Monday, January 13, 2014

A Free Story for Your Hugo Award Consideration

I'm gratified to learn that there's been some interest in nominating my short story "Radio Free Future," for science fiction's Hugo Award.  The story appeared in WMG Publishing's third "Fiction River" anthology, "Time Streams," edited by Dean Wesley Smith.  In the interest of getting it out to a wider audience of potential voters and nominators, I'm making it available here for you to read free.  If you were a member of last year's World Science Fiction Convention or are registered for this year's convention, I believe you are eligible to nominate.  This story is under copyright, and I ask that you not repost it elsewhere, but please feel free to post the link where ever you may feel appropriate.

And of course, if you prefer, you can always read it in the original anthology, available  in trade paperback or ebook form from Amazon by clicking the cover picture above.  Or you can just take down the information and order it through your favorite local or on-line bookseller.

Be aware, I'm doing this on short notice, and I am posting my original, un-copy edited manuscript here (already checked, and WMG doesn't have a stand-alone file of the edited version available) so forgive the pretty much inevitable typos and glitches.

Enjoy, and thanks for reading!

                                    - Steve

Radio Free Future


J. Steven York

“Hey,” said the human sized tiger leaning into his field of vision, its voice muffled, “welcome back, sleepy-eyes!  The voices in my head said you were about to wake up, and let me say, the voices in my head are rarely wrong.”  The tiger made an exaggerated tilt of its head to the right.  “Hey!  Got a question for you: You know what causality is?”

Looking at the tiger, the man taped to the chair shook his head and immediately regretted it  His brain rattled around in his skull as though his head was one massive bruise, which perhaps it was.  He tried to reach up and see what the wet, pounding area at the back of his head was about, but being the man taped to the chair, he utterly failed.  He tried to scream, to shout in rage, but by this time he was starting to realize he was also the man whose mouth was stuffed full of cloth and taped shut.

The tiger held up a paw.  “No, don’t answer right away.  Because...”  The tiger hesitated, then reached up and yanked its own head off. 

“Because,” continued the sweaty male human head thus exposed under the false tiger head which had covered him like a space helmet, “you think you know.  Cause and effect.  Dink, you knock over that first domino, and --dink-dink-dink-dink-dink-- they start to fall.  And you look at all the dominos lined up and you think you know what’s going to happen.  Maybe you plan that at the end it sends something flying into the air, or raises a little flag, or maybe it pushes a shiny red button that blows up the world.  But maybe those dominoes aren’t going to fall the way you think they’ll fall.  And maybe, up the line, somebody has been moving the dominoes...”

Despite the difficulty he was having focusing his eyes, the man taped to the chair raised his head, looked past the man in the tiger suit and tried to access his situation.  He did not recognize the room, but many of the furnishings were familiar; the tasteless modern lamps, all chrome and mirrors, the claw-footed side tables in faux cherry wood, the matching armoire hiding a big-screen television full of decadent American programming. 

He had not seen them, but he had seen their twins in many other rooms.  He was reassured to discover he was still in the hotel, a ski-resort in the mountains of the American west.  The plan was still in motion.  He had not dreamed it.

The man taped to the chair turned his attention to the man in the tiger suit, desperately trying to figure out what had happened, to figure a way out.  The tiger-man, what he could see of him, was an amazingly undistinguished individual. 

His skin was slightly swarthy, though chair-man couldn’t tell if it was a condition of birth, or if he simply was a man who enjoyed a generous tan. 

He was neither tall nor short, thin nor fat (though it was hard to be sure about this point, given the man’s current attire).  His nose was neither narrow nor wide.  His hair, a dark, undistinguished brown.  There might have been a slight Asian cast to his eyes, or maybe that was just the way he squinted. 

He could have been American, or Russian, or Canadian, or Brazilian, or French.  His accent was the perfect neutral that American news-presenters and foreign agents of all nations and terrorist organizations strive for. 

The man taped to the chair knew that accent well.  It was the accent he had worked for months to perfect.  The man in the tiger suit was a cipher.  A non-entity.  The sort of person the man-in-the-chair knew -- James Bond aside -- made the perfect intelligence operative. And that worried the man taped to the chair quite a lot.

The man in the tiger suit looked deep into his eyes, as though he might find some missing car-keys in there.  “By now you’re probably looking at me thinking, ‘Is this guy Homeland, or FBI, or CIA, or The-Agency-That-Dare-Not-Speak-Its-Name-and-if-it-Did-it-Would-Have-to-Kill-You?’  And you would be wrong on all counts. 

“Or maybe you’re wondering, ‘Why the tiger suit?,’ and I can tell you, hot as it is inside this thing I’ve had the same thought myself once or twice!  But let me just say, it was the easiest way to trick a team of drunken college football players to lug a couple of hundred-pound manhole covers up onto the roof of a ski resort.  Great bunch of guys.  One of them is going to run for president one day, and boy is this little incident going to come back to haunt him!”

The man taped to the chair was coming to the realization that his captor was not a spy, not a lackey of the decadent American government, and that realization filled him with an even deeper dread.  He knew how to deal with those people, his known adversaries.  They were dangerous, but he could manipulate them, mislead them, stall them.  The plan would go on without him. 

The bomb had been planted, the tamper-proof timer set.  The plan was in motion, and nothing could stop it now. 

He looked around for a clock, taking further note of his surroundings.  He had cased the resort thoroughly in preparation of the plan.  This was undoubtedly a “luxury” suite, one of the “party suites” adjoining the event wing that jutted out from the resort hotel’s tower.  Given its location, it was intended as much as a place to entertain as a place to sleep. 

He examined the chair he was taped to, a heavy wooden arm chair, quite sturdy in its construction based on his experimental tugging and shifting of weight.  It was a chair designed to withstand underpaid housemen, drunken sales-managers on holiday, and even drunker rock stars on tour.  There would be no breaking it. 

No other immediate means of escape presented itself.  He would have to bide his time.  But that was good.  Time worked in his favor now.  The longer the fool in the tiger suit talked, the closer he was to fulfilling his mission. 

Keep talking, idiot!

Of course, with his mouth taped, there was no way to communicate this desire.  That, however, did not seem to be a problem...

“Hey, by now I’ll bet you’re thinking, ‘A guy with voices in his head!  Crazy as a loon,’ am I right?  But I assure you, there’s a scientific explanation for the whole thing.  I just don’t know what it is!  But there is one.  I’ve got an awesome origin story, if I could just remember it clearly.
“Possibly something to do with secret experiments at Area 51; being abducted and probed -- mental, not anal, you naughty boy -- by a UFO; a secret NSA identity-erasing super-computer-virus; a stealth Volkswagen beetle invisible to police radar; and/or a freak rift in the time-space continuum somehow localized to my brain’s hippocampus. 

“Or, maybe somebody just spiked my punch at that Shriner’s convention with some incredibly powerful LSD!”  He leaned closer, shielding his mouth with his hand and lowering his voice to a whisper, “Though to be perfectly honest, I don’t even remember being a Shriner!”  He leaned back and flashed a self-satisfied smile.  “But in any case, there’s a scientific explanation!

“Really, chair-guy, it comes down to the future.”  He sat the tiger head down on a coffee table and plopped into a solid but well padded chair that looked to be a twin of the one the man taped to the chair was taped to. The chair had the too-uniform carving and scroll-work of a mass-produced, machine-made piece, the exposed wood stained the color of roasted coffee-beans, cushions upholstered in green leather.  The tiger-man drummed his claws on the heavy wooden arms of the chair, but the fuzzy fabric covering his fingers deadened the noise.

The prisoner studied the other chair closely, looking for some hidden weakness that might exist in his own.  Other than an appalling lack of fashion-sense, he found none.
“Do you ever think about the future, chair-guy?”  He grinned.  “Well, of course you do!  You were thinking about the future when you set the timer on that bomb.”

The man taped to the chair flinched at the world “bomb,” his eyes hardened by anger and desperation.   But he immediately caught himself, hiding his concern, attempting to calm his racing pulse.  Doubtless his mysterious jailor was fishing, trying to get a reaction out of him.  There was no way he could know for sure there was a bomb.  He was simply trying to verify a guess of some kind, or find some clue to the bomb’s location.  The man taped to the chair was determined not to assist him.

But if the man in the tiger suit had noticed his reaction, or in any way considered it important, then he was hiding it well.  Instead, he just kept talking.

“See, this is the funny thing about the future.  People think of it as a place, a fixed point that we’re all marching toward.  That’s because we’re all three-dimensional creatures -- most of us anyways.  Up and down, forward and back, left and right, that’s all we’ve got.  We live in four dimensions, that added one of time, but we can’t control how we move through time, so we mostly ignore it. 

“And you know what?  That’s okay, because I’m told by the voices in my head, some of the very most reliable voices in my head, that you can’t travel in time.  It’s impossible!  Time is actually kind of an illusion.  Time is just remembering the past and thinking about the future.  There’s just the eternal now.

“Time is an illusion of movement, just like it seems like waves at the beach are coming towards you, but mostly the water is just moving up and down and not coming towards you at all.  Time is like that wave, and you’re surfing it towards a future that won’t exist until you get there.  Mind blowing, huh?
The tiger-man leapt to his feet so suddenly that the man taped to the chair might have also jumped from his seat, had he not been taped to it. 

But there was no threat in the action.  Instead the tiger man circled around back of the chair and began furiously pacing back and forth across the room, furry orange arms crossed behind him, ratty tail dragging across the carpet, from the mirrored wet-bar on one side, to an over-stuffed sectional couch on the other.

“And here’s where it gets crazy!”  He hesitated, seemed to reconsider.  “Okay, the train passed crazy-town about three stops ago, but work with me here!  See, the future doesn’t know it doesn’t exist!  And while you can’t travel through time, it turns out you can communicate through time!  I mean, communicating with the future is easy.  You do it every time you write in your diary, or leave a note on the refrigerator, or even remember where you planted your bomb.  Your own memories are a just a message to future-you!  Just like that bomb of yours is a big old greeting card to the future that reads, “Roses are red, violets are blue, I exploded a bomb, so fuck you!

“Anyway, from what I gather communicating with the past is much harder.  It takes a lot of energy, and fancy gizmos, and worst of all, you’ve got to have a compatible receiver, a human brain jiggered in just the right way so it’s like an old-time crystal radio set.  And those are darned uncommon.  But as it happens,” he pointed a furry talon directly at his own temple, “I’ve got one right here!

“And the crazy thing, or the next crazy thing anyway, is sending a message from the future insures that the particular future it comes from won’t exist.  The future changes its past, it ceases to exist, and so these messages are fading out even while they’re sending them, sometimes picked up by a very similar future, which also fades away, only to be replaced by...  Well, you get the idea.  It’s no wonder I’m pretty much gibbering insane, right?  There are only two kinds of futures I hear from, really.  The ones too ignorant to know any better, and the ones too desperate not to give it a try!  Either way, it messes with your head, listening to alternate realities slide into oblivion a hundred times a day.”

He stopped pacing and turned to face the man taped to the chair, frowning.  “Fortunately for me, it’s hard to send a message back in time, because otherwise the voices in my head would never let me get any sleep.  See, the future is kind of whiny.  Seems like nobody ever rings up my brain to say, ‘Hey, have a nice past, which you are, because we learned about it in fourth-grade history class!’

“Nope, they only bother to call when somebody, maybe the whole world, maybe the whole universe, has some disaster they’re smack in the middle of that’s so dire it can only be fixed in the past.  So it’s always, ‘Oh, would you please run over to that genetics lab and stop the flying-monkey invasion from ever happening,’ or ‘Could you just kill that snotty-nosed kid with the GI Joe a little before he grows up to be Space Hitler,’ or ‘Would you stop the invention of ‘Bed-Bug-B-Gone’ spray so that our primitive ancestors won’t be wiped out before we can evolve into a race of sentient insects that can overthrow humankind and turn its own horrible swatters upon it?’”

The tiger-man leaned forward, studying his prisoner’s expression.  “Okay, I just made up ‘Space Hitler,’ but the flying monkey invasion was totally a thing, and that last one came from the mutated insectoid race of the atomic wastelands, and I am not a big fan of theirs!”

The man taped to the chair struggled and moaned into his gag.  It was tempting to try and call for help, attract attention, but he knew that was the worst thing he could do.  Not while the bomb was still ticking, not until the peace talks were underway in the conference-room that was -- he suddenly realized -- just the other side of the wall from the luxury suites! 

This insane fool was going to get them both killed!

The man taped to the chair had long been prepared for that possibility though, from the very beginning of the plan, even if he did not welcome it.  Oh, he was aligned with the cause, but he was not so fanatical as to desire martyrdom.  In fact, he was a bit of a mercenary and stood to collect a rich payment if it could simply get out of this situation alive. 

But the one thing he desired more than money, almost more than life, was infamy.  He wanted to be in the history books, like the men who had flown those jets into those buildings.  They had been idealistic fools, but they would never be forgotten.

“Hey,” said the tiger-man, who was now staring up at the ceiling for some reason, “let me point out some architectural details of interest here.”  He suddenly lost interest in the ceiling, and leapt onto a glass coffee table. 

The man taped to the chair waited for him to plunge through it, landing in a bloody heap of crazy and fur, but he was disappointed.  Hotel furniture was built for abuse.

The man in the tiger suit took his elevated position as an excuse to become more theatrical, waving his furry arms as he talked, and occasionally striking poses while standing on one foot.   “This conference wing, built in 1999, is a single story under a peaked roof designed to enhance the chalet ambiance and mitigate snow-loads.  It’s spring now, off-season, so the asphalt shingles are completely dry and exposed at the moment. 

“The hotel is also about 75% empty right now, which makes it an affordable stop-off for traveling college football teams, the perfect place to skulk around with a bomb in your suitcase, or the perfect out-of-the-way neutral ground for secret peace negotiations.

“But I was talking about the roof!  The structure of the roof is strong, of course, but it’s designed to handle distributed loads; that is, a great weight of snow spread out evenly over its surface.  An impact by -- say -- a decorative brass ball about the size of a baseball, moving fast enough, that would just punch right through!  Fascinating, huh?”

“Just to our west, the wing abuts the original hotel tower, built much earlier for the 1982 International Winter Games.  It has fifteen stories of guest rooms topped by a clock tower that extends another fifty feet above the main roof and is topped by a small flat roof and a 25 foot flag pole. 

“The clock tower houses elevator and ventilation machinery, plus the clock, which was purchased from the lowest bidder and intended only to last the duration of the games.  It operates correctly an average of 210 days a year and is repaired an average of six times annually by a variety of contractors, none of whom have succeeded in keeping it running.  As a result, there are a remarkable number of keys to the tower floating around in various places.

“The first floor of the tower includes three bars and two restaurants, a coffee shop that serves a mean corned-beef hash and eggs, and the recently-remodeled Gastronomo, one of those trendy ‘Molecular Gastronomy’ restaurants where food -- and I use the word loosely -- isn’t so much cooked as it is whipped up in a science lab full of beakers, Bunsen burners, flavor-extracts and liquid nitrogen.

“I know, this all seems pretty trivial, but before a fellow like you starts knocking dominos over in a big way, you should really study those dominos carefully.  It could be important!  It’s all in the details.”

The man in the tiger suit stared up at the ceiling again and frowned.  Then he pounced down from the table, grabbed the arm of his prisoner’s chair, and dragged it noisily about four inches to the right.  Then he stared up again, tugged the chair another half-inch, and only then seemed satisfied.

“Like that flag-pole up on the tower.  There’s an American flag flying up there.  That will turn out to be ironic, but to the future, not as important as you might imagine.  In fact, nothing much here today is that important to the future, not even that peace conference they’re holding in secret just beyond that wall.  In fact, if you’d just had the good taste to leave things be, nothing at all good would have come of it.  The two countries in question might have come away hating each other just a little bit more, if that’s even possible, and I know that would probably have suited you just fine.

“Turns out it is very possible though, for a bad result, if you blow up the conference with a bomb and both sides blame each other, and then their neighbors start pointing fingers, and the major powers pick their sides, and everybody starts yelling until they forget what the hell they were yelling about in the first place, and then a couple of rogue states start throwing around their home-made nukes on their home-made ICBMs just because with all the yelling, nobody is paying enough attention to them!”

The tiger-suit guy leaned closer, looking into the trapped man’s eyes.  “And you know where this is headed?  Straight to the future of mutated,” he mimicked antenna, holding a fuzzy, upraised index finger on each side of his head, “insectoids is where!  I’m no fan of theirs, but man-alive, are they big fans of you! 

“See, that’s the thing.  I can hear the future, but I’m not their puppet.  Anybody could potentially figure out how to send a message back in time, even somebody like you, for example!  I learned a long time ago to have my own agenda.  Sometimes the future tells me to zig, and I zag just for spite!

“Now, I know what you’re thinking.  Wouldn’t the future know that?  Wouldn’t the future pull a double bluff and tell me to zag when they really wanted me to zig?  But in all the time I’ve been listening, the future has never lied to me.  I don’t think it even can.  I think that for some reason, possibly having to do with quantum mechanics, or international copyright law, or the US Tax code, that only the truth can go back in time.  The future can’t lie.  Interesting, huh?”

The man taped to the chair struggled.  If only there was a clock.  The hour, the minute, the second of reckoning must be close now. 

And as he felt the terrible anticipation of it, he knew now that he didn’t want to perish; that he would rather live as a hero, or at least a very wealthy fugitive, than die as a martyr.  He struggled, twisting his wrists and ankles against the tape, feeling his skin threatening to peel back like a grape, but getting no closer to freedom.

The tiger-man leaned in and studied his face closely, his expression solemn. “I guess you’re wondering what the future says about you, guy-who-I-taped-to-a-chair.  See, the fact that I don’t know your name should tell you something.  They vaguely remember the explosion, but not the exploder.

“They don’t know your name, or the name of your little outfit of international troublemakers, or in fact, the names of any of the countries involved in your little squabble.  In the great scheme of the future, none of you count for crap. 

“I had to follow a long trail of clues and future breadcrumbs to track you and your little plot down, because the future barely remembers you at all.  In the long-term, people are what’s important.  Civilization, culture, that’s what’s important.  All your borders and factions and religions are just fractures in the whole that keep breaking the future apart before it can happen. 

“Like that bomb of yours!

“Speaking of which, explosions are funny things.  A few yards in one direction or another can be the difference between survival and death.  Change the shape of the explosive just a little and the force of it becomes directional.  Put it between two pieces of heavy metal, like say, a couple of man-hole covers, set things up just right, and the explosion shoots mostly out the side like a circular-saw blade.  And the piece of metal on top?  Well, that goes sailing hundreds of feet in the air, like somebody tossing a coin at a basketball game!

“So, if you were to put this whole thing up on the very top of a building, like on the top of a clock tower, most of the force would go straight out and hardly damage the building at all.  Well, except for that flag pole.  That baby would get cut off at the base and go tumbling right over the side of the tower.

The man taped to the chair froze. 

What had this fool done with his bomb? 

But then he reassured himself that the man in the tiger-suit had done nothing at all.  This was just talk.  The man taped to the chair had built the bomb himself.  Once it had been placed in the suspended ceiling over the conference room and activated, it couldn’t be tampered with.  The timer could not be stopped, and there were sensors and traps so that any effort to move or disarm the bomb would have set it off. 

No, it had to be right where he had placed it, and it soon would be going off.  The conference was already going on, he was sure.  He thought of the idealistic fools, speaking their empty words, chasing their impossible dream that any kind of peace could be possible between their peoples...

He looked at the tiger-suit-man.  The man in the tiger suit looked back, and he was smiling just a little, his eyes narrowed, as though enjoying a secret joke.

“Did you know, if you show up at the kitchen door of Gastronomo with a Thermos in one hand and a credit card in the other, they’ll happily fill that baby up with liquid nitrogen for you?  Three hundred and twenty degrees below zero.  Cold enough to send even a tamper-proof bomb into suspended-animation sleepy-time for a little while. 

“Long enough for a fifteen floor elevator ride.  Long enough to open a door with a key and to climb a couple flights of stairs. 

“Long enough to slide the frosty little death-machine into the space you’re arranged between two man-hole covers you’ve set up sitting on top of a ventilation unit.”
The tiger man leaned in close, stared into his prisoner’s eyes.  The smile was gone, the tiger-man’s face somehow now like a real tiger, contemplating its prey, getting ready to strike.

“I can’t kill you, you know.  No matter how fun that might be.  I kill you, or even turn you over to the authorities, who I’m sure would love to see you, and you become a martyr, and others will be inspired to copy you, and instead of making this problem go away, I just make it worse.  And I can’t let you go, because you’ll just try something like this again.

“No, I’ve just got to let events run their course.  Let the dominos you’ve set in motion fall where they may.”  He looked up again.  The tiger-man seemed very interested in the ceiling.  “I can’t let you have an infamous death.  No sir.  Not even an anonymous one.  I’m going to let you come undone.  I’m going to let you scrub yourself completely out of history, except maybe as a joke.  The only death you can have now is a ridiculous one.” 

He looked up again.  “Don’t worry.  The fifty foot flag pole that crashes through the ceiling and stabs through your chest won’t have time to kill you.  It will just pin you down for the man-hole cover that slices off your head.”

From somewhere far above came a chest-thumping report, like the sound of distant cannon fire.
“Gotta go.  Dominoes are falling and the future is calling.  Never a dull moment.”

The tiger-man grabbed his tiger head, its cloth features happy and smiling, placed it back over his own, then started to slip out of the room.  But half-way through the door, he hesitated.  The tiger-man turned back, his real face unseeable, unknowable.

Overhead, something whistled through the air.

The tiger-man’s voice was muffled by the costume, as though he was already far away. “You know what causality is? 

“Causality is a bitch.”


Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Wartime Angel of Mercy

More pictures from my research trip: A US Army, Bell H-13 medivac helicopter. This is the iconic helicopter seen in the opening of every episode of the TV series MASH. In the Korean conflict of the 1950s, these pioneering helicopters airlifted thousands of wounded soldiers from battlefields to nearby mobile surgical hospitals where lifesaving help awaited. Stretchers were strapped to external racks on the skids at either side of the helicopter.

The workhorse H-13, and its civilian version the Bell Model 47, more than any other single machine, proved the unique capabilities of the helicopter in war and peacetime. Even as it proved itself as a saver of lives, military strategists were also considering its possibilities as a killing machine, and used it to test the concept of an armed attack helicopter, later brought to fruition by the famous Bell "Huey," and the "Huey Cobra" of Vietnam.

The H-13, the soldiers who flew it, and their tangled place in history, play a pivotal role in my next "Panorama Beach" mystery, "The Beat of Angel's Wings," which I'm writing now.

Picture taken at the Army Aviation Museum at Ft. Rucker, Alabama.

Steve Back From Florida Research Trip


I just returned from a two-week writing-research trip to the Florida panhandle and south-east Alabama. I just unloaded the SD card from my camera to my PC, netting 1300+ photos and videos taken in the last two weeks. Actually, there are a couple more cards to dump that are partially filled with stuff from the trip, so I'm guessing the total will be at least 1500 files by the time I'm through.
Chris and I both have mystery series set in the Florida panhandle, my period "Panorama Beach Mysteries," and Chris's (writing as Christy Fifield) "Haunted Gift Shop" contemporary cozy mysteries. 

Since she couldn't come, I had to be her surrogate researcher, and in addition to taking photos, I mailed back a box of southern cookbooks and tacky Florida souvenirs to act as inspiration. I just flew in last night, so I was surprised when the box I mailed late on Sunday in a small Alabama town ended up here today. Despite my rush packing job, only one souvenir was broken. It looks like the little glass bottle full of shells and sand at the lower right may have had an encounter with the sea-shell behind it, and punched a little hole in the glass. Oh, well, it was my least favorite of all these items. My favorite is the wonderfully macabre alligator shot glass near center. If you can't read it, it says "send more tourists!" I was also pleased with the parrot snow-globe, as Chris's books feature a foul-mouthed parrot that sometimes channels a ghost.

My research was of a more serious nature, delving into Florida history, historic buildings, Florida plants, small-town life in the 60s, and military aviation.

I'll be posting some of my photos as time goes on.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

An Ebook Publisher that Caters to Indie Bookstores and Indie Authors

I was fortunate this afternoon to be part of a group of about 40 professional writers and a few bookstore owners to attend a presentation by Mark Lefebvre of Kobo Inc. and their Kobo Writing Life team, talking about Kobo and how they're working with writers, the ABA (American Booksellers Association) and indie bookstores. I came away very impressed with Kobo and their practices, and learned some interesting bits about ebooks, ebook marketing and how they're working with bookstores.

If you don't know about Kobo, you should. They're one of the major ebook alternatives to the Amazon and iBooks behemoths, and the biggest one not to currently be shrouded in confusion and uncertainty (I'm looking at you, Barnes & Noble/Nook). Though they're still a smaller player here in the United States, they're huge in their home country of Canada, and they have long been a major player in the world market, currently selling in 190 countries. Kobo offers their own, branded, ebook readers, and is also available through apps on a variety of devices and platforms including Android, iOS, Chrome, Blackberry, Mac and Windows.But what really seems to set Kobo apart is their approach to writers, and especially to independent bookstores. Mark is himself a published and indie-publisher writer, so he sees this relationship as one of us, and not merely a matter of a revenue stream to be exploited. He's also apparently run a bookstore, so he has a special appreciation for that business as well.

Based on Mark and his presentation and his response to questions, Kobo is working hard to meet the needs of writers, not just as they relate to Kobo, but their career needs in general, which they openly admit will involve publishing on multiple platforms, ideally as many as possible. For example Amazon is heavily promoting its "Kindle Select" program and others that require exclusivity to Amazon, while Kobo discourages exclusivity on any platform. Smashwords restricts writers from using converted files from their "meatgrinder" system to upload ebooks to other systems, but Kobo encourages people to use their converted files to publish elsewhere. And while the iBookstore, for no good reason, only allows books to be directly uploaded from an Apple computer (non-Apple users must go through an aggregator like Smashwords), Kobo will actually take a Mobi file formatted for Amazon's Kindle (Digital rights management permitting) and convert it to an epub on their system.

But the really distinctive thing about Kobo is their outreach to partner with traditional independent bookstores, both as sales outlets for their reading devices, and as partners in selling ebooks. Not only can bookstores make money selling ereaders (often to an audience that might never use Amazon or cross the threshold of an electronics store), but they can take a small share of the Kobo ebooks purchased on the devices they sell. Through affiliate links and associations with their customer's Kobo accounts, they can even enjoy a cut of sales made on apps, on the web, and through non-Kobo devices. A customer setting up a new Kobo account even has the option to list a preferred participating local bookstore to get a cut from all their Kobo purchases.

There's currently no way to designate a bookstore to associate with an established account, but they're working on it. This is one of several glitches and complications in the system as it currently exists, but Kobo is aware of them, and is apparently working hard to improve the system. There are still some glitches in their indie publishing program as well, but their direct publishing program is very new (until recently, indie authors had to go to Kobo through an aggregator portal like Smashwords) and so some rough spots are to be expected.

And not only are they working to address these, they're also building a wonderful suite of tools to place sales and marketing data in the hands of indie-authors and small publishers with a level of useful detail that I don't think any other ebook portal will be able to match. In particular, I think it's interesting that Kobo, as a truly international ebook company, will allow data to be broken down on a by country by country basis, allowing authors to optimize for individual markets, and to focus promotion on markets where they enjoy the best success.

A lot of ground was covered in the presentation, but here are a few bits of information that I found to be of particular interest:

Ebook pricing: The 99 cent book is a non-starter these days. It's become a price ghetto, and Kobo makes (after credit card fees and costs) nothing on a 99 cent book. They may even lose a little money. Mark encourages authors not to undervalue their work, and had sales graphs demonstrating that more expensive books sell. There is a sweet spot beyond which sales drop off, but it varies by country and genre. But on average, for novels and in the US, that sweet spot is about $6,99.

Foreign markets are generally acclimated to higher prices. The exception is the UK, where consumers are used to lower prices. While U.S. traditional publishers has worked to keep prices high, UK publishers have for some reason taken to pushing prices down in a way that doesn't serve anyone's best interests.

On higher pricing, he sited an experiment in which romance author Deborah Cooke raised the price of one of her titles on all ebook platforms by a dollar (I think the actual change was from $5.99 to $6.99). On Kobo, sales were up. On most other platforms, they either stayed the same or went up. The sole exception was Amazon, where sales plummeted. Apparently Amazon customers are more price sensitive than other ebook buyers. But the interesting thing is that, after a few months, Amazon sales returned to normal. So even there, the customers eventually learned to ignore the higher price.

But Mark reports that free titles, as opposed to 99 cents, can have promotional value if they're used wisely. They work best in promoting series books, though short-term zero-prices can also boost sales on the once-free title and on other books by the author.

One other bit of advice that I found very interesting, and which should apply to any ebook portal selling outside the U.S. also applies to pricing. Mark cautioned against leaving "money on the table" when pricing foreign books. That is, the automatic currency conversions used by most portals will result in odd prices like 3.84 or 7.28. Mark recommended manually rounding up to the next .99 increment in each currency. Yes, it may only be a matter of a few cents, but it ads up over time, and more importantly, changing the price in this way has proven to actually increase sales. The odd prices somehow look unprofessional and turn off book-buyers. They're used to seeing books priced with the .99 prices, so you should give it them.Kobo is currently in the process of restructuring their royalty structure to place most original-content ebooks at the higher 70% royalty rate. Exceptions including books at $2,99 or less (Mark said they had tried to move this point down to $1.99, but that standard had pretty well been locked in by Amazon), and repackaged public-domain works will drop to a refreshingly tight-fisted 20%. This is aimed at "book mills" that take an existing file of a public domain classic, slap on a bad cover, and scatter-gun it to every platform in a spam-like fashion, in hopes of making money just on sheer bulk. As Mark said, "we value original content. We don't need another bad edition of "Pride and Prejudice." (He did make one distinction though. "But if you do 'Pride and Prejudice and Zombies,' that isn't public domain, it's genius!" )

Kobo is now owned by the same parent company as Pinterest, and they focus a lot of promotional effort on that platform.

Mark also talked a great deal about the importance of metadata in making ebooks discoverable and in selling the author's other books. In particular he stressed that in series fiction the series data has to be entered consistently across all your series titles, otherwise they won't link up. Most interestingly, this is an area where many traditional publishers are falling down. "One intern enters it one way, and then another intern enters it a different way." This could be hurting sales of traditionally published series books, but once again, the publishing juggernaut rolls blindly on.

There's a great deal more that I'm not getting to here, including their promotional work with the American Booksellers Association, Kobo's up-and-coming (but still a bit clunky) author coupon program, their promotional efforts through emails, podcasts, and blogs, and Kobo's desire to work on with established authors on promoting their books. But it's getting late, so I'm going to move along for tonight.Let me just end by saying that I came way much more enthusiastic about Kobo than I did going in. They're still an underdog in the bigger ebook marketplace, but especially in non-US markets, they're one to watch. And given their culture of working with and supporting indie authors and indie bookstores, they're well worth supporting.

You can find out more about Kobo's partnership with the ABA and find a local participating bookstore here.

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Thursday, September 20, 2012

Whatever Happened to the Yorks?

Steve here:

Maybe some of you have noticed that Chris and I have mostly been missing in action that last few months.  I've managed a few social media posts (a lot of them just sharing links on stuff I was reading), but Chris has almost completely vanished from the internet, and even my "Minions at Work" web-cartoons have been on hiatus.

What happened?  Well, it's been two of the roughest months in our lives.  Chris had an shopping-list-all-in-one major emergency surgery, we lost a family member, and Chris got a post-surgical infection that landed her back in the hospital and knocked her down hard, pretty much as part of one, ongoing, train-wreck.

You can read a very personal post about it all over on Chris's blog, ChristyMystery.

The good news is, the saddest days are behind us, and Chris is (finally) healing nicely and getting her strength back.  

Both of us are trying to get our writing and publishing efforts back on track (my latest ebook, "The Steam Man's Plantation - A Clockwork Cowboy Story," is now finally up on Kindle, Nook, and Smashwords, with other major publishing platforms to follow soon).  The next book in the "Haunted Gift Shop Mysteries," Murder Hooks a Mermaid, will be out at the end of December, and the third is coming.  I hope to get "Minions at Work" back up and running, we'll have some exciting stuff about Chris' "Haunted Gift Shop" mysteries soon, and maybe we'll get back to our very-popular conversational posts that got interrupted back in June.

One step at a time, but it's good to be back...

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Yet More Murder and Mayhem on the North Florida Coast (And a Panorama Beach Mystery Announcement!)

A couple of important mystery announcements today: First, the third installment in the conversation between Chris and I discussing our respective mystery series set in the Florida Panhandle, is up over at her blog, ChristyMystery. Give it a read. 

 Second, I'm pleased to announce that I need to write faster. The master plan for the future of my "Panorama Beach Mysteries" series has been firmed up four titles in advance of the two already available in ebook (and soon, print) form.

 My initial plan for the series was to write four individual, shorter, mysteries that I could eventually publish as one volume in both print and ebook form. That's still the plan, though with both "The Best Devil Money Can Buy" and "A Breath Away from Dying" finished, the installments are getting longer, and I'm not sure how long parts three and four will end up.  So I might end up with two volumes, or even three by the time I'm done (with those four).

The next two are were well mapped out, and I'm about to start writing number three, "The Beat of Angels Wings."  Here's the pitch on that one.  The actual setup has changed slightly since I wrote this, but it's close.

When Deputy Mustang Sawtell witnesses a sight-seeing helicopter crashing into the surf just off Panorama Beach, it seems a matter for federal investigators -- until it's learned that the pilot died not from the crash, but from a gunshot wound sustained before takeoff.  With no crime scene, no suspects, no witnesses, and most clues washed away by the surf, it seems an unsolvable crime. 

But when a second dead body shows up with helicopter connection, it's no coincidence.  To solve the crimes, Mustang will need to match wits -- and nerve, with a fraternity of veteran Korean war air-ambulance pilots, united in war, divided by secrets, and capable of delivering both mercy -- and death -- from above!

The wrap-up for the 1967 series is "By the Rocket's Red Glare."  Here's my pitch (again, subject to revision): When an off-course Air Force test missile crashes in an undeveloped area of Panorama Beach, the resulting forest fire leaves more than ashes.  When Sheriff's deputies are called in to help search the scorched forest for missile parts, Mustang finds a shallow grave with three skeletons, each with a bullet hole in their skull.  Now, an old murder investigation is turning red hot, the FBI and the State Patrol are taking over Panorama Beach, and Mustang's enigmatic boss, Sheriff "Big" Bass, is the prime suspect!  Can Mustang solve the murders, can he save Big Bass, and does he even want to?

I initially didn't have strong plans beyond that, except that those four would all take place in the summer of 1967, and the next series would cover the year 1968, a turbulent year in US history, and also an election year for Mustang's boss, Sheriff "Big" Bass.  But while I was working on those two books in my head, I was thinking about Mustang's back story, and some of the things that made him the man he was in 1967.  And out of that came another story, "Small Bones."  This isn't actually set in Panorama Beach, so I may simply publish it as "A Mustang Sawtell Mystery."

The Pitch: Still reeling from the events of summer, Mustang receives a phone call from his old station in north Pascua County.  The skeletal remains of a child have been discovered in his home-town of Pinodeoro, and they're believed to be those of his childhood best friend, who was abducted while walking along a highway when Mustang was ten.  Stunned, he drops everything and goes to the crime scene, but after seeing the body, he is banned from the crime scene by the investigating officer.  He's too close to the case.  But Mustang can't make himself goes far, and moves into his shuttered childhood home to watch from afar, dealing with survivor's guilt, old ghosts, bitter memories, and probing the darkest shadows of his own past -- where he is certain a killer awaits!

And just the other day I came up with the a title I knew I'd use for a future installment, "A Fist Full of Sand Dollars."  Then, later that evening, I realized where it would have to be set, and then the story just started writing itself.  Here's what I have so far:

When a staged gun-fight at the Dodge City western town attraction in Panorama Beach goes horribly wrong, Mustang finds himself on a dusty western street with two dead bodies, two shooters, no doubt about who show whom, and no suspects at all.  It's either a most unlikely accident, or a most elaborate murder.  But who did it, how, and who was actually the intended victim?  A candidate for either role, is the "Sheriff" of Dodge City, who was replaced in the gunfight at the last minute, and who is now a torn in Mustang's side.  And as he investigates, Mustang will learn that although "Dodge City" may be as fake as a cigar store Indian, the politics, rivalries, and secrets it hides are as real as any, and that he may just have to draw down with the Sheriff to catch a killer!

So, that's the road map:

AVAILABLE Ebooks (And Coming Soon to Print):
The Best Devil Money Can Buy
A Breath Away from Dying

The Beat of Angel's Wings
By The Rocket's Red Glare 
Small Bones (A Mustang Sawtell Mystery)
A Fist-full of Sand Dollars

Hope you're looking forward to them half as much as I am!


Monday, July 2, 2012

More Murder and Mystery on the Florida Coast

In part two of and ongoing series, Steve and Christy (Chris) continue their discussion of why they were drawn to write mystery series set in the Florida Panhandle, and what makes the place special...

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