Before we begin, I would like to notify people that I made a very brief update of my blog entry on ISBNs regarding their use in eBook formats. You don’t have to go back to that entry if you’ve already read it, however — I’ll just cover it here. Basically , this article has led me to revise my opinion on best practice. I now think, for the sake of future-proofing your identifiers, that it might be wise to use a seperate ISBN to distinguish .pdf format eBooks from other types… though I still think you do not need to distinguish between the ePub and .mobi formats.
Also, this just happens to be my Birthday! I’d take honest reviews of my books as a present. ^_^
As a reminder, this is the fifth part for my Weird Things I’ve Had To Research series. You can find my series introduction, which will include a (growing) table of contents, here.
Not all of the research I’ve done has been reading. At times, I need to research something for which no written source will do. Sometimes, I need to go somewhere else — like to attend an event in person, or to see something done on Youtube.
Often, when I do this sort of research, I find more than I’m looking for. Sometimes a lot more. This is more about finding material for future books and stories while attempting to do research on something else.
Of course, it’s also about how you can use resources like Youtube in your normal research… but sometimes it’s fun (and useful) to dig a little further than you need to.
For my first example, I was once trying to decide on what hairstyle a certain character in The Kitsune Stratagem should be wearing. Note: If you go looking for hairstyles in the book, you won’t find any. I never found the right one. So, in this case, I failed to find the thing I was researching for, and wound up writing around it.
I went to Youtube. I knew that there were a number of hairstylists (both professional and amateur) who liked to show off their home styles on Youtube. I needed to see how the hairstyles were achieved, with an eye towards how the same or a similar hairstyle could be managed with the technology present in my book. (The hairstyle had certain other requirements which I was never able to satisfy, but that’s immaterial for this post).
You’d be surprised the kinds of things you find Youtube recommends alongside something like hairstyling. At the time I was doing this research, I was also expecting to attend a convention a few weeks later. I saw a video recommended which included two very interesting words — “Packing tips.” I wasn’t sure what, if anything, it had to teach me, but I always struggle with making sure I had everything I needed.
Well, the video didn’t give me much information on packing that mattered to me — the woman giving the presentation was a fashion model, and most of her tips were focused on keeping stylish — but she did mention a few things that I had never heard of, before. Namely, I had never heard of powdered toothpaste — at least, not in the modern sense. I knew about baking soda toothpastes, but I was under the impression that even the homemade toothpastes using baking soda were still a paste, not a powder.
Now, you won’t find anything in any of my current books using powdered toothpaste… yet. But, after this video inspired me to look more into powdered toothpaste, I’ve come to the conclusion that tooth powders could be a good thing to include both in fantasy novels and in science fiction novels, if I ever need to discuss “daily life” issues with the characters. After all, tooth powders can be made with just about any level of technology I’m likely to use in my books; they are effective; and they are good for travel, as a jar of tooth powder will last a lot longer than a similar-sized container of toothpaste.
It might also be easier to disguise a poison as toothpowder than as toothpaste. Or to hide your valuables in the jar of toothpowder so that they are never seen. Or to contaminate it so that using it becomes unpleasant or impossible, if I want to make an issue of my characters “running low on supplies.” (First world problem? Maybe. But if your characters are stranded and can’t replace their dental care products, that can forshadow health problems that they’ll need to deal with later on).
I know — this is just a very small detail, and in the normal course of things probably wouldn’t even be worth mentioning. Some of you may think “Tooth powder? That’s not a big deal — I thought everyone knew about that!” But it was new to me; something I found while looking for something else. I may never use it, but now I can add this little drop of information into the bucket that is my worldbuilding resources.
IT’S THE LITTLE THINGS
There are all kinds of things you can learn directly from Youtube. You want to learn karate? Well, someone (actually, more than one someone, but I couldn’t find the original video I viewed on this when I went looking again) has an entire online course in a single hour and a half long video. You want to learn how to cook Japanese food? I know of two verygood cooking channels on Youtube. Want to know how to tie a specific kind of knot? There are videos for that. But you can also learn things which are just embarrasing to ask about, because they’re so obvious to people who know it.
Now, I’m a fan of Lindsey Stirling. Fun, bubbly, and she makes good music, too. I like watching the behind-the-scenes stuff just as much as the music videos, sometimes. So, I encountered this video that I’d probably normally never watch, but I was sort of hoping for a bit of an interview during it:
Well, they never really got into the interview I was hoping for (they kind of hinted at it, but then got distracted by the actual work they were doing).
But I have no clue how to put on makeup. Well, okay, when I was in a theater class one time, I learned a bit about using latex body paint to simulate a wound and things like that, but I mean the typical everyday makeup — eye shadow, blush, foundation, and all that. I could guess at some of it (foundation is what you put on underneath other makeup, right? I mean, that just makes sense), but there are a few things that — if I were to ever write about — I wouldn’t have a clue how to portray.
For example, how the heck do you use an eyelash curler? I mean, for someone who doesn’t know what it does, it looks like some kind of medieval torture device designed to pluck a person’s eye out, not something to curl eyelashes.
Well… now, after watching that video, I know. And it’s such a silly little thing — but it’d be so embarrassing (for any number of reasons) to ask anyone I know. But there, in that video, is a simple demonstration that shows me exactly how it works… and some advice to let me know why the quality of an eyelash curler matters. Who knew?
A FEW CAUTIONS
Just as a warning, when doing research on Youtube, the material you are looking at can disappear in a moment. I was looking for a video a couple weeks ago for this blog that I first saw a month ago — a video describing the formula for calculating orbits — and the video was gone. I’m not sure why — it might have been a copyright violation claim (there are a lot of copyright violators on Youtube; there are also far more false claims of copyright violations, made by crawler bots, and most of the time these are never overturned), but there are quite a few other reasons why a youtube video may be removed. Likewise, a video I’d found on homemade musical instruments (which originally appeared in my suggestions list near the Lindsey Sterling videos I was watching) is gone, as was one (following a trail of links a little more outwards) on various historical forms of dance.
You need to find some way to preserve that information — take notes or whatnot. Do not rely on this youtube video existing a year from now, a week from now, or tomorrow. It might not be there.
Also, keep in mind that Youtube videos are not reliable. Some people like doing special effect tricks with Youtube, so just as with “don’t believe everything you see on TV,” you shouldn’t believe everything you find on Youtube. Also, people can upload instructional videos as if they were experts even if they aren’t experts in the field (which doesn’t mean you can’t learn from them — especially in the cooking videos sections and the like — just that they shouldn’t be granted automatic authority status just because they’re on Youtube and have a lot of followers). I generally feel as if these sorts of cautions shouldn’t be needed, but you never know.
Youtube videos are a great way to learn certain kinds of things. Especially if you have time to let your attention wander and go looking through the “suggested” videos — you never know what you’ll find.
And it’s proof that a research tool can be good both for targetted research (if you really want to know how to tie a square knot, you can use the onboard search engine specifically for videos on tying square knots) and for less specific, general, or inspirational research (okay, maybe I’m looking for information on hairstyles, but ooh — packing advice! And you know, I may need to know how an eyelash curler works some day. And oh, look, while watching that musician whose videos I like, I see a link to making homemade musical instruments, which surely could be handy! And… well, you get the idea.
I realize some people are reading these articles and thinking “Wait, where’s the research on all this? This stuff is mostly common knowledge, or all he’s doing is a quick trip to wikipedia and youtube. This isn’t research!” Surprise — yes it is. The whole point of this series is that this is that you would be surprised at just what you need to research, or what qualifies AS research.
If you ever want to try and create a spreadsheet comparing your actual writing time to your research time (especially for those accountants out there who think you need to do that kind of thing for proof that your writing is a “career” and not a “hobby”), you need to know that yes, looking up a how-to-do-makeup video on youtube can qualify as actual research, however basic the knowledge might be. So can an afternoon going through wikipedia tracking down women’s (historical forms of) underwear, or trying to figure out the mating habits of the wild haggis. You don’t have to be sorting through scholarly journals on quantum wheels or whatnot in order for it to count as research. (I’ve done that, too, though)
That said, I’m probably going to be taking a break from this series for a little bit (waiting for more inspiration, perhaps). I’m not sure what I’ll be posting next weekend, but I promise I’ll have something.
I have been very busy working on In Forgery Divided this week (the sequel to In Treachery Forged). Because of that, I haven’t had as much time as I usually do to work on my blog. The blog I was planning for this week (Weird Research Part 5) is half-finished, but it doesn’t look as if I’ll get it done in time for my usual Sunday post. Not because it is especially long, but because it requires I replicate some of my old research in order to complete it, and I just haven’t had time for that.
But I will not go content-less this week. I thought I might lay out some “quick-hits” addendums to my Self-Publishing Roundtable series.
#1: KINDLE PREVIEWER
I look through a lot of blogs on writing and self-publishing. Some I give more attention than others, but even some of the less-relevant to my needs blogs have useful information from time to time.
Such is the case with Aaron Shepard’s Publishing Blog. By the time I discovered his blog, he no longer felt as if he was an “authority” on self-publishing. With the words “The Party’s Over,” he effectively went into semi-retirement as a self-publishing guru, and a lot of his articles have been left aging and out-of-date.
He does still publish the occasional blog post, however (mostly on things like the paper quality of Createspace vs. Ingram POD books, if you’re interested), and every now and then he has new news to share.
Last week, he pointed out something I was unaware of: That the “virtual proof” you can get for your Kindle eBooks from Amazon’s Kindle Previewer no longer resemble the final version of the ebook your readers buy. This is apparently because of Kindle’s still-in-progress attempts to improve typographic features for their .kf8 proprietary ebook file standard. (keep in mind that, as far as 99.999% of writers are concerned, it doesn’t matter what the file standard it. It just matters what the book looks like in the end. Some book designers might have issues with it, however, and sometimes as a self-publisher you need to handle both jobs).
What this means is that — at least for the moment — you should probably buy at least one copy of your own eBook after release, just to double-check and make sure things look the way you intended them do. I suspect it won’t make a noticable change for most of you, but there’s always the chance of something going wonky.
#2: TRENDS IN SELF-PUBLISHING BLOGGING: FONTS
There are a few issues in self-publishing which rise up on occasion. Some of these are bred by controversy, and I tend to avoid saying much on those topics (I usually have an opinion, but I rarely feel strongly enough — or well-informed enough — to get into an argument over these topics), but there are other topics which very well might be “trend by coincidence.”
For example, I saw, over the course of two weeks, five or six articles on font selection. I doubt this was a co-ordinated effort by this blogs, but by happenstance a trend was developing among self-publishing blogs. So, I guess I’ll follow suit.
Keep in mind — it generally isn’t advisable to use a specific font in eBooks; you might (as I do) use something a touch fancy as a title font (the font used on your title page, chapter headers, etc.; this can be, and frequently is, identical to the font used on your front cover), but otherwise leave fonts alone for your eBooks.
If you are designing your own print books, however, you’re going to need to pay attention to your font choice. In print, for the interior of your book, you probably want a serif font rather than a san-serif because it’s easier on the eyes (this is reversed on an electronic screen, though probably not an eInk eReader). And you don’t want the font choice to distract your reader by being too fancy, too stylistic, or too, well…
Book designers, in particular, have issue with certain fonts such as Times New Roman because they are “boring” (or rather, because they make the interior of your book look like it was printed on your home computer on default settings). They think these styles are so boring that they can throw the reader out of the story. I’m not sure how much stock I put into these pronouncements, but I do agree there are fonts that look more stylized than TNR without breeching that “too fancy” line.
When picking a font for the inside of your book, you should ensure you’ve picked something that displays all of your punctuation correctly. It can be a particular issue if you’re using a more obscure font; some fonts were designed for “Display” or for particular specific uses, and any unneeded punctuation (like, say, an apostrophe) simply was never designed for it. And some fonts have a complete set of punctuation marks that look quite nice… until you see, for example, an em-dash placed next to a curvy letter like b, p, u, g, etc. (I know that specific one because it is a known issue with the print edition of “In Treachery Forged.” For some reason, the kerning — the space between letters — looks far too wide with the font I chose)
You also want to make sure you have the right to use these fonts you choose commercially. Don’t trust that, just because you can pick it in the font selector of your computer, you can just use any old font. Most fonts are copywritten, and some have very peculiar restrictions for their use. I like using nice, free fonts without commercial restrictions, such as Alegreya, which can be found on Fontsquirrel. There are some fonts that come with software, however, and you are still permitted to use some of them… but you had better check before you do. There are some fonts that come with Microsoft Word, for example, that you are not allowed to use on commercial projects.
Beyond that, I don’t really have much advice. Just use stuff that you think looks professional — don’t do something “fun” and use Comic Sans or a similar font in your interior because “it makes the book look handwritten.” Maybe it does make your book look handwritten… but it also makes it hard to read, and that discourages your customers from wanting to finish your book.
Try and get it right the first time, though. Changing a font after the proof has come out can be very daunting — if you change the font you change the font size; changing the font size means you’ll have to re-do all of those corrections you made for justification, widows and orphans, etc.; re-doing all of those corrections will change the page count; changing the page count changes the thickness of your book spine. Basically, after a certain point, if you change the font you have to completely re-design your book.
#3: BOOKS OFFERED ON EBAY, BUT NO-ONE BOUGHT IT!
I see people in this scenario a lot:
They do a search for their own book. Surprise, surprise, they find a copy of their print book for sale on eBay… but they have yet to sell a single print copy, so how can it possible be offered on eBay?
Well, the thing to remember is that your book is Print-on-Demand, and that many legitimate small-business book dealers use eBay as their storefront.
If your book is made available on expanded distribution, any dealer can buy the book for resale. Some dealers will list books they don’t yet have on eBay, knowing that they can buy those books on-demand, if someone orders it from them. It is only after someone buys the book from them that your book would be sold to them.
So, if you see your book listed on eBay even though it hasn’t been sold, no, it doesn’t mean that the seller is “ripping you off” and should be reported to eBay for fraud. Most likely, they’re trying to sell your book for you, and you should be thanking them.
#4: FUTURE SELF-PUBLISHING ROUNDTABLE PLANS
I’m very busy with In Forgery Divided, but I have a plan to continue the Self-Publishing Roundtable once that’s out the door.
On Facebook (and in a few other spots) I’ve talked about an anthology (or rather, in this case, a compilation; the difference is the number of authors involved) entitled “This Book Cannot Make Any Money.” It would consist of various things (poetry, experimental fiction, an inside joke, story fragments, etc.) that were too small to sell on their own, too wierd to sell on their own, too incomplete (and never-to-be-completed) to sell on their own, or some combination of the above. In other words, it’s a compilation of a bunch of things that will never make any money (as the title says).
What I was thinking I might do (extreme emphasis on the ‘might’) is compile that book, and make a set of blogs dovetailing off of both this Self-Publishing Roundtable Series and my still-to-be-debuted Writing Software Review Series. I would blog the entire process of going from “I’m done writing; time to find an editor” to “Ebook and Print Book Both Published, Copywritten, and the First Month of ‘Marketing’ Complete” completing this project with zero budget and in my “off hours.”
The idea would be I’d walk people through the process. I would also try building the same book multiple times (using different software; I’d build the eBook once with Scriveners, once with Sigil, maybe even once with Jutoh or similar paid-for software (again, if you want me to buy Jutoh to review it, I need AT LEAST ONE COMMENT asking about it). Then I’ll build the print book in Adobe InDesign (CS6), Microsoft Publisher (2007), and Scribus (1.4.5). Then I’d walk through the process of setting prices, assigning ISBNs, and publishing through Amazon, Nook, Smashwords, Kobo, Draft2Digital, Apple, various niche stores, etc.
Again, this is a very tentative plan. It will go very, very slowly, because I’ll be trying to manage it around the writing, publishing, and marketing work I’m doing that I hope can make some money.
Well, this is the first “unplanned” update for the Self-Publishing Review. There’ll probably be others in addition to item #4, above… but not for a while. Expect another Weird Research post next week.
Edit: Comments on this post have been disabled because of spammers; contact me if you’re a real person and want me to re-open comments.
As a reminder, this is the fourth part for my Weird Things I’ve Had To Research series. You can find my series introduction, which will include a (growing) table of contents, here.
If you’re a fan of science fiction and fantasy, you’re probably aware that J.R.R. Tolkien was a linguist, and he invented multiple languages over the course of writing the Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings saga. A lot of fantasy and science fiction requires the writer to create an entirely new language for their characters to speak; after all, it’s highly unlikely aliens or foriegn elves or whatnot would be speaking English (or Common, or whatever you call the your viewpoint characters’ default language). The technical term is “constructed language.”
J.R.R. Tolkien may be best known for it (he created not just individual languages, but whole families of languages with dialect trees and the like), but he was hardly the only person to ever create a new language for a book. Edgar Rice Burroughs actually came up with one for his “A Princess of Mars” before Tolkien’s first sample of Elven appeared in the literary world. There have been multiple languages created for the likes of Star Trek, Star Wars, Dune, Game of Thrones, Babylon 5, Avatar, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, and many, many more. Heck, a very basic form of constructed language was a central plot point of the video game Skyrim.
Well, when I was first writing In Treachery Forged, I gave serious thought to construction one or more such languages for the novel. I got the rudiments down for one of them, and came up with a thing or two for another… and then I quit. I didn’t really need to have a complete constructed language for these characters — a few words here or there for flavor, sure, but nowhere in my plans were any of my characters conversing in one of these constructed languages.
And… well, I am not Tolkien. I did enjoy some parts of constructing a language, but other parts of it became a grind… and it was those grinding elements that had me stop.
Of course, I did save a lot of my notes, and I’m having my characters largely follow those bits of grammar and so forth I’d developed whenever one of these unfinished languages come up, so I might complete things some day. Who knows? But I think, from what I did manage, that it’s quite possible to construct a language for your books (or video games, or movies, or whatever other reason you might want your own language) even if you aren’t a trained linguist like Tolkien.
Constructing a language requires a number of elements: You must create some rules of grammar, add in a set of vocabulary, and then figure out how best to include your language’s use in your story. Tolkien managed to do it a lot of times… but most of us aren’t Tolkien.
NEEDING NEW LANGUAGES
J.R.R. Tolkien created not just one or two languages, but whole language trees. Several types of Elvish, Dwarvish, Numenorean, and probably others I’m not thinking of. Tolkien’s passion, however, was languages; mine was not.
But while writing In Treachery Forged, I was thinking about the possibility of developing multiple languages. I couldn’t use Tolkien’s languages without permission (not that I really wanted to), and didn’t really know them anyway, so I had to construct some new languages, myself. (Note: Calling this an article on research is perhaps a bit strong; think of it more as applying pre-existing knowledge to your writing career)
My Human culture was a formerly single civilization in diaspora, so some of the language issues (namely, the difference between Porosian, Sviedan, maybe even Oregalian) could simply be dialect choices; Sviedan is portrayed as English; I have yet to have to portray native Porosian or any of those other foriegn dialects (well, in what’s published), so I haven’t had to do much in that regard, but In Treachery Forged did encounter Elven, Dwarven, and Tel’Curlan as seperate languages.
Tel’Curlan, I’d determined, would have been a cross between Porosian, Dwarven, and Elven languages (reflecting the country’s origins). I also felt the Nekoji and Merfolk would have their own languages, but they would be languages that were beyond Human speech.
But I needed seperate Elven and Dwarven languages. And because of the first in-novel encounters with these two languages, one I started with my focus on grammar and the other started with a focus on vocabulary.
I had no prior experience or education in creating a language. I’m not sure many do, and I’m not sure if there is an established method for creating one. I couldn’t find any “Complete Idiot’s Guide to Constructing Your Own Language” type books, if there are. So I had to come up with my own method of creating a language. I reverse engineered the foriegn language courses I’d taken and came up with two.
I am a native American-English speaker, and for the most part the grammar in my head is American-English style. I have a passing familiarity with the differences between that and British or Australian English, but I really have to think about it.
I’ve also studied (never to fluency, I’m afraid) two foriegn languages in my life. One of these was Japanese. It was a difficult language for me. Even if I resumed practicing my studies on a regular basis, at best I’ll be functionally illiterate in the language: At one point I knew all the ‘letters’ (syllables?) in both hiragana and katakana, but never managed to learn to read them when put together as words; I have what is usually a mild case of dyslexia, but when I look at Japanese writing — and knowing that it might be written in any of three directions based on context — I can never figure out what order to read those Japanese characters should be read in. For me, it’s the equivalent of trying to learn to read, and every word looks like this:
I had a lot of reasons for wanting to learn Japanese, however (yes, I am a fan of Japanese anime and generally prefer those shows with their original Japanese voice actors, but my interest came from other places as well), so conceding to the idea of being a functional illiterate in another language I concentrated on learning verbal Japanese.
Curiously, I never learned much vocabulary in these lessons. A bare minimum, I would say, that would be necessary for the primary thing they were teaching: Japanese grammar.
So, when I got started on the Elven language, I started with the structure of the grammar.
I began by looking into sentence structure. English is generally subject-verb-object. In Japanese, it can sometimes be subject-object-verb. I didn’t want my Elven language to just be wordswapped English, because that felt… cheap. I also didn’t want it to just be wordswapped Japanese for the same reasons.
Then I came up with a wonderfully original — and, in the end, awful — idea: Bifurcated verbs, one part to indicate the actual action and the second to indicate the tense of the verb. It would go subject-verb (action)-object-verb (tense). I liked the idea of it, and in the samples I constructed it gave the language a truly foriegn feel while still allowing a strong sense of “yes, there are real grammar rules I need to follow.” That one rule, by itself, gave the language its own character.
It might have worked for the language I was building, but it made things very difficult for the novel. This rule gave my Elves a unique verbal tick, but it became horribly confusing when rendered into English. All too frequently I found myself losing track of what I was doing. The phrasing, which initially seemed quite lyrical, became horribly awkward half the time. My editor didn’t understand it and corrected it wrong, and I’d make an even more wrong mistake trying to correct him.
In the end, at least when they were speaking in English, all that survived of this plan was that the Elves would frequently repeat their verbs (usually with one of those two being a contraction and the other the full word, but not always) at the end of most sentences.
I had other “rules of Elvish grammar” I was employing, but this was the most central of them… and it proved too complicated to make it viable. Oh, words of the language I’d been working on have and will surface from time to time, but I doubt I’ll have any of the characters conversing in Elvish, very often.
Remember me saying I studied two foriegn languages (outside of various official forms of English)? Well, while my study of Japanese began with grammar (and only just enough Japanese vocabulary to learn this grammar), when I was in Junior High, High School, and even College, my classes all tried to teach me Spanish by focusing almost entirely on vocabulary.
I never enjoyed those classes… but when I started on the Dwarven language I found myself starting here by working out some vocabulary lists. I figured these lists could also, eventually, be used to fill out the Elvish language, as well.
But how to create these lists? I couldn’t just grab a dictionary and go through it (too many words would be too irrelevant, as I found from the very first page when I tried it), and it would be unethical to just steal another language guide’s vocabulary lists. So how should I build them?
Well, I started by trying to think of book-relevant verbs. Dwarf or Elf, the characters would want to be able to call out that they were surrendering (verb: To Surrender). I make Dwarven archers a serious component of the armies, so I needed something “to shoot.” And that reminded me of other martial commands — to attack, to march, to hone, to punch, to kick, to burn, to follow, to train, to provoke, etc. And then these are Dwarves, and I kept some of the stereotypical Dwarven characteristics (such as business accumen being critical to your social standing). That would require words like to trade, to buy, to count, to add, to subtract, to bribe, to want, to serve, to appraise, to offer, etc., etc. Then I went into figuring out verbs specific to various jobs that I figured characters in a fantasy might need. And so on, and so forth.
So I started with these verb lists. I had somewhere between three hundred and four hundred verbs that, I figured, had a good chance of coming up in my books. But a bunch of job-specific verbs do not a language make; even if I duplicated English grammar, I still needed more vocabulary to make things work. Nouns, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, prepositions, expletives, etc. I couldn’t build even one sentence with all of the vocabulary lists I’d created.
I combined all of these “100 most common English Words” list and came up with a few more than one hundred words:
the, of, and, a, to, in, is, you, that, it, he, was, for, on, are, as, with, his, they, I, at, be, this, have, from, or, one, had, by, word, but, not, what, all, were, we, when, your, can, said, there, use, an, each, which, she, do, how, their, if, will, up, their, about, out, many, then, them, these, so, some, her, would, make, like, him, into, time, has, look, two, more, write, go, see, number, no, way, could, people, my, than, first, water, been, call. who, oil, its, now, find, long, down, day, did, get, come, made, may, part, only, other, time, new, any, over, such, our, man, me, even, most, after, also, off, before, must, well, back, years, much, and where.
Put those together with the 300+ words I’d already come up with, and you’re starting to get enough words to make complete sentences. Your Elves, Dwarves, and whatnot can start talking to each other in their own languages, and you can add more words as needed.
WHAT YOU CAN DO WHEN IT’S TOO MUCH WORK
Well, “too much work” is probably the wrong way to put it. “Too much of a distraction from my writing” might be, however, as I found myself putting all my time into developing these languages and not in writing. Again, I’m not Tolkien, I don’t have a special interest in linguistics, and I really don’t want to have to put that much time into a constructed language when I’d rather be writing. I still have pages of notes full of vocabulary lists, sketched out grammar rules, and more for both of these languages I was working on, but development has been halted on them for more than ten years, now. Writing the actual book was far, far more important.
Building a language was getting tedious. I’d overloaded myself, and was losing interest. Rather than giving up on the book, I gave up on the new languages. I have done my best, since then, to keep the books compatible with my old notes, but I haven’t really made any advancements.
Well, I take that back. There were a few times I added a word or two of vocabulary when needed (a specialized Elven weapon would be referred to in Elvish, for example). Or when I wanted to apply the “rule of fun” for a 4th-wall joke, like when I gave a Dwarven Inn a Japanese style bath and called it a “fu’ro bathing system” (basically, the Japanese word for that kind of bath with the fantasy cliché apostrophe in the middle).
Creating a language as I was writing the book was too much work… but keeping to the rudiments, and adding the odd additional word or two on occasion, will allow me to finish these languages some day. If I ever need them.
Creating a language is a lot of work. You may find, like I did, that it’s too much effort for what you’re trying to do, or for where you are at this point in your writing or your story.
But if you really want to, nothing is stopping you from making up your own words, developing your own system of grammar, and constructing your own language.
(Incidentally, if you haven’t already heard, I have updated the Convention Calender this week. I added two new conventions, and put in 2016 dates for several more. I’m always looking for new suggestions for appropriate conventions)
I mentioned this in my last post, but didn’t explain. A problem with Windows 10 had me downgrading to Windows 7; unfortunately, that downgrade didn’t work right, and I wound up having to wipe out my C drive and reinstall all my software) ate most of the time I had to work on my blog this week. It did, however, remind me of another series I was considering: Reviewing “Software for the Author.” It was never my intention to only run one series at a time, especially as open-ended as the Research series is, so I figured I could introduce this new planned series even if I’m not ready to start the actual articles.
Now, DO NOT EXPECT THIS SERIES TO START NEXT WEEK. It requires research (hm…), and I’m not prepared for it. I’m only adding this post now because I didn’t have time to do any of the other blog posts I have planned.
Keep in mind I am not a technical expert on these pieces of software. There are things I will not, or do not know how to, test (for example, I can’t test cross-platform compatability for many of the products that claim this as a feature). There are things that you might think are vitally important in a piece of software, but I don’t even think to look at them because (in my experience) they’ve never come up. This is just based on my personal experiences with this software (or, at least, simulations of my normal experience, if I’m doing a comparison with something I haven’t used often).
In some cases, I will be comparing the latest version of a freeware program (such as Scribus or LibreOffice) with older versions of professional software (I intend to do a review of Adobe InDesign, but I refuse to use their latest, cloud-only offering. I have access to Microsoft Office 2003, 2007, and — if I borrowed my mother’s computer — whatever version of Microsoft Word she got off the cloud, though not any of the other parts of the suite)
I also have no intention of testing every feature of this software. These will just be reviews of how I use them, why I — as a writer — might choose them over various alternatives, and what I think a writer would be most interested in with them.
Now, I reiterate — don’t expect me to start this next week. I hope to go right back to the Review Series (with something on Constructing Languages and why I’ve only made rudimentary efforts, so far) — but below you will be able to find an index for what I plan on reviewing (not necessarily in order; depends how long I have to test some of these things), below. I’ll add hotlinks when I start.
The Hemmingway App (vs. Grammarly, perhaps?)
InDesign vs. Publisher (2003 and 2007) vs. Scribus (this one may be bumped down, folks; I’ll need to figure out something I can use as a sample to compare these with)
EPub to MOBI
LibreOffice (vs. OpenOffice vs AbiWord vs. WPS Office Free vs. Microsoft Office 2003 vs. Microsoft Office 2007 vs. whatever other free Office packages or word processors I can find between now and then, perhaps? Recommendations might be nice)
Jutoh, maybe? (I haven’t bought it, yet, but I will if there’s interest. Yes, that means I need at least ONE comment, somewhere, if you want me to test this)
As a reminder, this is the third part for my Weird Things I’ve Had To Research series. You can find my series introduction, which will include a (growing) table of contents, here.
For months, now, I’ve been working on the sequel to In Treachery Forged. In the middle of the new (still with the editor and cover artist) book, I had a situation where I wanted to use the phrase “Let’s make lemonade out of lemons.”
I typed out the line, but then I had to pause and think about it for a minute. This is a fantasy novel, set in a fantasy world. Would they have lemonade? Is the environment of this world even capable of sustaining lemons? I mean, I’ve created this world, but there are some references which just wouldn’t make any sense without some real-world concerns. At the very least, it might throw someone out of the story.
And that’s the point of this “wierd research” article: How to deal with things that throw your readers out of the story.
WHAT MATTERS AND WHAT DOESN’T
The word “anacronism”, according to Wiktionary, means:
A chronological mistake; the erroneous dating of an event, circumstance, or object.
A person or thing which seems to belong to a different time or period of time
If you are writing historical work (fiction or not fiction), you’re probably concerned with the former. For my purposes, however, I’m going to refer to the later: Something which seems to belong to a different period of time. It might even be proper to refer to it in that period, but if your reader thinks its strange it could be an anacronism.
For example, the flush toilet. If you had a fantasy set in roman times and you described a scene where a character went to use the flush toilet, it might draw a very strange picture in your reader’s head. “That can’t be right — toilets didn’t exist that far back!” they would think. If they’ve seen certain shows on antiques and antiquities, they might even add “Crapper didn’t invent his toilet until 1897!”
True, the modern flush toilet didn’t exist until the 19th century (and Crapper, while not the only contributor, helped with the design). But, going as far back as neolithic britain or the prehistoric Indus Valley civilization, we’ve had some form of hydrolic flushing toilet. Yet if you were to include one in your fiction — at least without somehow describing their mechanism and how they differed from the modern flushing toilet — a flush toilet would strike most readers as anacronistic.
So, it isn’t so much “would lemons\lemonade exist in my world” so much as “would they seem out of place in this fantasy world?”
So, where does the research com in with this? Well, if I were writing historical fiction, I’d want to be careful not to create a first-definition anacronisms (the erroneous dating of an object, event, etc.); but in fantasy fiction, it’s “what do I need to know to avoid an anacronism?” You can have a line about lemonade only if you establish that lemons exist in your world prior to the scene it comes up; you can have a flush toilet if you explain it’s one of those classical Roman-style hydrolic flush toilets instead of a Crapper toilet.
IS IT REALLY RESEARCH WHEN…
So, what, exactly, am I doing here? I’m trying to write my way around the real-world-specific phrase or (apparent) anacronism that I actually want to use. So, where is the actual research in this?
Well, despite making a quick check to find that lemons could theoretically grow in some of the environs I pictured my characters living in (for those who read the book, not in the heavily forested areas or cultivated farmlands or mountainous regions or river deltas on the mainland, but on the Borden Isles), I scrapped the “lemons into lemonade” phrase and moved on.
But I’ve run into other cases where I needed to spend some time in research to figure out how to work my way around the issues. In The Kitsune Stratagem, for example, I had several incidents where I had a technology or a measurement I needed to describe that was named after an all-too-recognizeable real-world location. There was no Greece or Rome in this book, but I needed to figure out how to describe things that were analogous to Greek Fire and Roman roads.
I thought Greek Fire would be complicated, but it was easy enough. You can describe it as “liquid fire” and add in the rough approximation for a (theoretical) recipe and people should be able to figure out what you’re talking about.
I figured Roman roads would be easy, but they proved more difficult to portray accurately. Outside of their longevity, I had to figure out what distinguished them from your average, ordinary newly-built cobblestone road.
I had books in my library on Roman roads and architecture. No Wikipedia research on this one (well, mostly none; I found several references to Roman concrete, which was described as being different (and in many cases better) than modern concrete, but I found nothing on why it was so unique. I went to Wikipedia for that)
There were several types of Roman roads, but I picked one of the more durable to portray. Part of what made them different was the complex and deeper-than-average foundation, and part of it was the drainage system built into the roads. Those things helped the roads to last, but in looking into them I found some information out that wound up solving another story issue for me.
One thing I learned, though, was that they built various types of outposts every twenty (Roman) miles along these roads, and more complex outposts every hundred (Roman) miles. I hadn’t known about these outposts when I started the story, but it was the perfect setting for a confrontation I hadn’t fully fleshed out yet.
These roads involved elements that needed further research. The foundation used Roman concrete (I wound up learning a lot about Roman concrete in my research; I used some of it, but none of it wound up in the roads). Distances — should I use modern measurements when explaining the locations of these outposts or some other measurement? If fictional, how do I portray what those measurements mean? If modern, do I convert from Roman miles to modern miles for accuracy’s sake.
Heck, how long would a mile be for my books? A Roman mile, it turns out, is four thousand eight hundred fifty one modern feet long (or five thousand Roman feet long). Modern miles include the nautical mile (at least six thousand feet long; the exact number depends on whether you are using the mile to figure speed (Knots), read a map, or use a radar) and the U.S.\International mile (five thousand two hundred eighty feet).
I don’t remember, exactly, what I settled on (I could re-read my own book to find out… or maybe one of this blog’s readers could read that same book and remind me. And yes, this is a shameless plug; sorry about that). I do remember I did such things as measure one of my own paces to start my own system that I could convert measurements to (my own pace was about two and a half feet; that became my “closest equivalent to a yard” measurement in the new measurement system; one third of that would be a measurement that would be the closest equiv. of a foot, and so forth (dividing by the foot equiv. by ten for the inch equiv, and multiplying the yard equiv. by two thousand for the mile equiv.).
Research, after all, is not just reading and relaying the information in the book; while you need to read up on topics, too, sometimes your “research” is experimental, or experience-based. In “In Treachery Forged,” I had a character go through a natural cave system. In my high school and college days, I was part of an Explorer Post (I’m not sure if they even exist, any more, but back then they were a young adult, co-ed version of the Boy Scouts. Well, officially. Our post wasn’t exactly as formal as most Boy Scouts units; the anime or R-rated movie nights weren’t exactly in character with your standard Boy Scouts organization). This Explorer Post went “caving” (spelunking) in natural caves about once a year or so. When it came time to write that scene, I had a lot of experience-based knowledge to draw upon.
I’ll be honest; I had a lot more to talk about for this blog. I had computer problems this week, though, and my time to work on it was severely cut. My points were made, I think, but I had more examples I wanted to use. Maybe I’ll revisit this topic, some day, when my laptop is actually working.
The computer issue should be fixed this week, but it might cut into my blog writing time. Because of this, I may not manage a full length post again next week, but we’ll see. Regular posting should resume Sunday after next, regardless of these laptop issues.
(Heh… maybe the next “weird research” post should be on things other than writing topics that need to be researched for your book… things like “how the heck do I fix my laptop this time?”)
As a reminder, this is the second part for my Weird Things I’ve Had To Research series. You can find my series introduction, which will include a (growing) table of contents, here.
As I said in my last research post, In Treachery Forged‘s first draft was finished a long, long time before I published it. I probably should have worked on the sequel, in all that time (In Forgery Divided would have been out months ago, if I had, instead of with the editor as it is now), but I was trying to sell it to a trade publisher. While I worked out an outline for the entire series, I wasn’t sure I wanted to put the time into writing additional books if I never could sell it. (Then self-publishing became practical, and I finally cottoned on to the practical side of self-publishing, and now…)
During many of those years, however, it was sitting in various agents’ and publishers’ slush piles — it was in one particular publishing house’s slush pile for over four years — and I was trying hard to figure out how to get a publisher to take it. I went to local conventions whenever an editor, agent, or publishing head was going to attend, hoping to glean some trick that would help me get noticed. I was also reading blogs belonging to publishers, agents, other writers, etc., always looking for new information. Sadly, most of what I heard was the same recycled stuff, over and over and over again.
But over the course of one year, at three different conventions and on a few agents and authors blogs, I heard the following sentiment (maybe not in exact words, but something pretty close):
“If I see pull one more manuscript from the slush pile featuring Elves or Dwarves or Dragons, I’m going to throw it across the room in frustration!”
Now, this puzzled me. Outside of a few licensed properties and Tolkien, I wasn’t all that familiar with this deluge of books featuring Elves and Dwarves and Dragons. I’m not saying they didn’t exist, but these same editors, agents, publishers, etc. seemed to have no problem taking on manuscripts featuring certain mythological creatures that seemed far, far more played out to me (*cough*VAMPIRES!*cough*). What was wrong with the trope creatures and races of the Western-style fantasy genre appearing in fantasy genre novels?
But whatever. Agents, publishers, and editors didn’t seem to want Elves and Dwarves and Dragons, and the book I was trying to peddle had all three. Most of the other fantasy novels I had planned, in the Law of Swords series or elsewhere, also included Elves and Dwarves and Dragons. Hm….
Idea: Why not take one one of my Western-style fantasy plots, but replace the Elves and Dwarves and Dragons with creatures from other mythologies?
Problem: While I knew a couple creatures that might fit into the plotline I had in mind, I wasn’t that familiar with them. You might think “these are mythological creatures, so it doesn’t matter what you say about them,” but look at the criticism Stephanie Meyer gets for her sparkling vampires in Twilight — that doesn’t mean you need to get every detail right, but you probably should be familiar, at a minimum, with the basics of the myths behind these creatures, at least, or you risk annoying a lot of people. I had to delve into the research.
I only needed a few animals for my bestiary, to make the book work, but I wanted more than just a “few.” In that quest, I read up on hundreds of mythological creatures, most of which never made it in. Some of the ones which didn’t are merely “didn’t yet,” though, and others have sparked ideas for other stories. This was a lesson that even when you know what you’re looking for you can get a lot of misses in with your hits, but that can still be a good thing.
To start my research, I went off to Wikipedia. Now, I reiterate that Wikipedia is actually a very poor source for research (although sometimes it gives you enough information for certain purposes). It can be a good jumping off point, however, if the topic is too controversial. And it is a wonderful source of lists. Thanks to Wikipedia, I could create my new bestiary by pulling from the lists: Extinct animals, Mythological (now called Legendary) Creatures, and Cryptids.
I skimmed most of the articles (it took days just to do this much with all of them, but this was the heavy research period). I bookmarked a number to consider for potential roles in the book, set aside one I had already decided on using, and discarded a bunch for being either too common (anything related to vampires or zombies, basically) or too ordinary (I can’t remember which one it was, but there was one that broke down to “it’s a meat-eating cow! A cannibal cow! Run!” Er, yeah).
But for most of them, I had to do a lot of reading, even just on wikipedia, to figure out what made these mythological (or not-so-mythological, in the case of a few of them) creatures theoretically tick.
I will say that the Kitsune, especially, I tried to fit with the myth most in terms of tangible characteristics… but not necessarily in attitude and character. I tried hard to make sense of some things.
For example, they were said to always have a ball (or jewel) called a “tama.” If this tama was taken from them, they would panic, and give anything to get it back. In the myths, they claimed these tama would do nothing for humans, just for Kitsune. But what the tama did for a kitsune, there was no explanation (well, none that I could find; I am hobbled by not being able to read the original Japanese myths, and have to make do with someone else’s translations).
Kitsune were known as tricksters with the magic of illusions and several other, similar traits… but I saw no evidence of this whenever they approached someone who had taken their tama, even though I could concoct a myriad of ways for them to retrieve their tama if they did use these powers. Well… it isn’t explicitly stated, but doesn’t it make sense that these tama would be the “power source” (or focus, or whatever — similar to magic wands in Harry Potter, in my view) for the Kitsune’s illusory magic?
I’m not going to reveal everything about what factors were research and what were logicked or made up about the major players in my book — the Kitsune, the Wulver, the Haltija, the Bunyips, etc. — because, well, that would spoil a lot of the fun in it. In fact, beyond what I’ve already stated, I’m not going to mention them at all. Instead, this is going to focus on a sampling of the cryptids I did research: Why I chose them, what I learned about them, and why I ultimately didn’t include them in the story.
If Elves, Dwarves, and Dragons are considered “cliché,” I figured horses, chickens, oxen, and so forth must be as well. They appear in so many books, you know?
Okay, so I didn’t get rid of ALL the horses, chickens, oxen, and so forth, but I figured I should expand my fictional world’s selection of livestock beyond these “cliché” animals. I figured most mythological creatures would be a little too strange for human domestication, but perhaps I could find a set of extinct animals instead.
The first extinct animal I considered were Moas. Now, I didn’t really think I needed to do much research on moas — after all, they showed up in a lot of Discovery Channel shows on extinct animals as the prey species all those extinct post-dinosaur preditors ate. We’re talking a 300-500 lb. flightless bird, here. Basically, a giant kiwi (or ostrich, or tinamou…). I could include them in the story as part of the setting — someone might be a moa farmer; domesticated moa for food, moa drawing carts, moa being hooked up to plows, etc. The most common “background” animal in the game was there, waiting for me, without a single bit of research required.
Then someone reminded me of Final Fantasy, and the video game creature the Chocobo.
Well, as I didn’t want my fantasy world to too closely resemble one of the most recognizable video game series in the history of video games, I scrapped those ideas. I may have left an artifact or two of my original plans (I can’t remember for sure if any of the Moa survived the purge from my manuscript), but I couldn’t use them quite as prolifically as I had planned.
But horses, oxen, cows, and so forth are boring (at least as boring as Elves, Dwarves, and Dragons, right?), so I went looking for something else.
I considered Dire Wolves (too Game of Thrones), Mylodons (interesting, but no opportunity to include them), Camelops (too indistinquishable from camels), and Aurouchs (those almost made it in, but I instead used a different critter). Really, my scouting of extinct species wound up being something of a bust.
I may have, however, solved a bit of a family mystery… but that leads us into our next category of critters.
A cryptid can be many things — a creature that is, as Wikipedia describes it, a creature that has been suggested to exist, but has not yet been scientifically documented.
This can mean creatures of myth and folklore that there might be some sort of real-life basis for, or creatures that have been declared extinct that are rumored to still exist.
My mother used to teach English in Kanazawa, Japan. While she lived in a city, there was the occasional bit of wildlife wandering the streets. One night, my mother recalls, she literally walked right into the middle of a pack of Japanese red wolves. She was understandably shocked, but they didn’t bother her and she was able to walk through them without any issues.
They are, however, a cryptid: There were sightings of these wolves for decades after they “went extinct,” but there wasn’t any scientific documentation of them. Now, it’s been over fifty years; even if they were still alive back then, so if there were a few lingering packs of this breed of wolf still alive back then they probably are all gone now. However, finding that these wolves were cryptids (or rather, that she wasn’t the only person who sighted them after they were declared extinct) makes the idea that they really weren’t extinct more realistic than the thought she walked through a pack of ghost wolves.
And it wouldn’t be the first time a supposed cryptid was found to be real. Witness the Okapi: A sort of cross between a giraffe and a zebra. It was believed to be pure folklore, but one man spent fourty years trying to convince the world it existed. Not only did it exist, it was a common animal, with large herds to be found throughout Africa. The end result became the poster child for those who feel cryptozoology is more science than psuedoscience. (Literally; the Okapi was adopted as the symbol of the now-defunct International Society of Cryptozoology).
The problem is that cryptids aren’t all extinct animals that might still be around, or common creatures we just have a hard time believing exist until confronted by whole live specimens. Cryptozoology is a fringe science, at best, because too many cryptozoologist (especially amateurs) are little more than the stereotypical Bigfoot Hunter — chasing a myth in the least scientific way imaginable. The discipline hasn’t had a real success since a name for it was derived.
But, that bit about cryptozoology aside, there are quite a few creatures that fit into the category of Cryptid that are good material for fiction — even cryptids which are known hoaxes.
If I were writing a Terry Pratchetesque Light Fantasy, I might consider including something like a Wild Haggis into the story… but that wasn’t what I was going for. I did, however, have an interest in adding Jackelopes to my plans.
Well, researching Jackalopes turned up quite a few critters I’d never heard of (or only heard brief mentions of), before — Wolpertingers, Rasselbocks, Skvaders, Al-mi’raj, and any number of horned rabbits. Most of these are derived from taxidermic hoaxes, and a few may have been the result of a viral disease, but it didn’t matter: I had a whole set of related creatures I could use for populating my fictional world. I could make some of them domesticated breeds, some wild, some of different sizes or shapes….
I did a lot of research into the myths of horned rabbits. They actually made it into the book… but while I had done hours of research on them, I think they contributed little more than a paragraph or two to the story.
On the other end of the spectrum, there was the Amarok (which I would, forever after, mistakenly type as Aramok. My dyslexia strikes again. I think we eventually got them all corrected to the proper spelling, but I’m not sure). I read the Wikipedia article and never followed up on my research. I planned to include it, but only as part of a throwaway scene. Yet, because it fit in so well with something I needed doing involving a Kitsune character (Kitsune, I had learned, were afraid of dogs and wolves; a giant wolf was the perfect creature to play upon a Kitsune’s worst fear) I wound up featuring the Aramok in an inciting background incident — far more of an appearance than the brief mention of the various horned rabbits I’d spent hours researching.
I think I did just about the right amount of research on some creatures I wound up using, but while they might appear on lists of cryptids, I think they’d be better discussed in the final category I was drawing from for my bestiary: Creatures from Myth and Legend.
Humanity has come up with a lot of mythological creatures in the millennia upon millennia of human history. Some of these turn out to really exist (though their mythological properties may not be quite what the myths claim), like the Hoan Kiem Turtle of Vietnamese myth. Others are possibly misinterpretations of other critters, like oarfish being mistaken as sea monsters. Some are fairly believeable and realistic, like the Poukai, which may be a cultural memory of the extinct Haast’s Eagle.
Many of them, though, are pretty hard to believe. I mean, suppose you heard about a creature that was a water spirit, greatly dreaded by the locals. It is described as a giant starfish with a “dog-like face, a crocodile-like head, dark fur, a horse’s tail, flippers, walrus-like tusks, and a duck-like bill.” A supposed corpse of this creature was measured as “eleven paces long and four paces in breadth.” Would you believe such a thing might exist?
But that is the Bunyip. A creature of aboriginal Australian folklore, the Bunyip never appears described in the same way twice… but it inspires fear and terror. Every account claimed they were a large monster, preferred living near rivers or wetlands, territorial, deadly, and fiercely protective of their young… but their physical appearance changed with every person who spoke of them.
Not much to go on, is it? But hey — sometimes ambiguity can help you. Suppose the reason all bunyips are described differently is that they’re shapeshifters? Suddenly, you’ve got something. Keep them very deadly, maybe add a story-specific power or two, and hey — you’ve got a creature that can be a deadly danger for your characters.
And in another “good for the story, but I can’t find much there,” I had the haltija. Known by about a dozen different names (including Vaki, which I used in the book), they are a sort of “guardian spirit” from myths of Finnish origin. They come in a lot of varieties (distinguished, in the book, as different breeds of vaki), but most are small, playful brownie-like creatures with powers related to the element they are guarding; until you get them mad. Then… well, it depends.
There are a lot of mythical creatures, however, who simply don’t work in the kind of fantasy story I like to write… and I’m not just talking the hundreds of variations on vampires, zombies, and werewolves out there. I mean, I was looking for intelligent humanoid creatures of myth, but I couldn’t figure out what I’d do with angry humans who could run fast despite backwards feet (the Abarimon), or headless men like the Blemmyes. I needed beasts of burden, but a camel with the head of a donkey (the allocamelus) is just boring. And while I wanted background animals, how the heck would you use a fairy hedgehog? (Don’t answer that — I think I’ve got an idea. But it wouldn’t have worked in this book).
I did, however, find a number of creatures I could use… but I didn’t need to do much research on them once I found them (basically, all I had to do was confirm that they were myths and not fiction. Wait a second, here… um… confirm that Wikipedia hadn’t come up with these myths on its own? That there was some actual myth behind these myths? Okay, that works): Firebreathing chickens (basan), donkey-sized “unicorns” that would work as beasts of burden (abada), venemous crocodile-shark hybrids (wani), and more could add a lot to my world without requiring huge amounts of research (or large amounts of description).
But for some of these creatures, I had to dig deeper.
At a certain point, I figured I had enough critters to fill out a bestiary. It was time to start the more intensive research.
For major races (substituted for the Elves and Dwarves) I had Kitsune, Wulvers, and Haltija. To replace the great beasts (Dragons and the like) I had the Amarok and the Bunyip. And for color and background, I’d decided upon moas (whose role was later diminished), aurochs (whose role was taken by the abadas), abadas, wani, basan, and various horned bunnies I’d bring together under the general term “jackalope.” And I figured I could include real-life critters like normal chickens, rabbits, cows, pigs, birds, and fish, no matter how cliché these creatures might be.
Time to start writing! Or not. I may have already spent several days just reading the Wikipedia articles, by this point, but I hadn’t done any intensive research. My first stop was to the library… again, or not. The local public library has a lot of reference material, certainly, but most of what I would need to confirm or get additional details on these critters just wasn’t there. I had some books with Kitsune myths in my private library, but our collection on mythology focused more on the Greco-Roman tradition than anything else I was looking for, just like the public library.
For most of those lesser critters, I didn’t need to do much research. Once I confirmed at least one other source (whether it said the same specifics about them as Wikipedia or not) mentioned the amarok, wani, basan, abada, moa, and aurochs I figured I had enough material for them. Bunyips, well, I glanced around enough to know that no two sources agreed, so there’s nothing “definitive” on the subject; the wikipedia entry would be enough for them, too.
The haltija proved to be a real challenge. Clearly, they were popular Finnish myths (often associated with Christmas, strangely enough), and I found a number of references to them on the internet, but most were in Finnish (which Google translate isn’t very good with, though the results were sometimes hilarious) and those that weren’t provided very little actual information on what they were. I did find, somewhere (the link has been broken for a couple years, now; the site went down in the middle of writing the book), a list of what the various breeds of vaki were called. I had roughly the same information on Wikipedia (it has since been edited out, but it used to be here; you might still be able to find it if you dig into that article’s history far enough), but it was good confirmation.
I copied the list into my notes, thankfully, so at least I had the right names to distinguish them. The rest of the information on them I needed for my story I had to piece together with, say, a single line of description in one place and a brief paragraph in another. It was a lot of work, but in the end I put it all together. And probably used nothing that wasn’t in one of the two Wikipedia articles… (though this was a lesson in saving notes and not just references; I cannot remember the various types of vaki off the top of my head, and I can no longer find the list online, but I still have it in my notes).
Wulvers were another problem. The only thing I could find on them was a single, short paragraph on Wikipedia. They were perfect for what I had in mind for my story, though. In desperation, I checked out Wikipedia’s sources. I found a reference to a single book — a 1932 book on Shetland Traditional Lore by Jessie Saxby.
A quick trip to bookfinder.com later (bookfinder, by the way, is my favorite tool for finding specific out-of-print titles for purchase. Not very useful for browsing, but that’s what a used bookstore is for) and I bought the book. It wasn’t much help — I found that the Wikipedia article was basically a copy of everything that was in the book — but, again, it confirmed that this was not something someone put up on Wikipedia as a joke. It made it a little more clear that the wulvers were actually just one wulver, singular, in the “traditional lore,” which meant having a whole race of the creatures might be a bit much…
But then, I’ve seen stories where phoenices (phoenixes? It’s not supposed to even have a plural, so I’m not sure which would be correct) were a relatively common type of magical bird, and the myths usually agree that there was only one. I went ahead and used the wulvers anyway.
Jackalopes are easy to find material on, and I had a ton of books (both “myth” and, in the form of manga and anime, “fiction”) on Kitsune.
Now my research was done, and it was time to write. Well, my research on mythological creatures was done, anyway….
THE END RESULT
Well, you can see my final interpretations of these creatures in the book.
I do plan on sequels. If I can ever justify taking the time to write it (hint: Buy the book if you want more!) I’ll probably use a few more “rejected” creatures, which will mean more research. And, to keep all those editors and agents and publishers happy, even though I’m self-publishing, I won’t ever use an Elf or Dwarf or Dragon in these books (at least, none of these by their more recognizeable names and varieties).
That said, my book with the Elves and Dwarves and Dragons has done pretty well, so I think I’ll keep them around in my other works. Cliché or not, they work.
As a reminder, this is the first part for my Weird Things I’ve Had To Research series. You can find my series introduction, which will include a (growing) table of contents, here.
When I started my writing career, I figured that the hardest things I’d have to research would be biggies: The distance between stars (actually, with the right software, that’s pretty easy), ancient methods of creating steel (surprisingly, this (a) hasn’t come up and (b) I actually caught a nice tutorial on early Japanese methods for creating steel on TV just the other day, if I ever do) Eastern Philosophy vs. Western Philosophy, that kind of thing.
Philosophy, it turns out, has never really come up… but it’s a bit surprising what has.
I chose to start this series with “underwear” because, well, it’s funny. However, this “research project” was the first time I realized that it was the little things, the things I didn’t think about, that could take the most time.
Now, what I mean by underwear, specifically, is that I was researching pre-elastic styles and forms of underwear. I was writing a scene, in In Treachery Forged, where my characters were stripping down in order to swim across a river. This was a mixed species, mixed gender group, and I realized I had no idea what they’d have on under their armor — or what they would be exposing to each other.
The problem: Even though that technology is available in the In Treachery Forged universe, few — if any — of the characters use steel plate armor. The magic system I employ makes steel plate armor very cheap, but very flawed, so it isn’t very popular. Just about every character in this scene was wearing something different. And the type of underwear you wore under your steel plate armor wasn’t necessarily the type you would wear under other types of armor, or under what we would call western-style clothing, or under what might be considered eastern-style clothing.
I’m going to insert a read more tag, here (something I have yet to do in any of my blog entries so far) because the next section contains spoilers, and my version of WordPress doesn’t have a spoiler tag feature. If you’re reading this through and don’t want spoilers, don’t click the read more option. (If you don’t have the read more option and still don’t want spoilers, stop reading now)
When I completed the Self-Publishing Roundtable series, my plan was to go straight into another set of weekly articles just to keep the momentum going. Unfortunately, because I’ve been so busy with the edits, I had to set the first article of this new series aside, half-written, to go back and fix those. I’ll be working to finish that article this week before going back to the edits, and hopefully those won’t take too long and I’ll be able to get something else out for the next Sunday.
The topic of this new series (as you might expect from the title): Research. In this case, I’m going to a series of anecdotes about my experiences in research. While I will discuss my research process, to some extent (at least, in as much as there is a process; my research techniques aren’t quite that… uh, formal), my primary goal is to talk about the things I wasn’t expecting to need to research.
Basically, I’m talking about the moments where you go “I want my characters to do simple chore X. Wait a minute… do I know how they do simple chore X with that level of technology? Is it even possible back then? Uh oh….” And why, sometimes, you go through hours of research, figure out exactly what you need to know, and then don’t use it after all.
Now, writers say “I’m sure I’m on a watch list somewhere for all the weird things I’ve had to research.” I’m sure I’m on a watch list somewhere for all the weird things I’ve had to research, too, but I’m not going to talk about those things here (heh).
The first article, for example, is going to be about underwear. No, seriously. (And not the ‘sexy’ kind, for the most part; I mean the non-elastic kind. Because you just might need to know what your adventurer is wearing under his armor when he goes for a swim…)
This article will be the index of all the articles in this series, and will be updated every time I add a new entry in the series. Unlike the last series, this one has no particular set number of articles. Also, I’ll probably intersperse articles from this series with other series, follow-up articles, and maybe an actual new book release announcement or two. So stay tuned!
(As a reminder, this is the sixth (and final?) part of the series discussed here. This series was originally concieved to be part of a roundtable discussion, so don’t be afraid to comment, disagree, offer new suggestions, etc.)
This is being posted in draft form. It has not been edited (I’m still catching up on editing the past posts, but that meant I didn’t get a chance to go through this one). I hope to get to it over the course of the next week, but I am a little further behind than I’d like.
Unlike the other article edits, there may be substantive changes when this article is revised. I am ALWAYS learning new things about marketing, and I’ll probably be thinking of new things I “already knew” to add to this article, as well. So, even after it’s edited, don’t be surprised if I revisit this topic, again, on a later date.
I will start by saying that I really don’t know what works, in marketing. If I did, I’d probably have multiple bestselling novels by now. That doesn’t mean I’m completely clueless, however.
I know many things that don’t work. And I know a few things that sometimes work. I know some things that used to work pretty well but don’t any more. I even know a few things that almost always work, but only to a point. But no-one, and I do mean no-one, knows something that will always work, for everyone, unconditionally.
So, in this post I’ll tell you what I know might work, what I know doesn’t work, and what I really, really would like to try and see if it works, and maybe that will help those of you trying to come up with marketing plans of your own.
WHAT WORKS FOR SOME PEOPLE…
Word of mouth is unquestionably the best form of marketing. It sells more than anything else — if you have someone recommend your book to someone else who trusts their tastes, that’s a guaranteed sale. Have a dozen people do it, that’s a dozen sales… plus a few from the people who those dozen have told, plus a few more after that. Find a thousand people enthusiastically mention your book to their friends, your book should be more than successfully launched.
But there is no way for an author to induce word-of-mouth advertising. Paid advertising is probably the best type of marketing you can hire… but when it comes to authors, not all advertising works for everyone. In fact, some of the most effective advertising doesn’t work unless you’ve already had success.
For example, Bookbub only advertises full-length novels (so if you write short fiction, don’t bother with them). They have few specific requirements, but they are notoriously selective (if you don’t have dozens of excellent reviews already, you’re pretty much out of luck; also, they admit they’re more selective in some genre than others), so debut novels (which need the marketing the most) struggle to get into the store, and many excellent novels can never qualify.
Or you could advertise at a place like The Romance Studio; they are supposed to be pretty effective. But, uh, given the name, you might struggle if you try advertising your military sci-fi novel there. Other advertising sites which might be effective are less subtle, but usually are most successful with some genre and not others. You need to be careful to select an advertiser that actually works for your genre… and even then, it may not be possible to advertise with them.
Of course, advertising (or at least this type of advertising) isn’t the only way to sell your book. One of the most effective ways of promoting yourself (as an author) is cross-promotion. Cross-promotion takes many forms: Guest blogging, being interviewed by another author (hopefully one with his own audience), and joining an anthology writing project.
The idea is that the fans of author A will come and see the blog\interview\anthology with author B, and fans of author B will come and see the blog\interview\anthology of author A. Bits of the fanbase for each author will join the other fanbase.
And it works… well, most of the time. There are a few conditions, however: You need to be sure that the authors involved aren’t “preaching to the choir,” if you were — if the members of the Author A’s fanbase and Author B’s fanbase are too identical (in other words, if most of author B’s fans are already fans of author A and visa versa), then you aren’t likely to be introducing the authors to anyone new.
Also, if none of the people involved have much of a fanbase to share, it won’t be especially effective. This actually works best when a small-fanbase author can leech publicity from a large-fanbase author (but only for the small-fanbase author), or when two large-fanbase authors work together. Another way it can work is if the cross-promotion is an anthology project, where you can collect a lot of smaller fanbases together all interested in the same book. Of course, that only works if you have an “in” with such an anthology.
Conventions also make good marketing for some people. Being a panelist (like I was supposed to be at Capital Con… before it was cancelled, prompting this series of blogs) or a guest at a convention gives you an opportunity to make new fans; to interact with other authors; to show off your hard work. I know I’ve bought books from people just because of meeting and talking with them at a convention, and I’m sure I’m not the only one. However, you need to learn (brace yourself, here) public speaking. There are a lot of recluses, or people with social disorders, or just complete introverts among the authors of the world; if you can’t overcome that and speak before an audience, it won’t do you any good to appear at a convention.
Also, you need to behave properly — and respectfully. Remember, you’re probably a small fry at most conventions, at least until you build your reputation up a bit. Don’t have a diva fit with the convention staff, try not to offend the convention attendees, and try not to make any enemies among the other guests (even if you’ve become a big name who hits the New York Times Bestseller List and are a GoH, there are people at most conventions who have been in the game longer and who have the respect of the others on the convention circuit, even if they don’t have as many sales as you do. Offend them, you might find yourself having a hard time finding other conventions willing to take you on).
Another way to market your book is, well, “social” implies something else nowadays, so let’s say “engaging the Community.” It doesn’t help, much, to join somewhere new and go “hey, I sold a book,” but there are undoubtedly communities even the most anti-social of us are a part of. Your friends, your church, your local library staff, the waitress at your favorite restaurant, the people on your favorite sports team’s online forum, etc.
If the goal is word-of-mouth advertising, this is the closest you can come to induce it — the people in the communities you’re involved with, if they read and enjoy your book, are far more likely to recommend it to other than someone who just picks it up casually. That doesn’t mean the guy who picks up your book off of some random advertisement will never provide any word-of-mouth advertising, just that the likelihood of it happening increases significantly when the person knows you in even the most abstract of ways.
The effectiveness of this, however, is limited by how many of your community acquaintences you can convince to read (and enjoy) your book without annoying that community in general — plastering announcement after announcement about your book does far more to turn people off than it does to get them to read your book, after all, and not everyone in these communities (unless it is “The Military Science Fiction Book Club”) is going to want to read any epic military science fiction novel, much less one of yours. So, if you make a plug for your book on a 2000-member hockey fansite that you are a long-standing and engaged part of, you might find, oh, a dozen or so people willing to buy your book and read it. Maybe one of those will even recommend it to someone else.
So, it depends on your engagement level with the community, the size of the community, and that community’s interest level in your genre. And even then, you have to decide if it’s worth it. That dozen or so people from the hockey fansite? Well, a dozen or so people is a good result if all you put into it is the time to briefly announce “Hey, I wrote a book!” in a forum. But it, to get them to read your book, you have to visit a meeting room in-person and physically hand all of these people free copies, well, you’re putting more time and money into this effort than is worth it. In other words, it’ll work for some of you (if you use common sense and don’t annoy your acquaintances too much), but it won’t do much, if any, good for others..
It should be apparent, but just in case I should add that your family is not in your community, at least in this regard. Reviews from family members rarely count among these communities (although you should encourage them to engage their own communities, if you can; I’ve had a little success in this thanks to my mother engaging her fellow quilters).
But, regardless, these sorts of communities are pretty good targets for trying to build that word-of-mouth marketing in… but there is a reason I chose the word “communities” instead of “social groups.”
…DOESN’T NECESSARILY WORK FOR OTHERS
Those “social groups?” Well… “social” implies “social media,” and advertising on social media is… well… it may work for some people, but for a lot of writers it’s just a waste of time.
I have seen — and been on — Facebook groups which do nothing but send out book promo after book promo. Initially, I thought these sorts of groups might garner at least a few sales — they had thousands of members each. After months (I sometimes have… stubbourness issues) of getting the same book covers in my Facebook feed over and over and over again, at least weekly if not multiple times a day, I came to realize that these groups weren’t working. They may have thousands of members, but all those members are other authors hoping to plug their own books, and no-one actually joined them looking for new books… or if they did, they probably got so overwhelmed by people flooding the feed that it all becomes a big white noise, and little if nothing ever gets sold from it.
And just as bad as being lost in a crowd is being the only one in the room. If you are attempting a “promotional discount” and no-one is around to see it, you’re probably not going to gain anything out of the promo.
Promos in places like Amazon and Barnes & Noble can be very effective; there are a lot of people casually browsing the lists on those sites, and if that isn’t enough you can try boosting attention to your discount promotion by bringing in Bookbub or someone like that. A Bookbub advertisement during an Amazon promotion is known to earn authors hundreds of sales.
But not all bookstores are created the same. Take, for example, Libiro. I like Libiro — they are a bookstore fully committed to indies; they’ve built a good author dashboard, they have sales terms that are a little better than Amazon’s, and they make discount promotions just a couple clicks away — no questions (or exclusivity requirements) asked!
Libiro is a very small operation. While it’s been around a few years, now, it’s still very much in the start-up phase when it comes to attracting a native customer base; I hope it will continue to grow until it becomes a popular place to go looking for books, but it isn’t there yet. People generally don’t usually go there to browse; they go, for the most part, already there knowing what they’re going to buy. The very few who browse its virtual shelves probably won’t catch anything that isn’t already one of Libiro’s best sellers or is a new release.
So, suppose you use Libiro’s very simple-to-use tools and set up a half-off sale. Bookbub and similar advertising sites might very well not know Libiro exists. There are very few people just browsing that store at any given moment. That means if you have a promotional discount on Libiro, no-one is going to know about it unless you are the person to tell them. It won’t grow your customer base (or fanbase, if you prefer) at all; the one thing it might do is get the “fence sitters” within your existing reach to finally buy a copy.
A third option that might work for a few people, but won’t work for most, are Youtube trailers. If you’re unfamiliar with Youtube trailers, here is an example:
So… I suppose if you were an avid reader of the previous books in the series, this might interest you. Maybe. But only if you actually saw the ad….
A Youtube trailer is an interesting concept — sort of like a television ad for your book. But said youtube trailer suffers the same problem as your book does: No-one will see it unless you push it, same as with your book. And you need it to be interesting enough so that if people do see it, they’re willing to buy it (and you have to assume that both the book and you are unfamiliar to the viewer, mind you). Frankly, you’re better off pushing your book directly than a youtube video.
Of course, it might work for some people. If they do it right. If you make a very interesting trailer, and somehow manage to get buzz about it, you might generate sales from it. Generally, that only works if you are able to get your trailer on a popular youtube channel that your target audience is already a part of… and trust me, a youtube channel that shows nothing but book trailers isn’t going to do it. No, you want it on a channel that people actually visit and watch… or you want someone that big to link to it.
For the least offensive of all possible examples of how it might work: If you have written a Japanese cookbook, and you somehow manage to get enough of an endorsement from Cooking With Dog (this is a real Youtube channel that deals with Japanese cooking; as far as I know, they don’t endorse cookbooks, nor are they interested in doing so; note that over one million subscribers watch that channel — that number is partly why I picked them) that they will link to your cookbook’s trailer, it might be somewhat effective (you might get 1% of their viewers to click through to your site, and maybe 1% of those will buy it… which could get you one hundred sales). If the only person who shares your cookbook video is the “Flood Viewers With Boring Book Trailers” channel (doesn’t really exist; if it did, any subscribers it would have would likely be bots or authors looking for their own works. Which may number in the thousands, but no-one would click through), it won’t do any good at all.
Basically, what I’m saying with all of these methods is that the way most people do them, they won’t do you any good; they are effectively invisible (either because no-one is there or because they get lost in the crowd). Unfortunely, people keep trying them because they’ve heard they were the “secret of success.” And when they try it, they do it wrong… and sometimes, even if they do it right, it won’t work because it almost never works… even if it used to.
THINGS THAT USED TO WORK
The landscape of marketing has changed significantly over the years. In the six weeks since I’ve started this blog series, Amazon has redesigned the Kindle Unlimited program’s paying structure, started stricter enforcement of certain aspects of its review policy, and has opened a one hour same-day delivery service in select cities (London has it, I think, for example). All of these things could change how effective your marketing are, so it’s a good idea to keep a close eye on things.
The only thing about marketing you can say for sure is that it’s changing. There are a lot of things you’ll read about working, or will have demonstrably see working once, that do not work any more (at least not like they used to).
For example, it used to be that you could price your book “free” on Amazon, and without any further promotion hundreds if not thousands of people would download it. Those downloads used to boost your sales ranking, so a free day could boost you onto a bestseller list or three, and a lot of book browsers go through the bestseller lists. A day of free giveaways could result in hundreds of sales across the rest of the week.
But then Amazon changed things; “buying” a free book no longer counted as a sale. Suddenly, giving away free copies over Amazon became less attractive. I was hanging around indie publishing Facebook groups and blogs at the time that change was made, and it took almost a year before some people figured it out (even after the announcement). And still people promote their free days far heavier than they do their discount days.
Now, free books are still able to do something for your marketing. Sometimes. You might be able to get a few reviews from it, though those are hard to predict at best. Make the first book of a long series free, and that can encourage people to buy the rest of the series.
Some book promotional sites will only advertise your book when it is free, and while you get no visibility boost on Amazon from these promotions, there is still a lingering period of a sales boost… but that usually comes from people who got the promo in the e-mail, but lingered too long and didn’t take advantage of it. Personally, I think advertising somewhere that won’t even let you use a discount price promotion instead of a free promotion isn’t going to help you… unless you combine it with the “first book in a series” strategy mentioned above.
Another thing authors have tried as promotion that used to work — at least, it did some thirty years ago, long before eBooks made self-publishing a practical and viable solution, but authors of all origins still try it today — is sending cheap swag to bookstores. Now, in this case what I mean by “cheap swag” is postcards, bookmarks, business cards, maybe even small catalogs. Once upon a time, bookstores made their midlist book purchase decisions based on such things… but no longer. Most bookstores recieve hundreds, if not thousands, of such mailings every day… and most of them just throw these things out, unread.
If you’re a local author and you’ve convinced an independent bookstore to carry your book on its shelves, you might be able to talk the cashier into putting your business card or bookmark on the counter at the checkout line, but don’t bother sending these things to them in the mail.
That’s not to say getting such things printed is worthless. It’s always nice to have a business card, for a variety of reasons (and one of these days, I’ll actually get one printed and find all of the errors in the e-mail and web addresses before I start trying to give them away. *sigh*). Business cards, post cards, bookmarks, and the like are especially useful at any conventions you might attend — there is almost always somewhere where you can put such things out for free, and there are almost always a few attendees who will grab as many different pieces of promotional junk as possible while at a convention (I know; I’m one of those people). Sometimes, those will even result in a few sales.
And, of course, T-shirts, coffee mugs, hats, and other “more expensive” types of swag are helpful, as well. If people buy these things with your logo or book cover on them (or even get them for free, sometimes, but giving these sorts of things away en masse can easily cost you more than you gain from it), it might interest friends, co-workers, etc. Basically, the people who get such things become walking billboards for your books whenever they use them… at least, as long as they are in public. (Giving swag to recluses might not do much for you, in other words. Selling them or giving them to the people at your author table at a convention, however, might be… even if some of your fans are recluses).
Which brings up book signings (it does? Well, we’ll get there). Once upon a time publishers or agents would schedule book signings for their authors. Then they would run publicity for the event, which tended to make the author look like a celebrity in the public’s eye. These resulted in a lot of people getting in line to buy the book and have him sign it — because hey, who doesn’t want a celebrity’s autograph, right? Some of those people would read the book and mention it to their friends. Others wouldn’t read the book, but would still mention it to their friends because, “hey, I met a celebrity at the bookstore!” Instant word-of-mouth promotion for your book.
Well, bookstores still do book signings, and sometimes publishers or agents will even make the arrangements. But that’s as far as they go; any publicity is generated for the signing is incidental, often consisting of a mention on a website or a single facebook and\or twitter post. That means book signings are no longer the celebrity spectacle they once were; and by themselves, without that publicity, you’d be lucky to have a single person come for your signing… unless the author already has enough of a fanbase to draw people in by their mere presence (and once people see a crowd of fans, it generates the same effect as the old publicity machines did… though on a smaller scale)
Note that I’m not saying that book signings are worthless, but they aren’t really of any value unless something is done to encourage people to see the author as someone whose signature is worth having, or unless someone is really pushing things. I know of one local bookstore that really likes to promote local writers. Even though it is primarily a used book store, it has a small section that is dedicated to selling new books from local (including indie) authors.
They also really like having author signings. They think (intelligently, in my opinion) that a good author signing will draw customers to the store, so they help push that author as well. They co-ordinate these author signings with a monthly town-wide event (“Leesburg First Fridays“) to double-down on the promotion. They encourage the author to push, as well, and the end result is something of a mild success.
And here is where the swag I was talking about comes into play: Signings — if you can get people to come to them — are one of the best places to give away your swag. People at a signing event are usually quite happy to recieve a baseball cap, shirt, novelty pen, coffee mug, etc., and (at least if it’s in the cap-shirt-mug range) will gladly display those things to their co-workers and friends by wearing or using them. Like I said, they become walking, talking billboards for your book.
Of course, even if you can arrange a signing at your local bookstore, there’s no guarantee they will do as much as mine does. But if you can arrange for a ‘draw’ for your signing beyond just, well, you (sorry, but in most cases, you are not enough of a draw on your own), you might be able to get something out of it. Not as much as you used to, but something.
Despite the name of this section, many of these things can still work… but where they once worked for almost every writer, now they only work if you do them the right way, and\or sometimes only if you have specific opportunities that aren’t necessarily open to everyone, and\or only if you use a specific business model, and\or only if you target things just right, and\or only if you’re lucky. So you have to decide whether you want to spend
THINGS THAT REALLY DO ALWAYS WORK…SORT OF
Okay, so I’ve gotten this far by insisting that there is nothing that works all of the time. I still assert that’s true, but there are a few things you can do that make all forms of marketing that much more effective. That are marketing tools, in and of themselves.
For example, it’s extremely important to set up your categories and keywords correct. The keywords are important because they allow your book to be found in searches. However, they’re also important (at least on Amazon) because they can get your book entered into more than the two categories, if you pick the right keywords.
And you want your book in as many categories as possible. Every category it’s listed in is another bestseller list you have a chance to show up on, and that makes it all the more visible for the casual browsers. (Please don’t try promoting your book by trumpeting your rank on these bestseller lists too much — depending on the list, you could be making one sale every three days and still in the top hundred. Pushing the idea that you’re a “bestseller” because you’re on one of these lists is not only dishonest, your customers will know you’re dishonest because disreputable self-publishers have tried this before. It can only hurt you, so don’t do it)
It helps to build a fanbase (you’ll often see this called a “platform” in articles about the business) even before you publish your first book. It doesn’t matter how you build this fanbase — writing fanfiction, doing a political blog, making funny youtube videos, etc. — but having a pre-existing fanbase to market to will help you a lot. Easier said than done, I know, but it doesn’t have to be a very large fanbase, and while it can really jump-start your success, it isn’t absolutely necessary. With one, and applying a few of the other marketing techniques I mentioned, you might be able to get enough sales together to start hitting those category bestselling lists.
But there are some things that if you don’t do them, there’s very little chance your marketing will be effective. The first is — WRITE A GOOD BOOK! If you don’t do that, no matter how many people you attract to read it, you won’t have any repeat customers. Go back to part one of this series and look up everything I said (and everything else you can find) on how to make sure your book is well-edited, as well. A good book gets you good reviews, which will attract other customers. A poor product makes all of your other marketing efforts useless. You’d be surprised how many people self-publishing books don’t think this matters.
The second thing is — GET DECENT COVER ART! I know people say “you can’t judge a book by its cover,” but I’m sorry — that’s just what readers do. Now, you don’t need it to be ‘award winning,’ but it does need to look professional. If your cover art doesn’t look to be of professional quality, potential readers will assume the book wasn’t written by a professional, and therefore are less likely to buy it. Your marketing efforts won’t be worth anything if your cover scares away all your customers.
Oh, and make sure your book is, you know, actually available for sale where someone might buy it. Don’t go exclusive to someplace like “All Romance EBooks” unless you’ve written a romance novel (and even then, I would advise against exclusivity with them). I know there seems to be a segment of the publishing community who simply cannot comprehend the idea that Amazon could potentially do things good for the publishing industry, but excluding Amazon from your sales plan is like cutting off your nose to spite your face, as the saying goes.
Finally, write more. I’m a bad example at this, because I’ve been so slow about releasing my latest couple of books, but I’m convinced that the best way to market one book is to release the next one. And then release the one after that. And then the one after that.
The theory is that, with each new release, you have old people who’ve followed you, before, buy the new book, and new people discovering your writing for the first time going back and reading your other work. That’s probably the case, but regardless — every new book is a new revenue stream. With more books, you can do more creative marketing (like reducing the price of the first book in a long series, or making it free, in the hopes that new readers will enjoy it and buy the rest of the series). With more money, you can afford better adverting, possibly better covers, more and\or better editors, etc.
If you get your keywords straight, get your book into the right categories, have an existing fanbase, write a good book, give it a decent cover, and put it up for sale where people might see it, whatever marketing techniques you apply just might work. Repeat a few times, and things can really get going. Heck, you just might be able to generate a decent number of sales without any additional marketing, if you’ve got all that.
THINGS I’D LIKE TO TRY SOME DAY
Now, there are things I’ve heard are effective that I would like to try some day and haven’t. Some of those are things I’ve already mentioned: I would like to participate in a multi-author anthology (I had one opportunity, once, but I was not in a position, at the time, to do so). I would like to be able to get a book trailer on youtube, done in a fun and interesting way and linked to from (perhaps) a youtube celebrity. I would like to be a full-fledged guest at a convention (and not just a single-panel panelist).
But there are other things which I’ve never tried and can’t find enough information on to tell whether they’d be good marketing opportunities or not. In some cases, I’m not even sure how I’d go about doing them… but I think they’d work, if I could. And some of them just sound fun.
For example, I would like to be able to get a group of local indie authors together and have the bunch of us go to, say, the regional manager for Safeway (and possibly Harris Teeter and Wegmans) and see if we can get print editions of our books into their stores. The stores in this area have fairly decent book sections (similar to Walmart’s reputed book sections, in some respect)… and, at one point, the local Safeway had a section intended for “local authors.” Since they had trouble distinguishing local authors from national authors while buying solely from Big-5 publishers, that section languished until it was eventually re-labeled for something else… but I know there are enough local indie authors that it could have been a lot more successful if we had been included. However, approaching them as a single author, alone, probably wouldn’t be enough to get them to re-open it.
Would it work? I don’t know. If it did, would it generate any significant sales? Again, I don’t know. But I would like to find out some day.
Also, I would like to know if getting a quote from a “Big Name Author” for the cover of my book(s) does anything for sales. I’ve heard it can, but I don’t know if that’s true any more — especially for eBook sales. But I would like to find out — I just don’t know who to go to that might give me one, or how to approach them.
Book clubs, perhaps? Wikipedia suggests there are two types, and of those to I am not talking about the “Book Sales Clubs” (I would consider sites like Oyster, Scribd, and Kindle Unlimited an outgrowth of such clubs; the original being the “Book of the Month” club that Random Penguin-owner Bertelsmann originally built its publishing empire on before abandoning just a few years ago). In its original form, this is the realm of the Trade publisher; I’m sure a group of indies could manage such a thing, but I’m not sure why one would not that the “evolved” forms of such a thing are out there, and are widely open to indie publishers.
I’m talking about getting some “Book Discussion Clubs” to buy copies of my book. In theory, it would mean a number of initial purchases and, considering the reputed purpose behind such clubs, a lot of word-of-mouth publicity. But does it actually work like that? And how would I, as an indie writer, get my book considered for a group like that? And if I could, are those groups large enough to make a significant difference? I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I’d like to find out.
If I could find the time, I would like to take one of my books and turn it into a game with something like RPG Maker. I suppose some writers are able to sell the rights to a software developer and get them to create a game for them, which can net the author significant money, but the rights to every book cannot be sold in that way. But I could make the game, myself, and distribute it freely, and use the game to build interest in the book… (and its sequels). With a video game version of my novels, I could make use of some of the alternate paths and alternate endings I had considered and later discarded. While something like RPG Maker would be a good shortcut, it would take a LOT of time and effort to complete (which is why whole software development companies can be formed around a single game, sometimes), and I’m not sure the cost-benefit ratio would be worth it, even in the long run. I would like to find out, some day, though.
I want to be more creative in my marketing; to come up with ideas that others haven’t. But I don’t have the time, or the connections, or the finances, or even the number of titles needed to do all the things I want to try.
I still need time to write, after all.
THE RULE OF TEN
The problem with marketing, in part, is that it takes time from things you’re better off doing — like writing. It takes time and effort to build your platform, time and money to get advertising, time and skill to put together a book trailer, time and charisma to get your print book in bookstores and libraries where it can be visible, time and energy to go to a convention, etc., etc.
But if you can get yourself and\or your books to a certain point, the rest is effectively automatic; you don’t really need to do any more marketing for that book. At least not until the next one in the series comes out, anyway.
I would like to call this the “Rule of Ten.”
If you can get ten reviews, you can start placing your book on advertising sites like the Fussy Librarian and similar easy-to-use marketing ventures, without having to wait to be approved like at Bookbub.
If you can get ten sales on Amazon, your book starts showing up on Amazon’s “Also-bot” lists. That means Amazon starts doing a little marketing for you, and hey — who doesn’t like someone else doing your marketing for you?
If you can get ten sales in one day on Amazon, you’ll start hitting most of those genre bestseller lists. That, again, boosts visibility and is “free” marketing.
If you can find ten people who are consistantly willing to boost your signal unsolicited, you probably don’t have to go chasing down advertisements at all — that’s your word-of-mouth advertising, for nothing.
If you can get your book on the shelves of ten bookstores and get them selling, you can probably get these bookstores to start shelving your books without having to make in-store visits; all you need to do is let the bookstore know your next book is out and they’ll shelve it based on their past sales (I have to admit, I haven’t managed this one, yet, but I’ve been assured this is true).
Finally, if you can get ten backlist (“I’m no longer advertising these”) novels all are selling just an average of two to three copies a day, each, (a realistic number, based on what mid-list indie writer (and incoming SFWA Vice-President) MCA Hogarth has said she gets from her indie writing), you’re pretty darned close to earning a living wage (in some parts of the country) from your backlist alone.
And that’s the end… not just of this blog post, but the entire series. There are edits to make (sigh… remember, still learning WordPress, here). There are lots of things I didn’t think to cover (such as audiobooks, which I have no experience in and didn’t have on my outline), and other things I know I could have gone into more detail on (such as book design… though there’s a whole blog on the topic by someone more experienced in the field than me. Oh — marketing opportunity: If you have a new release with a good book cover, check out his monthly EBook Cover Design Awards). There are some things I just didn’t have enough experience to feel comfortable discussing (like translations, or dealing with foriegn markets, or… well, any number of things, really).
And things change fast. In the six weeks since I started this blog, there have been three big things happen that could completely change everything: (1) Amazon changed the Kindle Unlimited payout system. (2) Amazon began stricter enforcement of its review policy. And (3) the Nook ebook store shut down its international market. Those are all pretty big, but just how they will change the business hasn’t been fully seen, yet.
So, some day, if there’s interest, maybe I’ll write an epilog to this series. Something like “Everything I Forgot To Cover In The Self-Publishing Roundtable, And The Stuff That’s Changed.”
(As a reminder, this is part five of the series discussed here. This series was originally concieved to be part of a roundtable discussion, so don’t be afraid to comment, disagree, offer new suggestions, etc.)
Ah, yes. ISBNs.
A topic that comes up all the time on blogs, in Facebook groups, in forums, and even at conventions, whenever self-publishing is discussed. One that has voices crying out with opinions, loud and strong. It is an argument that has people spouting facts — often incorrect facts — about what an ISBN is useful for or what it can do. It is a raging conflict that, really, matters so very little that it’s hilarious there’s this much debate about it.
Do you even need an ISBN? And if not, why not? And if so, what’s the best way to get one? Well, I can’t claim to be the most authoritative voice on the subject, and I’ve been taken in by some misinformation in the past, but I do like to think I’ve become fairly well researched, now, and know what I’m talking about.
You can have a successful publishing career and never spend a single dime on ISBNs. On the other hand, I do think there are reasons for purchasing them, albeit reasons that others might not find so important. There are real problems with the system, and a lot of things to watch out for. I’ve been burned, myself, but I think — between some experience and a lot of research — I’ve finally figured it out.
So, with all that in mind, let’s start with the most unsavory bit of dealing with ISBNs.
OPTIONS FOR PURCHASE
Let’s start, right away, by re-iterating: You do not need to buy an ISBN. It can be a nice thing to have, but it isn’t a requirement. We’ll get into the “whys” of buying one in a moment, but first let’s discuss the “wheres.” As in, “where should I get one?”
Well, in some countries, the answer is, “the government gives them away for free.” I don’t live in one of those countries — I live in the U.S. If you live outside of the U.S., you might as well skip this section.
There is officially only one place to buy ISBNs in the U.S. — it’s a legal monopoly — but there are other places from which you can acquire one.
Many self-publishing outfits (Createspace, Smashwords, and a few others) offer you a “free” ISBN. For the purposes of this blog, the benefits and drawbacks for all “free” ISBNs are largely the same (whichever outfit is giving them to you), but since they’ve enumerated them so well we’ll go with the descriptions given by Createspace.
Using Createspace’s “free” ISBN leaves Createspace as the imprint-of-record. The ISBN can only be used with Createspace (so you probably do not want to use it if you’re using a print strategy of Createspace for Amazon and another printer for Expanded Distribution, as that can cause confusion).
For some reason unique to Createspace, this is the only ISBN option which also gives you access to another method of distribution, which they call “Libraries and Academic Institutions.” But this does not mean you cannot get your book into Libraries and Academic Institutions without going through this channel.
Createspace’s Expanded Distribution program goes through one of three distribution channels. Createspace Direct is one (I don’t know who uses Createspace Direct to buy their wholesale books, but I have to assume someone does). The other two channels, however, are listed not by name but by description.
“Bookstores and Online Retailers” refers to Ingram… and just about every bookstore, academic institution, and library buys books from Ingram in addition to other channels. “Libraries and Academic Institutions,” as I mentioned in my blog on Printing, is a euphemism for Baker and Taylor. Just about every bookstore and online retailer that Ingram covers is also covered by Baker and Taylor. The differences between the two, as far as you are concerned, are slight (yes, there are a few exceptions which are exclusive to one or the other, but thay are minor). Now, why Baker and Taylor insists that Createspace be your publisher-of-record (this does NOT mean they are your publisher; it’s a technical term purely used for indexing) I don’t know, but that appears to be what the distribution deal between Createspace and Baker and Taylor requires.
Now, if you don’t want Createspace (or wherever else that isn’t your publishing house name) as your Publisher-of-Record (at least one reason why this might be preferable was in my last post, on print editions — namely, that there are a (very) few bookstores out there who, anecdotally, will refuse to buy your books if Createspace is their publisher of record), there are other options. Createspace gives you a $10 option that allows you to name your own imprint-of-record, but which you can only use within Createspace; if you want to use Createspace for your Amazon books and another printer (usually Ingram) for their expanded distribution service — a strategy that several self-publishers have employed for a variety of reasons — this option will not work; you will still need to buy (or otherwise acquire) another ISBN for the other printer. As a final option, Createspace also offers a $99 option that bypasses this requirement, though I do not recommend it — there are better options once you get to that price point.
If you plan to put more than two or three books into print, you probably are better off buying ISBNs in bulk from Bowker.com, but this only saves you money in the long-term. ISBNs purchased from Bowker can be used with any printer or distributor. Buying them in a batch of 100, you can cut the per-unit price of ISBN to $5.75 (at current prices). Unless you are using them very quickly, that many should last you for a long time — possibly a decade or two, possibly your entire career.
“Best practice” is somewhat disputed (Bowker, of course, favors any option that makes you use ISBNs more frequently), but in general you want one for every different edition. Initially I took that to mean (and Bowker encouraged this belief) that you needed one ISBN for your audiobook edition, one for your .mobi (Amazon) edition, one for your .epub (most other ebook stores), one for your .pdf edition (almost never used in self-publishing for fiction), one for your .lit edition (format defunct, but in the early days of eBooks this was Microsoft’s proprietary version), one for each print edition (one each for paperback and — if you have it — hardcover, and after significant enough edits (fixing a few typos is minor; the number I’ve seen is “10% of the text has changed”) or cover changes (if you change your cover design imagery, that’s generally considered a new edition; fixing a minor flaw, like a slightly misaligned spine, probably wouldn’t be)), etc., etc.
Bowker’s advice seems a little… overagressive, but they have been the authority on ISBNs since before 1967 (when the standard was formally adopted). Their word seems like it should be the authoritative one… but the end-users of ISBNs (basically, printers, bookstores, libraries, and anyone who creates book catalogs) have gone against them, for once. The end-users seem to want different ISBNs for each Print edition (as described above), one for any audiobook edition, and one for ALL ebook types (so .mobi and .epub are the same). Unfortunately, if you’ve already assigned an ISBN to multiple electronic formats of a book unnecessarily, you can’t reclaim it.
(EDITED TO ADD: This article on technical debt has me thinking that Bowker’s advice in terms of having seperate ISBNs for each ebook type might have some merit… but I still wouldn’t bother distinguishing between ePub and .mobi, as the formatting standards for these two file types are reasonably identical. If you sell a .pdf version, however, I’d strongly consider it for the purposes of future-proofing)
And speaking of Bowker, you should never buy anything from Bowker other than your ISBN as a self-publisher. Do not buy barcodes from them, even though they like to include them in (frankly, overpriced) “package deals” — there are dozens of ways to create a barcode from your isbn number for free (such as this one). That’s assuming you even need one — Createspace puts a barcode on your print covers for free, regardless of what ISBN option you use, and they are useless with eBooks.
Bowker also offers the following services: Ebook creation, cover design, editing, rights management, QR Codes, a “look inside the book” widget, book publicity, SAN numbers, and ISNI numbers. Few of these are worth the money, and none of them are worth the money for a self-publisher. Even ISBNs are just barely worth it, in my view. Assigning your book to a particular ISBN will list it in Books Into Print, which is the only other thing of marginal worth Bowker does, and that’s free with purchase.
MYTHS AND USES
So, what good are ISBNs, anyway? Ask two different people, you’ll get two different answers. The amount of misinformation on ISBNs — both from ISBN advocates and anti-ISBN advocates — is horrific. Half of the rumors are things someone, at some point in some author’s career, told as a lie in order to exploit that author, and the author fell for it. It’s led to a lot of self-publishers wanting nothing to do with ISBNs, and admittedly the value of an ISBN is very… insubstantial, and rarely does much directly for the author.
I once sat in a convention listening in on a “self-publishing workshop” where the “expert” giving the workshop said that the free ISBN number gave Createspace “exclusive publishing rights” to his print books.
For the record, an ISBN number is an indexing tool. It has nothing to do with “publishing rights” of any type. All that Createspace owning your ISBN does is say you cannot use that same ISBN with another printer; you can still apply a different ISBN to the same book and publish it elsewhere. Even the “publisher of record” bit is insignificant, as that is merely an indexing tool… (though some people who use those indexing tools view a listing of “Createspace” as a signal that the book is self-published, even though some small presses use it as well. If you’re trying to sneak your book into a bookstore that won’t normally deal with self-published authors, like Hudson’s, you’d better not have Createspace listed as your publisher of record).
Now there might be a few distributors and niche bookstores who require ISBNs on your eBooks. I think just about any significant print distributor requires one, as well, as does Barnes and Noble (at least if you want to be shelved). But most eBook retailers do not require ISBNs — Kindle doesn’t, Nook Press doesn’t, Apple iBooks used to but doesn’t any more. Libiro doesn’t….
Who does? Well…
Kobo doesn’t require it, but warns that you will not get full international distribution without one.
Smashwords wants them for their “Premium Catalog” (distribution service), but they will give you a free one.
Xinxii requires one for some of their channels (but will apparently offer you a German-based ISBN if you don’t have one, according to their FAQ; I’m not sure how to apply for it).
Google Play doesn’t, but appears to require it if you get to them through a third-party distributor like Xinxii.
It appears as if Overdrive does, though I can only guess what would happen if you managed to go to them direct instead of through a 3rd party distributor such as Smashwords.
I’m not even going to guess about the international bookstores that can only be accessed through one of those third party distributors I’ve already covered.
Ingram requires one, as do most legitimate printers with any significant distribution. Ingram does not assign you a free ISBN, so if you want to skip out on paying for ISBNs you should probably go through Createspace.
The point is, despite the assertion of some anti-ISBN advocates, there really are a few bookstores which require it, though you can usually get a free ISBN (typically with the same conditions as Createspace’s free one) if you need to. And there are a few self-published authors willing to sacrifice those bookstores if it means getting out of having to use an ISBN, as well.
But what good is the ISBN? Beyond gaining entry to a few obscure online bookstores and some printers, ISBN is useful for cataloging.
Okay, but surely there’s more to it than that, right? It wouldn’t be such a big deal if it wasn’t.
Well… not on the publisher’s end. Even for marketing, the effect of an ISBN is insubstantial — some people used to say that having an ISBN made your book look more “professional” and therefore would encourage readers to buy it, but most readers never even notice if a book has one or not when making purchasing decisions.
ISBN is for the benefit of the end-user. I phrase it that way (instead of “reader”) because the person most likely to care about it are the people who shelve the book; the bookstore workers and the librarians. Even book collectors might desire an ISBN — trust me, I know from experience that when you have a personal library of thousands of books, having an app that will catalog your book for you by scanning the ISBN is very handy (but only so long as your collection has ISBN numbers. If less than 10% of your collection has ISBNs, those apps can only help you so far)
So the question becomes: Do you want to make the lives of the bookseller, the librarian, and the book collector easier? Or, let’s put it another way — do you want to do something nice for the person who sells your book, who helps market your book, and\or who buys your book? If the answer to that is “yes,” then you might just want to use the ISBN system.
And yes, I would recommend buying (in bulk) from Bowker over going with a free one, but that’s my personal opinion — since I’m going to use them anyway, I like the idea of owning them myself instead of sub-licensing them. But this is definitely one of those “your mileage may vary” issues.
OFF TOPIC: COPYRIGHT
This is just a quick mention of copyrights; it’s not related to ISBNs (got that? Copyright and ISBN have nothing to do with each other), but it doesn’t really fit anywhere else, and it isn’t a big enough topic to justify a section of its own.
Your book is under copyright from the moment it is completed. So, why do you need to register, and when should you do it?
Well, the biggest reason for registering your copyright is that you effectively cannot file a lawsuit to enforce your copyright until it is registered (well, you can, but your options in doing so are limited). “Timely” registration (within three months of publication, or before any infingement has taken place) will increase your chance of success in such a lawsuit. You also set the damages for a violation to $150,000 and, in many cases, you can force the violator to pay your legal bill. (I’m not sure what damages you can cover if such registration isn’t timely, but it’s considerably less. If you don’t even register, well, you might be able to “enforce” your copyright with DMCA-Takedown notices and the like, but you’ll get no financial compensation even in a lawsuit).
As far as “when” to do it, this is one of the most confusing things for new authors to grasp. The U.S. Copyright Office may now have a mechanism in place for you to pre-register your copyright, but they prefer that you hold off on registering your copyright until after you publish. Now, it’s best to register in a timely manner (within three months… or as soon as possible), but don’t bother even trying until you’re done.
Also, be smart — register on-line. It isn’t really any faster (it takes them months to review your application), but it’s a lot cheaper (I think around $50 cheaper, now; it used to be an even greater difference), and only requires an electronic version of your book to get your copyright registered (note: There is some confusion about this; your copyright should be registered with just the electronic copies. To file it with the Library of Congress, however, you must mail in a “best edition,” which is usually your print edition. But if you don’t have a print edition at the time you file (when you submit the forms, not when they complete the registration) — and I usually don’t release a print edition until a month or so after my eBook edition has been published, and you can’t mail them what doesn’t exist — they do take electronic editions).
Oh, and one last warning: The Copyright Office is extremely slow (though I understand there might be ways of speeding it up, if you need the certificate in a hurry). In Treachery Forged went nine months between my registering and the certificate arriving; the certificate for The Kitsune Stratagem — which I registered in August of 2014 — arrived on earlier this month (I’m writing these blogs a week or two in advance; at the time I’m writing this, it showed up today, on July 9th, 2015). And that was with no issues; if they had asked for any clarifications (which they might, especially if you’re filing for copyright registration on something complicated such as an anthology or collection) who knows how long it would have taken.
And that is copyright in a nutshell. It has absolutely nothing to do with ISBN, and ISBN has absolutely nothing to do with it.
For some reason, ISBN numbers seem to spark a lot of passion in the self-publishing community. I have sat back and watch self-publishing bigwigs get into knockdown, drag-out fights on Facebook over the issue of ISBNs. I know people who evangelize on the importance of including them, and others on the horribly waste of money that they are.
Why? This whole argument just seems silly. ISBNs are a thing. They are worth… well, something, at least. They are not, however, worth getting into fights over.
I am the son of a librarian. I am sure my late father would roll over in his grave if I ever put a book out there without an ISBN number, so I certainly will include them on all of my books… but they are conveniences, not requirements, for the publishing process. It costs a little money, but it isn’t horribly expensive spread across several books, and its a nice thing to include for your end-users.
But some people seem to think if you advocate paying anything to add a convenience to your books, you are somehow damaging the self-publishing cause, and so you should bitterly fight against them.