Kobo removes self-published books…temporarily

Ebook seller Kobo announced yesterday that they’re going to “quarantine” self-published books in an attempt to clean up the plague of books filled with questionable content like rape, incest, and bestiality.

I think this is ultimately a good thing; it was just done in a very bad way.

As self-publishing has exploded, Kobo and other digital retailers have been inundated with books. Some of those books are quite good, and a number of indie authors have found deserved success through digital platforms. But quite a few of these indie books are just, well I’ll be honest, horrible. They’re glorified fan-fiction and the not-so-secret extreme sexual fantasies of writers who feel they need to share (there’s nifty.org for that kind of stuff, people!). Big name authors like Stephen King include some pretty dark sexual content too, but the books aren’t purely focused on that material. There’s a line between telling a story that can go to some pretty dark and strange places, and filling a book with nothing but the deepest levels of human depravity. I can’t blame Kobo for enforcing some kind of quality control for the sake of their business and the self-publishing industry as a whole. And Kobo, like Amazon, has some pretty clear (one might even say, explicit, heh) terms about what they don’t want to see on their store. When a store chooses to remove content that it doesn’t want, it’s not censorship. It’s not unfair treatment. It’s enforcing standards. Some material just doesn’t have a place in a reputable book store (and again, if you write this kind of stuff there are other venues for you). As long as the standards are fairly and consistently applied, I don’t mind.

It is unfortunate that every self-publisher has to suffer because of this, and Kobo could have handled the situation much better (they didn’t give anyone notice that all indie books would be unavailable for a while). Even my own books are off of Kobo right now. Let’s be clear: this was a knee-jerk reaction that is going to cost indie authors money while Kobo figures things out. But I think the temporary inconvenience is worth it if it helps our continuing efforts to make indie books as respectable as indie movies.

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Amazon, Goodreads, and eBook giveaways

Now that readers and authors have had some time to come to terms with the news of Amazon’s acquisition of Goodreads, I’ve been thinking of ways this turn of events could end up benefiting both readers and authors. One idea seems like a no-brainer: eBook giveaways.

It’s no secret that GoodReads giveaways are a useful tool in the publishers toolbox. It’s a proven method for getting attention and finding new readers, for big publishers and indie publishers alike. But currently, if you’re an author focusing on digital releases and you don’t have any physical books to offer, GoodReads giveaways aren’t available. They only allow physical books.

With Amazon at the helm, this could change. That would be a very welcome change for indie publishers who aren’t quite ready to take the paper book plunge. Amazon could even build in a system that helps authors promote their KDP free days, which could be a powerful new tool to help self-publishers get exposure.

I’m also hoping that the GoodReads acquisition leads to some integration between Amazon sales pages and GoodReads ads. Right now, I can only track clicks on my GoodReads ads, but if I could tell exactly how many sales were coming from those ads I’d have extremely useful information to help me shape my ad campaigns.

Make your characters interesting; you’ll be with them for a while

Writing a novel is sometimes tedious, so it helps to have your characters become the most interesting people you know.

I’m going through the next-to-last editing phase of my book and it’s tough. It’s hard to find the focus to write after dealing with all the varied difficulties of life like work, friends, bills, and laundry (yes laundry, it’s easy to forget about it).

Then there’s the writer’s worse enemy: doubt. Doubt that all this effort is even worth anything. It’s easy to start questioning what you’re doing when you sit down and start thinking you’ve got more pressing matters to tend to. That doubt can kill all your creativity.

BUT, none of that matters if the world you are creating is a place you want to spend time in, and that place is filled with the most interesting people you can imagine. In those trying and tedious times spent at the desk, those characters become the best kinds of friends, and guides to fantastical adventures.

Fanfiction Confessions

Okay, I’ll admit it. I used to write Harry Potter fan fiction.

In fact my first completed novel-length work was my own rendition of HP Book 6. This was years ago, in that long span of time between Order of the Phoenix and Half Blood Prince. I really liked Rowling’s writing style and I needed some practice on my writing. I also needed a community that was ready and willing to provide feedback in bunches. Fanfiction was the answer.

Two years is a long time to wait for the next installment of a series you love. So I, like many other writers, filled the time by coming up with my own stories to fill the void. It was entertainment for me, and practice. I picked up where Rowling left off and inserted my own original characters, ideas, histories, and spells – all while attempting to mimic Rowling’s writing style (and writing in someone else’s world isn’t easy). My goal was to write a book that people could actually believe was the sixth book in the series. My dream job at the time was to get a gig writing in the Star Wars expanded universe (yes, I am that huge of a geek) so I figured this would be good practice. Writing for an existing commercial series is essentially just fan fiction you get paid for, after all.

My fanfiction was quite an educational endeavor. The Harry Potter fans are rabid and at times pedantic. They were the best critics I could have had at that point in my nascent writing career. They kept me focused, and for the first time I felt the joy that comes with people enjoying stories I wrote (even if I was playing in someone else’s world).

Now I write my own novels, and I do some freelance writing on the side. But my time as a fanfiction author definitely helped me become the writer I am today, and I think that’s true of many ambitious writers in this day and age. I recall, years after I left fanfiction, that a writer on the site I used to post on got a book deal with a $500,000 advance.

So why am I talking about fanfiction now? There has been a lot of chatter about the recent crazy trend of Twilight fanfiction stories getting major book deals. The Fifty Shades of Gray series started this trend, and now a new series by Sylvain Reynard reportedly earned a SEVEN FIGURE BOOK deal. Both book series started out as Twilight fanfiction and, after necessary tweaks and edits to avoid copyright infringement, became huge bestsellers on their own right. Fanfiction authors, long considered the oddest of the odd writers, are suddenly getting financial validation. I just wish the industry supported something better than those Twilight books -_-

Writing the boring parts

I’m working on my new novel. This was once a task I delighted in for hours every day as I put the major ideas together and carefully sculpted a story out of the random pictures in my head. But nowadays, the novel is just something I poke at when I can find time between work, cleaning, and enjoying the company of good friends (which every writer should take time to do – good times equals good stories). I used to be able to kick out 1000 words in every daily sitting; can’t do it now though. I’m lucky to get 3000 words done in a week. But it’s not just because of lack of time. There’s something else I’ve found about writing that makes it hard for the words to flow: now that the major ideas are all figured out, I’ve got to do the work of connecting the damn things.

I like to call it writing the “tendons of a story”. Anatomically speaking, tendons are the tissue that connect muscle to bone. Figuratively speaking, story tendons serve to connect the meaty parts that do all work to a larger framework. When I first dive into a story, I see the main “scenes” vividly in my head. These scenes are the core of the story – the big, bulging muscles that do all the heavy lifting involved in creating memorable stories. The scenes can be placed anywhere in the flow of the novel: beginning, middle, or end. I derive great pleasure from writing them.

But then the time comes to connect all those awesome-yet-disparate scenes into something that is coherent and flowing. That’s when the writing slows down. The story muscles are the parts you fall in love with while you write them. The connective tissue, however, is a chore. These literary tendons come in many forms: it could be fleshing out a locale in a scene, or spending time elaborating on how characters move from one location to another. It’s all extremely important stuff, but in the end it’s not as interesting to write as the juicy bits these passages link to.

I’ve found there is no trick for making these sections easier for me to write. When I wrote my fantasy novel, The Ninth Order, I even had to take a break for a couple of weeks to recharge my creative batteries. This is time consuming, thought-intensive work. But it’s important to make sure that these linking sections are always interesting to the reader who, unlike me, doesn’t know what’s coming next and how fantastic it is so I’ve got to keep their attention all the way through. My most successful technique is one of avoidance: I strive to make these “tendons” anything but mundane. If the characters have to travel from exotic locale to another (a common task in fantasy novels), I never make the trip simple. Trips are great opportunities to do world building and cleverly infodump descriptions of the world in great detail. It’s also a great chance to have your characters do what most people do on long trips: talk. Travel chat can provide an interesting look into the minds of your characters. Another handy tool in the writer’s arsenal is the ever-useful side-quest, which video games have made very good use of for years. A good side-quest can provide a temporary break from the main action and allow the author to explore some ideas that wouldn’t fit into the story otherwise (come to think of it, I may write a whole post on side-quests later). But the problem here is that side-quests are little stories of their own, and they require a whole different storytelling effort, and more restless nights spent

It takes time to write a good book. That’s especially true when ordinary life keeps interfering with the fantastic imaginary worlds the author is trying to create. And writing isn’t all ice cream and candy; oftentimes the process is torturous, and it’s easy to get tempted away from the desk by more fun activities. This is work, folks. And like all work, it’s not always fun. But the best writers find ways to keep their own boredom, frustration, and fatigue out of their stories, and the readers never know the pain involved in producing their favorite passages.