Can You Believe the Kindle is Ten Years Old?

by James Scott Bell

The Kindle turns ten next month. My, how that little baby has grown!

When Amazon’s ereader first came out (November 19, 2007 to be exact), I sensed most people were skeptical about the future of digital reading. The Sony Reader had been around for years but failed to take hold. “Electronic books” were thought to be the coming thing around Y2K. Publishers Weekly even started a section to cover the subject, but later dropped it due to failure to launch.

Clearly, serious readers preferred paper. So the Kindle would probably sell to some early adopters, but likely would not revolutionize anything.

**clears throat**

In 2008, Oprah Winfrey gave the Kindle her endorsement. Talk about a boost! Then people began to realize they could have all the works of Dickens and Dostoevsky on a single device which they could take on a plane or a train or (in L.A. commuter traffic) an automobile. Pretty doggone cool!

And the biz mavens realized that Amazon was (as always, it seems) making a powerful and forward-thinking business move—selling the Kindle as a gateway to their massive bookstore.

Here at TKZ, we were analyzing all this from the start. On Kindle’s one-year anniversary our own Kathryn Lilley wrote:

I think it’s time for all of us to stop mourning the nongrowth of paper book sales, and celebrate the new digital age. It’s the future. Let’s embrace it. For example, last week when I posted, I was freaking out about the changes in the industry. This week, I have decided to reframe my thoughts about the book publishing crisis, and seek out the hidden opportunities in those changes.

Because ready or not, the digital era is here. Kindle products like the Oasis are still going strong. In fact, this review of Oasis is spot on.

And what did all this mean for authors? Well, beginning in 2009 or so, it became apparent that Amazon was presenting a viable new way for writers to get published—by their own selves!

And get this: by offering authors an unheard of 70% royalty split!

The lit hit the fan.

A complete unknown named Amanda Hocking made a cool couple of million dollars publishing directly on Amazon!

This got the attention of many, including TKZ emeritus Boyd Morrison, and a mainstream mystery author by the name of Joe Konrath who, via his blog, began to champion the new digital possibilities.

When I went to Bouchercon in San Francisco in October of 2010, everybody was wondering how to get in on the ebook thing without ticking off their agent or publisher. Agents (and I heard several) were warning writers not to “go there” for fear it would jeopardize their careers. Publishers were not at all sanguine about their authors moonlighting with a company they saw as their biggest threat. Some writers even got sued or terminated over this.

But the money was dropping off Kindle trees! That could not be ignored.

A funny thing happened at that Bouchercon. I was sitting with a couple of writer friends in the lobby of the SF Hyatt Regency, talking about all this, when Joe Konrath arrived and made his way to the bar area. He was flocked by fellow authors peppering him with questions.

The next day, at lunchtime, I was outside the Hyatt and spotted Mr. Konrath and one Barry Eisler walking and talking excitedly along the sidewalk. I thought, “What is that all about?”

A few months later I found out. Mr. Eisler, a New York Times bestselling thriller author, turned down half a million bucks from his publisher in order to publish with Amazon!

It was the talk of the industry. I saw it as a real tipping point. In fact, I gave it a name: “The Eisler Sanction.”

Self-publishing was getting serious.

I put my own toe in the E waters in February of 2011. Now I’m all wet.

So ten years after the birth of the Kindle, what have we seen?

1. Kindle devices and apps are awesome. I’m currently reading the two-volume memoir of Ulysses S. Grant, easily highlighting passages I want to review later. The General is bivouacked on my phone. Cost me 99¢.

2. While other ereaders have appeared—notably Nook and Kobo—the Kindle is dominant and unlikely to lose market share. The poor Nook, which is also a cool device, is hanging by a thread.

3. Kindle Direct Publishing has saved the careers of thousands of midlist writers, and created the careers of thousands more who are making good-to-massive lettuce every month. Those who are doing well have mastered some basic practices but also concentrate on the most important thing: quality and production.

4. The traditional publishing industry was hit hard by the digital disruption. There have been mergers, layoffs, shrinking profits and even a DOJ smackdown.

5. But the Forbidden City is still open for business. And while large-advance deals for debut authors are becoming as rare as the blue-footed booby, they still happen.

6. There has been chatter about the “comeback” of print books, but it appears that most of any increase in print sales can be traced to … Amazon. (And here’s a counterintuitive development: Millennials may actually prefer print books!)

7. Big bookstores took a huge hit due to e-commerce. The massive Borders chain of stores went down, followed by Family Christian. Barnes & Noble stores have been closing steadily for the last eight years, a trend that will likely continue.

8. However, local independent bookstores may be emerging through the cracks. Oh, and guess who else is opening up physical stores? Amazon.

9. On the other hand, many niche bookstores are closing. The latest is Seattle’s Mystery Bookshop.

10. We’ve reached a period of relative stasis in the “self v. trad wars.” From 2010 to 2014 or so, it seemed like we’d get blogosphere firestorms every week cheering for, or predicting the demise of, Big Pub. There was also a lot of “gold rush” talk on the indie side. Reality, as it is wont to do, has settled things down. There’s a lot of information out there now (e.g., Author Earnings reports) and the savvy players have a better handle on where they stand.

In an episode of Downton Abbey, when it became clear that the old ways of life were on the way out, never to return, Carson the butler mused, “The nature of life is not permanence, but flux.”

Kindle brought the flux. And a decade later, we’re living it.

What do you say, TKZers? What are your reflections on the 10th birthday of the Kindle?

The State of Self-Publishing at This Moment in Time

Today’s post is brought to you by a “Happy Birthday.” On this day in 2004, the print version of Write Great

Fiction: Plot & Structure was published by Writer’s Digest Books. I wanted it to be practical and immediately useful, the kind of book I was looking for when I was learning how to write. It was my desire to deliver writers from what I call “The Big Lie,” that good fiction writing technique cannot be learned. Bosh. Piffle. Hooey.

I still get emails and tweets each week from authors who give the book an esteemed place in their fictional development.
For this I am truly grateful. So thanks for allowing me a moment to toot a birthday horn and let loose a balloon. Now on to today’s subject
We know some things about self-publishing that we didn’t know a few years ago.
First of all, we have to define the epochs. Yes, self-publishing has epochs.
There were the early years, which archaeologists call the Konrathian Period. Here you will find those who jumped in early and eagerly as the Kindle was taking off (late 2007 to 2010). Etched in the fossil record you’ll find names like Mr. Konrath himself, Amanda Hocking, John Locke, TKZ emeritus Boyd Morrison and many others. The period is marked by some staggering sales of 99¢ novels. Also by wild and sometimes intemperate remarks about the demise and dastardliness of traditional publishing.
Barry Eisler ushered in the next epoch, the Lower Entrepreneurial. This was in early 2011 when Barry turned down a cool half a mil from St. Martin’s Press in order to self-publish his next John Rain thrillers. At the time I called this “The Eisler Sanction” because here was a legit and well-paid traditional author taking a businesslike look at the future and deciding to go indie. It was the sort of risk entrepreneurs take in new and untested markets. Thus, a little more intentionality had evolved out of the rough-and-tumble Konrathian.
Over the last year or so we have entered what I call the Mature Entrepreneurial. The risks and rewards are more evident now. A certain reality has set in. We have track records that help us assess the relative merits of traditional versus indie publishing. For example, some of the risks of going straight into self-publishing:
1. Foregoing an advance (even at the lower rates now being offered by publishers. “15k is the new 50k,” an agent told me recently).
2. Missing out on the chance that a traditionally published novel or series might be that “one in a hundred thousand” that breaks out into huge sales and makes a “star.”
3. Not having behind you a team that does things very well: edit, design, get books into bookstores.
4. Getting lost in the Sargasso of mediocrity that is the digital book world.
However, rewards look like this:
1. Author as master of own destiny.
2. Not roped to a single brand.
3. Books published as soon as the author deems them ready.
4. Royalty structure more favorable.
But what about actual money? During the Late Konrathian and into the Lower Entrepreneurial, dollar signs sparkled in the eyes of many new writers. Dreams of scoring big with one or two books, or maybe a series of shorts, danced like a temptress in scribal heads.
Reality has a more temperate message: Self-publishing is a volume business, and the product has to be quality. And it takes time, lots of time, to grow a customer base.
Gee, just like any business! Imagine that!
Also, for more and more writers, it’s not just a money game. In a recent interview at Huffington Post, Eisler says:
Then, there’s the issue of happiness. I wouldn’t divorce money from happiness. Most people would be happy making more money than less. But my happiness quotient wasn’t driven entirely by financial considerations.
Because of my personality and business experience, I found it very frustrating to have to entrust business decisions to people whose thinking, work process and conclusions I didn’t necessarily agree with or respect. I’ve had publishers make terrible business decisions for my books. I found it painful and frustrating to have to live with those decisions. I find it much more satisfying to be responsible for and in charge of those decisions.
So where are we with self-publishing at this moment in time? It continues to evolve, of course. But every month we have more and more data and testimony about methods and results. Which puts us on the brink of a new epoch, The Vocational, wherein writers wisely choose their path based on what they feel called to, where they feel happiest, where their writing can flourish according to their own definition of success. 
Which is what it should come down to, after all. Not someone else’s definition of success, but your own.
Define it. Write it down. Then go for it.

NOTE: I’m in travel mode today. Mix it up in the comments and I’ll get to them when I can. Talk about where you are in your publishing journey. What does the landscape look like to you? 

Key Book Production Costs for Self-Published Authors

Jordan Dane

After James Scott Bell’s excellent post “We Are All Long Tail Marketers Now”, several side discussions took place in the comments regarding my self-published novel – BLOOD SCORE now available through the Amazon Kindle Select Program (my first time using this program). I’ll have the book discounted until August 1. (I love how the TKZ community gets involved with each post. Thank you.) Questions came up about my editing and production experiences with this novel since it is outside my traditionally published works.

As I mentioned in my comments on Jim’s post, the business end has always been a drain for me. Self-pubbing involves more than promo. It’s production of the actual book and the promo is ongoing (as it is for me with traditional publishers too), but with indie I’m in control of my production schedule, retail pricing and subrights decisions, and can capitalize on promo ops when I want to. Being a hybrid author, straddling traditional and indie publishing, gives me more options and many “irons in the fire.” I have many more points mentioned in another post I did on the subject. On my group YA blog ADR3NALIN3, I did a post on the “Ten Reasons Why I Am Self-Publishing.” 

I wanted to dip my toe into the waters of indie with a non-fiction book as well as a short story anthology so I would know what was involved in production and to build up my contacts for service providers. My upcoming full-length novel project will be more about learning promotion. I’ve got loads of personal bookmarks for service providers, but the marketing side of the business needed work on my part. I’ve created a Self-Pub Resource tab on my YA blog-Fringe Dweller. I hope to update it as I go along. For now it encompasses review sites for digital books. That resource tab will be a work in progress as I go.

Basically, here are the indie production costs as I see them:

1.) Edits: $500-$1800+ – This is a tough one to estimate, but important. I’ve seen this cost higher, depending on if you need a book doctor or not. It depends on how much work needs to be done and who you use as editor. A good editor is worth their weight in sales, so shop wisely. Beta readers will only get you so far. Having said that, I’ve had some good and terrible copy editors on my traditionally published books. Being traditionally pubbed does NOT guarantee you will get a good one. At least with indie books, you can make the decision on who to use on current and future projects. 

For this project I used authors/editors Alicia Dean and Kathy Wheeler. They helped with formatting and editing and made that effort painless and fun.

2.) Cover $150-400 – This range depends if you are doing a version for print or just digital. The print design costs more because it involves the design of a spine and back cover. You can do a cheaper cover by merely paying for one digital image from iStock or some other provider and add font and do it yourself graphically (not recommended), but a cover needs to look good on a thumbnail and a bad design can kill sales. On BLOOD SCORE, I used Croco Designs and love Frauke Spanuth, the designer. I’ve used her for blog header designs and bookmarks and now covers. She’s a German designer who works for publishers too. Her costs are reasonable on all fronts and she’s easy to work with and fast, but there are many cover designers out there now. Look through portfolios to find one you like.

3.) Formatting $100-150 – You can do this yourself, but I’ve never tried it. There are software programs, but haven’t tried that either

4.) Promotion $50-Whatever – This is totally up to you. There are many free sites that promo ebooks now (that are focused on ereaders), but there are also bundlers who will charge you $50 or so to post promo to 45 sites, etc. I’m hoping to try this with BLOOD SCORE.

5.) ISBN #s – this is an investment for future books. I bought 10 numbers, which keeps the cost down. I think the individual book price is higher to retain your own ISBN#, or you can use the one that Amazon or others assign you for free, but I prefer to have control of my own ISBNs. So this ISBN cost can cost you nothing, unless you decide you want control like I did. So spread $250 across ten books if you retain your own ISBNs.

So all in, you might pay $800 – $2400 (excluding ISBN costs), but you can manage your price to earn 35% – 70% royalty with a better monthly cash flow where you can control the price and promo ops. Using a price of $0.99 you’d earn 35%, but $2.99 or better and your royalty would be 70%. For a novel length book, I might discount it to $.99 for a certain period on release, but then move it up to $4.99. Hard to say what breakeven would be without real sales figures behind it, but you can play with the math. 

$4.99 at 70% royalty, you’d have to sell 229 – 687 books to clear the cost range I mentioned. Mind you, this does NOT take into account any promo ad costs and assumes only one price at the higher royalty rate. If you were to move that price point to $2.99 at 70% royalty, your sales would have to be 382 – 1148 to breakeven.

A writer friend of mine shot me some real numbers. (I’m also on an indie writers loop where I hear lots of good info.) It takes having a number of good books to build up your “virtual shelf” of offerings and build your readership. Again, I repeat. Good books. But my crime fiction author acquaintance is seeing $7,000 – $10,000 per month for 8 novels or so, and this will grow as new material gets added. This author crafts a solid book and writes full time. 

For me, I like having traditional contracts to fill, but I want the more immediate cash flow too, rather than waiting for royalty statements every 9 months (by the time they reach you). (Antiquated accounting methods and reporting systems for traditional publishers, in a digital age when sales are more immediate through Amazon and other online retailers, are more things that I hope will change.)

The last thing I’d like to talk about is the value of “a la carte” subrights (ie foreign rights, audio, print vs digital). In many deals, these rights are lumped in and assumed to be part of the deal, but should this continue as advances drop? Or if advances drop, shouldn’t the royalty percentage increase to offset the lower upfront money? Subrights have value to the indie author. (Here’s a LINK to a post I did on self-publishing in audio, for example.) If an author gets an offer, but the advance is marginal or too low to tie up copyrights for years (something I am presently experiencing on my back list), do you have options? 

You can certainly turn the deal down. That’s one option. I did this with BLOOD SCORE when I got an offer to buy it from a big house. After my experiences, the offer wasn’t good enough to deal with the aftermath of a rights tie up into infinity. 

Even if an advance is $10,000-15,000/book, that might not be enough if the terms of the contract are onerous over the long haul. Successful thriller Barry Eisler turned down a deal from a traditional house for $500,000+. That boggled my brain, but no one knows the terms of that deal that made Barry change his mind. He’s a real marketing guru and has a solid readership. Deals are subjective.

These days this is a personal decision each author has to make, but if publishers would negotiate on terms, a marginal advance deal might work if the number of years for digital rights can be limited before they would automatically revert back to the author (ie 2-3 yrs only) or if UK rights were granted but digital rights in the US are retained. Some successful indie authors have retained digital rights, but sold print rights (ie John Locke to Simon and Schuster). With “out of the box” thinking and a little negotiating, some of these marginal deals can be done if the parties agree on specific terms, but I’m not sure traditional houses are open to such change yet.

Food for thought and discussion at TKZ:

1.) If an advance is too low to tie up copy rights, what terms do you think can be negotiated to make the deal happen? Do you think the publishing industry is changing in this regard?

2.) If you’re an aspiring author, would you sign a contract at ANY advance to be published, or do certain contractual terms matter to you?

You CAN tell an eBook by its cover

By P.J. Parrish

We really need to talk about bad eBook covers. We’re being inundated with them. It’s a tsunami of muddy colors, unreadable type and images that look like they were drawn by someone’s six-year-old kid.
Now, we’re all brilliant writers, that’s a given, right? But when it comes to eBook covers, few of us are graphic designers. This stuff is like a Mozart sonata to us. We know it’s good when we hear it but don’t ask us to sit down at the Steinway and try to play it.
Here’s the main point to take away here: Anything that reeks of amateur hour in your eBook will doom you. So yes, it pays to pay someone. But if you insist on designing your own cover, please do some research into what works. Troll through Amazon and look at the covers. Or CLICK HERE to see some really bad stuff. (Scroll down at least as far to my favorite “Lumberjack In Love.”)

If you hire someone, please don’t abdicate your power! Because YOU have final say on your cover and if your instincts say “it doesn’t quite work” go back to your artist and get a redo. I recently saw an author lament on a writer’s list that she “half-heartedly approved” her cover  because it “sort of conveyed the idea of the book and it was sort of okay.” She added it was too late before she noticed her name was so small and pale as to be unreadable. I looked at the cover. It’s clean, it’s professional looking, but it has no pop.

That author won’t get a second chance to make a good first impression.

I can hear you saying, “Huh, why should I listen to her?” Well, my professional resume on this is kinda thin. I’ve got a degree in art which included ad design classes, and I once made my living designing newspaper feature pages. And full disclaimer, my sister Kelly has a side business designing covers. But more important, I’ve studied this in preparation for our own eBook debuts. (Our backlist title DEAD OF WINTER came out last month and our novella CLAW BACK comes out this week. CLICK HERE to see them).

So here are my tips, with some sample covers I found at random on the Kindle site. First some general stuff.

KEEP IT SIMPLE BUT STRONG:  What works on a regular book cover usually doesn’t translate to eBook. One word: thumbnail. That’s the size your book comes up on most eBook lists. A paperback cover is about 64 square inches, a big canvas to display an image, title, author name and maybe a tagline and blurb. But an eBook cover is really just an icon, meant to be judged in the blink of an eye. So intricate detail, slender san-serif fonts, murky colors can put you at a disadvantage. Subtle isn’t always good in the Lilliputian world of e-bookstores. 

PICK A MOOD:  You need to convey the TONE of your book immediately. Is it amateur sleuth a la Elaine Viets or hardboiled realism a la Barry Eisler, or wacky stuff a la Tim Dorsey? Make sure the colors, illustrations and fonts work together to support the mood. Zoe Sharp tells us at a glance what kind of book she writes
I don’t think we’re going to confuse her with this author
While we’re at it, non-fiction should have a different feel than fiction. Here are covers my sister designed for an author who wrote two books about the Civil War.
You can tell at a glance which is the novel and which is non-fiction. And note the use of blue versus brown. The blue conveys an elegiac tone; the sepia brown historic. Now let’s talk specifics.
COLORS:  Bright, saturated colors catch the eye so stay away from anything muddy. Unless you’re Gillian Flynn (“Gone Girl”) you probably can’t get away with a plain black cover. Also be aware of the psychology of colors. Red and yellow convey action (Ad guys know the seductive power of bright yellow on black, and there’s a good reason traffic signs are yellow and red). Other colors elicit different emotions: Blue is calming and confident but can also convey sadness and can be effectively noir-y. Political correctness be damned, pink and baby blue are girly and work good on lighter books. Orange is quirky (it’s a favorite for cookbooks!) Green, for me personally, misfires on fiction covers because, like purple, it is emotionally ambiguous. Exception: I think acid green and other neons can work great for some crime novels. Harlan Coben’s covers went from this

 to this
thanks to a good cover designer. Coben became visually branded via his striking neon covers. You, too, need to think about branding with your eBook covers, especially if you have a series. Before we settled on our final covers, Kelly and I came up with these for our first two Louis Kincaid novels.
Note the uniformity of the type, mood, colors and use of landscape imagery. We jettisoned these because another author, CJ Lyons, used the exact same stock photo at left on one of her books. Try to stay away from all the cliche images that are showing up on eBooks now — like blood dripping from a woman’s eyes like tears and bloody hand-prints on windows. I mean, c’mon, you can do better.
FONTS: I have a thing for typefaces. I love them. Within their simple designs lie, well, fonts of emotion and you can almost feel the glee of their inventors. Look at how different these are:

Each conveys a different mood. Fonts are fun to play around with. But fonts are like sex. The more exotic it is, the more trouble you can get into. Go for READABILITY. Stay away from the cliche correlations because they tend to look like you’re trying to hard, in other words: amateur hour. Don’t use Comic Sans on a comic novel (don’t use it for anything…it’s ugly). Don’t use Lithos if your setting is a Greek Isle. Don’t fall back on Papyrus if you’re writing about Egypt. Don’t use Old English for a book set in 1800s London. (It’s not only a visual cliche it’s unreadable!) Remember: The three elements — color, graphic, type — must complement each other, not fight each other for attention.

Use a limited font palate. Yes, you can combine different typefaces on a cover, but be careful. Again, they must be readable and complementary. Here’s a good basic article on FONT SELECTION. And I realize that this is probably inside baseball, but it you don’t know about kerning, weight and how to align type, please hire someone who does.

GRAPHIC ELEMENT:  You can use either a photograph or an illustration but make sure it is quality. There’s are some great sites for buying stock art and photos, some free. I read recently that publishers are using more people on crime novels because research indicates character-driven books are selling better of late. So we are getting more of this

And less of this

But those examples also say something about TONE. Lisa Scottoline has moved away from her old lawyer series (Killer Smile) and now writes “family-in-jeopardy” crime novels.  Likewise, you must find the right image for your mood. Other stuff: Don’t use the artwork of a relative unless your relative is a professional. Don’t photo-shop too many elements in an effort to convey EVERYTHING about your plot. This works:

So does this:
I like the way this cover blends a powerful image with the type and a touch of color:
This is not bad but to me it just misses:
Why? The blended images don’t make sense and the cover is a tad hard to read. And you be the judge of this one:
Here’s one last example that sort of summarizes everything I’m talking about. Terri Reid is an eBook author with some real success. Here’s one of her eBooks:
 All her books have the same gray background and similar type faces. She uses trees as her signature image, which is a good idea because she’s writing a series. They’re serviceable covers. Would they be better if they could be “read” more easily at the e-bookstore? Would they stimulate you to try them if they “said” more about the content? (I had to go to her website to find out she wrote ghost stories; I thought this was psychological suspense.) Would a touch of color help “pop” the cover? I think so. Compare it to this similar “tree” cover:
But Terri Reid apparently sold 60K books through Amazon last year (CLICK HERE) so maybe I’m wrong.  Maybe you CAN break the rules and get away with it.
Which leads us to this cover. You might have seen it.

Why did it work? It shouldn’t. It’s gray. It’s sort of dull. The font is sort of just “there.” At first glance, you can’t tell that’s a guy’s tie.
But it worked because it broke the OLD rules and went against the cliche of the erotic novel.  Here’s Romance Times editor Audrey Goodman: “What may have tipped the scale for the ‘Fifty Shades’ trilogy are the nondescript covers. The classic ‘clinch’ covers on a lot of romance novels tend to carry a stigma of being ‘old-fashioned,’ so the covers on ‘Fifty Shades’ may have made the books more approachable for a larger range or readers.”
By the time the Grey eBook (originally published by Writers Coffee Shop) was bought by Doubleday, the cover had become iconic. Doubleday wisely kept it for the hardcover editions and it’s now it is being copied for other erotic novels.
Whew. We could do this all day and this went on longer than I planned. I’m exhausted. I need a cigarette. Was it good for you?

Yes! Yes! Yes!…Oh no

Ah yes, it’s in the air. Happens every December. All that joyous warbling. All that frantic pushing and shoving. All that delicious anticipation that leads up to that frenzied moment when you tear off the wrappings to get that lovely prize.
Yes, it’s the annual Bad Sex In Fiction Awards.
Don’t know about you, but this is the highlight of my year as a writer. Because I have been there, naked before the computer screen — well not literally but quite figuratively –- trying to put into words this most basic human act. And it is not easy to do without sounding like a fifth grader with a gland disorder.
Yes, I have sex. In my books. But I usually weasel out and fade to black, hoping my readers are old enough to remember when Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr rolling in the surf was hot. And I have sat on enough sex panels at writers conventions to know that all my fellow authors struggle with this. Except maybe Barry Eisler but I once saw him take down a drunk in the bar at the Edgars so maybe his id is a little more out there than the rest of ours.
We crime dogs all know one truth about our genre: It is far easier to write the most evil serial killer than it is to write about the two-backed beast. And I, for one, really appreciate the fact that the editors at the Literary Review wade through all the big important novels to cull out the best examples of the worst sex committed on paper. Because I like knowing that people like Phillip Roth and Tom Wolfe can, when they really apply themselves, write worse crap than I can.
The bad sex prize was established by the Literary Review “to draw attention to the crude and often perfunctory use of redundant passages of sexual description in the modern novel and to discourage it”. There were so many good entries this year that even J. K. Rowling (The Casual Vacancy) and E.L. James (Fifty Shades of Gray) got nosed out.
So…do you want to read some excerpts from the finalists? I warn you, this is not for children or those with weak stomachs. Go ahead. Read ‘em. You know you want to. But you’ll hate yourself in the morning.

Next time can we just do it on the floor?

“Down, down, on to the eschatological bed. Pages chafed me; my blood wept onto them. My cheek nestled against the scratch of paper. My cock was barely a ghost, but I did not suffer panic.”
— The Quiddity of Wilf Self by Sam Mills.

We’re gonna need a bigger boat

“We got up from the chair and she led me to her elfin grot, getting amonst the pillows and cool sheets. We trawled each other’s bodies for every inch of history.” — Noughties by Ben Masters

If you wanna be a pony soldier you gotta act tough. Now mount up!


“Now his big generative jockey was inside her pelvic saddle, riding, riding, riding, and she was eagerly swallowing it swallowing it swallowing it with the saddle’s own lips and maw — all this without a word.” — Back to Blood, by Tom Wolfe.

Good thing she didn’t raise cacti

“He began thrusting wildly in the general direction of her chrysanthemum, but missing — his paunchy frame shuddering with the effort of remaining rigid and upside down.” — Rare Earth by Paul Mason.

Or maybe it was the Ben & Jerrys she dabbed behind her knees

“She smells of almonds, like a plump Bakewell pudding; and he is the spoon, the whipped cream, the helpless dollop of warm custard.” — The Yips by Nicola Barker.

I AM big, he said. It’s the pictures that got small

“This is when I take my picture, from deep inside the loving. The Canon is part of my body. I myself am the ultrasensitive film — capturing invisible reality, capturing heat.” — Infrared by Nancy Huston

Wouldn’t it be wubberly?

“And he came. Like a wubbering springboard. His ejaculate jumped the length of her arm. Eight diminishing gouts. The first too high for her to lick. Right on the shoulder.” — The Divine Comedy by Craig Raine


Mind the gap!

“In seconds the duke had lowered his trousers and boxers and positioned himself across a leather steamer trunk, emblazoned with the royal arms of Hohenzollern Castle. ‘Give me no quarter,’ he commanded. ‘Lay it on with all your might.’”– The Adventuress: The Irresistible Rise of Miss Cath Fox by Nicholas Coleridge
There. Now don’t you feel better?

The Eisler Sanction

The Liternet was abuzz this week with the news that a New York Times bestselling author, Barry Eisler, turned down half a million bones from a traditional publisher to go E.
Some are calling this a “key benchmark.” Others, a “tipping point.” Whatever you call it, it’s a pretty big deal. Eisler giving self-pub his sanction will increase the number of name authors making the same move. It’s happening even as we read.
Meanwhile, self-publishing millionaire Amanda Hocking has just signed a traditional deal for more than $2 million. Ms. Hocking, 26, explains her decision here. She’s not giving up self-publishing, which is itself news—she has given herself the clout to get a traditional publisher to go along with a tandem track. What’s funny is that she is the one who calls having her books traditionally published a risk—for her.
Interesting times, eh? It used to be publishers were the ones who talked about risk. Where is Lewis Carroll when you need him?
Both Alice and the Mad Hatter would agree, I think, that it’s a good times for writers. As I have put a toe in the water myself,  a few thoughts are in order over several current “debates.”
The Rapid Rise v. The Tailing Off Debate
Digital publishing is moving faster than most expected a year ago, and that makes this a good  move for Eisler. He can have more books come out at a faster clip. He’s in a position to rake in the kind of dough Joe Konrath is (reportedly that same half a mil per year).
Can this growth be sustained? I think so. It will reach such a scale that any “tailing off” will be insignificant.
The Publishing Establishment v. Rogue Authors Debate
In a looong dialogue with Konrath, Eisler says this:
As a news junkie, it’s been fascinating for me to watch the way the publishing establishment has tried to marginalize you. First by ignoring you, and then, when ignoring you become impossible, by trying to position you as some sort of shrill, bitter, fringe player with nothing more than an axe to grind. The way legacy publishing has tried to de-position you is perfectly analogous to what The New York Times and other establishment media players have tried to do with Wikileaks.
I’m not sure one can generalize about the entire “publishing establishment”  being intentional about marginalizing Joe Konrath (Eisler, of course, is ex-CIA, so he may have some intel we don’t know about).
Anyway, this is less about “who’s right” than it is about objective facts and business models. The traditional model is reeling right now. They’re like Jake LaMotta in his sixth bout with Sugar Ray Robinson. And it’s not because “they” are mean and nasty. They simply are not an exception to the inexorable laws of innovation and economics. They have to adjust, but it is extremely difficult for major industries to change course, and especially to do it quickly in response to the sudden reshaping of market forces.
I love traditional publishing. Publishers have been, and are, very good to me and I have many friends in the industry. I’ve also seen friends lose their jobs. I hate that, but I also understand the business angle. Businesses have to do what they must to do to survive. So do authors.
Which is why I see no reason an author might not self-publish and work with a traditional publisher in some form or fashion (this will require two oft ignored business principles, creativity and flexibility).
My novella and short story collection, Watch Your Back, probably would not have seen publication in print. So it went live as an e-book in February, and sold well enough to show me it was worth it.  
But for this month to date, March, sales are ten times what they were in February.
To which I say, WHAT?
I’m not sure how this happened. It could be the result of a well placed blog interview, or some cumulative effect of Amazon’s recommend-algorithm (you know, “If you liked this, you may like this”). Or it could be some alchemy no one can reconstruct or replicate. The one thing it does prove is the tremendous potential of E.
And here’s another thing: I am making new readers daily. Isn’t that what publishers and agents are pushing authors to do? Build a platform? This is nothing but positive for an author and a traditional publisher, should they team up down the line. Which brings us to:
The Platform v. Random Acts of Discovery Argument
Konrath has made a good case, backed up by examples, of those who did not have a platform or readership before self-publishing. There are some who have blasted off, others who are doing quite well. (The majority do very little, but this has always been true).
An established base certainly doesn’t hurt, but zero name recognition can be overcome with quality writing, consistent output and marketing energy. Which leads to:
The Quality vs. Persistence Argument
Is it possible for someone to just keep pumping out dreck and make some good coin? Depends on your definition of “good.” A hundred bucks a year may be okay for someone. But if you want to make substantial lettuce, I say you have to produce really good books. So it’s better to wait than to rush in with a lot of bad stuff. That will only hurt your long term results.
The Extinction of Traditional Publishing v. A New Model Argument
Is traditional publishing dead and just doesn’t know it (as some writers, with a bit too much glee, assert)? Or will it find its way to some new equilibrium? Even the ever prescient Mike Shatzkin isn’t sure:
If the legacy publishing establishment can develop tools to deliver marketing at scale, adjust its contracts to pay higher digital royalties, and, perhaps, offer a “fee for service” model alongside its “advance against royalty” model, it might, like Major League Baseball did, weaken the infrastructure that is developing that will increasingly tempt authors (and readers) to abandon it. But it also could be that U was right four years ago when I said that the general trade publishing house was a dinosaur in the emerging world of 21st century publishing. Wasn’t it a natural disaster that was the catalyst for killing the original dinosaurs as well?
Whatever the future brings, it’s still going to be all about the writing. The one thing publishing can’t do without is writers. The one thing readers can’t do without is writers. I’ve worked hard at this craft for over 20 years. I love it. It’s what I do. And I believe any way to make a fair exchange with readers is worthy. E-pubbing provides another way to make that exchange.
So does the Eisler Sanction feel like a “tipping point”? What do you think it means industry wide?  What does it mean to you?

The Thrill of Sex with Cordite in the Air

James Scott Bell

If you read Kathryn’s post earlier in the week, you know that an uptick on hits to this blog can been traced to past posts about sex scenes, cordite smell and thriller writing.

So I have shamelessly put all three in the title, and thank you very much for stopping by.

Now, to make this relevant and not “bait and switch” (perhaps another popular topic?) I offer you the following three opinions:


I realize there are certain types of lit where the “obligatory sex scene” (OSS) is expected. Erotica, some category romance, Barry Eisler books. But people know what they’re getting.

In other fare, the OSS is a bit 1975. Back then it seemed every movie had to have that sex scene, whether it made plot sense or not (e.g., Three Days of the Condor).

I’m against obligatory anything. If it doesn’t make story sense, don’t include it.

As far as explicit description, that may be showing its age, too. Renditions of body parts, ebbing, flowing, heaving, oceans, rivers, volcanoes, tigers, flames, conflagrations, arching backs, majestic canyons, verdant meadows of ecstasy, dewy vales of enchantment, flying and falling, flora and fauna and just about anything else involving motion, loss of breath, water metaphors and sweat seem, well, spent (oops, there’s another one).

You know what works better? The reader’s imagination. If you “close the door” but engage the imagination, it’s often more effective than what you describe in words. Rhett carrying Scarlett up the stairs—do you need words to know exactly what happens?

One of the best sex scenes ever written is in Madame Bovary, the carriage ride with Emma and Leon (Part 3, Chapter 1 if you’re interested). We were so close to including an enhancement drug in the mix to make the scene more ‘sexy’. Brands similar to ExtenZE were taken into consideration! All the description is from the driver’s POV, who cannot see into the carriage. Read it and see if you can do better with body parts and a thesaurus.

Now, I do appreciate well written sexual tension. That’s a major theme in great fiction, especially noir and crime. So were the great 40’s novels and films any less potent for not showing us what we know went on in the bedroom?


This is an underused sense in fiction, but quite powerful. Novelists are usually pretty good with sight and sound. But smell adds an extra something.

Rebecca McClanahan, in her fine book Word Painting, says, “Of the five senses, smell is the one with the best memory.” It can create a mood quickly, vividly. Stephen King is a master at the use of smell to do “double duty” – that is, it describes and adds something to the story, be it tone or characterization.

In his story “All That You Love Will Be Carried Away,” King has a middle aged salesman checking into yet another budget motel. His room, of course, has a certain look and smell, “the mingling of some harsh cleaning fluid and mildew on the shower curtain.”

It is truly a smell that describes this guy’s life.

Use smell properly in your fiction and it won’t stink.


For the writers here at Kill Zone, it’s all supposed to add up to thrills. We have various techniques at our disposal for this, but we also know that clunky writing can pull you right out of our stories.

Like this recent movie I watched. I’m not going to name it, because I don’t like to run down the other fella’s product. Here’s what happened. A brilliant detective is playing cat and mouse with a couple of killers who love the game. In the climactic scene, said detective has figured it out, and shows up at a remote location, gun drawn, telling the two killers to hold it! One killer has a gun, the other watches. Detective tells the one with the gun, who is on the brink of shooting someone, to put the gun down and walk over. So killer follows directions and puts the gun down . . . right where killer #2 can easily grab it!

Which he does. Not a cool move for the brilliant detective. But it was put in there so the rest of the scene could play out in thrilling fashion.

Only the thrill was gone, because the detective was so dumb.

And so we labor, day after day, to write our books in a way that will thrill you and bring you into the action, without doing something dumb. We try. And when you tell us you like what we’ve done, via email or otherwise, it makes our day.

Sex. Smell. Thrills. How have you seen them used or abused in fiction?