Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Now Available Everywhere! (mostly)

For those of you who have contacted me wanting to know when my books would be available in other stores besides Amazon: The time is now!

You will find links to the right, and on the page tabs above dedicated to each genre. My books are now live at iTunes, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Scribd! Several of my short stories are still exclusive with Amazon, and a few of my titles haven't yet reached full publication at the other stores, but I expect them to be everywhere within the next few days. I've updated the links and even made a few changes to the blog. Feel free to peruse the newly added pages at the top!

It feels a little strange, branching out like this while so many authors are pulling their books to go exclusive with Amazon's new Kindle Unlimited program. I can only hope I'm making the right decision. Fortunately, as an Indie author I have the ability to turn on a dime. If I decide I'm losing too many sales, I can opt back in with Amazon in a heartbeat. Not that I plan to, because I've invested a lot of time and hard work into making this happen. This is a very early stage of my experiment, but so far I'm cautiously optimistic. I've already made a handful of sales at these other outlets, and I've even had a surge in paperback sales, which took me completely by surprise. I hope to run some promotions later this year, which should (hopefully) improve my visibility at these new outlets, and maybe grab a few readers completely new to my fiction. As always, stay tuned for the latest updates!

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Kindle Unlimited: A Brave New World or The End Of The World As We Know It?

Most of us knew this was coming. The rumors have been buzzing around the net for a couple months. The only questions were: Are they really going to try it? And if so, how? Well, now we know. On Friday, Amazon introduced their new Kindle library program, Kindle Unlimited. For those of you who haven't heard, Amazon will now let you borrow unlimited e-books for a measly $10/monthly fee. You're limited to 10 books at a time, but as soon as you "return" them you can download more. As long as you read 10% of the book, the author will receive a payment (this is where it gets sticky... more to come...) Some people have called it the "Netflix of books." They may be right, but at the moment it's a still a bit mind-boggling for me. As a reader, I think this is absolutely amazing. My wife and I have already signed up. How can you even hesitate to sign up for a deal like this? As a writer, I'm still not entirely sure how I feel. This is why:

There are a few catches with Kindle Unlimited. One is that authors don't get paid a normal fee. They get paid an equal percentage from a monthly slush fund that's been set up by Amazon. Usually, the payments amount to about $2 per borrow, but it varies a lot, and this could prove to be a very unstable arrangement with the number of readers Kindle Unlimited is bound to attract. Also, writers are required to be enrolled in Kindle Select because the two programs have essentially been rolled together. -For those who don't know, Select is the program that lets authors give a book away for free for 5 days out of every 90 day enrollment period. This is a nice promotional opportunity, but the program requires exclusivity. Authors are not allowed to sell these titles anywhere else... Unless you're a traditionally published author or publishing house. If you're one of "those guys," you don't have to be exclusive. And you also get paid your standard royalty rate. At least, that's the way it works now that we have Unlimited.

Also interesting: according to a few reports, Amazon seems to be tweaking their algorithms once again, this time placing a greater weight on KU borrows than sales. This causes books in the KU program to have a better ranking than they would otherwise, essentially knocking better-selling books out of their way as a sort of favoritism. This can boost sales (or borrows) for these titles by giving them greater visibility on Amazon's charts. (When Select began, giveaways carried the same weight as purchases. Amazon quickly decided those free books were dominating the charts and changed the algorithm so that a free book only counted as a small percentage of a sale, thereby minimizing the sudden jump in rankings after a free run. And also reducing the effectiveness of a giveaway.)

So, to recap, Indie authors must be exclusive to Amazon, and can only get paid their share of a slush fund. Legacy publishers are apparently more equal , and they not only get paid the full amount, they also can sell their books anywhere they want. Which begs the question of what will be left in that slush fund once Harry Potter and Hunger Games have taken their toll? Once again, Amazon has handed us a unique opportunity, but Amazon giveth with one hand and taketh with the other. I have a few other concerns. For instance, I know someone who once very proudly explained the fact that she and five friends all share an Amazon account so they can get each other's books for free. Amazon knows about this practice and, as far as I can tell, has done nothing to quell it. I can only wonder how many of my sales were not a sale to one person, but five or six? I don't mind people sharing my books with friends, but there's something sleazy about people intentionally gaming the system so they can steal books.

Likewise, Amazon did very little to stop the fake sock-puppet reviews that were happening a couple years ago. Some writers set up fake accounts at Amazon (and other places) to post false 5 star reviews of their own books, and to slam other writers whom they considered competition. Until the situation gained major media attention, Amazon just ignored it. Then they removed hundreds of reviews, even some legitimate ones, just to shut up the criticism. But even now, if I email Amazon about a bad review that describes things that don't even happen in one of my books, they simply recommend that I vote the review down as "unhelpful." Umm, the reviewer is lying about my book, misrepresenting it purposefully, and you won't even take a look? Talk about unhelpful.

Many writers have "exchanged" reviews of books, a process that's supposedly against the T.O.S. but continues to this day. And now, with the introduction of Kindle Unlimited, I've witnessed authors talking about downloading their friend's books and skimming through the required 10% to make sure they get paid even though the books aren't read. Well intended no doubt, but still gaming the system, and something Amazon will eventually have to deal with. Last but not least, some Amazon customers buy books on Kindle but then convert and side-load to a different device. How will Amazon know if that book has been read, and whether the author should get paid? Answer: They won't. For some authors, these inconsistencies could lead to thousands of dollars worth of underpayment or overpayment, depending on the circumstances. Does that make it a wash? Maybe, if it happened equally across the board, but that's not how real life works. Some authors are going to lose a lot of money this way, and no one will ever know it happened.

Now, here's my situation:

I've been in Select for a couple of years, and the reason I did it was because I made more money in borrows from Select than I was making in sales from other e-book retailers (Apple, Sony, etc.). I used Smashwords for distribution back then, and I often found their service frustrating. Getting books properly formatted for different devices was next to impossible, and getting an answer from the service department took days, if not a week or two. Select was an obvious choice. All I had to do was pull my books from the other stores and go exclusive with Amazon. In return, I got to give my books away for free now and then, and also reaped the benefits of getting lots of borrows. But times have changed. 

As sales dwindled earlier this year, borrows did, too. And I realized that it might be time to try some of those other booksellers again. After all, things have changed a lot in the last two years, and I just might be missing a real opportunity. So I made up my mind to pull all of my titles from Select and start re-publishing in mass distribution. Many writers have found success by making the first title in a series free, or "perma-free" as we Indies call it. I have several series going, so I decided to try that. I opened an account with a new distributor (not Smashwords - more on that in another post) and began the process of converting my books, and of course waiting for my Kindle Select periods to expire. But just as my books began falling out of Select, Amazon changed the game. Again. 

So I took a long look at Kindle Unlimited, the benefits it presented, and how that might affect my plan. I tried to look at it critically, from a businessman's perspective, rather than an author's or a reader's. Here's the way I see it: Kindle Select/ Unlimited still presents a great opportunity for exposure and promotion. For the right person, this might be a great way to make sales and build a stronger platform. Alternatively, the program has some problems, and some authors might lose a lot if they aren't careful. I had been all-in with Select, and that was not healthy. There are better, albeit more hands-on approaches. Thankfully, to Amazon's credit, since they enrolled all Select books into Unlimited without giving us a choice, they allowed publishers to pull our books from Select without waiting for our 90 day commitment periods to expire. I did just that. However, I left most of my short stories enrolled and I have the ability to re-enroll my novels at any time. By taking this approach, I have given myself the maximum latitude possible.

In the meanwhile, my books are slowly but surely becoming available in iTunes, Kobo, Scribd, and other places. Over the next few days, my books will finally be available just about everywhere (a relative term for e-books, I know...). I will monitor sales, both at Amazon and in the rest of the big wide publishing world, and observe the changes over the next few months. If it seems prudent, I may put a title or series back into Select just to see what happens. But at this point, I would be very reluctant to put my entire catalog back into Amazon's basket. Instead, I'll take the hands-on approach of moving things around and seeing what works best for each book and/or series. On the bright side, my ability to do this is a huge advantage over traditional publishers. On the down side, this is very exhausting work, and will distract from other things, like writing. But hopefully at this point in my career, I don't have to publish 4-5 titles a year to stay competitive. 

Not that I won't try anyway :-) 

If you're still reading, thanks for your patience with this long-winded post. Keep an eye out, because I will post links as new distributions become available, and I will update with my experiences and conclusions. Also, Shadow Rising is free this week. It's the only novel I still have in Select, and it won't be there for long. Grab a copy, spread the word!

Monday, July 7, 2014

Shadow Born Promo This Week!

I'm running a promotion on Shadow Born this week. Click the banner above to enter a Goodreads contest (paperback), or download it free directly from Amazon! If you already have it, by all means share the link with a friend.

For those unfamiliar with Shadow Born, it's the story of a young teen (Gabriel Frost) who was trained to be an assassin. Unfortunately, Gabriel has lost his memory and can't recall who or what he is. While searching for clues to his past, Gabriel becomes embroiled in a sinister plot by creatures called Shadowlords who want to take over the world. At the same time, Gabriel is caught up in numerous government cover-ups and recruited by a top-secret organization known as D.A.S., whose sole purpose is to defeat the Shadowlords.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Cover Art Secrets

In my previous posts in this series, I discussed branding and basic cover construction. I've addressed topics of software, fonts, and sources for stock photos. I've illustrated ways to take a basic image and make it something unique and eye-catching, and how to supplement that art with fonts and colors that will appeal to your market. But there's one thing I haven't talked about, and that is what happens when you can't find the stock photos and art you want

It's bound to happen eventually. Maybe you can't find an artist whose work fits your needs (or credit limit!), or perhaps you just can't find a model who looks like your character. There just isn't a stock photo in the whole world that gives you what you need. You know exactly what you want, but for some reason you just can't get it. Well, don't be dismayed. Here's how you can do it: The answer to your problem just might be 3d modeling. 

Don't dismiss this idea right away. Don't assume that modeling is beyond your abilities. If you can use Gimp or Photoshop, you can use 3d models. And don't assume the price is beyond your reach. The truth is that some models and modeling programs are free! Just like public domain images, resources abound for 3d models. You can use models that are cartoonish, anime, or incredibly photo-realistic 

So where should you start? 

I'm going to point you in the direction I started, and that is with DAZ3D. This company is amazing. They are the Kindle of 3d models, thousands available within just a click. They even provide a very powerful modeling program absolutely free. It's called DAZ Studio, and you can download and use it free of charge. DAZ Studio is a powerful modeling program that allows you to use figures, such as humans, animals, and 3d objects to construct scenes. Several models are included with the program. The site also provides extra freebies that rotate monthly, and thousands of low-priced models that will astound you. Download it. Play with it. View their tutorials and learn how it works. 

An early version of Breeze (left) from T1, and a later version (right). Not the differences in lighting, posture, and props. Small things make a big difference in the final product!

Without going into too much detail, this is what you can expect: DAZ and other modeling programs allow you to load 3d models into a graphical environment. It's something like the 3d environment of a video game. You can change your perspective, circling around the object, pulling in close or pushing out to a great distance. You can load multiple objects, for example a man, a woman, a car, and mountains for a backdrop. You can pose the characters simply by clicking on one of their limbs and moving it around like a doll. You will also learn that there are pre-configured poses for characters, and a variety of different ways to manipulate objects.You can also modify the features of a character. For example, you can make a man thin and wiry, athletic, muscular, or even overweight. You can change features of his appearance that make him look like a teen or an old man. Same thing goes for females and to an extent, even to animals and other props.

Once you're happy with the characters, you can dress them in different clothes, change colors and textures, alter their skin and hair appearance, and manipulate the lighting to dramatic effect. Essentially, you can create your own characters, dress and pose them as you please, and then take a picture!

A scene I created for the cover of Shadow Born. This is what it looks like loaded into Poser, a 3d program very similar to Daz. I used a basic free character (Michael 4) with some modifications, clothing and props, etc.
 The final process, the picture-taking, is called rendering. This is where the software takes over, calculating the light, colors, and so on, to create an image based upon the scene you've created. Depending on the complexity of the scene, the resolution, and the processing power of your P.C., this can take anywhere from a few minutes to an hour or more. 

When you're done, you have a scene designed exactly to your liking, and ready to load into Gimp or Photoshop for post-production:
The render based on the above scene.

One version of the final cover, post-produced using Gimp. Effects used: hue/saturation, contrast/brightness, softglow, and cartoon.
Doesn't sound that hard, does it? That's because it's not. Of course, you should absolutely expect a learning period. Just like any other software, these programs have their own unique interfaces and idiosyncrasies. You might find one program doesn't like your computer, or that you just can't stand the interface. Don't worry, you have options:

DAZ Studio: I highly recommend you start here because it's user friendly and free. Test the waters before you spend any money. They have only the highest quality models and customer service is second to none, and I mean it. I've had to contact DAZ a couple of times with issues, and they went above and beyond for me. Their non-free models are a bit pricey, but still a great value, and some of the best looking models you will find anywhere.

Poser: Similar to DAZ but with a slightly different interface. Not free, but older editions can be had for as low as $30 US. New editions come out regularly, and features have become quite powerful. Poser is compatible with most DAZ models. Look for older (cheaper) versions at Amazon.

You have a number of other options that I haven't included here because they're either prohibitively expensive or focused more on landscapes and scenery than characters. Obviously, these can still be very useful but don't fall under the strictly utilitarian purposes of this post. Perhaps I'll do an extended post on this topic later...


Daz3D (see link above)  
ShareCG: a great place for free models. Remember to check licensing requirements on anything that's free. Some require an acknowledgment; some can't be used commercially. (Hint: Book covers are commercial)
Renderosity: A huge online storehouse of 3d figures. Prices vary, quality varies, but they have just about everything. They also have a free section.
PoserWorld: For fans of Poser, these guys have a ton of stuff. They have various types of paid accounts, all at low prices, and hundreds of models available to download.
This is just the tip of the iceberg. If you stick with it, you'll get to know these websites very well and probably find a dozen others. You will find fantastic models for free, as well as a lot of junk. 

As with all things, the key to success is practice. Eventually, if you stick with it, you will spend money on this. Good news, though. A lot of this stuff can be used as business deductions. Remember, if your writing produces income, it's a business. Cover art, publishing costs, and even books might be deductible. (See your accountant for specifics. I'm not a tax expert and none of this should be considered advice!) And remember, the difference between a lousy render and perfection doesn't just require a good model. It requires, patience, practice, and skill. Take another look at the T1 examples above and you'll see what a difference a few minor tweaks can make.

If you found this blog post helpful, take a look at the previous posts in this series. Also take a look at the "Books" tab, where you can find a list of all my published works. Or, click the Amazon banner to go directly to my Amazon page.