Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Spy Girls, New Stories, Minions at Work, and Our House Blew Down Just a Little...

Steve here:

Yes, it's disgraceful how infrequently we update this site. We'll try to to better. (Yeah, we always say that.)

We've been pretty quiet lately. It's been a very distracting year for us, what with some major storm damage to our house in December of 2015 which resulted in the demolition of a garage and sun-porch, and a major (and troubled) construction project to replace that space with a new, two-story, multi-use building that will serve as shop, studio, storage building, and typing hide-away. It should have been done in July or August of 2016, but due to some snafus with the city, I am, as I type this, waiting for the inspector to come by and make the final structural inspection of the building. There's still a bit of work to do, but if we can pass that inspection, we'll be on the final lap to finishing it and moving in! Hurrah!

During the chaos, our writing and publishing projects mostly got back-burnered, but we're ramping back up, and we do have a smattering of news to announce.

Most exciting to me is that Chris (writing as Christy Fifield, as she will for most or all of her new work), is cranking up a new period mystery series called "Spy Girls."

It's set in an adults-only condo complex in southern California during the swinging 70s. The premise is that a pair of inconspicuous older ladies bond over shady goings on in their community, learning in the process that they share a history in intelligence work in WWII and the Cold War. People may take them for granted, but these two seniors have a very particular set of skills, and they aren't afraid to apply them to criminal activity, crooked condo-developers, and of course, murder! It should be great fun.

But while developing the novel series, Chris has been writing a series of stories featuring the individual adventures of her two protagonists while they were still spies. Be it bringing down Nazi saboteurs on the WWII home front or chasing spies in Monaco, these two have quite a history. Tsunami Ridge Publishing will be collecting the first five stories, along with all new essays by Chris putting the stories in historical context and filling in the background. Look for details soon (cover shown is preliminary).

Both of us also have short fiction publications coming up in a new bi-monthly romance magazine called "Heart's Kiss," edited by Denise Little. The first issue, with one of Chris' stories, is out now, and I have two stories in the pipeline for future issues.

Chris has published romance novels before, (See her books "Dream House" and "Loaves and Kisses," both written as Christina F. York) but this is a new experience for me. Certainly the stories I've sold them aren't typical romance (There are super-heroes, and magic cocktail monkeys!), but Denise, the editor, thinks they fit, so who am I to argue? In any case, I do have a tendency to write from the heart, so maybe it isn't as unlikely as it seems to me.

The first issue is available on Amazon in paper and ebook, so if you like love stories and romance, you really should check it out!

Finally, our most unusual project by far: My weekly web-comic, "Minions at Work," is currently in "cold open mode," with a big reboot storyline and full-on launch once this danged building is finished. I started doing "Minions at Work" cartoons on the web back in 2006, years before those annoying yellow guys came along. It's a comic about the work-a-day adventures of the Minions of Evil serving a rotating cast of incompetent Evil Overlords.

Sooner or later, we all end up working for the Forces of Evil, be it McDonalds, Wal-Mart, Volkswagen, the DMV, or an insecure lizard-man hatching his schemes in a hollow volcano.

Oh, and the comic is photo-illustrated using action figures with miniature sets and props, so we can be just exactly UNLIKE all the other web-comics! Our original comics, which ran 2006-2012 were rather modest single-panel offerings shots on a two-foot square space on my workbench, but our new cartoons are upping the ante, with bigger-multi-panel, and sometimes serialized, stories. With the full launch, I'm also planning bigger, better, sets, props, and photography.

Check out the new website at www.TheMinionsAtWork.com, where you'll find hundreds of cartoons, old and new, and can check out our weekly new adventures.

That's all I've got for now, but we've got multiple other projects moving again, so look for more announcements in the near future. (Seriously this time!)

                                               - Steve

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Hello, Orycon 37!

Steve here:

Greetings to those of you finding us from our appearance at Orycon 37. It's out first convention in many years, and we hope you had a good time. (Since I'm writing this BEFORE the convention, I hope we did too!)

For those of you who are here for the "Outline a Novel in an Hour" exercise questions and followups, you'll find them in a post HERE. If you have comments, suggestions, or would like to tell us how you used the exercise, or report results, we'd love to hear from you in the comments.

Yes, there are quite a few cobwebs around the site, and for that I appologize. Health and family issues have kept us (except for Chris' ongoing mystery series) somewhat sidelined the last few years, but we're working hard to change that up! Here are some relevant links to keep up with that.:

Want to win a free copy of Chris's latest mystery? Join our "Vacation is Murder" mystery mailing list. One in twenty wins (while supplies last, U.S. and Canada addresses only)!
Steve York on Twitter
Chris's Mystery Page: Christy Mystery
Steve's In-the-process-of-relaunching webcomic Minions at Work (beta site).
Christy Mystery on Facebook
Bad Agent Sydney (Our evil little cat has become a literary agent, and occasionally snarks about agents and the publishing business.)

We don't spend enough time writing as it is, and this stuff takes up valuable writing time and makes us nothing. If you find any of it useful, our tin cup is always open through the link below, and your contributions of any size will encourage more useful stuff in the future. Thanks!

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

One of Steve's stories in a new name-your-price Science Fiction Story Bundle

Now and for the next thee weeks (a little over 22 days from the time of this post, according to their web-site clock) one of my stories, "Radio Free Future," is a small part of (via the anthology, "Fiction River: Time Steams") a great time-travel ebook StoryBundle. 

Name your own price and get six great titles (including "Time Streams"), or pay at least $14 and get six bonus titles as well. 

The bundle is curated by New York Times best-seller Kevin J. Anderson and includes a great lineup of writers, including best sellers and award winners such as Bob Mayer, Robin Brande, Kristine Kathryn Rusch, Steven Savile, Dean Wesley Smith, and many others.

Get it while it lasts at:

Monday, March 2, 2015

A new mystery (and a chance to win a signed copy for free!)

On sale March 4th
Chris (writing as Christy Fifield) has a new mystery coming out this week, the forth installment in her "Haunted Souvenir Shop" series. More northern-Florida murder and mystery, and more of Bluebeard, the haunted parrot!

Of course, you should go reserve your copy at your favorite book seller right now, but you could also potentially win a signed copy for free! We're trying to build our newsletter mailing list, and as an incentive to join, Chris(ty) has set aside twenty advance copies from her personal stash to be signed and sent out to subscribers.  Here's how it works: For every 25 people who sign up, she sends out a signed copy, until those 20 copies are gone. Every time we get 25 more people, YOU get another chance to win. So don't just sign up yourself. Spread it around and share it with your mystery loving friends.

And don't worry. We'll only send out an occasional newsletter or notification of new books and events. We won't clog your inbox, or share your list with others.

How do you sign up for our mailing list? Just click HERE.

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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