Monday, January 26, 2015

Things That Ruin Indie Publishing

When I first stepped into the world of indie publishing, I didn't realize just what kind of world I was stepping into. Thankfully, my experiences have been for the most part positive...but, as with anything a person becomes involved in, the negative aspects soon rear their ugly heads. To open up discussion on this, I thought I would give a simple list of things which either hurt indie publishing or give it a bad name for readers who may be used to more traditional publishing.

I don't claim to be the end all be all expert on indie publishing, so please don't take this blog post as canon or dogmatic pronouncements made ex cathedra. These are simply observations I have made myself, or complaints I've heard from other indie authors. Also keep in mind that I'm not trying to target any one author or person with this entire list; again, these are just general observations made. Yes, some examples will be cited or referred to, but this isn't meant as an attack post.

All that being said...are there any disturbing trends you have noticed? Feel free to leave a comment, and I just might add it to this blog post!

1) Unnecessary high prices.

When you look at most indie novels available for your e-reader, prices can vary from $2 to $5. Many times, authors will put their novels on sale for $0.99, or even let it go free. Keyword here: these are novels I'm talking about. For the amount of length you get to read, this is a pretty good deal, and when compared to books done by major publishers, you see the price is about the same.

Some people, however, will publish a 38-page book for $5...and even higher. It's as if people think they can publish the short story they wrote in high school and get a few bucks from it. I recently came across one indie author who was selling his 52-page novella for $16.95. I am not making that up! People really do pull stunts like this.

Not only is this kind of careless pricing going to hurt potential sales, but it makes readers believe that indie authors are simply out to make a quick dollar. To all authors who are doing this: seriously, please stop it!

2) Abysmal editing.

Typos are everywhere in the printed medium. Even in traditionally published books, there are typos (try reading Twilight and you'll see what I mean). This doesn't mean typos are okay, mind you; typos should be avoided at all costs. However, a few typos here and there might be overlooked by more forgiving readers. You forgot one punctuation on this one page? Is the rest of the book readable? OK, cool, we'll let that one slide; just remember to correct it in a future edition.

However, if an author self-publishes, and doesn't put any effort into editing their work, then the results are tragic. Punctuation mistakes abound, spelling mistakes make reading a chore, and awkward sentence structures rule the day. I've come across books that read like English wasn't the author's first language (and sadly, it was), as well as books that are so incoherent in sentence structure that they seem like the ramblings of a madman.

Readers might expect typos and glaring errors on a blog post, or a fanfiction website, or an internet forum with a "creativity" section, but if they're going to give money for what they expect to be a refined book, they should at least be honored by an author who puts time and effort into making certain that errors are kept to a minimum and the end product is as polished as possible.

3) Terrible cover designs.

For this section, I feel like I could just point people over to the website Lousy Book Covers and be done with it. If you want an example of why making a good cover can be important, then that site is chock full of them. For a lot of people, this is what they think of when they think of indie publishing.

The sad thing is, for many of the novels shown on Lousy Book Covers, I've actually gone to Amazon and read the samples, and have found that...many of them are actually pretty well written. The writing itself isn't half bad. In fact, sometimes it was really good. Unfortunately, when a potential reader comes across the work, they may not get the chance, or gain the interest, to pick up the book and read it, or even take a look at the sample chapter. They'll take a look at the cover, say, "By the gods, that's bad," and move on with life.

I understand that many indie authors (like myself) are working on a shoestring budget, and may be worried about how much they'll have to pay in order to get decent cover art. However, I would highly suggest that, if you invest in one thing for your book, it be this. There are websites where you can find premade or custom made covers, and there are artists out there willing to do work for you at an affordable cost. Some authors have spent $300 on their covers, but others have found decent covers for closer to around $50. Either way, the end result is that your book has a cover that doesn't look like someone's 12-year old dabbled in MS Paint for a few minutes.

An article worth reading on this subject is WillowRaven's post on their blog regarding the difference between cover design and covert art, as well as the difference between custom covers and original covers.

4) Terrible pen names.

A lot of indie authors use pen names, which is absolutely perfectly fine...but most make an effort to make certain the names they use are reasonable. They should, at the very least, sound like real names. So please...don't call your Cat Kicker. And don't call yourself by an internet handle like catkicker9000. That's cute on an internet forum, but not on a book.

And please, please, please, please don't call yourself by a fan version of another author's name. Don't call yourself B.K. Rowling. Don't call yourself George R.R. Tolkien. Again, you might laugh, but some indie authors have actually done just that.

5) Irrational author behavior.

Most well known authors are too busy with their day-to-day lives, or with their promotions and next projects, to bother with every internet critic of theirs. By contrast, many indie authors seem to not only have the time, but the passion, to go on a crusade and destroy anyone who dares suggest their book is terrible. If you want one major example, go and read my post on Norman Boutin, who has become internet infamous for his tirades and antics.

Nobody likes receiving a one-star review on Amazon. Nobody likes hearing someone tear their book apart. Nobody likes hearing words akin to "this sucks." However, that is part of putting your piece of art out onto the market and letting people comment on it. It doesn't matter if you're a classic writer like Dante Alighieri or a famous author like Stephen King...at least one person out there is going to absolutely hate your work. Many indie authors are aware of this, and have found ways to thicken their skin or train themselves to overlook criticism. They are, like Elsa, able to "let it go."

Other indie authors don't do this. They will respond to every single criticism with hostility. They will take the time to rant against negative reviewers on Amazon, or pull stunts like writing revenge reviews against said authors, or using sock puppet accounts to write positive reviews in an effort to "balance out" their score. Some have plotted with their agents or editors to get back at their credits. You're probably laughing, but I wish I was making half this stuff up. If you want some wonderful case studies on the various antics authors will go to in order to silence or blacklist their critics, go and look at the "Authors Behaving Badly" series on Pocketful of Books. What grown people are capable of doing will astound you.

UPDATE - February 18, 2015: Adam Dreece, over on his blog, has written a post on the same topic. It's worth a read.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Innocence Lost, Innocence Found

Recently my wife and I watched the 1982 animated film The Last Unicorn. In one scene of the film, we are introduced to the character of Molly Grue, a hard woman aged by years of work and rough living. When she first sees the eponymous Unicorn, she immediately gets emotional, and gives the follow exclamation:
Where were you twenty years ago? Ten years ago? Where were you when I was new? When I was one of those innocent young maidens you always come to? How dare you! How dare you come to me now, when I am this!
At the time of this writing, I haven't had the pleasure of reading Peter S. Beagle's original book, but from what I understand, Molly Grue is often described acting like a man (even spitting on the ground in one scene) and being much more rough around the edges than even how she's portrayed in the film. The point is, she is not the young girl she once was, with dreams and hopes. Life went another way for her - in fact, life went a very different way for her. She was no longer that "innocent young maid", she was now an older, rough, haggard, work woman for a group of forest bandits. When she saw the Unicorn, it suddenly reminded her of that innocent youth she had, when she believed in unicorns and expected them to come walking up to her like something out of a fantasy. When she encountered the unicorn, it was like that innocence coming back...and it reminded her of what she had become.

Over the past month, I've been reconnecting with old films from my childhood, and watching them now as an adult. On the one hand, I can appreciate them even more, because, unlike so much fluff today, they could be intelligent enough to still enjoyed by all ages. Films like The Last Unicorn, or others like The Dark Crystal, are often marketed or understood as "kid's films," and yet they offer motifs and lessons that are deep enough so that, even in the more comical moments, it's not felt as if you're talking down to children. I understood this even as a child watching The Last Unicorn - in fact, I loved it way more than my two younger sisters did (they actually hated it), and it was precisely because I recognized (like I did when I first watched The Dark Crystal) that there was so much to understand in the story that went beyond the basics. Watching these films again as an adult reminds me of what it was like to watch them for the first time as a kid - but even better.

On the other hand, when I reconnect with these gems from my youth, it reminds me of another time in my life. It reminds me of a time before I learned about depression, about despair, about lust, about want...about anything that gets into the mind of an adult and takes innocence away. It reminds me of a time when the magical elements of these films could mix with my own sense of reality, without having to pull me from it. I could take the darker moments of these films, and even some of their harsher lessons, and still walk away from it unscathed. When I watch these nostalgic pieces, I feel a warmth in my heart that so many loving memories are rekindled...but I am also reminded, like Molly Grue, of what I've become, and what I am now. I'm not the younger me. And that can be a shocking revelation.

In retrospect, however, the trials of life permit us to grow. They are part of becoming an adult. Many people still retain the negative aspects of childhood because they refuse to grow up. In The Last Unicorn, the motivations of King Haggard, the villain, come from a desire to feel young again, even though he is now an old man. By contrast, the Unicorn goes through anguish and inner turmoil in her experiences as the human Amalthea, and yet, at the end, is thankful for it all. Even in these treasured gems of my childhood, you see examples of the problems adults faced, and see characters having to deal with them and come out more mature.

Perhaps, really, that is why these films still resonate with us ten, twenty, or thirty years later on. As they age, so do we. Those deeper elements in the characters and story that we recognized as children but formerly could not register now hit home far too well. But that's what makes them so wonderful. That's why we still need them. Yes, we're Molly Grue now, and the remembrance of our former innocence may not always make us happy, but it can also cause us to reflect on our maturity, and what we have learned from it. Then we might be able to look on our former innocence and not mind. Let's remember, in that same scene I mentioned at the beginning, the Unicorn looks at Molly and says, "I'm here now." Let's keep a spark of that innocence from our past with us, and remember where we've come from, so we can better analyze where we are now.

Monday, January 12, 2015

World Building: Uniqueness in Mind

As some who follow me on Twitter know, I've been working on a fantasy novel for the past two months. (It is currently without a title - a slight source of frustration for me.) Part of planning the story is, of course, constructing the world around the characters and its history. I've begun taking notes in my journal and organizing religions, cultures, ways of keeping time, important historical events, and many other aspects of a fully functioning world. The best fantasy books I've come across were the ones which could make it feel like you were diving headfirst into a world which operated as such a world would. That is what I am hoping to capture in my WIP.

One thing constantly on my mind as I slowly form this world bit by bit is that I want to break from the usual mold of fantasy tropes. We've all seen the same formulas over and over again in mainstream presentations: humans live in generic medieval settings; elves are magical and in tune with nature; dwarfs are rough and tumble; etc. Obviously you don't want to go so far from the accepted canon that you might as well invent a whole new race (ie., writing about vampires that glitter in the sun), but you also want to avoid another Tolkien clone, or another D&D clone.

When I was in college, I was introduced to the computer game Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura (which is available on GOG.com). It was set in a world with fantasy staples such as humans, elves, orcs, dwarfs, halflings, etc. At the same time, it had some differences...namely, it mixed fantasy with elements of steampunk. You could choose to be an advanced magic user, but you could also learn how to combine various parts to form a machine or contraption to assist you. Your decision often led to in-game results, most notably the fact that if you became too high a magic user, you couldn't use the train, least the magic interfere with the gears. Likewise, the game introduced elements such as societal prejudice (half-orcs are looked down upon in the same way many minorities have been in various situations) or class warfare (ogres and orcs are used in poor working conditions akin to Victorian England, and in one scenario you can convince them to rise up in revolt). Yes, other worlds like Azeroth had goblins with their machines and gadgets, but Arcanum went a step further, and gave us a world that might exist in any fantasy setting, should technological and civil advancements be considered.

Point is, what I loved about Arcanum is that it took various fantasy tropes and reinterpreted them with a twist, and it did so quite successfully. For me, it's an inspiration on how to work with what people are used to and tweaking it into something new. It's an example of how that can work. Whether you end up loving the game or not (I happened to end up loving it), just the concept alone makes one stop and think, "Huh...OK, I might have to check that out." And when you see the opening cinematic with orcs and goblins flying aircraft around and shooting down zeppelins, you know you're in for something different the rest of the game.

The great thing about world building is that you don't need to play by a set of rules made up by some random person on the internet: you can design it the way you want. You can be creative. You're the creator of this world - just have fun creating it!