Monthly Archives: October 2014

Some Folks Shouldn’t (publish, that is)

Since beginning this blog last January (my, how time flies!) I’ve written several pieces that have included encouragement for would-be writers. The urge to express oneself can be strong, and I’m a great supporter of those who wish to do so through the printed word. Hey, it’s often highly preferable to uncontrolled oration. Nevertheless, I’ve reluctantly come to the conclusion that some folks just shouldn’t seek to publish what they’ve written.

I don’t mean that folks are writing stuff that shouldn’t be aired. After all, dirty laundry, bigotry, stupidity and wacked out nonsense may all benefit from the sanitizing influence of the sun. No, what I’m referring to here is simply very bad writing. Even worse than your standard it was a dark and stormy night sort of drivel. Oh, I have no objection to writing this sort of stuff. Nor would I actually legislate against its publication. I just think people who cannot recognize how bad their writing is should be cautioned by those who know better not to put it out for public consumption.

Most years, I try to attend the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books, a huge and wonderful event initially held on the campus of UCLA but, in more recent times, held at cross town rival USC. The event includes displays by established mainstream publishing houses as well as a plethora of smaller publishers of independent (read: self-published) works, the “indies”.

I’ve taken advantage of indie publishing for my two books out of necessity. I learned many years ago of the “Catch-22” ensnaring new writers without industry connections: you can’t get an agent if you haven’t been published, and you can’t be published (by a mainstream publisher) if you don’t have an agent. This reality forced me into the indie universe, where I’ve paid handsomely to have my literary offspring delivered.

My first book, Spacebraid and Other Tales of a Dystopian Universe, was published by Xlibris, an indie outfit that would publish anything for a price. My second book, Zendoscopy, was published by Inkwater Press, a company that is more selective about what it will take on, but still charges substantially for publication.

When Inkwater agreed to publish Zendoscopy, I knew from feedback that they’d read the book and liked it. How did I know? Because I got specific feedback from them about it. In the case of Xlibris and Spacebraid, however, I simply paid and it got published. No feedback. No advice. No real support of any kind. It’s companies like Xlibris that allow incompetent writers to get themselves into print.

So, back to the L.A. Times Festival of Books. At this year’s event, I stopped at one indie booth where an author was doing a promotional giveaway of a limited number of his latest (second) book, a science fiction thriller. Being a sci-fi fan and, for obvious reasons, identifying with an indie author, I gratefully accepted his offer of a hardback copy. It had a striking jacket with a blurb that made it sound pretty cool. Moreover, the author’s bio on the jacket’s back flap suggested that the author was an experienced writer in the entertainment industry. The book was nicely bound and the paper quality seemed good. All in all, I thought it might be a satisfying read: good story, nice package. I’d never heard of the publisher, but there are so many of them that this really didn’t matter to me. Besides, as I said, the book was free. When I got home, I put the book on a shelf and forgot about it until last week, when I noticed it sitting there and decided to give it a go.

A book has to be really terrible for me not to finish it. In the case of this particular work, I couldn’t make it past the second chapter. To say that the writing was bad would severely understate the matter. Both in terms of style and grammar, the book was (is) a disaster.

Beginning with the first paragraph, I immediately came upon an apostrophe error. Worse, the entire paragraph read like a bad Hemingway parody. Reading on, I found sentence after sentence stuffed with an overabundance of similes and adjectives. There were overboard descriptions of people revealing far too much too early. At first I wondered, how could this dreck ever have made it into print? Then, quickly, I knew: the author’s ego, no honest feedback before submitting it to the publisher, and a publisher that would accept anything for a fee. The almost inevitable result was a total embarrassment that never should have made it off the hard drive.

So, what’s the lesson, here? I think it’s that everyone who wants to write should write, but not everything that gets written is worthy of publication. Before spending a thousand or more (and it will almost certainly be more) dollars with an indie publisher, plus marketing costs, one really needs to have his/her work proofread, edited and critiqued. Serious readers are not going to want to pay good money only to find bad writing and grammatical errors, no matter how enticing the plot.

Finally, you’ll note that I haven’t identified the author, title, or publisher of the book I used in my example. Nor have I quoted any of the awful stuff I encountered in the first chapter and a half. Why? Because I have nothing against the writer and no desire to embarrass him. Besides, there’s not much chance of anyone other than family and few friends buying the book. I suspect that his giveaway copies are just about the only ones that have made it into circulation, and that few more ever will. It’s a shame really. I know he worked hard to write it, and I’m sure he had great hopes of massive sales. It’s just that someone should have been honest with him before the book ever saw the light of day. That someone should have told him that needed both a good editor and, even more, the services of a good English teacher.

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Marketing for the Self-Published Author

The point of this piece is not that self-publishing is a vain and fruitless endeavor. Well, okay, maybe a little (?) vain, but not necessarily fruitless. It’s just that I’ve learned over time how difficult it can be to remain optimistic about sales of one’s opus magnum.

To wit: my two books. Spacebraid and Other Tales of a Dystopian Universe was originally published in 2004. A collection of science fiction and fantasy stories, it seemed to me at the time to have pretty good prospects for respectable if not spectacular sales. In fact, I was greatly encouraged when my son-in-law got on a cross country flight and noted that the person seated next to him was reading the book. In spite of this bit of anecdotal evidence and a couple of nice reviews, sales have languished. We’ll get to why in a moment.

My second book, Zendoscopy, was published earlier this year. Sales have been better than with Spacebraid, but still not enough to be considered much of a showing. More puzzling is that feedback on the book has been excellent, including a very nice Kirkus review and the book being a monthly selection for at least one book club.

So, what gives?

The answer, in a word, is probably “marketing”. If I’ve learned anything since Spacebraid was published, it’s that writing and publishing the book account for only half of the job. The other, and by far more expensive, half is marketing. And those of us who self publish find marketing the real stumbling block to significant sales.

There exists a wide variety of marketing possibilities open to the self-published writer: book giveaways (e.g., on Goodreads), book signings, consignment placement in bookstores, book festivals, paid ads, blogs such as this one, YouTube videos, and more. Nearly all either are expensive or, even if not, simply don’t seem to reach a large enough audience unless one is willing to invest a not so small fortune to get the word out.

Let’s look at a couple of the options: book signings and consignment placement. My first attempt to get a book signing was with an independent bookstore in a shopping center minutes from my home. This particular store was in financial trouble and word had it that they might have to close. I spoke with the store’s manager and offered to do a signing in which I’d bring in a supply of books and sell them in turnkey manner for them, donating 40% of what I took in to the store. Despite my offer, which would have cost the store nothing, the manager insisted on 60%. I walked.

My second experience with a signing was much more successful and satisfying. Another local store was holding a signing event open to a limited number of local authors. I applied early enough to make the list. To prepare for the event, I had a couple of self-supporting posters made from jpeg files of my book covers and spread the word via this blog, Facebook, and by direct contact with friends and acquaintances. At the signing, I sold several books and came away reasonably happy.

At about the same time as the second signing, a friend who belongs to a book club read Zendoscopy and liked it enough to make it a monthly selection for her book club. She invited me to appear at the club for a “meet the author” event which went well, and I sold several copies of the book as well as a couple of copies of Spacebraid.

Since then, sales of both books have hit the skids. Neither the publisher of Spacebraid, nor that of Zendoscopy, has done any promotion of the book, although for some hefty fees, they would assist me but not do any marketing on their own. Based upon my early experiences with the publisher of Spacebraid, my impression is that any efforts by publishing houses for self-published authors are of marginal, if any, benefit, and much of what they will do for a price can be done by the author, alone.

These experiences have given me some perspective on how to go about self-publishing one’s writing. If/when my third book is ready to market, I will likely forego the use of a publisher and go directly to e-book format, where self-published works seem to have the best chance for significant sales. It will also make it much easier for me to manage pricing, as I won’t have to go through the publisher every time I want to do a giveaway or price promotion.

The other thing I’ve concluded is that shorter pieces submitted for publication may be beneficial in getting one’s name “out there”. This past summer, I had an essay published in the literary publication of Alpha Omega Alpha, the medical honor society. The piece elicited a remarkable number of responses from people who will shortly receive a distribution e-mail from me mentioning my two books. This may or may not produce sales but, as they say, nothing ventured…

For many of us who self-publish, we are not doing it with the expectation of making a living at it but because we simply love writing. This means that we’re under less pressure than otherwise might be the case. In my particular situation, I can afford to promote my books in careful steps, evaluating the costs and benefits as I go rather than marketing in shotgun and very expensive fashion. In the meantime, I can work on shorter pieces for magazine submission or later inclusion in a short story collection. Will there be a sequel to Zendoscopy? Time will tell…

Book Review: Our Mathematical Universe, by Max Tegmark

Our Mathematical Universe by Max Tegmark, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2014

At the outset, let me say that I’m not a physicist, although I did major in physics briefly in college. Nevertheless, I’ve had a lifelong interest in physics and, when I learned about theoretical physicist Max Tegmark’s book, Our Mathematical Universe, I figured I ought to read it. Also, it had become a reading project for my wife’s book club, so to keep up with her, I thought I’d better have a look. What I found in Tegmark’s rather long opus was a mix of conventional and speculative physics that left me scratching my head and wondering how such an obviously brilliant thinker could wander so far afield of what, at least to me, appeared reasonable.

Tegmark’s thesis is that we live within a nested set of individually complex universes, each of which he calls a “multiverse” because each contains an infinite number of like, “parallel” universes. He identifies four basic types of universes, stratified as Level 1 through level 4. In his classification, we live in the most basic of the levels, the level 1 multiverse, which more or less consists of the universe that we observe. His level 2 multiverse is one which we cannot perceive because it exists at a distance so great from us that light from it has not yet reached us and, because of his theory of how space is created, may never reach us. Things get weirder at level 3, the quantum level multiverse, and weirdest of all at level 4, where Tegmark’s assertion is that things become purely mathematical, although he pretty much seems to believe that everything is mathematical in the sense that his multiverses all consist at their essence of mathematical relationships.

He takes just under 400 pages to make all of his arguments, as well as to offer his views on life, the future of mankind, and, well, just about everything else you can imagine. Thus, you will understand that in this brief review, I won’t be able to recite and critique all of his arguments and, frankly, some of them I don’t understand, anyway. Let me say, however, that I’m pretty much OK with his level 1 and 2 multiverses, and even with his level 3 multiverse at the quantum level. Where he loses me, and credibility in general, however, is in his attempt to scale quantum behavior from the subatomic/atomic level to the macro scale of our daily existence. I have no problems understanding, or at least following the argument that, say, one cannot know both the position and momentum vector of an electron around an atomic nucleus and, therefore, it must be described in probabilistic terms with the practical result that we view it as a probability sphere around the nucleus. From this, the Heisenberg uncertainty description of observational imprecision, and the work of Schrodinger (his famous equation), Tegmark then extrapolates to the preposterous notion that for every move we make there is an opposite move that occurs in (or creates?) an alternative, parallel universe within our level 1 multiverse but which we cannot and never will perceive. The justification for this extrapolation is never convincingly made, an unfortunate fact given the non-intuitive nature of the assertion.

Tegmark goes on further to look at issues of space-time, and suggests that there is no unidirectional linear streaming of time but only a whole entity of space-time in which everything that has existed or will exist is present. In this view, what we perceive as the flow of time is simply our existence at sequential sections through this four dimensional continuum.

The fact that Tegmark believes his math strongly supports these views does not make them valid. As a theoretical physicist, his ideas do not come from physical experimentation, the actual testing of hypotheses, most of which cannot currently be tested, in any case. Flights of fancy aren’t necessarily gong to be validated, and Tegmark’s extrapolations at the third level and his theoretical fourth level are at least controversial, of not completely wacko.

Finally, Tegmark uses the last part of his book to dive headfirst into a lengthy discussion of perception, current nuclear age morality, and future of the universe. He spends an awful lot of time on the obvious, namely, that what we perceive as reality is merely our brain’s creation in response to the input of our senses and powers of interpretation. Duh. Perception is relative and potentially imprecise. I believe we learned this in high school, and my own retinal disease more than confirms my own distorted, highly subjective sense of reality.

There’s more in the book than I’ve described. For example, his discussion of the probability of other intelligent life in our level 1 niche is interesting but, in the end, his main thesis, that we live in universe of universes that we cannot perceive, and that these universes are at their essence mathematical entities, leaves me a bit bewildered. It’s fairly easy to throw out ideas about things no one can test (not the definition of the scientific method!), and his insistence that the mathematical relationships do not define reality but actually constitute it, require a stretch of imagination – or a degree of brilliance – well beyond me. The book is fascinating, but I’d take a lot of what Tegmark proposes with more than a grain of salt. At least, so says this non-physicist.

Recommendation: Read it if you’re a physics junkie and up for a fascinating slog.

A Dilemma

For those who’ve wondered why my postings have been spotty over the past few weeks, I can now say that it’s because my wife and I were traveling in Japan and China. Although I’ve never suffered from jet lag with prior trips, including several to Europe and one to New Zealand, the return trip from Hong Kong last Friday really left me feeling dysphoric and exhausted.

I had planned to do some writing during the trip, but our itinerary was heavily scheduled, and I had no energy to do anything but climb into bed at night. Ergo, no writing of any consequence. I did manage to get two brief blog entries written, but due to unreliable internet connections in China, one wasn’t posted until just after getting home.

As we are now well into the fall season with summer travel over (we were on the road for most of July, too), I am gearing up for a renewed marketing push for Zendoscopy. In addition, I’m kicking around several ideas for my next book and, in the process, confronting a bit of a dilemma.

The problem isn’t writer’s block. Rather, it’s indecision. My first book, Spacebraid and Other Tales of a Dystopian Universe, was a collection of science fiction, horror, and fantasy stories. Zendoscopy is written as a series of connected stories rooted in the realities of growing up in the 1950’s, ’60’s, and ’70’s. The dilemma, then, is that of which path to follow for book 3. I very much enjoy writing in both genres, but to maximize my chances of name recognition and sales success, I need to pursue one or the other type of writing. There are very few Stephen Kings in the world, writers who are able to cross genres with great success. Making my decision more difficult is the simple fact that, although sales of my books have been modest, the feedback and reviews for each have been good.

As I wallow in indecision, I’ve written the opening of a sequel to Zendoscopy as well as a few short sci-fi/horror/fantasy pieces. I don’t know how this will ultimately resolve, but readers of this blog will be the first to find out — right after I do.

This week’s annoyance: None! I’m just glad to be home.

On Writing “Just for Fun”

On Writing “Just for Fun”

I was talking just the other day with a fellow who, upon hearing that I write, happily told me that he writes, too. “Great,” I said. “Where are you selling? Amazon.com? Amazon Kindle? Nook?”

“Oh, no. I do it just for fun.”

So, I asked him what he had written, and/or was writing. His answer? Six documentary books and working on his first novel. Yikes!!! Six books, all unpublished? Who does he think he is? J.D Salinger?

Maybe it’s just my own bias, but I can’t imagine writing six books of any kind and not publishing. Ever. Anything. Long before I published Spacebraid and Other Tales of a Dystopian Universe, I had tested the waters with articles for magazines, letters to the editors of newspapers, and lots of articles for organization newsletters. OK, I certainly received my share of rejection notices, some from the finest of publications, but I kept writing and submitting, eventually building up a nice portfolio of published work and, in the process, polishing my writing style. Was I, then, a great writer when I published Spacebraid…? Sadly, no, but I’m still proud of it and of the mostly positive reviews and feedback I received when it first appeared. And when I published Zendoscopy? A realy good review from Kirkus and lots of positive feedback, as well as better early sales.

There is, to be sure, both effort and expense associated with self-publication, but there is also great satisfaction that comes with seeing one’s hard work born into real life on the page, whether as hard copy or electronic text.

Six unpublished books? Jeez, guy! Get your work proofread and edited and get it into print. What are you waiting for?