Sunday, January 25, 2015

Blame it on the Vat

By now, I'm sure most readers in the UK/EU have noticed recent changes in book prices due to the VAT tax. I'll be honest, I haven't read up on this tax and I don't know exactly what purpose it serves or when it started. What I do know is that certain changes to the law require this tax to be added to digital products like phone apps and e-books.

In order to compensate for this tax hike, retailers like Amazon have raised the retail prices on their digital products. For example, my books that were $0.99 in the U.S. and and £0.79 in the U.K. are now also £0.99 in the U.K., or thereabouts. I'm pretty sure this price adjustment applies to the entire European Union, but I don't know how drastic the change is in each country's currency. Ironically, this increase in price is very close to offsetting the difference of the U.K.'s stronger dollar vs. the U.S. , but that's a whole different conversation.

At any rate, this leaves content creators like myself in a difficult situation. For some, it might be possible to lower prices on certain distribution channels, but Amazon's pricing terms require authors to set a minimum price of of $0.99 U.S. and most of us can't avoid that. The only way to go lower is to go permanently free. Many authors -including myself- put the first book in a series free as a loss leader, but obviously we hope to make that up in sales of sequels.

Which brings me around to the point of this post. Since the new VAT pricing went into effect at the beginning of the year, I have observed a drop in UK sales of approximately 20%. I'm not complaining; it could have been a lot worse. Hopefully, as UK readers get used to the new order of things, they'll go back to shopping as usual. In the meanwhile, I want to make sure my readers understand the reason my prices have changed, and the situation I'm in. This is not a cash grab -at least not on my part. I'm making the same per-book profit as before. I'm sure a lot of other content creators are in the exact same situation. For now, all we can do is keep our heads down, ride the storm out, and hope this tax won't have too many ripple effects.

Also, in totally unrelated news: I am ordering proof copies of several new books. This means that the major revisions and edits are done. I'm down to the last few steps before these books go live. One of those will be the new Iron Horse sequel! More on that later, so stay tuned. 

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Trap of Taking Advice

My regular readers know I don't often delve into writing advice. In my opinion, there is more than enough advice floating around already. There are hundreds of books on the subject and probably thousands of blogs. The difficulty lies not in finding advice, but in determining which advice is useful and which is not.The best place to start is with a simple rule: Take all advice with a grain of salt.

Any critical thinker knows this rule. He or she also knows to look closely at the person giving the advice, and measure that person's qualifications. After all, a person may have studied, experimented, and made mistakes in order to gain the wisdom he shares, or he may simply be a know-it-all leading you down the same path of folly and misery he chose for himself. It takes discernment. If the person claims to be an expert in his or her field, it shouldn't be hard to verify whether the title was earned or self-appointed. For writers, it's especially easy. A quick internet search will disclose how many books the person has authored (if any), and whether any of them were commercially successful.

Alternatively, bad advice can be -and often is- perfectly well-intentioned. More bad advice has probably come from classes than anywhere else. These classes are often taught by people who have little or no writing success themselves, and who are simply repeating some of the same advice they've heard and read all their lives. Here are a couple gems that every writer knows:

Show, don't Tell!
Write what you Know!

We're all familiar with these often repeated rules, because they're hammered into our brains from the time we write our first book report until we leave the school system. And they're both wrong. Why do I say that?  Because advice like this is very generic, very obtuse, when in reality it only applies to certain situations. Take the first example. If you decide to show, don't tell everything that happens in your 90,000 word novel, it might double if not triple in size. No publisher will want to buy it, and no reader will get through it. Human beings go through the motions of thousands of things in our daily lives that require no explanation. Your character or narrator shouldn't describe these events in detail if he can gloss over them in a paragraph or two and get on to the meat of the story. Would you show your character eating breakfast, brushing his teeth, taking a shower, getting dressed, finding the car keys, and so on when you can simply have him say, "I showered, toasted a muffin, and headed for work" ?

Also wrong with this advice is another obvious fact that seems to escape so many writing coaches: First person narrative tells everything. A novel written in first person, by its very nature is a perfect example of how wrong this rule can be. In this case, the exact opposite is true. Your character must tell, because everything that happens in the book is related through that character's voice and perspective. Writers of first person stories walk a dangerous line here, and to religiously follow the above rule would probably destroy such a book.

The second example, Write what you Know, has very little relevance in most fiction writing, unless you happen to believe that J.R.R. Tolkien actually visited the Misty Mountains and helped the elves and hobbits fight Sauron. Did Edgar Rice Burroughs watch a tribe of apes raise in infant in the jungle? Did he visit mars and rescue an alien princess? Did Robert E. Howard have a hobby of lopping people's heads off with a battle-axe? Obviously not. These writers most likely did some research about life in various unusual settings that they could draw upon in their fiction, but in real life they didn't experience much -if anything- of what they wrote.

However, the rule might apply perfectly well if you're writing Bridges of Madison County or The Kite Runner. Unfortunately, literary fiction makes up only a small niche of the commercial market, and it's not a very lucrative one, so following advice that is best applied to literary fiction is probably going to destroy your dystopian/zombie/fantasy/romance. Write what you know is a good thing if you're writing a memoir or a novel based on real events, but it won't get you far if you're writing about the adventures of a young hobgoblin in faerie-land.That's why generalizations are bad, and when they are turned into rules, they can be downright destructive. But you don't have to take my advice. What if one of the world's best-selling authors told you this? How about Stephen King? In his book, On Writing, King wrote:

“You don’t need writing classes or seminars any more than you need this or any other book on writing. Faulkner learned his trade while working in the Oxford, Mississippi post office. Other writers have learned the basics while serving in the Navy, working in steel mills or doing time in America’s finer crossbar hotels. I learned the most valuable (and commercial) part of my life’s work while washing motel sheets and restaurant tablecloths at the New Franklin Laundry in Bangor. You learn best by reading a lot and writing a lot, and the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself.”

Does that mean writing classes and books are a complete waste of time? Of course not. Neither is taking advice from an old friend or a mentor. The important thing is exercising discrimination. Some advice, no matter how well intentioned, can destroy not just your career, but your life.Ultimately, as King says, the important thing is to practice what you do and learn from it. That's the difference between an amateur and a pro in any field, and it follows in writing as well.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Happy New Year!

2015 already! I can hardly believe it. I had a great 2014, and I hope you all did as well. Here's to an even better new year.