Scribd’s new e-book store: A sea change in publishing?

I was still recovering from Sunday’s 4.7 earthquake in LA when I heard the news that must have sent a shiver of apprehension through the publishing industry: scrbd, the publishing web site that gets around 60 million hits a day, began selling books online. Authors who upload their books will get an 80/20 split of the revenue from books sold on the site. That’s 80 per cent to us, folks.

NPR’s Marketplace pointed out that the two-year-old scribd has an advantage over other e-book publishers because its e-books can be read over many different types of reading devices, including laptops and “smart” phones. By contrast, Amazon’s e-books can be read only on a pricey Kindle.

We’ve been talking quite a bit on this blog about e-books, and debating their merits. I think that scribd’s move into selling books online, in a range of formats, at a price split that dramatically favors the author, has the potential to upend the publishing totem pole. The scribd platform could finally provide the grassroots publishing momentum that puts more revenue and power into the content creator’s hands, rather than the distributor’s.

In her farewell Newsweek column this week, Anna Quindlen described how, in the journalism field, young people have “created online outlets from the ground up…they are quite properly part of the action, not because we made room for them, but because they made room for themselves.”

Most novelists aren’t all that young, but scribd’s publishing model could provide the way for them to “make room” for themselves in the publishing paradigm. We’ll now be able to publish our own ebooks on a site that reaches sixty million potential readers. Sixty million!

But perhaps not all authors would consider taking hold of the reins of their publishing. I can imagine that even established authors might hesitate before taking the plunge into publishing on scribd. Would there still be a publishing contract, for example? Would uploaded works suffer from a stima from being “self-published”?

What do you think? Do you think the scribd book store has potential to change the publishing business paradigm?

Have you browsed through the new book store? Do you think it will become a morass of self-published drek as it develops, or is it going to become a juggernaut to be reckoned with?

Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Alexandra Sokoloff, Thomas B. Sawyer, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, and more.

Does your story have a “wobble”?

Sometimes your story may get unbalanced in some areas, like a tire that’s gone out of alignment. Severe story wobble can kill the pacing and reading experience, so it pays to recognize the symptoms, and take remedial action to push your narrative back into shape.

When you’re doing any of the following in your writing, it’s likely that your story is getting off kilter:

  • Over describing the actions of the main character.
  • Over describing background information that you think the main character needs to know.
  • Under describing (or losing track of altogether) the actions of secondary characters in a scene.
  • Using repetitive sentence structure.

It’s easy to fix most cases of story wobble. Here are some remedies:

  • Use only minimal actions to show the actions of the main character.
  • When you have some background information that the main character needs to know, sprinkle it in, or create an SME (Subject Matter Expert) for your story.
  • If it’s been a while since you’ve mentioned a secondary character in a scene, be sure to “establish” the character in the reader’s mind before giving him dialogue or action. Otherwise the reader won’t know who the re-introduced character is.
  • Do search-and-destroy missions on repetitive sentence structure. It’s easy to fall into using the same sentence patterns repeatedly throughout a book, so make sure you change things up in every paragraph. This is also known as varying the sentence rhythm.

What are some of your story wobbles that you have to search for and destroy when you’re rewriting? Has there ever been one that has caused you embarrassment?

Folding newspapers: An ill omen for book publishing?

I was gobsmacked when I read that the Boston Globe might be shut down by the New York Times. I spent a lot of my growing-up years in Boston, and the idea of the 137-year-old Globe going under seems…unthinkable. (An update about that story here.)

The Globe is the newspaper of record for the entire Boston metropolitan area. Following on the heels of that news was the doom-and-gloom pronouncement by Warren Buffet that he would never invest in any newspaper, ever. The newspaper in my own hometown, the Los Angeles Times, is evidently in financial distress too. Columnists have been writing fretful stories about the economic woes of the paper, and I recently spotted a box-advertisement on the front page, which in my mind is the sort of thing they do only in throw-away weeklies. If major newspapers are going under for the third time, what will be next…major book publishers?

I graduated from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in 1979 (Yikes. I grow old, I shall wear my trousers rolled). Back then, newspaper reporters were still considered to be the “real” deal. Even though I was enrolled in the broadcasting program, I knew that TV reporters were viewed with disdain (The term “media type” hadn’t even been invented yet).. Inspired by the example of Woodward and Bernstein, members of my class believed that writing, that ideas, that journalists, could make a difference.

Fast forward 30 years, and Oh. My. God. Where are we now? Today’s journalists seem reduced to Twittering, red-and-blue-state cable talking heads. I keep thinking of one particular “news” host on cable who announces every night, “It’s Twitter time!” Newspapers are going away, and the Fourth Estate is going to the twitter heads.

As a fiction author, I have another concern: when I see newspapers collapsing left and right, I worry that the book-publishing business model might be just as fragile as newspapers. Leap forward another five years, and we might be talking about the collapse of major publishing houses.

What do you think? Are newspapers the “canaries in the mine” for publishing? Are they simply the first to bite the dust?


Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, Oline Cogdill, James Scott Bell, and more.

Sunday Writing School

We’re having another one of our periodic Sunday Writing Schools today at the Kill Zone (See the link to our inaugural school).

Here’s how it works: We post a couple of writing-oriented questions that we’ve collected over the weeks, and do our best to answer them. Readers can post more questions in the comments. Feel free to chime in with your own opinions, including snarky ripostes to our advice. This is basically intended to be a free-for-all exchange of ideas about writing, not a serious-minded Fount of Wisdom.

We’ll just have some fun.

The first question in the mail bag is from Win Scott:

Q: I know some writing books say not to use prologues, but I need to open my story with an event that precedes the main story. This event is also much more dramatic than my first chapter, and it lays the groundwork for everything that comes next. Can I use a prologue in this case?

A. [From Kathryn]: I’ll admit my bias here–I don’t like prologues. I think they’re old fashioned, and you risk turning off screeners if you use them. Readers don’t care when you start your story, so why not make your Prologue your “Chapter One,” and then turn what was your first chapter into a “forward flash” in time? You can add a date-anchor at the beginning of the chapter to orient the reader in time. I’ve seen many thrillers use this technique, and the effect is much more immediate and dynamic than if you use a prologue.

But that’s just my two cents. I’ll let the other Killers chime in.

Here’s a question from Joy F.

Q. What are some methods of getting over writer’s block?

A. [From Joe] Getting the juices flowing can be tough sometimes. We all experience it. Here are a few tips that might help. Try writing the ending first. Consider changing the gender of your character or the point of view. Tell the story or scene from another character’s POV. Just for grins, switch from third person to first or vice versa.

You don’t have to keep the results of these exercises but they might boost your imagination and get you going again.

(If you would like to ask other questions today, feel free to add them in the Comments. We’ll answer them there.)
Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, James Scott Bell, Alexandra Sokoloff, and more.

How to write a bestseller

By Kathryn Lilley

“There are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.”

– W. Somerset Maugham
Bestseller. That’s why we’re all in the blogosphere, isn’t it? We all want to write (or read) a bestseller, we writer-reader-bloggers.

This blog is gifted with multiple bestselling (and modest) authors. Clare, for example, recently hit the IMBA Bestseller list with two of her books at the same time.

But I think everyone wants to learn the secret for vaulting onto the New York Times or USA Today bestseller’s list, and then stick there like Krazy Glue.

So today I set off on a hunt for the magic formula for writing a best seller. Is there one? What exactly does it take to write a breakout novel?

In his excellent book, Writing the Breakout Novel, agent Donald Maass says to write a “breakout” book, you have to open up your story. Make it bigger. Give it higher stakes, a larger theme, one that impacts many more people than you’d find in, say, the population of Cabot Cove. So, I’m assuming that with a few exceptions, most cozy mysteries are not going to be bestsellers. If you do have a “small,” domestic family drama in your story, Maass says, you must find a way to amp up the stakes. Think Grapes of Wrath. It’s a family drama, but man, talk about major stakes.

I ran across an interesting article about how not to write a best seller in the New York Sun, which stated that positive reviews in major review outlets don’t guarantee best sellerdom. The author said that catchy titles do seem to be a plus, however.

Interestingly, I found one reviewer in a British newspaper, The Guardian, who advised would-be best seller writers to avoid putting too much originality and sex into their work. That doesn’t sound right to me, but I don’t know. Is that a British thing? Here’s the article.

As I continued my web browsing, I found an article by Cliff Pickover called How to create an instant bestselling novel. It’s worth reading for the “Bestseller Plan” (You have to scroll down to see it). Pickover’s Bestseller plan refers to a NYT article called How to Manufacture a Best Seller by Michael Maxen. I couldn’t find Maxen’s original article at the NYT site (although I did find some crabby Letters to the Editor from authors who resented the article. Maxen must have skewered their books.). I did follow the link that claims to summarize the major points of Maxen’s article. That article offers up an actual 10-step formula for how to write a best-seller, by God. Generally, it seems to involve creating a hero-expert, a villain-expert, and a team of experts. When the action flags, you’re supposed to kill someone. See what you think.

I also read “Lester Dent’s magical recipe for writing a best seller.” It’s sort of interesting. It seems oriented more toward selling than best selling, though, and calls writers “pulpateers.” I loved his tip about how to fake local color and fool editors about murder weapons, though. That’s the kind of thing that most writers will never confess they do.

So I wish I could tell you I found the absolute formula for writing a best seller. Actually I’d like to hear from you. What do you think makes a book leap to the top of the NYT list? Is there a formula, or a secret? Do you think that to become a best seller, you simply write an excellent story, and accept the rest as a crapshoot? Or do you think that it is all a big fix–that publishers mostly decide who will become the Next Big Thing, by promoting certain books?

Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Sandra Brown, Steve Berry, Robert Liparulo, Paul Kemprecos, Linda Fairstein, Oline Cogdill, James Scott Bell, and more.

Developing a theme through characters

Before there was story structure–before there were even novels—there was theme. A story’s theme is the fundamental and universal idea behind its plot. In King Lear, for example, one of its themes is authority versus chaos.

But to me, a novel’s theme is not merely the abstract principle behind the plot; I believe that you have to bring a story’s theme to life through its characters. Ideally, several of the major characters should portray a variation on the underlying ideas that inform the story. Those characters will reflect the light and depths of your theme, the way the facets of a diamond show off its hidden fire.

In A Killer Workout, the second installment in the Fat City Mysteries, I created a “Mean Girls” theme. I wrote several different characters to illustrate that underlying idea. One character had been victimized by bullies in her youth–another was herself a bully. Still another character had grown up to become a protector of abused young women. Through each of these women’s stories and backgrounds, I explored the ideas of bullying, emotional abuse, and “mean girls” in various ways.

I use my characters to do a “360” exploration of the theme of each of my novels. The secondary characters’ experiences in terms of the theme are usually more intense and extreme than my protagonist’s. They act as “theme foils,” and they also propel her journey through the plot.

What about you? How do you develop the theme for your stories? Do you create your theme at the beginning of your writing, or does it emerge slowly as you write? And how do you illustrate your theme?
Coming up on our Kill Zone Guest Sundays, watch for blogs from Tim Maleeny, Oline Cogdill, James Scott Bell, Steve Berry, and more.

How “green” is your book?

Today we’re pleased to host Sunday guest Killer Liz Jasper, an award-winning mystery author and avid eBook reader. Liz is blogging this month for All Romance eBooks’ Go Green/Read e Campaign.

How green is your book, Dracula?

Earlier this week Michelle Gagnon blogged about Internet promotion for authors. The fact that I’m guest blogging here today is a good illustration of another common type of internet promo: authors popping in on one another’s blogs to “meet” new readers. The fact that I’m mentioning this supports another of her very good points: that it’s a small world in the author community. I know two of the bloggers here at The Kill Zone–Kathryn Lilley invited me here today. (Nonetheless, I’m using Michelle’s name at the top of my blog because I’ve seen her shoot a Glock. Okay, it was at a gun range for a Sisters In Crime event, but still. Girl’s got aim.)

I am spending my promotional time guest blogging rather than Twittering (not that an author can’t do that simultaneously) or updating my MySpace and Facebook pages because I hate doing those things. Hold on did I type that out loud? Ahem. What I meant to write is that I’m a Go Green/Read-E (book) ambassador. Which means I’m blogging to help promote ebooks as an eco-conscious alternative to the traditional paper book format.

Being green is important. Especially if, like me, you live in the sort of city where if you forget to bring your own, reusable, organic ink, fair trade, recycled material grocery bags to the supermarket, the collective laser beam of guilt focused on you is so awful you find yourself buying a fresh new set of reusable bags. To add to the pile you have at home big enough to form into a meditation yurt in the backyard.

However, as I researched things like how many trees a reader would save if he/she read 20 books and two newspapers electronically (one tree a year, which adds up to a lot of forests given all the readers in the world) I ran across a study that had already done this. (If you’d like to run across it, too, head for:
Fortunately, my native eco-sensitivity awarded me plenty of time to ponder what else I could blog about. I thought long and hard during my eighteen trips back and forth from car to kitchen to unload groceries. (“You’re out of reusable grocery bags? Someone’s been buying them all up? Who would do that? Of course I don’t want plastic ones. Just load everything back to the cart.”) And what I realized, during a break on trip ten to protect the Chunky Monkey by carefully siphoning off the melty bits with a soup spoon, what I really should be assessing is my own contribution to global warming. Forget the paper versus electronic publishing format debate. What about the book itself?

As an eco-conscious paranormal mystery writer, what I need to know is this: Are vampires bad for the environment?

Think about it. Unless they have the bad fortune to collide chest first with a sharp stake or (in my books) step out into a lovely, sunny, existence-ending day, they live forever. Longer than Styrofoam. Or Twinkies. Or broccoli on my niece’s plate (unless I happen to look away, in which case the stalks magically disappear in a puff of air that curiously also makes the light fixtures above the table swing…).

It seems pretty obvious Vampires take up more than their fair share of resources, don’t you think?


On the plus side, and this is a big plus they don’t eat human food. And if you ever read the statistics about what’s trashing our environment, the resources we use to grow food are a big part. There’s methane from cattle (a discreet way of saying cow farts) polluting our air, fertilizer polluting our streams, etc. etc. Major eco points for Dracula!

Also on the plus side, the undead don’t commute. Not in cars anyways. Granted any vampire worth his sex symbol status will own a nice set of wheels, but it’s not as if he’s stuck in rush-hour traffic every day. No vampire with the least bit of brains would spend an hour or two a day battling road rage on the freeway when he could just turn into a bat and fly where he needs to go. (I assume any technology that would allow him to drive a car during daylight hours could also be used to protect his batty little wings. Excuse me. Very sexy, uber-masculine man-vamp wings.)

This is sounding pretty good for a vampire’s carbon footprint, except for the fact that for most vampires, one person equals one meal. Tsk. Tsk. Really, vampires of the world, do you have any idea how much it takes to get a pretty young maiden to eighteen in this country? In purely financial terms, estimates range from $38,027 to $104,532. Do you know how many McDonald’s Happy Meals the average eighteen year old has eaten? I don’t, but I imagine it’s a lot. Let’s face it, puberty, is one long Fry Emergency. In cow farts alone, the cost of producing one young maiden must be astronomical. No wonder cow methane is such a big pollutant!

Clearly, vampires need to get on board with the eco message of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. I know it will be hard–like telling a writer to lay off the chocolate near a deadline. But it’s important! Everyone must do their part. Including readers, especially, it seems, those who like vampire stories. Why not do your part to help the planet and make you next book an ebook!
You can find out more about the Go Green/Read e Campaign at To learn more about Liz Jasper and to read excerpts and reviews of her books, visit her website at

You can find Liz Jasper’s Underdead mysteries and thousands of other eBooks on-line at

Stay tuned for upcoming guest appearances at the Kill Zone:

April 5 P.D. Martin
April 12 Eric Stone