A Site for Sore Eyes

Every indie author would love to make oodles of money. Put your books up on Amazon and wait for the dough to roll in! And wait, and wait, and wait…. Marketing is not something most authors are proficient in, and I’m no exception. But I know I need a nice-looking website. And since the income stream is not guaranteed, I’d rather not pay a lot of money to set it up.

So I typed “affordable author website” into my favorite search engine (which happens not to be google, but whatever). The first company I looked at offered to schedule a free consultation, and calling it that is really quite silly. Every company should give you information about their services without charging for the information. Less silly — the form that I’m expected to fill out in order to schedule the free consultation has required fields for my home address. I have to tell them where I live in order to schedule the consultation? Why? Any company that engages in predatory data mining gets crossed off my list immediately.

The second company I looked at seems to have only three WordPress templates to choose from. Other companies offer tons, so this is a little weird. Their pricing starts at $1,500, and every additional book you want to put on the site is going to set you back an extra $250. Nope, not gonna hire you guys.

The third one looks better. I’m going to email them and ask a few questions. I have some specific requirements. Later I might want to upload a PDF, a teaser containing the first couple of chapters of a new book. I need to be able to upload it and also link to the upload, and I don’t want to have to pay some technician $75 per hour to do it. Also, if I’m going to transfer my domain name to a new server, I need a few gigabytes of file space in a public folder called /music. This is a make-or-break requirement for me.

If you’re an indie author, the thing to be wary of is that there are lots and lots of people who would love to take your money. They’re monetizing your dreams of success. Whether you succeed or tank, they don’t care — you already paid them. Some of them make vague promises, confident that authors will nod like bobble-heads and not know what’s up with that. Some of them mean well, and some are just out to con you. It’s up to you to be vigilant. Ask lots of questions. Assume the worst.

I found a guy who offers to create your website (from a template) and then show you how to manage it. His price is $500. That sounds much better than the competition, which will rake you over the coals for as much as $2,500. But essentially he’s offering a one-hour Skype lesson for $500. That’s not really such a good deal, is it?

Somewhere along the line someone mentioned Divi, which I had tried out last year, just to see what they were up to. It’s a very slick, user-friendly design engine, and it’s $250. That’s more my style. I would need a web host company that was compatible with the Divi WordPress setup, and the online chat person at Divi recommended four hosts, including Dreamhost. So I had a look at Dreamhost. Their monthly fee for hosting is $8 (currently I pay $7) — and they apparently have a free template-based site design setup. Doubtless it’s not as slick as Divi, but do I need $250 worth of slick?

My next stop is to ask some questions of a Dreamhost person. Maybe I won’t have to take out a home loan after all.

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The Trouble with Browsers

If you want to sell books, you need a website. I get that. I’ve had a personal website for close to 20 years now. It’s hand-coded and quirky, but that’s all right, because nobody ever visits it unless they’re looking for cello lessons. In anticipation of the impending release of my first new novel in many years (more than 20 years), today I sat down and did some redesign on my site. We’re not talking about this blog — I mean my actual website, musicwords.net.

I positioned the graphics showing my new book covers. Uploaded a bunch of files. Hooray, I’m a web champ!

Well, no, not quite. Tonight a friend took a look at the new pages on his phone, and wouldn’t you know it, there’s a technical problem. HTML on a phone’s browser is apparently not the same as HTML on a desktop browser. Oh, dear.

On doing a little checking, I find that the situation is even worse than that. Forget phone displays; the book covers on my nice hand-coded Books page do not show up in the same alignment in Firefox, Chrome, and Internet Explorer, all of which are running here on the same identical Windows machine. If you’re curious, you can jet over to the Books page and compare your results to the following screenshots. I grabbed only a small section of the page, right at the top of the Non-Fiction header. What’s of interest is the positioning of the book covers that’s visible to the right of the text.

First, here’s how it looks in Firefox:

firefox_posiiton

Next, here’s Chrome:

chrome_position

And finally, in IE:

ie_position

What the actual fuck? This is the same HTML code in all three browsers. The code is set up with HTML style tags that have position:absolute and values for the top of the image in pixels. But somehow each browser has its own idea about the vertical height of a pixel. And of course the alignment is far worse in my iPhone, but I’ve never learned to take screen grabs with it, and it’s an old phone, so let’s not worry about that.

And do you notice the difference in the type font? In Firefox it’s blurry, because the anti-aliasing is more aggressive. In Chrome and IE it’s crisp.

On further reflection, though, that’s the clue to the mystery. The graphics are positioned exactly the same in every browser (including a phone). What’s different is the vertical spacing of the type! And that’s not something that HTML can control. This is, I’m sure, one of the reasons why modern websites have a very modular look, with little blocks of stuff. Getting the stuff in the left column to align with stuff in the right column is not gonna happen.

So please forgive me — I’m going to whine now. HTML is supposed to be a standard, but it never was, and as the years roll on it plainly becomes less and less reliable. This is why people hire professionals to design their websites. The professionals know lots of tricks to get reliable results across many platforms. Or at least you hope they do.

This week I spent $295 on a block of ten ISBNs. I spent $315 on a redo of the cover for Book 2. And tonight I dropped $139 plus tax and shipping on a Kindle, precisely so I can check how my books look on that device. And now it appears I’m going to have to drop a couple of grand on a properly coded website, even though I already know how to write HTML and javascript! And this is on top of the $5,000 I spent back in February on a developmental edit.

As my father used to say, “It’s only money.” But he was an artist. My mother kept the household accounts. When he said that, it made her a little crazy. What truly scares me is not spending the money. What scares me is that my tax return for 2017 is going to show a huge operating loss on my writing business — and that may trigger an audit. I’ve never had an audit. Maybe I should just eat the loss and not claim it. I asked a friend who is a CPA if she’d like to do my return this year. She charges $200 an hour. It’s only money, but I’m gonna have to think about that.

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Cover Reveal!

Yowza! The covers for my series are now finalized. Had to crop them to get them all into the header there. The designs are by Karri Klawiter (artbykarri.com), and I recommend her highly.

With respect to availability, Book 1 will probably be uploaded as an ebook next week. Book 2 perhaps before Christmas. I’m still fiddling with the thrilling climax of Book 3, so expect it in January or February.

The schedule is one of the advantages of self-publishing, by the way. If I were working with a mainstream publisher, readers would have to wait 12 to 18 months between volumes. It’s all one continuous story, so that wait would be painful. Plus, if the publisher didn’t like the sales figures on the first book, they might pull the plug on the series, and then where would I be?

Now all I have to do is look around in the garage for my marketing hat. I used to have a marketing hat. Ah, here it is. Is that a spider?

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Something Rotten

My survey yesterday of a few of the blurbs on Amazon for fantasy novels has rather sent me into a tailspin, I’m afraid. The overwhelming trend in modern fantasy seems to be a toxic stew of fear, rage, and bloodshed. And that’s without even touching on the novels about vampires and zombies.

Why on Earth did I ever think it would be worth my time or effort to contribute to this deluge of sludge?

Today I had a look at a few more blurbs. Here’s how Rise of the Dragons, by Morgan Rice, is described:

Kyra, 15, dreams of becoming a famed warrior, like her father, even though she is the only girl in a fort of boys. [I suspect “even though” is the wrong way to introduce that clause — I would lean toward “in no small part because”. –JA] As she struggles to understand her special skills, her mysterious inner power, she realizes she is different than the others. [Well, yeah — she’s a girl. You just said that.] But a secret is being kept from her about her birth and the prophecy surrounding her, leaving her to wonder who she really is.

Just as Kyra is coming of age, the local lord comes to take her away. Her father wants to wed her off to save her. [This is quite likely a distinction without a difference.] Kyra, though, refuses, and she quests on her own, into a dangerous wood, where she encounters a wounded dragon—and ignites a series of events that will change the kingdom forever.

15 year old Alec, meanwhile, sacrifices for his brother, taking his place in the draft, and is carted off to The Flames, a wall of flames a hundred feet high that wards off the army of Trolls to the east. On the far side of the kingdom, Merk, a mercenary striving to leave behind his dark past, quests through the wood to become a Watcher of the Towers and help guard the Sword of Fire, the paranormal source of the kingdom’s power. But the Trolls want the Sword, too—and they prepare for a massive invasion that could destroy the kingdoms forever.

With its strong atmosphere and complex characters, RISE OF THE DRAGONS is a sweeping, romantic saga of knights and warriors, of kings and lords, of honor and valor, of magic, action, adventure, destiny, sorcery, monsters and dragons. It is a story of love and broken hearts, of deception, of ambition and betrayal….

Doesn’t that just make you want to vomit? Seriously, now — we’re friends, you don’t have to be polite about it. There are so many things wrong with this, either with the novel itself (likely) or with the way it’s being presented to us. A secret is being kept from her about her birth and the prophecy surrounding her. Let’s not worry about how a prophecy could surround a person — that’s just sloppy writing, and I’m not concerned today with sloppy writing. The Trolls (capitalized) want the Sword of Fire too, so they’re preparing for a massive invasion that could destroy the kingdoms (plural) forever. And then we have knights and warriors (vomit dribbling down chin here), not to mention romance and broken hearts (odd when we reflect that the two lead characters are both 15 years old).

Two paragraphs end with the threat of the kingdom(s) being changed or destroyed forever. That’s unforgivably sloppy writing, but also it’s an awful cliche. Who cares if a kingdom is destroyed? The kingdom of Louis XVI was destroyed in 1789 by the French Revolution, but there were still people in France the last time I checked.

Okay, just one more. Here’s the blurb for Book 1 of The Wolf of the North, by Duncan M. Hamilton:

It has been generations since the Northlands have seen a hero worthy of the title. Many have made the claim, but few have lived to defend it. Timid, weak, and bullied, Wulfric is as unlikely a candidate as there could be.

A chance encounter with an ancient and mysterious object awakens a latent gift, and Wulfric’s life changes course. Against a backdrop of war, tragedy, and an enemy whose hatred for him knows no bounds, Wulfric will be forged from a young boy, into the Wolf of the North. This is his tale.

As a blurb, this has the virtue of conciseness, but really that’s about all one can say in its favor. I wonder a little why an enemy would feel unbounded hatred for a boy who is timid, weak, and bullied. I also wonder why the enemy is no more than a backdrop. The question of what happened to all those other would-be heroes — not only why they thought their claims were worthy of consideration but how they ended up dead before they had an opportunity to defend their claims — is left murky. The ancient and mysterious object is another howling cliche, as is the latent gift. (Notice the mention of the “mysterious inner power” in the other blurb.)

Way back in 2004, when I first conceived of my saga, I was looking at it as a sort of take-down or send-up of the epic fantasy genre. That version actually had a cameo appearance by the Three Stooges. When Kyura arrived at the climax of the story, a sword fight with the main villain on the roof of a castle, she was naked below the waist, for reasons that were very silly and would be tedious to reconstruct at this late date. The whole thing had no pants, and my agent was wise to decline to represent it. But in retrospect, I may have been onto something.

Really, how could one possibly take this sort of crap seriously? And why have I been taking it seriously for the last two years? What’s the matter with me?

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Hot Tuna

This is gonna be a long and bumpy ride, so buckle up. Hot Tuna was a spinoff band created by Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady of Jefferson Airplane. The rumor at the time (this was nigh unto fifty years ago) was that they wanted to call the band Hot Shit, but the record company wouldn’t let them.

As I prepare to release the first two volumes of my fantasy epic, I’m writing blurbs — those short, snappy descriptions you find on Amazon, or on the back cover of a paperback, that entice you to read the story. I put one of my proposed blurbs up on the Facebook writers’ group to see what other people thought of it, and I found it not so easy to process the responses. In an effort to triangulate — what makes a good blurb? — I strolled over to Amazon and read a few. Copied and pasted them into a file so I could study them. I tried to avoid the obviously self-published $0.00 on Kindle titles in favor of titles that had a little more marketing push behind them, figuring those would probably be the better blurbs to study.

To be perfectly frank, after reading some blurbs I’m asking myself, “Why on Earth did I ever bother writing a fantasy epic at all? This stuff is garbage!” Quite possibly some of the books I chose are not garbage, of course. Maybe it’s just that the blurbs make them sound like garbage. I’m not going to read the books to find out, but at this point I’m thinking seriously about writing some anti-blurbs — you know, a blurb that says, “This is not like those other books! Let me tell you why.” That would be marketing suicide, of course. But at least it wouldn’t be hot tuna.

Let’s look at a few blurbs. You can find lots more like them on Amazon if you’re feeling masochistic.

I’ll excerpt the highlights of the blurb for Exhumation, by S. A. Chapman: “War has turned his entire world upside down. He’s riddled with hallucinations of someone else’s life, or are they? Can he keep it all straight long enough to save the people he loves? … he embarks on an unwilling journey of self-discovery … his city is under attack from those inside and outside of the walls…. He’s on the cusp on unraveling his damaged and forgotten memories, but in doing so he will bring down the fabric of a city he serves; he loves. This is a tale of loyalty and betrayal. Of truth and lies. Most of all, this is a story of survival … [he] becomes entangled in webs of deceit and estranged from the society he protects. Will you foil the plot before it’s too late? Can you follow the clues and unravel the many mysteries begging to be solved? Will you dare ask the questions that require answers? Believe nothing that you hear and half of what you see. More importantly … [ellipsis in original] trust no one!”

There you go — hallucinations, an unwilling journey, a city under attack, damaged and forgotten memories, betrayal, lies, survival, deceit, estrangement, and then some provocative questions that suggest that all is not what it seems. Oooohh!

Here’s the teaser for A Court of Wings and Ruin, by Sarah J. Maas: “Feyre has returned to the Spring Court, determined to gather information on Tamlin’s maneuverings and the invading king threatening to bring Prythian to its knees. But to do so she must play a deadly game of deceit — and one slip may spell doom not only for Feyre, but for her world as well. As war bears down upon them all, Feyre must decide who to trust amongst the dazzling and lethal High Lords and hunt for allies in unexpected places. In this thrilling third book in the #1 New York Times and USA Today bestselling series from Sarah J. Maas, the earth will be painted red as mighty armies grapple for power over the one thing that could destroy them all.”

That’s concise, at least. We have an invading king who is threatening to conquer Prythian, that being presumably a nation or a kingdom. There’s a deadly game of deceit, doom for an entire world, war, lethal High Lords, mighty armies grappling for power … is your pulse pounding yet?

Let’s have a look at Shadow and Bone, by Leigh Bardugo: “Soldier. Summoner. Saint. [Boldface and italics in original.] Orphaned and expendable, Alina Starkov is a soldier who knows she may not survive her first trek across the Shadow Fold―a swath of unnatural darkness crawling with monsters. But when her regiment is attacked, Alina unleashes dormant magic not even she knew she possessed. Now Alina will enter a lavish world of royalty and intrigue as she trains with the Grisha, her country’s magical military elite―and falls under the spell of their notorious leader, the Darkling. He believes Alina can summon a force capable of destroying the Shadow Fold and reuniting their war-ravaged country, but only if she can master her untamed gift. As the threat to the kingdom mounts and Alina unlocks the secrets of her past, she will make a dangerous discovery that could threaten all she loves and the very future of a nation. Welcome to Ravka . . . a world of science and superstition where nothing is what it seems.”

To summarize, we have a soldier who’s worried about dying, a swath of unnatural darkness crawling with monsters, a regiment being attacked, dormant magic, intrigue, a notorious leader called the Darkling, a force capable of destroying the Shadow Fold, an untamed gift, a mounting threat to the kingdom, unlocked secrets, a dangerous discovery that threatens everything important — and to conclude, like S. A. Chapman, Leigh Bardugo is warning us that things are not what they appear to be. Deceit, in other words. We’re three for three on deceit.

Ember in the Ashes, by Sabaa Tahir, is blurbed as follows: “Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Those who do not vow their blood and bodies to the Emperor risk the execution of their loved ones and the destruction of all they hold dear. It is in this brutal world, inspired by ancient Rome, that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire’s impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They’ve seen what happens to those who do. But when Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy. There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier—and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined—and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.”

Defiance, death, blood, execution, destruction, a brutal world, poverty, treason, rebels, Laia risking her life, an unwilling soldier, tyranny, and some unspecified changes in the fate of the Empire. I think I need to sit down and catch my breath.

The thing that is desperately wrong with these blurbs is that they attempt to seduce the reader with the promise of a debased and one might almost say subhuman experience. I searched my file of blurbs (which contains a few other items besides those quoted above) for the words “thoughtful,” “glorious,” “beautiful,” “exciting,” “visionary,” and “noble.” None of those words is used in any of the blurbs. “Sensitive,” “humorous,” “light,” “happy,” “friend”? Nope. To be fair, the word “love” is used repeatedly. We have forbidden love, the execution of loved ones, and love that violates ruthless laws. Even the love in these stories is tainted, degraded, festering.

It’s all so very wrong. Wrong all the way down to the bone. The rich tapestry of human experience — which is, one would hope or imagine, the stuff of which fiction is woven — has been reduced to a lethal stew of blood and thunder.

That isn’t the story I’ve written. My story (a single narrative that takes up four volumes) has bloodshed in it, to be sure, but there are no sword fights and no pitched battles. It also has flashes of humor. It has passages about friendship — and not the kind that involves danger or betrayal; just friendship, damn it! It has a few scraps of mythology here or there, and an environmentalist theme, and young people who have hope for the future. It has, I hope, scattered bits of decent prose.

And how can you even mention any of that in a blurb on Amazon?

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How Not to Promote a Novel, Part 1

In my reluctant quest to learn about book marketing, I downloaded a free PDF from Joanna Penn. She’s a very nice person, I’m sure, and for all I know she may be a crackerjack fiction writer too, but her relentless self-promotion does set my teeth on edge. If I have to be like Joanna Penn in order to sell books, I think I’d rather work in a shoe store.

One of the techniques she advises in her free PDF (when not pasting photos of her smiling self into the text) is the use of an email list. First you have to acquire a bunch of email addresses, which means having a mechanism set up on your website so people can click on a button and add themselves to the list. This presupposes, of course, that they have found a reason to visit your website, so it seems a bit circular — lifting yourself up by your own bootstraps, to coin a phrase.

I’ll have to hire someone to set up that widget on my website, but they can do that while they’re designing the site (at a cost of $1,500 or so). Then I’ll need some software to manage the email list; I kinda don’t think Thunderbird is quite the right tool for the job.

Penn recommends an email management system that costs $20 per month. I’m sure it’s very good — but the question naturally arises, what on Earth am I going to put in emails that I send out to the folks on my list? Another question, perhaps more serious, is this: Why the hell would anybody want to read an email from me? If they’ve already read Book 1 in my series, they will know to keep an eye on Amazon for Book 2. If they haven’t read it, I can’t quite see how an email would convince them to buy it.

In my former career, I wrote extensively about music technology for various magazines. Because press lists never die, I’m still getting email from at least twenty different companies. iZotope spams me daily. IK Multimedia is nearly as energetic. ProSoundWeb Daily, Groove3, Audio Plugin Deals, Native Instruments, ACID Pro, Clyne Media, Allihoopa, Propellerhead, UVI Sounds & Software, Cakewalk News, Musician’s Friend, Mix Magazine, Sound On Sound Magazine, KVR Audio … you get the idea. And I never read any of this crap. It goes straight into the Trash folder. Delete, delete, delete.

Let me repeat that: I never read any of this crap. So why should I imagine that anyone will be receptive to or grateful for the spam that I send out?

Even if my missives were eagerly awaited by my dear fans, what would I say to them? With luck, I may have four novels out (in ebook format) between February and June. They’ll be available on Amazon and the other usual places, and it would be nice to let people know about them, but it’s hard to imagine I could put together an email list between now and February, when I don’t have a widget on my website for people to add themselves to my nonexistent list.

After that, there will be a longish gap, during which there will be no news. “Finished Revising Chapter 17” is not a great subject for an email. Possibly it’s better than “Had Trader Joe’s Macaroni & Cheese for Supper,” but not by much.

You may assume, if you like, that macaroni and cheese is symbolic, or a metaphor. Or metonymy. See, I know some big words. And of course I had to give Joanna Penn my email address to get the free PDF, so now she’ll be spamming me too. Yum.

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The Meat Market

As I start thinking my way through the process of publishing my novel series (no, I really mean it this time!), I’m forced to ask myself a few questions about my plans for marketing. As in, what plans?

In 25+ years on the staff of Keyboard magazine, I never concerned myself with marketing. That was someone else’s job. My job was to write and edit the content. Keyboard was published by a corporation, and we had a staff, so I had the luxury of doing what I was good at and taking home a paycheck.

I’m a very decent writer — but as a marketing guy, I’m a total novice, a dunce, and a whiner. I don’t want to think about that! That’s somebody else’s job, damn it! Unfortunately, I have no staff. I get to wear all the hats myself.

Sure, I can do the obvious things. Make a Facebook author’s page with book covers on the banner. Do a writing-related blog. (Oh, wait — I’m doing that already.) Hire someone to do a professional-looking website. Hire a pro cover designer — I did that already too, and the covers are great!

But see, none of that is marketing. Those are marketing materials, but they’re not marketing. You can have the most glorious website in the world, but if nobody ever visits it, you’ve wasted your money, and you’ll sell zero books.

How do you drive traffic to your website? Damned if I know. How do you turn clicks into buys? Damned if I know.

I guess I can figure out how to get my books into the hands of reviewers. That’s marketing. There are places you can buy ads — Facebook, Amazon, many others. That’s marketing. But will the ads pay for themselves in book sales, or will I be wasting my money? Damned if I know.

Social media? Am I supposed to tweet? Who in the world is ever going to notice my tweets? Unless I have followers, tweets are not marketing, they’re just dropping pennies down a well.

I would gladly split my royalties 50/50 with a savvy book marketer. But the good ones won’t want to work on a percentage basis. They’ll want cash up front. And how can I tell the good ones from the bad ones? From what I’ve read, there are plenty of scammers out there who are eager to take authors’ money in return for sending out useless spam or whatever.

If you see me wandering up and down your street with a tray, shouting, “Fantasy novels! Git yer fantasy novels here! Hot off the presses!”, don’t be surprised, okay? That’s all I know about marketing.

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