Thursday, January 31, 2013

Gaming the System at Amazon KDP

I've always contended that there are a number of people gaming the KDP system. Today I'll offer evidence of it.

You can make yourself look very good if you have a few hundred, or even a few thousand bucks, to spare by going to the store and buying "gift" credit cards and then use them to buy your own books after lowing the price to 99 cents (or free) and then leave yourself reviews with a credit card that isn't linked to your real name. You can register a gift card under any fake name, phone #, and address you like. Then Amazon has no way of knowing who you really are, and they'll accept your reviews of your own books. Kid's stuff-101, right?


The vast majority of mainstream authors will sell about as many print books as they do Kindle books. Providing the Kindle and print editions come out around the same time, their sales rankings will be pretty close. Hardback sales usually take a nosedive after the print/kindle edtions come out, so you generally can't count those. However, sometimes the Kindle edition will come out while the hardback is still selling well and there isn't yet a paperback edition, or if there is one, it's something like a large print edition or a mass produced edition if it's a classic, and those don't sell very good. In that case, the Kindle and hardback editions may rank very close in sales. A good example is Bill O'Reilly's Killing Lincoln. The only paperback edition of that book is a large print edition, so it doesn't sell well at all. But look how close the hardback and Kindle eidtions are in sales ranking:

Hardback - 60 # ranking
Kindle - 174

Here's an example of someone I won't name, but it's a self-published author who sells extremely well through Kindle books, but look at their Createspace paperback sales ranking of the same book which has been out for a couple of years now:

Paperback - 1,365,020
Kindle - 1,352

Now let's look at a book by a good traditional author. Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby is on the best seller's list again because of the new movie coming out.

Paperback - 17
Kindle - 144

Lady Almina and the Real Downton Abbey: The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle by the The Countess Of Carnarvon is big because of the PBS Downtown Abbey series:

Paperback - 38
Kindle - 461

If someone self-published uses KDP (Kindle books) & Createspace (or Lulu) and has their book(s) available in both Kindle and print editions, and they're a big seller, then their sales rankings should run close to the same in both Kindle and print since the buying public purchases about as many Kindle books as print books right now. (Actually, paperback sales are generally still a bit higher.) If you see a large descrepency, between the two, you can bet it's probably somebody gaming the system. After all, it's cheap for someone with a good job to spend a thousand dollars on gift cards in order to produce sales and phoney reviews by just lowering the price on their Kindle books now and then use gift cards to spend a dollar on each in order to make a few purchases and leave reviews, and then raise the price back up the next morning. But how do they do the same with print books without loosing their shirts? They can't. The Kindle books didn't cost them anything to make or sell. But they can't lower the price of print books below a threshhold that covers all the costs of it, and that isn't cheap, so gaming the system with print books is very difficult unless you're very rich.

The gist of things is this: If Kindle sales rankings are very high, and print sales rankings are very low, there's reason for concern.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

What’s Wrong With Gutenberg & Why There Will Always Be A Classic Book Reprint Market

I’ve downloaded tons of free public domain books from Gutenberg and other sites like it that offer free old books, many of them classics. It’s wonderful that people have gone to the trouble to scan and digitize so many thousands of books around the world. However, for many years anyone could scan and upload a book to Gutenberg. The website relied on the people doing the digitizing to proofread the books themselves. The problem was that most did a poor job of it, thus many texts at the site have many errors in them. A couple of years ago, Gutenberg teamed with a company called Distributed Proofreaders in order to properly proofread the texts. They also do most of the scanning/OCR work and even pick out most of the books that get uploaded to Gutenberg’s American website. Of course, the American site only constitutes 1/4th of all the books at Gutenberg’s worldwide sites, most of whom don’t have a decent proofreading process.

While I applaud the effort from Distributed Proofreaders to help out Gutenberg, I still see a big problem here. They say:
"The Project Managers pick whatever books we can find. Due to US copyright laws, we are severely limited in the books we are allowed to work with. We go to Used & Rare bookshops and scour the Internet websites & auctions. We check out rare books from libraries and scan them. We obtain page images from other archive sites. We try to find books that we think people would enjoy reading and that we can find at an acceptable price."
Gee, wouldn't it be nice to actually bother finding the most correct edition of the book rather than "whatever books we can find." Do you know how many errors are fixed in subsequent editions of print books? Plenty. For that matter, many old books have been sliced and diced over the years by editors for various reasons, often religious ones, to the point of it being a painstaking process putting together a correct edition today. A great example (among dozens I could give) is James Hogg's The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Only the original 1824 Longman's 1st edition had the text in it's entirety until Oxford Press came out with one in 1981. That 1st edition generally goes for better than $1,000 if you're lucky enough to find one. And even that edition had at least seven typesetting errors that I'm aware of (and considering Hogg's mixture of Scotch and English spellings, only a scholar would catch). I’m not sure of the exact size of the original print run, but I know it was very small. The next edition was in 1837. It had 115 pages omitted and the text was so heavily redacted that it bore little resemblance to the original. For the next hundred years or more, nearly every subsequent edition relied on the 1837 edition making them also incorrect. L Shiells and Co. came out with an 1895 edition which claimed to follow the original, but scholar John Carey found it had errors or omissions on all but three of its 266 pages. Campion Reprints in 1924, and later Cresset Press in 1947, both came out with reprints that also followed the 1824 1st edition, but they both changed some of Hogg's deliberate (and often playful) spellings and some of the punctuation. Thus, it wasn't until 1981 that a decent reprint of the 1st edition came out by Oxford Press (even fixing the seven errors in the original.) But while the original text in not under copyright, Oxford Press' version is, so you cannot use it legally to copy from for Gutenberg. Not that any of the amateurs scanning texts willy-nilly for Gutenberg would know, or care about, true scholarly work anyway, and herein lies the problem.

What I just described is all too common of old books. Editors thought nothing of redacting (even vandalizing) earlier editions. It takes a true scholar to really scour out all the editions he/she can find and to analyze them with great scrutiny. This often requires having an intimate knowledge of the author’s entire cannon and having familiarized himself with whatever biographical material he can find on the writer. For instance, in the 1837 edition of the book by Hogg mentioned above, the editor, D.O. Hill, made the rather absurd claim that Hogg himself had done the final emendations. This would have included his having chopped out every single reference the original text had made against the Calvinist doctrine of predestination. However, James Hogg argued against predestination his entire life. To think he would have changed the text in this way is simply ludicrous. It also took away the entire scope and meaning of the book which was itself almost entirely an argument against predestination. Take away that argument and there’s little left worth printing.

But how many people uploading books to Gutenberg, whether on their own or through Distributed Proofreaders, have the scholarly training to select the right editions of texts and to make the correct emendations in them where necessary? This, in my opinion, is a great oversight by Gutenberg and other public domain text aggregators. These books should be selected and edited by true scholars with a great knowledge of a particular author’s life and works.

I’m not trying to be overly critical. Gutenberg is trying to do a good thing and probably are doing it the best they can. They’re a volunteer effort working with little funding. They can no more afford to pay scholars to do this work than you or I could. But this is also exactly why there will always be a market for fine editions of reprints by real publishers who take the time to do things right.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Coming Age Of The Undignified E-Book

Lord knows there have been plenty of distasteful books throughout the ages about any number of disgusting subjects—books that never should have been written, published, or read. And there have been any number of different formats books have come in from scrolls to lambskin in gold plated wooden covers. But they all had one thing in common, something very nearly sacred, something that's a gift from God deserving of ultimate respect. They allowed both mortals and the gods to exchange their thoughts and feelings via the gift of words in a written code that could be passed down throughout the ages and across the seas. And though the code came in many varieties, some of them even arcane, that vehicle of scribbled lines on a flat sheet never changed.

Now we've entered a new era of words, still largely in ink, though on an electric screen, but still flat as a piece of paper and mostly acceptable, at least for light reading. But yonder beast with the serpent's head which is called Amazon is making possible that which should have never been. That horrid creature known as the interactive e-book. One can hear the monster clear it's hissy throat even now.

I keep asking myself why they are doing this. What's the point? This is something that clearly computers are better at where people can use a keyboard and a mouse, or even a joystick. Interactive Flash based websites and DVDs have been available for at least 15 or 20 years now. They're great tools for teaching, and the market is huge and already in place. E-readers are simply not built for interaction, nor should they be. They're built for reading. They're made to be used as a simple book but with an entire library of thousands of titles contained within. That's what they're good at. That's what they were meant for.

Could it be that these Amazon infidels simply were not brought up to respect good books? Would they really be foolish enough to try to turn a book into a computer?

Anyone who had read the right books and gotten the right things out of them would have too much respect for the media itself to show such contempt for it by bastardizing it in such a way as they intend. Had they been taught to respect books they might have perceived that elusive golden thread which binds the inner workings of the best of them from Homer to Plato to Virgil to Pseudo-Dionysius to Dante, onward to Donne and Milton, to the uneducated brilliance of Bunyan, the illuminations of Novalis and the hard truths of the Ettrick Shepherd, to the "feeling intellect" of Wordsworth and "far Ancestral voices" of Coleridge, to the all-encompassing reality of Sunday in Chesterton's Thursday, to the primordial reality behind the world in "The City" of Charles Williams, and finally to Lewis' cave in Perelandra where Aeneas, Kubla Khan, and Ransom join metaphors in a splendiferous ode to The Well At The End Of The World.

It almost sounds like a religious experience, doesn't it. That's the difference between those who merely read a lot and those who are well read. The latter have a respect for books that borders on veneration yet never crosses that hallowed line.

Please Amazon, do not profane the greatest of all media by polluting it with undignified paraphernalia. If you don't understand the crime in that, you could not possibly have anything of worth to sell anybody.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Show, Don't Tell - Really?

If there' s one axiom in the world of writing that's been blown completely out of proportion it's—show, don't tell. More often than not I would say it's a good axiom to remember, but there are incidents where it just wastes everyone's time if an author takes several pages trying to get something across through the show style that could have been said in one or two paragraphs without boring everybody. I don't know how many stories I've had to endure where whole pages were given to show that a character was overweight and slow. Describing someone's features is usually unnecessary to begin with, but if you must do it, then keep it short and pithy.

Behold, a new axiom I give unto thee: Showing is fine. Just don't be boring about it!

You must always keep reminding yourself not to write long passages of description that are pointless to the story. This is where most writers go wrong with the style of showing. Just ask yourself how you'd feel on the other end of such descriptions. Do you really want a lengthy description of a medical procedure? Probably not. Now if that doctor is committing a crime during the operation, that might be different.

Sometimes it's wonderful fun to know exactly what a character is thinking. Such was the case with GK Chesterton's Father Brown character, a sleuth of murder mysteries who had an amazing thought process. It was essential that he tell us why a murderer committed his act rather than just describing the act and the events that led up to it. Chesterton gave us a curious glimpse into the minds of killers that wouldn't have been possible by simply describing what they did and the mechanics of how they did it. In fact, it's almost a given thing in a Father Brown story that we'll be told exactly what happened, who did it, and why toward the end of the tale. And that great telling at the end is the part we all wait for with great anticipation.

Telling is great for two things. One, it let's you breeze by items of ordinary interests. Two, it allows us a keen insight into a character's mind such as this passage from The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn:

Well, one thing was dead sure, and that was that Tom Sawyer was in earnest, and was actuly going to help steal that nigger out of slavery. That was the thing that was too many for me. Here was a boy that was respectable and well brung up; and had a character to lose; and folks at home that had characters; and he was bright and not leather-headed; and knowing and not ignorant; and not mean, but kind; and yet here he was, without any more pride, or rightness, or feeling, than to stoop to this business, and make himself a shame, and his family a shame, before everybody. I couldn't understand it no way at all. It was outrageous, and I knowed I ought to just up and tell him so; and so be his true friend, and let him quit the thing right where he was and save himself.

Mark Twain could have went out of his way to show us all these character traits about Tom Sawyer that Huck describes, but it would have taken a long time to do, and the story is not mainly about Tom Sawyer anyway, so it would have been pointless. Just telling us quickly about Tom gives us the low-down, and more importantly, Twain is able to do it in a short entertaining fashion. Besides, we'll find out all about Tom in another book.

The bottom line to all this show, don't tell stuff is that your writing must be entertaining, and descriptions usually are anything but. Descriptive writing is the biggest part of the show style. Don't overdo it! Keep them short. Don't drag them out just because some English professor told you to. There's every chance he downloaded his degree.

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Lost Art Of Shifting POVs

I was talking with someone about this the other day and thought it would make for the subject of a good article here.

A shifting point of view in a story is for some strange reason usually taught as a thing to be avoided by writers, almost as if it has to do with incorrect grammar or at least something along those lines. Perhaps that's the crux of the problem right there—that they are often done incorrectly. Actually, I think incorporating changing POVs in stories is a wonderful lost art today.

Mark Twain was one of the more prolific writers to integrate changing POVs into his stories. They usually would start off with someone relating how he had met someone, often a stranger, and go into some detail about their meeting, and then at some point this stranger would launch into an anecdote and take over the POV for most of the remainder of the story, perhaps switching back to the original narrator's POV right before the end.

A good example might be Twain's short story, "The Dying Man's Confession". This story opens with Twain relating how he and a small company of friends were traveling by boat (presumably a large paddle-wheeler). Twain himself has some kind of errand to do at his destination and decides it should be done at night rather than during the day, so he asks his traveling companions if they will relent to get off the boat in Napoleon, Arkansas and layover for a bit. They protest this, so he goes on to give an account of what happened to him the previous year in Bavaria in order to show them why this strange errand would best be done at night.

After a few pages of this, we find Twain talking about a man he met in Bavaria who was confined to bed because of a severe bout of consumption. This man has a story to tell pertaining to something in Napoleon, Arkansas and the reason why Twain is doing this errand. The POV then switches to this man as he recounts his tale like this:

    When I had been this Karl Ritter's daily and sole intimate during two months, he one day said abruptly:
    "I will tell you my story."
    Then he went on as follows:

    I have never given up until now. But now I have given up. I am going to die. I made up my mind last night that it must be....

Nearly 2/3 of Twain's story is taken up by the account told by Karl Ritter. You'll notice that Twain left a blank line between the place where he quit narrating and where Ritter picks up the narration. This is a good way to reinforce to the reader that the POV is about to change. Later in the story, when Ritter is done talking and the narration is taken up again by Mark Twain, another blank line is inserted between the two POVs. This is the thing you must remember about changing POVs in a story. You need to make it plain and obvious that you're doing it, and doing it on purpose for effect. If the reader sits scratching his/her head wondering why someone else suddenly seems to be doing the narration, then you've done it incorrectly. Twain didn't really need the blank line, but it helped to reinforce his objective of making the changing POV known, and that's a good thing to do. Rather than simply use a blank space you might consider using three centered bold dots, each separated by a space:

. . .

I can think of many examples of Mark Twain using the art of shifting POVs, but the best example I know is a terrific novel by James Hogg called The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner. I consider this to be one of the ten or twenty best stories in the English language. Its narration is mainly told from the POV of someone who refers to himself as "the editor." The first half or so of the book is called "The Editor's Narrative," detailing a spooky story about an evil doppelganger that took place starting in 1687 and ending around 1710. These events are apparently as the world remembers them. However, after this, the editor offers us a document that has come into his possession that is purported to be an autobiographical account of those same events told from the POV of the story's antagonist in real time. They throw a very different light on the story. This takes up nearly the second half of the book. Thereafter is yet another short section from the editor's POV again in the present day (when this book was written in 1863), and here he begins with a letter said to have been published in Blackwood's Magazine that same year—a letter written by one James Hogg. (The author of the book.) This lengthy letter tells about the exhumation of the antagonist's mummified corpse by two boys. Then the tale finishes with "the editor" attempting to determine the authenticity of Hogg's letter.

In real life that letter really did appear in the magazine in 1863, a year before the book came out. It's a chilling novel that doubles as a railing against Calvinism. (John Carey's 1981 Oxford Press version is the only one worth having.) It's a real testament to the cleverness of switching POVs in a story when done right.

So don't be afraid to do things differently. The very fact that authors are taught to avoid shifting POVs nowadays is in my opinion a very good reason to use them. Not only will it make you stand out from the crowd, but changing POVs can be both clever and engaging.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Wasted Words

Others have written articles about the term "wasted words", but I'm going to take a different angle on them, and in doing so, will shine a light on the most annoying thing in all of literature from my perspective.

Books and articles about wasted words can sometimes do more harm than good. What they point out are examples of phrases that seem to them as lengthy or unnecessary, so they urge writers to cut them short—something often referred to as "an economy of style." The following is a list of wasted words Jack Lynch gives in his book: Guide to Grammar and Style:

  •  quite
  • very
  • extremely
  • as it were
  • moreover
  • it can be seen that
  • it has been indicated that
  • basically
  • essentially
  • totally
  • completely
  • therefore
  • it should be remembered that
  • it should be noted that
  • thus
  • it is imperative that
  • at the present moment in time

You may have noticed that five of the above examples end with the word "that." If there's a single word writers overuse, and often unnecessary so, it would probably be "that." Rather than removing the phrases listed above which have "that" at the end, we might find those phrases can exist just fine by removing "that" from them and possibly re-wording things. For instance:

"It is imperative that" would read fine by simply removing "that" from the end. No further change is necessary.

"It should be noted that" would read better written something like: "One should note" etc.

I actually agree with most of Lynch's list. The thing to be aware of is the tendency to remove too much. This economy of style notion can cause writers to write like children in short, stabby sentences if taken to extremes, and no one took it to extremes quite like Hemingway who went so far as to decide that even conjunctions were wasted words.

What I really want to talk about, however, are other kinds of wasted words and those would entail words, phrases, and whole sentences that add nothing to a story, serving only to waste the reader's time. These often take the form of unnecessary descriptions. Let's look at some examples I've gleaned from books at random.

His mother turned from the sink. She wore navy cotton slacks, a white silk blouse, and a damp checkered apron. At moments like this, harried as she was from an evening of entertaining, his mother’s advancing age suddenly struck him. Who was this gray-haired old woman in his mother’s kitchen?

This example is the only one I will give where I'll name the author, and in this case it happens to be from James Rollins' novel—The Judas Strain. The reason I don't mind naming Rollins here is because I simply want to show that even really good authors are guilty of doing this now and then. Obviously we have no need to know what this character's mother is wearing in this instance. It has no bearing on the story at all. Fortunately, you won't find much of this kind of thing in Rollins' tales. Where he sometimes does go wrong in the area of wasted words is in often telling us the brand names of products such as automobiles or food goods where the reader would be better off not knowing. The following example is not however from a Rollins book:

The blue is darker than my eyes, which are closer to azure, sky blue, but I’m not as dark as the nearly purple Chevy I drove in high school.

Telling us the model of the car this character drove in high school added nothing whatsoever to the story. Neither did we need to know the color of anyone's eyes in the tale. This is not to say that there couldn't be a situation where the reader may need to know such information, or where it might aid the reader in better knowing a character's personality, but that's seldom the case. Knowing that Jay Gatsby drove a Rolls Royce and lived in a mansion in The Great Gatsby told us a lot about his personality. Saying whether a character drove a Chevy or a Dodge in high school usually does not.

The following author has got to be the most exasperating I've ever read, and it's all because of wasted words that find their way onto every single page. Here's an example of an entirely wasted paragraph:

Prescott Stevens, president of the 1800 Club, raised the wick of the oil lamp he was reading by and picked up the TV remote next to his tea. He aimed and clicked it at the big-screen TV opposite him, and rubbed his eyes as he went to the Weather Channel 7:00 PM broadcast. After finishing the mid-west coverage, the young woman said, “. . . and in the New York, New Jersey, and in some areas of Connecticut, rain accompanied by thunder storms continue for the second straight day. It promises to let up early tomorrow.”

I can tell you from having finished the book that not one word in this paragraph was necessary to know. It comes under the heading of "useless information." It's the type of information that causes readers to skim. Anytime readers feel it's okay to skim in your book, you know you have some wasted words ready to be cut.

Here's another example from the same book:

Turning the set off, he stood and stretched to his full height of five feet seven inches and rubbed his plump stomach. He faced the full-length mirror and buttoned the vest of his three-piece brown suit then tightened a dark brown silk cravat around his starched collar, and pushed the pearl stickpin through the shirtfront. Stevens patted his short brown and gray beard and pulled and twisted the almost-full handlebar mustache until he was fairly satisfied. He pressed a button next to the large mahogany desk and was answered immediately by his butler and right-hand person, Matt.

We know within the first chapter of the book that it's a story based on time travel back and forth between present day and the 1860s. The characters who undergo time traveling obviously will change their clothing to fit in with the era in which they travel. Yet this author has decided to inform his readers about every stitch of clothing the characters wear at all times. After the first chapter you'll want to scream, "We get it already! They dress appropriately for the era. Enough with the useless descriptions and get on with the story if you have one!"

Something else to notice above is that we're told the type of wood used in the desk. The author does this type of thing repeatedly. Almost any time there's a mention of a wooden object, he tells us the type of wood. He also feels compelled to tell us the color of carpeting several times in different rooms even though the color, or whether or not there even is carpeting or wood flooring or tiles, has nothing to do with the story.

The doorman held the door open and Bill entered. He went downstairs, sliding his hand along the well-polished curved mahogany banister, and then walked on the dark brown wall-to-wall carpet. An oversized ornate wooden door with a large brass handle faced him.

All useless information!

He entered a small walk-in closet that had his name etched in a silver nameplate on the door and sat on an upholstered bench to remove his wet shoes and socks.

Just tell us he changed his clothes for Pete's sake and leave it at that.

Bill turned back to his computer and looked at the results of the subject he had punched into Google.

Just say "the subject of his search." Why do I need to know which search engine Bill used?

I read and reviewed another book not long ago for a lady friend/author that turned out to be a paranormal romance. Had I known that ahead of time I wouldn't have volunteered to read the damned thing! As you might have guessed, it was chock full of wasted words. There were several entire chapters devoted to the building of a new home to a character's specifications and details given, not only about the house from top to bottom, but even the incredibly boring meetings between the character and her architect. Once again, not one iota of this information had anything to do with the heart of the story. This is one of the few books where I felt justified in ignoring entire chapters before giving a review.

I'll leave you with a rule of thumb I lit upon earlier. When proofing your manuscript, ask yourself if anything in it can be skipped without losing anything from the story. If it can, leave it out, or risk boring your readers into putting your book down and reading something else. Every word must be important and must be the right word or phrase that gives the greatest effect. The latter takes a long time to execute. If you're writing more than 2,000 words per day, you can't possibly be honing your story to the fine gem it was meant to be.

Wasted words equal wasted time. No reader wants his or her time wasted.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

The Problem With Romance Novels

In this age of cultural and moral relativism, it should be no surprise that we often find people demanding respect in every field of art, where a finger painting is held in as high esteem as a Rembrandt for instance.

Romance novels are inexplicably among the best selling of all genres. The fact that we have nearly a 50% illiteracy rate in this country might be partly to blame. Many people don't have the reading skills to rise much higher than children's books or romance novels. Because romance novels do sell so abundantly in our day, I've noticed more and more articles about, and interviews with, romance writers where they are as often as not put on a pedestal—as though they somehow belong in the same class as authors of much higher standing.

What the modern reader needs to understand is that romance novels by their very nature are meant to be inferior.

I think it's safe to say that no Ivy League school will ever teach out of romance novels as part of the required curriculum. No romance novel will ever be thought of as a classic along side Spencer, Bunyan, Swift and Dickens. If a romance story were that good, it would no longer be referred to as romance, but would instead simply be known as drama or literary fiction or a classic love story. If you think about it, there are of course a handful of classic novels that fit the description of the latter: novels that are full of romantic love but which are so well written that they aren't thought of as romance novels/stories. Romeo and Juliet probably tops the list (though it was a play of course) followed by Jane Eyre. No one would call Jane Eyre a "romance novel." It would instead be referred to as a "classic love story." The very thing that separates classic love stories from romance novels is that romance novels must by default be bad, tacky even, or they'll no longer be classified as romance novels and will get placed in a higher category.

I find it difficult to respect something that is purposely meant to be a lessor work. One should always strive to do great work. If an author classifies their own story as romance, that tells me that even they don't think much of it. That being the case, neither should we.