Thursday Book Reviews – 10/4/11: Carte Blanche, Pistol Poets, The Path to Self Publishing Success

CARTE BLANCHE

By Jeffrey Deaver

Following EON Productions’ reboot of James Bond with Casino Royale, Ian Fleming’s estate does the same in print with Carte Blanche, the first original Bond novel since Sebastian Faulks Devil May Care. To succeed Faulks and longtime series author Raymond Benson, they recruited Jeffrey Deaver, no slouch as a thriller writer, to reimagine Bond as a present day agent. The Bentley Continental is still present, as is the curmudgeonly M (Admiral Miles Messervy of the original novels and movies, not the Judi Dench-based character, though she certainly would fit in here), Moneypenny, the CIA’s Felix Leiter, and Q. Only his name is not Q. He is an Indian technical wiz named Sanu Hirani.

That’s not the only change. MI6 is not front and center. Bond works for a super-secret, questionably authorized organization with the bland name Overseas Development Group. Why? Well, you can’t be a secret agent in MI6 these days. Hell, the headquarters showed up in the last four James Bond movies.

In a nutshell, our new Bond, mid-30’s and a veteran of Afghanistan, is assigned by M to find out what garbage mogul Severn Hydt is up to. Hydt is one of the strangest Bond villains ever, a man with long fingernails and an unhealthy, almost sexual obsession with death and decay. It’s this fetish that throws Bond and Felix Leiter (pre-shark bite, we assume) onto the wrong trail while trying to stop what’s been labeled “Incident 20.”

The women in Carte Blanche are certainly worthy of a Fleming novel, from Ophelia “Philly” Maidenstone, Bond’s analyst coworker in the ODG, to tough-as-nails South African cop Bheka Jordan to the clearly Flemingesque Felicity Willing. But the regular characters seem almost cursory. M has one or two good scenes. Moneypenny is talked about more than portrayed, and Mary Goodnight is so generic I wondered why Deaver included her.

It’s a fun novel about a guy named James Bond, and it’s clearly better than anything John Gardner foisted upon us in the 1980’s, but it lacks some of the edge that the Fleming Bonds and even Faulks’ retro effort had. But since Deaver isn’t trying to force-fit Daniel Craig into a storyline that originally predated Sean Connery, it wouldn’t hurt to see what he does next. Read this more for Deaver than for Bond.

PISTOL POETS

By Victor Gischler

Full disclosure: I never took up golf as a favor to Vic so he would never lose a golf game to me. (Actually, the few times I’d played, he would have nothing to worry about.)

This is Gischler’s second novel and one from his Plots With Guns days. Visiting professor Jay Morgan starts his day off badly. His latest one-night stand has OD’d in his bed. Meanwhile, St. Louis drug lieutenant Harold Jenks assumes the identity of a grad student after a mugging goes bad. What do these two things have to do with each other? Well, Jenks and Morgan run afoul – separately – of the college’s cross-dressing dean, Fumbee, OK’s local drug dealer, and a private detective who is as depraved as he is inept. On the upside, an aspiring novelist thinks sleeping with Morgan is the perfect way to start her career. Make sense?

Of course not! It’s a Gischler novel. Chaos reigns, and you spend about 340 pages trying to figure out which character is the punchline to this joke. (Spoiler alert: All of them.) A worthy successor to Gun Monkeys.

THE PATH TO SELF PUBLISHING SUCCESS

Michael R. Hicks

In this modern era of ebooks and independent writers, you won’t be able to swing a dead cat without hitting someone who wants to sell you a book on how to sell a gazillion copies. I’ve read two in recent weeks, one of which had lots of exclamation points!!!!

Michael Hicks, a science fiction writer going to the indie route, did not abuse the exclamation points. And before I spent an admittedly small amount, I actually checked his Amazon rank for his In Her Name series. After all, how many books on getting published, selling a gazillion books, and writing that bestseller have we seen over the years by writers who never wrote a bestseller (and worse, dispensed their advice via PublishAmerica or iUniverse)?

Hicks’ advice is similar to that of ebook bestseller John Locke’s, but Hicks is more specific, doesn’t beat around the bush, and isn’t dogmatic about how to go about one’s business. One of Hicks’ principles is self-improvement. You need to work on the author before you work on the story, and you need to have a story before you can even worry about marketing. He also warns against being obnoxious in self-promotion, essential for the independent ebook author.

I took the risk on his book because it was cheap, and Hicks has sold a few books. But I downloaded a couple of his novels because his marketing book had something I’ve seen too many supposed writing guides lack: Hicks can write.

How Does A Writer Rise Above The Crowd?

So ebooks are booming and promise to do so for the foreseeable future.  One only need look at JA Konrath to know that it’s possible to not only make money in ebooks, but to go it alone.

On the flip side, how does one go it alone and sell enough copies to make it worthwhile?  Sure, if you’re a midlist writer, you’ve already got a following.  But what if you’re an unknown?  How do you rise above the tide?  Already, we’re seeing a repeat of cheap POD self-publishing.  Granted, the stigma is nowhere near as great, mainly because it doesn’t register on Bookscan.

Yet.

Still, Calibre and Smashwords make it easy for anyone who’s written books to format an ebook and upload it to the major sellers.  So if it only takes a few mouse clicks to get into Barnes & Noble, onto Sony and iBooks, and available for Kindle, how do you rise above the sea of books out there?  It’s already tough to sell your book in print, particularly since the major publishers simply won’t fund the type of marketing necessary to sell books.

Joe Konrath often repeats the same keys to success over and over again:  Good cover, proper format, and, above all, write a good book! He also hammers on price point, suggesting $2.99 to be the magic number.

OK, so you’ve written a good book, formatted it cleanly, and have a good cover.  You’re selling it for $2.99.  Now what?  If you’re an unknown, how do you move enough copies of your book that it pays a reasonable amount of money?

That, kids, is the $64,000 question.  So what’s the answer.

Ebook Authors: Less Format, More Content. Please.

In the past six months, ebooks have absolutely exploded as a viable format.  Yours truly, who was waiting for something like the iPad and its competitors now coming onto the market, even owns a Kindle now.  Why?  Price and ease of use.  Midlisters are reviving their careers by forgoing their print publishers and taking it directly to the people.  Witness JA Konrath’s success with ebooks to the point of yanking two print novels before they made it into the pipeline because he wanted more control.  These books will likely sell.  And the good news is only Joe’s bank book counts.  No more kowtowing to a mindless accounting group that thinks only in terms of blockbusters.

But we all know publishing isn’t dead.  It’s changing.  E-presses are in the offing, and two have already gone live.  In fact, we’ve probably entered the era where new publishers and small presses would be wise to eschew print, at least in their early stages, in favor of ebooks.  Why would an author go with such an enterprise when they’d have to share the money with a publisher?

We can’t all be JA Konrath.  Books still needed to be edited, formatted, given a cover, and marketed, all those things print publishers still do but most ebook authors can’t afford to do themselves.  Before you tell me I can hire an editor for less than my mortgage payments, go look at the latest economic news.  Go on.  I’ll wait.

Yeah, share the wealth, get the help.

But…

Too many ebook authors are talking about being ebook authors.  So let me ask a pertinent question:  Why does your book belong on my Kindle?

Yes, you wrote a book and are selling it to the world.  Enough with the format talk already.  What’s the book about?

The Fate of Road Rules

The people have spoken. The largest number of you voted to put it up for sale on Kindle and the other major ebook platforms.  But it was not a majority.  An equal number of votes were split between it being just like PublishAmerica and asking me to think about it some more.  A few of you asked, “What’s Road Rules?”

Road Rules is this.

So without a majority vote, Road Rules will be Kindle and ereader ready soon, but it will be for free.  In the meantime, I will be putting together The Compleat Winter by summer’s end and…  Dare I say it?  Will a certain book published out of someone’s garage a few years ago make a return?

Hey, ya never know.

But Who Would Pay For It?

In the 1970’s, when recordable cassettes came out, many in the music industry – never the brightest bulbs in the big media bunch – worried that albums were dead because everyone would simply tape their friends’ albums.  That didn’t happen, even when CD’s emerged, allowing you to make commercial-quality mix tapes.

The VTR’s of old, which were luxury devices at best, gave way in 1979 to the Betamax, then VHS, and the television networks worried it would be the end of television, since no one would pay for it.  But television is now on Hulu and Netflix and iTunes and lasted long enough for us to figure out TiVo.  Television is now written around TiVo.  Do you think Lost or Battlestar Galactica would have lasted more than half a season in the pre-TiVo world?

Then came Napster, which was going to destroy the recording industry, allowing Sony to perform criminal hacking of your hard drive.  (Incidentally, that makes Sony execs slightly lower than BP executives on the evolutionary ladder.  Maybe someday, they will surpass genital wart or toenail fungus, but I’m not holding my breath.)  Never mind that cheap commercial broadband and the CD burner had been around in viable form since 1994.

And yet iTunes and Amazon and Rhapsody continue to grow.

So now some are worried that ebooks mean authors will no longer make money because the Kindle and the iPad will magically make content free.

Rubbish.

For starters, the Kindle and the iPad are merely pad computers.  They’ve been around for a decade or so, but Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Sony found a dedicated use for them and made them something Microsoft could never quite get them to be:  useful.  Apple, in turn, saw that the time had come for a genuine pad computer, for which we now know the iPhone was merely a tiny prototype.  If anything, Apple is exploiting the iPad to make it easier to charge for content.  Why?

People will pay for content if you don’t make them jump through twenty hoops to get at it.  This is why virtually all DRM schemes not based in the cloud are doomed to failure.  Apple’s original solution was to make stripping the DRM labor-intensive.  Think I’m going to share my backups of all my Tom Waits albums with you?  Get your own, cheapskate!

So how’s this apply to ebooks?  Simple.  Google is building a bookstore.  Apple has a bookstore.  We already know about Amazon, Sony, and Barnes & Noble.  And print is not dead, merely in flux.

But, of course, there is no shortage of luddites with every tech revolution, crying that the sky is falling.  Usually, it’s someone frustrated that they already weren’t earning what they wanted from publishing (not the hardest thing to do when gauging buyers’ tastes is little more than a crap shoot anyway) or doesn’t quite understand the technology very well.  (Hey, I like books, too!  No battery life issues, loss of content, etc.)  But the fact is no one wants to watch lousy television.  (For our purposes, lousy is a purely subjective term.  Reality television is all lousy, but I still watch for the quality train wrecks it provides.)  No one wants to hear bad music, at least in the long run.  (Why The Beatles and the Stones endure, but nowhere near as many remember Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods.)  Make good content easy to pay for, and people will pay for it.

It all comes down to writing a good book.  The ones that grab more people will sell more copies.

And let’s be honest here.  Writing careers are purely luck.  You can have all kinds of luck early on, then crash and burn, or spend twenty years becoming an overnight success.  I’ve seen both.

The End Of The Professional Author?

Scott Adams, he of Dilbert fame, posits that, because you can get most content for free already, the value of said content will eventually reach 0.  No one will pay for content anymore.  He points to music, with a figure he admits is unreliable, though suggestive of a still-alarmingly large amount.   “I heard someplace, albeit unreliably, that 90% of all music that people own for personal use is stolen. Let’s agree that the real figure is some large number, if not 90%.”

Transfer this to books, specifically ebooks.  Adams believes the Kindle, Nook, and so on are merely postponing the inevitable, that eventually no one will pay for ebooks.  They’ll read them, but they won’t pay for them.  His culprit?

The iPad, which is essentially this generation’s version of the laptop.

I predict that the profession known as “author” will be retired to history in my lifetime, like blacksmith and cowboy. In the future, everyone will be a writer, and some will be better and more prolific than others. But no one will pay to read what anyone else creates. People might someday write entire books – and good ones – for the benefit of their own publicity, such as to promote themselves as consultants, lecturers, or the like. But no one born today is the next multi-best-selling author. That job won’t exist.

That scenario has been on my mind for a long time, but I have reason to disagree with Adams’ conclusion.  Why?

  • Sales of music downloads have gone up, not down.  Yes, large record labels are losing money.  That’s because they’re still basing their models on CD’s, a model whose roots go all the way back to Edison’s wax cylinders.  Mind you, the recording industry has had a full 16 years to figure this out and still doesn’t get it.  So now bands like Radiohead and Marillion are doing quite nicely without a label.  (Although Marillion still uses EMI to distribute its CD’s in most of the world.)
  • One word:  Netflix.  They sell video content, another format Adams says you can get for free on the Internet.  This model is also used by Rhapsody for music.  It’s being looked at by several smaller publishers and even some new epresses.
  • The Cloud:  Yes, that big, nebulous thing Google, Microsoft, and (let’s not kid ourselves.  You know this to be true.) Apple want you to store all your stuff on for a monthly fee.  Personally, I want all my financial records, writing, academic work, and home-made porno personal photos and Photoshoppery kept locally.  I don’t want to be cut off from it by storing it on some anonymous network-attached storage device in a bunker thousands of miles away.  That said, I already do my email via Gmail and Yahoo.  I let Moneywell Bank, that Bank That Owns Jim Winter™ balance my checkbook.  Half my credit card statements and all my academic records are online.  If recording, television and film, and publishing want DRM, they can have it in The Cloud by tying all my stuff to me because only I am supposed to be in that particular cubbyhole on the Web.
  • Presumes print is dead.  Print is not dead, but it is undergoing a sea change that will soon see its role reduced.  That much is inevitable.  There is always going to be a fundamental human distrust of the other that will demand hard copies be kept of something somewhere.

I don’t think the professional author is dead.  I do think the days of stupidly large advances and unprofitable sales models are rapidly coming to a close.  Change is coming.  Embrace it and survive.

Here’s A Question For You To Ponder…

JA Konrath’s The List got a couple of good sniffs from New York, but no sale.  (His agent couldn’t reach terms.)  It went on to sell 16,000 copies on Kindle.

While I don’t have near the brand recognition Joe does, The List‘s history prior to Kindle mirrors that of Road Rules.  So…

Do I actually sell Road Rules?  Would you pay $3.50 for it?  Or should I stick with my plan to give it away for free?

What are the pitfalls of going this route?  Inquiring minds wanna know.

Comments are open.  Have at.  I’ll just sit back, watch the fireworks, and hose off any flame wars that erupt.

UPDATE:  Oh, what the hell!  Let’s make it a poll.