Category: columns


A line of argument in politics in recent years, as in the great Lyndon Johnson books by Robert Caro, has held that the old saying is a little off: Power doesn’t so much corrupt, as it reveals. Power can make the doing of things easier and with less consequence, so we can see more clearly what lies underneath.

It turns out that a solar eclipse can do the same thing.

Friends of ours, who live in the upcoming eclipse totality zone, are hosting a couple of out of state eclipse-interested friends. (Our house, six miles away, is merely in 99.8 percent totality.) They’re not charging their friends any rent or room fee. As matters sit today, I call that a passed character test.

The eclipse, to be sure, is an understandable business opportunity, and there’s no harm and nothing immoral in taking some advantage of it. But at some point, somewhere along the line, it turns into greed, and totality areas all over the country have seen some ugly behavior and sad exposures of character.

There was, for example, the news story about a woman formerly from Idaho, now living near Washington, D.C., who booked an Idaho Falls hotel room back in October 2013. They had an agreement (for a fairly high room rate based on normal Idaho Falls levels). Some months ago the hotel said it wanted to raise the rate by $60; the couple reluctantly agreed. Then, earlier this month: “[The manager] started questioning us and telling us that our rate was way too low for this event and he wanted to raise our rates. My husband said, well you have already raised our rates once and we have a contract with you.”

That hotel in the news story now reportedly has rooms listed at $700 during the eclipse period. If you’re familiar with Idaho Falls lodging, you know this is not just a slight price increase. It is not even an outlier increase, or among the highest. Quite a few establishments regionally have been shooting far over $1,000 a night for rooms that ordinarily would rent for a tenth as much. (The Idaho attorney general’s office has fielded a number of complaints about room rentals.)

Okay: Room rates are, as a normal and reasonable matter, marketplace-flexible. They vary with seasons and holidays and location popularity, and they can sometimes be negotiated by late arrivals (at places with plenty of empty rooms that same night) or by third-party deals. There’s nothing holy about a particular rate.

But when rates rise abruptly, even during times of high popularity, by factors of seven or ten or more, you have to think something in the system, and in people’s willingness to simply take advantage of others and throw conventional rule books out the window, is wrong. There are human consequences. Good luck if you need to travel then for business, or visit a relative. Good luck if you’re not wealthy.

I don’t mean here to focus over-heavily on the lodging industry; lots of private homeowners are renting out their houses for a couple of days for almost unbelievable amounts. And I don’t mean to focus either just on rental rooms; the urge to suck up stray bucks seems to have become notably intense with this particular phase of the moon. (Airbnb reports an explosion of both requests for homes, and homes on offer.)

Consider what this kind of grasping reveals not only about our willingness to take advantage of others.

There are people in the totality zone who should, in bright light, take a good look in the mirror.



Self-publishing and micro-publishing have grown into a large business, but they haven’t developed all the trappings yet. Yes, there are associations and lots of ancillary businesses, but it’s still a work in progress.

Here’s another sign of that progress: The Society of Southwestern Authors last weekend ran out its inaugural Tucson Self Publishing Expo.

The organization has focused, ordinarily, on writing instruction programs – and held one of those just a few weeks ago – but saw an unmet need for instruction for those looking into self publishing.

Mark Coker, the founder and chief guru at Smashwords, alone held three programs – “An Introduction to EBook Self-Publishing,” “The Secrets of E-Book Publishing Success,” “How to Use EBook Preorders to Hit the Bestseller Lists.”

The program’s website said that “Not only is this an inaugural Self-Publishing Expo for Southern Arizona, but it has quickly become an essential event for established authors and aspiring novelists in Southern Arizona, Phoenix metro, Southern California and Las Vegas.”

The commercial side, a sure indicator of something taking off, is central in this too: ” That’s why we have invited a wide variety of vendors, all of whom have a service directly related to the aforementioned paragraph to assist you in managing the tedious job of assuring your manuscript is free of errors, creating a book cover that reflects the content of your product, and shaping your sales and marketing plan.

“Authors, writers and would-be novelists: to assure your place at the table, register early for just $20 to show your support in bringing this important event to the western part of the country and for the world-class speakers who are making themselves available to you at this Expo. When and where, have you ever had the opportunity to hear, meet, and ask questions of the founder of the largest company in the world of eBooks, the Director of a Publishing House that controls over half the POD market, or an expert in self-publishing marketing?”

There’s some ambition here. And you have to figure that if the southwest is going there, others will be doing it soon as well.

The explosive growth of the last few years probably has slowed a bit, but what’s coming now is increasingly solid and more rooted.



Some writers say that what they have to say to their readers is all in the written word – the book, the article, the formal press release. Res ipsa liquitur.

For many readers, though, and many authors too, the author-reader relationship goes deeper, and should. The reader wants to seeking out the writer and find out more about him or her. The advantage, from the self-publisher’s point of view, is that as readers invest time with the author, they’re more likely to connect with him or her and want to buy their next book. It is usually a win-win relationship.

This doesn’t mean completely opening yourself up to the public.

Authors, like everyone else, already have a number of online tools for engaging readers personally and directly, such as Facebook, Twitter and personal web sites (with comments enabled). There are also some big-organization tools that can help expand your reach.

On Facebook, authors can of course set up their own pages. But third-party pages oriented around an author, with the author’s cooperation, can be even better. A group of fans of the author Dana Stabenow, calling themselves the Danamaniacs, offer one example of a lively author page.

Patrick Brown, who worked on author marketing at Goodreads, suggested at this year’s BookExpo America, “Whether you are willing to answer questions for a day, or for a week, please let your readers know your parameters. Maybe you only want to answer questions about your new book; make that clear. You’re not obligated to answer all questions, but you do need to be a good citizen and let your readers know what kind of questions you’ll take.”

He suggested questions focused around the writing process and the specifics of finished works, and that some thought – and personal writing style – be used in crafting answers.

Goodreads has an “Ask the Author” feature on its website. Writers who participate on Goodreads in their author program can enable it, but they need to switch a toggle authorizing the service from “off” to “on.” Goodreads notes that, “This will activate the Ask the Author section on your author profile, allowing readers to ask you questions. It’s a good idea to add a personal message letting fans know when or for how long you will be available.”
A number of other services let authors communicate directly with readers too. has long had Author Central that authors can use as a sort of mini-website to show off their personal information as well as their bibliography. It allows you to link to, and include feeds from your social and web media. That means you can connect your Facebook and Twitter feeds, plus the feed from your blog (presumably you have one) into your Author Central site. That gives you a series of ways to connect with readers directly.

Smashwords has a similar author marketing tool, which it describes as “author pages with bios and listings of published works, individual book pages for each work, support for embedded YouTube videos so the author can promote the book in their own words, member contributed reviews, author “favoriting,” and integration with social bookmarking and social networking sites.” There are some indications these one-way services (two-way if you can move your traffic toward social media and personal websites) may be expanded, because Smashwords also said, “In the months and years ahead, Smashwords will provide even more tools to help authors reach their readers.”

Communication between author and reader can run in other directions as well. Smashwords is also beginning to offer interactive widgets. At, a Smashwords book widget can be downloaded and plugged into WordPress-based web sites. It “Displays one or more random book covers of a Smashwords author. It can be used by authors to display their work, by fans or by affiliate partners.”

Selling books and engaging readers work together: The more engaging readers you do, the more books you can sell, and the more happy readers you will have, book after book.

(Adapted from an article originally appearing on Bookworks.)

books columns


There’s a good short piece in Publishers Weekly about Mike McDonald, a nature photographer who decided to self-publish a picture book about the (seemingly) unlikely subject of wildlands near Chicago. The book has done well.

PW asked McDonald what advice he would offer other self-publishers. He offered several ideas. One was to listen to the experts, but apply individual judgment. He says he was advised to stick to an e-book format for his book. For a picture book? I wouldn’t advise that even for an all-text book, but his counsel to apply personal assessment is solid.

Likewise the idea of trying to pre-sell copies of a book where possible. (I’m guessing he may have found organizational support for his nicely-wrought regional picture book.) Good advice if you can do it, though most authors may not be able to.

The point worth expanding on (and this one caught me since I’m working on a book about how to publish on a shoestring) was this: Be willing to spend money, notably “Hire at least one editor, just like every great writer in history.”

Certainly getting a good editor to work through your book is good counsel. Every writer can use one; it’s damn near essential. (Readers can pick up quickly on when a book is written sloppily enough that it hasn’t been edited; that’s been a top complaint of e-book buyers for years.) And hiring a good editor will cost you some money, sometimes in the lower four figures.

But if you’re strapped, there may be options. Cast your net around your social network; you may be able to find help for discount, or even for free. Do you know an English teacher or a newspaper editor? They may be able to help.

Spending some money, wisely, can be a good thing to do. The “wisely” part is key; there are endless ways to throw money away in book publishing. There was a time when I would have said that advertising was high on that throwaway list, but it’s not that simple. A number of authors have build steady, solid business on the back of carefully crafted and tested Facebook advertising (for one example).

Sometimes, things that work may be unexpected. Deciding where to spend can be one of the more difficult decisions in publishing.

Maybe start with this: Do all you can for free or close to it, first. Then you’ll find, when you can press that no further, you may have a little more money available where you need it.

columns publishing


No author is an island, or at least should not be.

Above the commonplace and never-disputed pieces of advice – in this case, because it’s so sound – is that every author needs to have at least one person who will give the book a sound external edit. That’s one, or more.

Before it gets to that point, when the manuscript is beyond a first draft and starting to look as if it actually seems to be coming together, there’s space for another good outsider to offer some help. This would be the beta reader.

Many people are more familiar with beta testing in other contexts. I’ve beta-tested some software over the years, for example. Most large corporations, planning a big product rollout, first test it to see how audiences react. Movie producers do it too.

This is different from a line edit, which is the removal of error and sometimes a reorganization. What you’re looking for here is a reader’s reaction: Does this thing work? Does it grab you? Does it entertain or inform or otherwise serve its purpose? Is the purpose worth the reader’s time?

Basic questions.

Mark Coker, the founder the e-Book site Smashwords, wrote a fine piece on book beta readers for Publishers Weekly, published a little over a month ago. It’s worth reading in full.

Coker (focusing here mainly on fiction, though most of the points are more widely applicable) suggests a dozen or two dozen beta readers, if you can get them. Social media is the main route he proposes for finding them – simply putting out the call and making the request, often to friends of acquaintances, to help ensure a layer of brutal honesty where needed.

He advises not to simply send out copies, but encourage people to apply. (The applications, he said, might be set up on Google forms.) The application can be attached to a survey form (or, the survey can be attached to the ms) with specific questions and space for answers. I like the idea of a link to an online survey, a SurveyMonkey kind of thing.

Taking the results from that survey, an author should be able to pick up useful feedback – in most cases useful enough to tinker with the book.

If you can get the readers, get honest reaction from them, and analyze their reactions intelligently, there’s almost no way your book won’t wind up the better for it.

books columns


This is the second of two articles on low-cost ways to approach independent publishing.

What are some more of the things you need to be able to do?

Produce a PDF file. You need to be able to produce PDF files – portable document files which consist of images that can be read on almost any kind of computer. Making PDF files can be a little more costly, especially if you buy the full Adobe Acrobat program (and not just their widely-used reader). Software for reading the files is available for free in all sorts of systems. For Windows, the reader produced by Adobe Acrobat is the standard. The Mac (pple) version of Microsoft Word does include a PDF converter.

There are free alternatives. LibreOffice is one of several applications that lets you create a PDF with a push of a single button. PDF files are the preferred way to submit many kinds of files, such as the interior and cover files for CreateSpace print books. And there are online PDF converters, which allow you to upload a Word file and get a PDF file in return. PDF Converter, Online2PDF and Docupub are among the more popular conversion services.

Manipulate images. If you’re starting out with your first or second book, you may simply hire a designer to help with your art work. But at some point you probably will need help with manipulating images – cropping or re-sizing them, sharpening them, adding text, or doing other things. If your needs are simple, simpler image programs can help. A downloadable free option available for nearly all computers is the Gimp Image Editor, which does much of what expensive programs like Photoshop can do.

For basic image work, you can use free online image tools. My favorite, a regular stop, is called Pixlr Express, which lets you crop, brighten, sharpen and otherwise adjust photos and other images.

Paper printing might be helpful but often not necessary. If you’ll only be needing a very limited number of copies, consider putting your file on a thumb drive and printing them at an office supply store (like Staples or Office Max) or a copy shop.

You can do all this with a small, inexpensive laptop computer. We’re not quite to the point that a smart phone could do the job, and most tablets would would not support all the software you need – standards are changing, however. Good used or refurbished laptops often can be had for little more than $100 on places like Craigslist. Get a demonstration, especially of their wifi capabilities, before buying.

What about Chromebooks? These are small, mostly inexpensive computers which rely heavily on the Chrome browsers (produced by Google), which are intended to be used mainly in connection with online sites. New Chromebooks with smaller screens often are priced below $200.

Chromebooks are unusual among laptop computers: They are designed to be used almost exclusively online.

On the CreateSpace board, one writer suggested, “you might decide that using a Chromebook to support a publishing venture is a bit like using chopsticks to eat soup. However, if you do go down this path, you will probably end up looking at The people there have a business model in which they provide cloud versions of free open source software like OpenOffice, LibreOffice, Scribus, GIMP, Inkscape and Sumatra (to name a relevant few) for a small monthly charge.”

Suppose you have an empty (but functional) computer, and no software, and a very tight budget? You can – for free – load the operating system called Linux onto your computer, and it comes with word processors, browsers and many other kinds of software already loaded in. (LibreOffice, for example, is included as a standard feature in most versions of Linux.) I’ve been using Linux and its software for most of my work for more than a decade.

Getting what you need on the skimpiest of budgets can require more work, but it can certainly be done.



What’s the least you have to spend on electronics to produce a book?

Many writers who happen not to own the latest and greatest of personal computers ponder the question. Writers on the CreateSpace board days ago asked, “What is the cheapest laptop I can buy that will run everything I need for publishing on CreateSpace?” and “Will a chromebook do everything I need to publish in CreateSpace?”

There are benefits to spending more than the minimum if you can afford it.

Faster computers with more memory will help speed the process, and the best software can be a good investment. You may have special software needs if your book is unusual in design, or relies heavily on artwork or special layout. Many people will find a new midrange Windows laptop computer, at about $300 to $700, a practical price. Bear in mind that some of the software you may need, such as Microsoft Word and anti-virus programs, could double that cost.

If this is your first book or if you’re planning complex or artistic design or layout, you’d probably be better off spending the money working with a good professional designer (thereby making use of their equipment).

Most books, including nearly all adult fiction, have simple design needs, and word processing doesn’t require much computing power.

What are the must-haves for your computer?

Get you online. It should come equipped with a web browser (like Internet Explorer or the newer Microsoft Edge, or Safari or Firefox or Chrome) to allow you to visit and interact with websites, and exchange messages including email. You need this for everything from research to most kinds of marketing, as well as transmitting your book files for production.

Produce a file in the .doc or .docx (Microsoft Word) format. Documents in this format are the preferred way to submit files for many types of e-Books (for Kindle, Apple, Nook and others) and some print books. A text saved in .doc format is the first step toward publication.

Microsoft Word will produce documents in these formats, of course. If it isn’t already there, you don’t necessarily have to shell out for a new license. Sometimes older versions can be found online for discounted prices, and they’ll given you everything you need (as long as you don’t go back too far, of course).

Several other word processing programs will convert documents from their own format to the familiar .doc (or even .docx). If you don’t have Word, you can pay a monthly fee to use Office 365, which is the Office suite (including Word) online. There’s also the simpler, and free, Googledocs, which lets you save your documents in several formats including Word. It will work for writing text, but not well enough for design.

Outside those corporate worlds, there are other lightly-marketed options.

Another free and definitely useful option is LibreOffice, which includes a batch of programs similar to Microsoft Office – and for free. For almost a decade I’ve used LibreOffice more than anything else for my writing and book work. It does most of what Microsoft Word does, and it can read Word (.doc) files and create them as well. LibreOffice works in Windows, Mac and Linux operating systems.

Next: More low-cost and no-cost options.



Those of us in the small-house publishing world spend so much time trying to disseminate writings in the form of books, to get out to the world material that would (we hope) be useful to the society at large, that we sometimes fail to stop to think about the occasions when not publishing is the right thing to do.

The Milo Yiannopoulos case gives us a good reminder that not everything ought to be published.

The news story is that Yiannopoulos has signed a book deal, for $250,000, with the New York publisher Simon & Schuster. To be more precise: Yiannopoulos (apparently) signed with one of S&S’s imprints, Threshold Editions, which handles conservative books.

This has drawn a great deal of anger, not least from book reviewers around the country and some of S&S’s own authors, at least one of whom is “rethinking” her relationship with the company.

Threshold is not the only right-leaning imprint around, and there are (famously) plenty of authors on the right who have been published without major controversy.

So why is Yiannopoulos different?

It’s a matter of degree. Bloomberg called him the “pretty, monstrous face of the alt-right”, and describes: “Yiannopoulos is the 31-year-old British tech editor and star writer for Breitbart News, where he’s the loudest defender of the new, Trump-led ultraconservatism … Yiannopoulos gained his initial fame as the general in a massive troll war over misogyny in the video game world, known as Gamergate. He was permanently banned from Twitter in July after the social media company said his almost 350,000 followers were responsible for harassing Ghostbusters star Leslie Jones. … They admire the bravado of authoritarians, especially Vladimir Putin. Some are white supremacists. Most enjoy a good conspiracy theory.”

Simply, Yiannopoulos is a conduit for hate and conflict.

Slate posted a mini-debate over the publication, and Ben Mathis-Lilley argued, “his project of mainstreaming white nationalism is one that Simon & Schuster should be embarrassed to lend its reputation to. … Yiannopoulos and his followers aren’t just kicking around Bell Curve–esque ideas as an intellectual exercise—they also fetishize Nazism, i.e., the movement that put those ideas into practice. Yiannopoulos has posted photos of himself wearing an Iron Cross and holding books about Hitler, while his fans are notorious for their use of Holocaust imagery. “Provocative” beliefs about genetics are one thing; affection for the party that used those beliefs to justify the worst genocide in the history of civilization is another.”

In today’s publishing environment, you can’t stop someone from publishing themselves. I wouldn’t deny free speech to anyone, Milo Yiannopoulos included (albeit that he represents an acid test of the idea), and he would be at liberty to sell his wares with the help of S&S or not. In fact, since his audience is relatively inelastic, he’d probably fare as well financially if he went the self-pub route.

But when it comes to provoking race hatred and divisions in our society, is there any good reason – and profits surely are not good enough – that a respected name like Simon & Schuster has to add more fuel to the fire?

We have serious problems in this county, and this particular publication decision is making them worse, not better.



Book publishing in 2017? A little tougher, a little more challenging … but still open for opportunity for those who navigate the currents.

That’s the view from Mark Coker, founder and big cheese at Smashwords, the largest independent purveyor of eBooks. And most of it at least intuitively feels about right.

Coker, and his site, work with large masses of independent authors (and I’ve been one of them). His viewpoint does come from a specific angle, and that has to be factored in; and his take focuses (logically enough) on eBooks more than print.

Some of the big-picture points he makes are clear and sound enough. In the decade since the launch of the Kindle (and very nearly that at Smashwords too, for that matter), and the slightly longer time since print on demand has taken off, the book publishing world has changed. The word “glut” – of authors, of books – has become basic, as the sheer volume of books has complicated selling for almost everyone aside from authors with a large established audience. Moreover, because eBooks never really go out of print, the total number of books available to a reader continues to grow massively. Meanwhile, the number of readers and the number of books read has continued to grow, but by nowhere near as much.

Those basic facts lay the groundwork for, and force the response from, everything else. Overall, Coker suggests, traditional publishing continues to have a small advantage on the print side, partly because it can much more easily get books into physical retail outlets. (That’s an advantage but a far smaller one than it was a few years ago.) At the same time, indies have an edge on price and flexibility; many titles from large publishers still are priced well over $10 each, while many indie prices are at a third or less of that.

The point is coming, Coker argues also, that a number of indies will opt out, and the independent side of the trade will start to see some consolidation as bargaining positions and cost efficiencies start to come to the fore.

Coker: “In 2017 we’re likely to see increased merger and acquisition activity as large publishers, retailers, distributors and larger service providers recognize an opportunity to take advantage of the glut to strengthen their indie author portfolio and grow their businesses. If you believe as I believe that indie authors are the future of publishing, then it starts to become clear that some form of consolidation is inevitable because the business opportunity to serve readers by serving authors and readers is so enormous. Last year I predicted WattPad would be acquired. I was wrong! Or I was early.”

He also has a good deal to say about Amazon and its eBook regime, especially Kindle Select and Kindle Unlimited. My gut sense that there will be less development along these fronts in the next year than Coker projects. (And he weights his predictions with the point that he makes them more by way of starting discussions than by way of hard prognosticating.) But who knows; he’s certainly close to the game.

I get the feeling of a field changing a little less rapidly than it was in the last decade.

But then, big changes do have a way of catching you by surprise.

columns publishing

bookworks main-logo

A Bookworks member has asked about targeted advertising strategies: what works (or doesn’t)?

Here’s the first in a series of posts we hope will help answer that question.

Targeted Advertising Strategies

Advertising of some kind or another is all around us, and many people develop strategies for tuning out much of it.  At least one web browser, Firefox, has a one-button tool allowing readers to crop out everything but the main core of text on a web page: Great for reading news stories, not so good for the advertisers who pay for space there.  In many ways, this is becoming a more challenging age for advertising.

Should indie authors nevertheless look seriously into advertising?

They should, although that doesn’t mean throwing money at whatever mass medium comes your way.  A great deal of advertising is wasted, but very carefully targeted advertising can help you sell your books.  Sometimes good ideas can come in unexpected places.

I’ve pondered, for example, the idea of using a billboard to sell a book – a very specific book that doesn’t yet exist.billboard

I live about an hour inland from Oregon’s highly popular ocean beaches.  Two highways leading there bear almost all the heavy traffic from the east, sometimes enough to create jams, as people head to the coast in search of something to do.

Suppose you had published a travel guide to the Oregon coast, and made it available on eBooks as well as print.  Now suppose you rented a billboard along one of those two highways advertising that book, offering an inexpensive, coast guide eBook available by wireless download to travelers right now, minutes in advance of arriving at the coast?  Might that sell enough copies to make a profit?

It might, because that billboard would be precisely targeting the exact audience of that particular book, at a moment when the subject is of great interest, and in a way that would allow immediate purchase.

One of the most important points about advertising (for books, but not only books) is to reach your specific audience, without wasting money reaching the masses of other people who aren’t and never will be your readers.

It can be done.

Facebook, for Example

Selection_412Indie novelist Mark Dawson, who is estimated to have sold more than 300,000 books, has done it.  He uses a number of marketing approaches but has doubled down especially on advertising in Facebook.  An article in Forbes reports that he spends substantial amounts daily on Facebook advertising for his books.  His advertising is so carefully targeted that he more than makes the money back while building a long-term reader base.  The precision of his advertising is the key: He has worked out in detail what his readers have in common, and sends his message to those people.

Dawson expanded his reach by using a feature in Facebook called “look-alike audiences.”  This allows him to submit an audience list to Facebook, which will find a second base of people whose attributes closely match those of the first.  It’s almost like replicating a highly responsive audience. The potential sizes of these audiences that Facebook can provide ranges up to the millions.  (As they get larger, of course, they also get more expensive.)

He has used that advertising strategy to help create a growing fan base, with which he keeps in close contact.

To use some of these advanced Facebook features, you first need to create a Facebook business account, which is separate from your individual account.  If you want to set up an author page, choose “Artist, Band or Public Figure” and if you want to set up a page for your book, select “Entertainment”.  From your account page, click “create ad” which takes you to an “ad manager” page.  The Facebook ads creation tools, also let you target (and test) your intended audience by location, interests, behaviors and demographics.  However, people who have used these features point out that either a considerable time or money, or both, is often needed to get good results.  Extensive market testing is equally important.  This may not be a form of advertising practical to newcomers, but is worth bearing in mind (and exploring further) for future possibilities, since Facebook is a vast potential pool of readers.

Other Places for Advertising

Not every form of useful and highly targeted advertising is as well-known or high tech.

One writer remarked in an online forum that, “I actually like placing ads in conference program books like Sleuthfest, Bouchercon, RavenCon (I write cross-genre so try to mix it up), horror conferences, etc.  Sometimes it’s difficult to determine the outcome since sales sometimes aren’t always the day or week the ad comes out, but for the nominal fee I think it’s worth it.  By nominal I’m talking under $250.”

Targeted advertising works differently for different kinds of books, of course.  I’ll be back soon with more on targeted advertising strategies for fiction and nonfiction books in Part Two of this series.

BookWorks columns