The Business of Writing
There’s been a lot of debate in the blogosphere lately about the future of digital books. Most of the debates center around price point, format, and distribution channels. Traditional publishers are bemoaning the self-publishing frenzy as the death of good, quality fiction that has at least kissed an editor and proofreader’s desks, and big eBook distributors like Amazon and Barnes & Noble are fighting over formats, traditional vs. wholesale pricing models, and proprietary content. Small imprints and large publishing houses alike are clamoring that Amazon is trying to seduce authors away from them and into the brave, new world of self-publishing, while authors are busy running numbers, looking for the magic option that allows them to make rent next month. It’s all about getting a bigger slice of the digital book pie.
From what I’ve seen, most industry players think of eBooks as digital versions of print on a page. Out of all the work they do to create a print book—from editing, book design, and marketing—most simply take the final text file and tweak it so it looks good on various eReaders and add a jpeg of the book cover. There are several easy to use and inexpensive software programs that do a reasonable job of creating digital books from text files; it’s no wonder that many authors are now choosing to self-publish. Unfortunately, based on the thousand or so eBooks I’ve read on a variety of devices, “reasonable” is really all you get with a digital book, regardless if published by self-starters or the big boys.
Did I mention most people think in terms of simply translating print on a page to print on a screen?
But as an author and former interactive instructional designer, I think the industry is missing a huge opportunity. While the vast majority of adult and young adult fiction works well as Print on a Screen, I think there is a market in the middle grade, chapter, picture, and non-fiction book arenas for what I call Enhanced Interactive versions.
Beyond the current standard of linking to internal dictionaries, providing the capability for user-specific notes, highlights, and bookmarks, and simple chapter-based menu structures, Enhanced Interactive versions elevate the reading experience to a whole new level. For example, an EI version of a book that explores a foreign culture or science concepts could link to additional information embedded in the digital book (but not included in the print version—differentiating and driving more people to the digital version) or maintained on external websites. In picture or chapter books, young readers could color or embellish illustrations, watch characters come to life through animation, or even add their own drawings to stories or new words to pictures—everything from writing an entirely original narrative to the existing illustrations to adding their own wacky nouns, adverbs, and verbs á la mad libs. Cookbooks linked to the internet could provide an outlet for home cooks to share their adaptations, tips, and photos. EI books could even take a cue from social media to create virtual book clubs filled with all the minutiae an author knows about his characters, plots, and backstories, along with all the things he writes that never (and often for good reason) make it into the book. For the rabid fan, too much is never enough.
The possibilities are endless; I could write 20 blogs on how Enhanced Interactive versions of various book types could function and the markets they’d appeal to. In a nutshell, simply think of all the ways we game, learn, communicate, and interact with digital media and embed these features in digital text through icons, color cues, menus, tabs—whatever you can imagine. That’s my vision of Enhanced Interactive digital books.
Of course, not all digital books would make great EI books. But designed, targeted, and marketed to the right audiences, EI books have the potential to revolutionize the publishing industry in ways as profound as Gutenberg’s wonderful moveable type and the Kindle’s digital format.
All of which should be good news to traditional publishers. Since creating versions of digital books that go beyond print on a screen requires skill sets and deeper pockets most self-publishers possess, this EI market fits squarely into the bailiwick of imprint and large publication houses. Properly managed, publishers could turn their versions of EI digital books into virtual seals of approval, allowing them to quietly reassume their self-appointed gate-keeper roles as guardians of good writing and purveyors of quality product. The crowd goes wild.
I know just the series to start.
Among my bibliophile friends, I’m the only one who loves eBooks. When you read as many and as fast as I do, being able to keep a stack of novels on hand without hauling a small trailer around is a definite plus. So is packing an eReader or smart phone into a purse instead of a 700+ page hardback the size of a loaf of bread. I also like being able to change the size of the font with a flick of the thumb so I can read without my glasses. There are still many nights when I read far longer than I should, but the side table light no longer shines in my husband’s eyes when he’s trying to sleep. He probably considers that a plus, too.
Unlike most digital gadget owners, in those odd moments of waiting for piano or soccer practice to end, I’d rather pick up my phone and lose myself in a novel instead of playing another round of Angry Birds. In our house book apps in all their forms are on everything—smart phones, Kindles, IPads, IPods, laptops, desktops, and Nooks. Our four family members share accounts and content, so it’s not unusual for two of us to be reading the same digital book. It works well if everyone disables auto-sync and uses a virtual bookmark. The kids also like having the literature they’re studying in school available on their IPods, so they can tell me they’re studying when they’re probably doing something else. I especially like that most of the classics they’re studying can be downloaded for free and don’t result in overdue library fines.
I made the switch to mostly eBooks when the first Kindle came out. Back then new releases were about half the cost of a hardback, a significant savings for someone who devours new fiction like potato chips, and while I did miss passing around books I’d finished, I no longer had to worry about where I was going to put them all if I got them back.
As an adult I’ve found most books are like a box of tissues; I read them once then toss. It’s the same with movies; I almost never want to watch a movie twice, even ones I really like. For me, knowing what’s going to happen seems to suck the joy right out of the experience, like a balloon minus the helium or a wrapper minus the candy.
But things were different when I was a kid. You could argue that books and movies were rarer back then and that would be true. However, I’ve seen this with my own and other kids who grew up with over-flowing cornucopias of books. Favorite children’s books are read and re-read. They’re treasured.
Over the years almost all of my adult books have migrated to the local library or thrift shop. However, through the years I’ve kept the books I owned as a child along with most of my kids’ children’s books. Packed away in waterproof boxes in the basement are Dr. Seuss, the Magic Tree House, Lemony Snicket, Harry Potter, and friends, all patiently waiting for the next generation of young readers to discover their words and worlds. I find a sense of peace in knowing that regardless of changing digital formats, battery life, screen glare, and economic upswings and downturns someday some little kid will get to hold a well-loved and often read book. He or she will get to turn the pages and step into the story, stray crayon marks, peanut butter-jelly thumbprints, and all.
So even though I really love the practicality of eBooks, when Jolly Fish Press said they wanted to publish One Boy, No Water and the rest of the Niuhi Shark Adventure Series as hardback children’s books, I was thrilled. After all, it’s tough pack an eBook in the basement for the grandkids.
I admit it. I’m not a scrapbooker. I have boxes and files of my children’s lives stashed in random places in my office and in directories on my computer because I know this stuff is too important to throw away, but the thought of sorting through it all to create a meaningful tapestry gives me hives. So when I started getting invites from friends to join Pinterest, the image sharing social networking site, I ignored them. After all, did I really need to spend more time looking at cute bedroom designs I’d never use or read recipes for dishes I’d never cook? Did I mention I’m not the scrapbooking type?
But a couple of days ago, Kirk Cunningham, my publicist at Jolly Fish Press, sent me an email detailing what he wanted me to do with social media to promote my book One Boy, No Water and The Niuhi Shark Adventure Series. Pinterest was on his list, although he listed it only as an option rather than a must do like Facebook and Twitter. Thinking perhaps someday some bored tech savvy tween or teen might check out Pinterest, I half-flippantly wrote back that I was thinking about creating some Pinterest boards based on the main characters. I set up an account and started playing around, first looking for images of food I describe in the book. You know us Hawaiians; it’s all about the food.
Oh. My. Pinterest.
A few clicks and suddenly all of the images in my head about my characters’ likes and dislikes exploded onto the screen. I realized I could pin images about places, food, activities, music—everything from hula halaus to old pineapple plantation hip waders to custom surfboard art—to create complete character profiles and share them with anybody who wanted to know more about the people in my books, more than I could ever write in a novel. Characters who were already living and breathing in my own head could come alive in ways I didn’t anticipate.
Holy cow. What a way to blow an afternoon!
Pinterest as a character design tool is not perfect. Many of the images I wanted to pin to a character didn’t work, probably due to an issue with the originating site not wanting to share images. I get it, but it’s frustrating. I also have to remind myself not to switch back and forth in my descriptions from author to character. I finally decided to create these boards as if they were done by the characters themselves to keep the descriptions from feeling a little schizophrenic. Besides, if a picture is really worth a thousand words, I don’t think I really need to add much, which is probably why most of my pins are labeled in caveman speak.
Still, I gotta admit, it’s a lot more fun than I ever imagined. Maybe someday I will get those scrapbooks organized. (Don’t hold your breath!)
To see how the character profiles are evolving, check out Lehua Parker on Pinterest: http://pinterest.com/lehuaparker/
No problem, I thought. An hour, tops.
The days went by and I didn’t even think about it. No need to rush. I’ve got a week.
And suddenly, I didn’t. It was DUE. I sat down at the computer and cracked my fingers, holding them poised over the keys, waiting for inspiration to strike.
I blinked. I wrote 50,000 words for book one, often writing 5,000 or more words in a day. It can’t be this hard to write a couple of summary paragraphs. Get a grip, I thought. It’s like cleaning the bathroom or doing the laundry. No matter how much you don’t want to do it, you just gotta. Rip the bandage already.
But that’s the crux of the problem, isn’t it? A blurb is not just a couple of paragraphs that summarize a book. It’s all about marketing, all about teasing, tantalizing, enticing someone who liked the cover enough to pick up the book (or to click on a link) to now open a wallet and spend hard-earned money to buy the book.
Now I’ve bought a lot of bad books based on fantastic blurbs, but I can’t remember buying a fantastic book with a bad blurb. Suddenly, the whole success of my book, of my series, of my life as an author is coming down to a couple of paragraphs.
Ai ka pressah!
Before I completely psyched myself out and started avoiding writing by doing the unthinkable–housework–I looked up ‘how to write a blurb’ on the internet. Here’s what I gleaned.
- The purpose of a blurb is to convince someone to buy the book. (Duh. If it were to convince someone eat chocolate, I wouldn’t be having a panic attack.)
- Don’t fall back on overused phrases or get stuck on awesome adjectives.
- The most frustrating blurbs are a simple selection of quotes from reviews. (No worries there.)
- Blurbs are usually about 100 words.
- Before writing a blurb, try to identify who the audience is, what the book is about, and what makes it special. (I’m beginning to think that not all how to blurb bloggers are geniuses at what they do. Maybe that’s why they have time to blog about blurb writing.)
- Boil it all down to a clear message, but at the same time give enough detail to tantalize. (For example…?)
- Start the copy in an arresting way that leaves the reader wanting more. (Ditto…?)
- Write a lot then cut, cut, cut.
- It’s a good idea to double-check that the names and plot-lines described in the blurb are actually in the book.
Given such cracker jack advice, which also included “try to at least skim the book,” I’m beginning to see why JFP asked me to write it. Besides being the cheapest option, at least they could be sure I actually knew the story and characters.
After pouring soda over ice and watching it fizz, then getting up to let the dogs out, I sat back down and stared at the monitor. This is Zader’s story, I thought. What does he want readers to know? Why should they listen to what he has to say? This is what he said.
Call me Zader. 11 years ago Uncle Kahana found me abandoned on a reef and gave me to the Westin family to raise. He says I can blame my allergies on the Hohonukai side of the family.
I can’t get wet.
I’m allergic to water, fresh or salt. One drop on my skin and it’s like a snake venom nuclear bomb. In an instant, my skin blisters and cracks until it finally turns gray and scaly and flakes off like a bad sunburn.
Don’t get me started on the other weirdness in my life, like the man with too many teeth, the trouble with ‘Ālika, or that my could-go-pro surfing brother Jay is afraid of sharks.
Sometimes life in paradise really sucks.
That’s it, at least until the editor’s red pen hits it.
For an author, once a debut novel has a publication date it’s no longer about writing, it’s about marketing. A large amount of time and energy is spent by publishers on getting the book in front of People Who Matter, begging them to first read it and then, cross your fingers, positively review it in blogs, book reviews, online services, catalogs–anywhere, really, where people who buy books might find out about your book and want to pick it up.
As a debut author, one thing I’ve been asked to do by Jolly Fish Press is to develop relationships within the middle grade/young adult authors’ community. They suggested I join various readers’ and writers’ online groups, read and review books for other authors, and generally play nice with others. It’s a lot like fourth grade where you get invited to birthday parties based on who you invited to yours.
No problem, I thought. As much as I read, I can easily knock out a couple of book reviews a week. Glad to help other writers.
So I started reading and reviewing books on websites for debut and often self-published authors, the ones most willing to share their work and hungry for the buzz.
Words fail. After a few weeks and a couple dozen books later, it wasn’t just the grammar or misspelling or unintentional malaprop or errors with homophones throughout the texts–those can be easily fixed. The problems in these books were larger and more fundamental. Often there was no plot or even characters that made me care about what happened to them. There was no story. Reading those books was like having a conversation with my autistic nephew, perfectly clear in his mind and utterly confused in mine.
I wanted to be supportive; I really did. I tried to find good things to say about the novels, but when all I could honestly say is “I liked the cover” I knew I had to take a time out. I didn’t want to discourage people from writing, but I also didn’t want to say something was good when I couldn’t honestly recommend it to anyone.
I’m having a hard time figuring out my role here. I’m not the author’s editor, mother, or cheerleader. I’m not a credentialed book reviewer with followers hanging on my every word, which should make my opinion rather unimportant. However, I’ve seen “bad” reviews on some of these websites turn into ugly name-calling fests involving the reviewer, the author, the best friend, the mother, and sometimes even the publisher–reminding me again of fourth grade. I believe if you publish you should be grown-up enough to realize not everyone is going to like your work and that arguing, explaining, and name-calling never changes anyone’s opinion. It’s obvious that not everyone feels this way.
If I could only publish reviews about books that I liked, it would be much simpler. Unfortunately, these burgeoning author websites insist that if you get a free copy–e-book or print–you basically have to publicly review it or you’ll get kicked out of the club.
Be nice or else.
Which is unfortunate for everybody–readers, authors, and reviewers. If every indie, self-published, or small press book is four or five stars and fantastic, the reviews are meaningless and we’re back to relying on the opinions of the People Who Matter.
Remember Friday Night Frights? My cousins and I would stay up late sprawled out on the living room pune’e and watch all the B (and C and D) horror and Samurai movies, blankets and pillows over our heads most of the time. I think those classic 5-4-4 your pants monsters are to blame for all the emo wimpy YA/MG fantasy books on the market today. We’re all trying to convince ourselves that the things that left us sleeping with the lights on are no big deal. Jolly Fish Press graciously asked me to guest blog on this topic. The following is a repost.
I bet I wasn’t the only kid who read Bram Stoker’s Dracula or saw one of the million film adaptations in a gloomy movie theater and then went home to sleep with the covers tucked tightly around my neck. Sweat poured down my face in the tropical heat, but there was no way I’d chance a vampire bite by sleeping with my neck exposed or a window open.
Fast forward a few decades and you’d discover that some of us who’d snarfed garlicky snacks before bed and slept with crucifixes under our pillows grew up to be authors, the kind of storytellers who reimagined and repackaged our make-sure-the-closet-door-is-closed and check-under-the-bed childhood fears into books and movies that fuel a thriving multi-million dollar Young Adult and Middle Grade fantasy market. Vampires, shape-shifters, ghosts, witches, zombies—pick one and you’ll find it on the current bestsellers’ list—are all deeply rooted in our cultural subconscious because of folklore.
The reasons folklore themes are so popular with YA/MG readers are obvious. One of the main purposes of folklore is to transmit cultural values and morals, directly speaking to a maturing adolescent’s desire to understand himself and the society around him. Our truest folktales wend their themes of good versus evil through all cultures, eventually becoming familiar archetypes that caution, entertain, teach, and ignite the imagination. It’s not surprising that the same kinds of stories that enthralled adolescents 500 years ago still enchant authors and readers today—in a modern upside-down-through- the-cracked-looking-glass kind of way.
Traditionally, folklore, myths, legends, and fairytales aren’t concerned with understanding the bad guy. Things go bump, bite, and burp in the night simply because they can. Virtuous characters survive by embodying the traits that a culture most reveres while villains are hoist with their own petards. The moral lessons these stories impart are simple; good engenders good, bad gets what it deserves.
My, how times—and cultures—have changed.
It’s no longer acceptable to simply fear and defeat the monster in the closet; we insist our heroes unlock the door, invite him in, and serve him a sugar-free organic macrobiotic snack. We want to understand him, save him, and show the world that it was all a misunderstanding. Popular modern vampire characters like Edward Cullen, Angel, Stefan Salvatore, and Eric Northman differ from the folkloric vampire in ways that make them less pee your pants terrifying and more like the odd vegan neighbor down the street who doesn’t like cats and wears sunglasses at night. For YA and MG readers, that’s key. Adolescents easily identify with the outsider; modern stories that take an archetypical irredeemable monster and turn him into a big misunderstood galoot are especially appealing because if the heroine can overlook the fact that the love of her life sees her wedding bouquet as garnish, there’s a good chance that the cute girl on the bus will overlook a slight overbite. Or propensity to snort instead of laugh. Or a closeted obsession with anime cos-play. The possibilities are as endless as the hope it propagates.
Which brings me full circle: if many of today’s YA/MG authors are reimagining the folklore monsters that made us sleep with the lights on and covers over our heads in ways that allow the protagonist to vanquish evil social prejudices and cuddle up with the claws, I wonder what kinds of stories we’ll be reading in twenty years or so when the kids who grew up leaving the windows and closet doors open and eating garlic-free midnight snacks get around to activating their voice recognition storyware and reimagining things that go bump, snuggle, and kiss in the night. Will they look back and say it’s all Edward’s fault?
PROVO, UT—Jolly Fish Press (JFP) has successfully acquired the North American distribution and publication rights to Lehua Parker’s debut children’s book, One Boy, No Water.
One Boy, No Water, the first of five books in the Niuhi Shark Adventure Series, is a fantasy based on an island folklore centered on the Niuhi shark people in Hawaii— imagine water people, angry teenagers, confused parents, a looming mystery, and man- eating sharks! The book is scheduled for a Fall 2012 release.
Originally from Hawaii and a graduate of The Kamehameha Schools, Parker—also known as “Aunty Lehua”—has always been an advocate of Hawaiian culture and literature. Her writings often feature her island heritage and the unique Hawaiian pidgin.
The Niuhi Shark Adventure Series will be JFP’s first middle grade series to be released in the Fall of 2012.
I’ve been working off and on a middle grade children’s series set in Hawaii for several years. It wasn’t that I didn’t enjoy writing it—I did—and it wasn’t that I kept running out of ideas—if anything, I had too many. The problem was a much bigger question.
What was I going to do with it when it was done?
There are as many reasons to write as there are writers, some of them noble and pure of purpose and others more, ahem, monetary in nature. The “what to do with it” question was compounded by the fact that my kolohe characters kept insisting on talking in pidgin. Hawaiian Pidgin English, as in Not Standard English which is what most middle grade kids are learning to read in America. No publisher in his right mind would want to tackle a problem like this and the dearth of Hawaiian writers on the national stage publishing works with pidgin seemed to back up this theory, Lois Ann Yamanka and Graham Salisbury being the few exceptions that prove the rule.
So the series lurked in the background of my mind and computer, rising to the surface when no other productive use of my time could be found to avoid housework. What can I say? Laundry has to get done and dishes washed, but like death and taxes I try to avoid them as long as possible. “Working on the series” sounded like a great excuse to me.
A couple of months ago, bored and looking for “a project,” I attended a workshop on the emerging field of self-publishing. Books and publishing—the act of getting the stories into the hands and minds of readers—are undergoing a revolution not seen since Gutenburg showed off his fancy new press. Ebook readers and new distribution channels have created unparalleled opportunities for authors to reach highly targeted audiences and to achieve that basest reason of all for writing: a paycheck.
I would have shouted eureka, but that would have been a little cliché.
Now that I knew what I was going to do with it, I set about writing again and putting all of the building blocks in place to self-publish. Author website and store, check. Blog, check. Fan Facebook page, check. Research best practices, check. Someone to do cover art, check.
And then a little voice said, “Why are you doing all of this?”
“’Cause I have to do something with all these words and stories,” I replied. “No one else will.”
“How do you know?” the voice chided. “Did you ever give anyone the chance to say yes?”
Huh. All of this work was based on the assumption that no mainland publisher would be interested in a middle grade series with pidgin dialogue.
And I was wrong.
Through a series of events that no one would believe if I told them, I got the series in front of a real live traditional mainland book publisher who is seriously considering the books for publication on the national level in a five book, five year deal that doesn’t seem real. The details are still being worked out and nothing is final until the ink is dried on the contract, but wow lau-lau, apparently there is a Santa Claus, Virginia, and for Lehua, a mainland publisher who thinks there’s a market for middle grade fiction with pidgin dialogue.
Here’s to the new year!
One of the big stumbling blocks to writing Hawaiian fiction in the “bird,” as I recently heard someone call Pidgin, is finding the audience. Native Hawaiian Pidgin English speakers like to talk story and certainly sing story; read story maybe not so much. At least that’s the argument Hawaiian writers have heard for decades, along with it’s too low-brow, too stylized, and since Pidgin spelling isn’t officially standardized, just too much work for the reader, who, the naysayers claim, would rather be surfing or talking story or doing the laundry–anything–instead of reading or buying books.
Having spent a lot of time over many years trying to find other authors publishing in Pidgin and finding something resembling a desert atoll, I think it’s less about whether or not Pidgin speakers are book readers, but about traditional publishing models. The Hawaiian writers are there with the stories, and I think the readers are too, but not on the scale that attracts the big print boys. What Pidgin literature exists is generally sanitized and stripped of most of the rhythm and flow of Pidgin and really just tosses in a phrase or two for flavor–trying to hit the largest audience possible and unfortunately missing the heart of Hawaii.
Traditional publishing models believe there is no significant market for this kind of literature and therefore have found it too risky to promote. But eBooks are changing the way books are published and marketed. Niche markets take time to develop, and eBooks have virtually no expiration date–literally. EBooks allow authors to build audiences and demand over time without the immediate need for high returns to pay back the large investments traditional publishers make upfront in printing and promoting a book.
So maybe with eBooks, we’ll all read a little more da kine. Nice, yeah?
Originally from Hawaii and a Kamehameha Schools graduate, Lehua writes fiction set in the imaginary town of Lauele, Oahu. Her newest book, One Boy, No Water, Book 1 of The Niuhi Shark Saga, is scheduled for hardback and eBook publication on Sept. 22, 2012 by Jolly Fish Press.
The Niuhi Shark Saga books are written in American English with lots of dialogue in Hawaiian Pidgin. Hawaiian Pidgin, or just Pidgin as it is called in Hawaii, is a polyglot language with its roots in Hawaiian, Chinese, Portuguese, Japanese, English, and Filipino. Hawaiian Pidgin developed as people from all over the world came to Hawaii in the 1800s looking for a better life. Over time, Pidgin has evolved into a heavily English-based language while retaining its original syntax, grammar, and lilt. While almost everyone in Hawaii today speaks, reads, and writes standard American English, true communication, the kind that speaks from the heart is in Pidgin.
This blog is dedicated to all Pidgin speakers and the stories we tell.