolutely NO royalties on ebook sales (and KILLING TIME has sold a butt-load of e-books!), and, to top it all off with a bitter cherry, the powers that be can just take the books, plot and all, slam them up on the big screen... and the writer never sees a dime. Not. One. Dime.

Yes, I signed the contract. I write that one off to being young and stupid, and desperately wanting to be a writer. If I had it to do over again? I'd throw the manuscript in the deepest pit, damn the environmentalists, and light fire to the underbrush before I would ever sign another contract like that one!

Though I've told the story of what really happened with KILLING TIME many times in the past, I'll include it here in abbreviated form. Long story short, back in those days, there were at least 3 or 4 copies of the manuscript floating around the publisher's office. One copy was the original. Another copy went to the editor. Another went to the offices at Paramount. And still another (eventually) went to the typesetter. (For those too young to know what a typesetter is... look it up).  So... what's supposed to happen is that Paramount does their editing changes, returns the manuscript to the publisher, at which point the editor makes any other necessary changes (copy editing, typos, etc), and then the twice-edited manuscript is sent on to the typesetter prior to publication.  Well... somewhere in all that chaos, whatever copy Paramount edited got lost in the frazzle, and the original manuscript got sent straight to the typesetter.  Not surprising, since there were at least 3 or 4 different editors on KILLING TIME from the time it was submitted until it was finally published over four years later.  So... any relevant changes, deletions, alterations that had been made were not included in the version that eventually got published.

All of this, of course, became my fault. (Isn't it always the writer's fault when the publisher who is 3000 miles away makes a drastic and irreversible error?) Writers make good scapegoats, as you will undoubtedly learn if you are a writer or hoping to become one. At any rate, my editor was on the phone literally screaming in my ear, and all I could think was - What the hell was I thinking when I was thinking I wanted to be a writer?

I should be absolutely clear that I have no regrets about writing KILLING TIME. I don't even really care that it was made into a movie (and I didn't even get a lousy t-shirt, let alone a screen credit!). What really annoys me with the whole shebang is that writers have always been treated like second class citizens, and probably always will be. Would it really be so much to ask for the publishers to throw even a small royalty for e-books in the writer's direction? After all, publishers have NO overhead where e-pubs are concerned, and just because they can get away with it doesn't mean they should. Then again... I was raised on Star Trek - a series that postulated the idea of good over evil, fairness above greed, and so on. But I tend to forget... that's still science fiction.

So for my first entry in my writer's blog, this is just one horror story among many.  But it's enough for now.  I will conclude by saying that I wish I had taken up brain surgery or advanced string theory.  Either would be far more straightforward and far less painful than the absurd task of trying to be a writer.

Am I bitter? Sure, but what writer isn't? Did I have the good sense to quit and get my brain surgeon license? Of course not, but what writer has 'good sense'?

Am I still writing? That's debatable. The little voices in my head continue to whisper from time to time, telling me stories which they insist I should put to paper. Paper? Really? No such thing anymore.

So is it really writing if nothing is written down, but only scribbled on the transient fabric of cyberspace? Jury's still out.

This is the part where I'm supposed to put on a happy face and convince you that your experience will be different. You will be The One upon whom sunbeams shine brightly while fairies scatter glitter in your wake.  But I'm not going to lie to you and I'm not going to pretend writing is easy. Maybe - if you're lucky enough or crazy enough - writing can be 'fun' on some level. But if you're a realist, you'll soon figure out that the business of writing is about as much fun as hemorrhoids. There was a time when a writer wrote, a publisher published, an ad agency advertised, and consumers actually bought books instead of figuring out ways to steal them from 'free download' pirate sites.

Yup, those were the days (or so the story goes).

For what it's worth, my agenda with this blog is to tell you the truth about writing. It'll probably the best horror story ever written.
Copyright 2014 by Della Van Hise