Saturday, August 29, 2009

Bad Agent Sydney T. Cat Answers Writer Questions (Badly)

Steve here: A while back I happened to mention that my Cat, Sydney, was as well-suited to be a literary agent as many of the self-selected people out there claiming the title. I expected this would make people laugh at the absurdity of the idea.

Shows you how stupid I am. What I got was a bunch of emails from people asking if Sydney was taking clients, where people should send their queries and manuscripts. It seems that people are so eager to sign with an agent, any agent, that even a highly obese and self-centered calico short-hair with an IQ that's pretty low, even for a cat, can be successful in the agent business.

So successful, in fact, that she's hired me.

You see, readers are your audience. The real reason you should be writing books. But the reality of the business is that publishers have long been the gatekeepers between writers and readers.
Problem is, that whole gatekeeper thing was really cutting into their time, so years ago they outsourced most of that to agents.

Meaning that the gatekeepers then had gatekeepers.

That worked for a while, but anyone whose been on a writer's web-board or writer's conference lately knows the feeding frenzy associated with signing anybody who calls themselves an agent. It's really hard to be so popular, and its really wearing on agents. Sometimes just processing all the highly-paid speaking engagements, conference appearances, tours hawking their own books, consulting and editing gigs, gifts, flowers, and offers of sexual favors is just exhausting!

It's a wonder any of them find any time at all to try market books, make deals, or take care of their clients.

In fact, some of them don't. For a lot of them, it's not really the profitable part of their business anyway (which doesn't seem to deter people from wanting to sign with them). Those agents who take their jobs seriously and focus on their clients and the selling of books have clearly missed the boat.

Anyway, that's why Sydney has hired me. Clearly she doesn't have time to deal with the lot of you, and needed an assistant to handle the mail and deposit the checks in her account. So here I am, the gatekeeper to the gatekeeper to the gatekeepers.

Kind of a sweet position, when you think of it. I'm wondering if I should milk it? Why restrict myself just to Sydney, when there are so many even-less-qualified "agents" out there I could be fronting for? Of course, I'll need a new job title for it. Can't be an "agent agent," can I? Hmmm. How about "Bgent," which is naturally what comes after "Agent."

If it works out, I could start a whole franchise, "Cgents," "Dgents," "Egents," until we roll around and have to start over again at "Aaents." (Though some people I've talked to want to skip directly to "Ygents," and they seem to imply a question-mark on the end. I don't get it.)

Anyway, as promised, I've been opening Sydney's mail so she can answer some of your (to you, anyway) very important questions about agents and/or publishing. I turn it over to the very busy ("it would be an honor for you just to touch her cat-sand") Sydney T. Cat, Bad Agent.

Sydney here: Just a minute while I get comfortable, darlings. Pillow. Check. Blankie. Check. Warm, sunny spot. Check. Greenies...


Pion! Where the hell are my Greenies!

So sorry, darlings. It's so hard to get good help these days.

Anyway, let me put my paw in the mailbag, and...

Brandie T. writes:

What is the usual wait time for hearing back on submissions? How often and when should I check back to see if my story is accepted?

Well, dear, that depends. Are were talking about submissions to agents, or to publishers?

If you're one of those sad, pathetic, deluded people trying to send your work directly to editors and publishers, then you simply have to be prepared to wait forever. You see, nobody does that any more, which is why publishers are just stacked to the rafters with unagented-yet-publishable manuscripts. So much so that on the rare occasion they do publish one, it's just done on a lottery system.

Of course, if you go this route (idiot!) then you need to make each submission exclusive, and then you must never submit it again until you hear back from the editor. This is important, because putting a manuscript in the mail is exactly the same as a binding exclucivity contract. You must mail, and then wait.

Forever if need be. Because you can never, under any circumstances, after any period of time, ever ask the editor about it. Even if you meet them at a writers conference, and really hit it off, and becomes great friends, and swear a blood-oath, and then go back to his/her hotel room and have, wild, monkey-sex!

It is forbidden!

And until they release you, either by word or rejection, you are trapped. Like Sleeping Beauty behind all those brambles and that cartoon dragon. You must not submit it elsewhere. You must not stop thinking or obsessing about it. In fact, I wouldn't recommend working on anything else while you're waiting either. For that matter, even sleeping is bad. Just prop your eyes open with toothpicks and pretend like you're in one of those "Nightmare on Elm Street" movies.

Now, you may be saying, "Sydney T. Cat, you beautiful and intelligent creature, what if they've lost it? Or for that matter, what if they just decided it wasn't for them and used the manuscript as part of the landfill for the artificial island in the Hudson River where the 'Publisher's Castle' will be built surrounded by a magic forest full of unicorns, talking typewriters, and dinosaurs? And having done that, they didn't bother to send a rejection?"

You're quite right, dear. Often they will reject things without responding, and your manuscript (and the SASE you sent, after they steam the stamps off) will end up in the landfill for "Publisher's Island." (But you forgot to mention the dragons, the fairies, and the Sharpie-pen rain from the Post-it Note clouds.)

But what you don't know if that that keep a random sampling of manuscripts they will never buy, as a test and a warning to upity writers!

So that some day, at some writer's conference, an editor may casually say, "aren't you Jane W. Writer, who submitted "Bon-bons of the Manatees" to me back in 1993? Did you ever do anything with that?" And if you answer, "why yes, I sold it to your competitor and it spent 32 weeks on the New York Times Best-seller list."

Then you will be banned! Banned and scorned! Banned and scorned and ridiculed! You will be thrown into a burlap sack and burned at the stake during the annual All-editor's Barbecue and Writer-roast!" And all because you couldn't wait! Wait till the end of time!

But this is only because, darling, you are an idiot. You need an agent.

A submission from an agent, any agent, is a completely different thing. I can get a response like that! (I would be snapping my fingers right now, if I had fingers. Imagine I have fingers, and I am snapping them. But really, I will just claw the couch instead. Scritch. Scritch. Scritch. Aaaaaah!)

Of course, the problem is that first, you must get a response from me, and that's going to take a while. A long while. I can't be a gatekeeper if I'm not keeping the gate, and that is a time-consuming business.

But unlike an editor, you actually will hear back from me. Usually. Eventually.

I do like to take my time, even with writers are already clients. Especially with those, actually. Because when I take forever to respond to people how want to become clients, I may never know exactly how they've suffered. But my clients, well, news of their squirming, pain, and deprivation usually get back to me eventually. Purrrrrrrrrr!

Of course, when I do respond, it will usually be a rejection (I even reject my clients! It's so fun!) or if you're really lucky, a rewrite request. Because, never having written or sold a novel of my own, I know far more about writing than you ever will. (Also, I've discovered it's a real time-saver when I'm backed up on my reading. A stack of form rejections and boiler-plate rewrite requests full of vague suggestions will take care of a mountain of backlog in no time at all!)

Actually, I never send out anything unless I'm certain I can sell it. I've got many techniques for predicting the future in order to make this possible. Crystal balls, tea-leaves, watching the birds fly at sunset, aura-reading, fortune-cookies, and of course, the Vulcan Mind-Meld. (Hey, my ears are pointy!)

But I'll be honest. None of it works. Certainty is pretty hard to come by in this business. That's why I never actually send anything out to publishers. Hmmm. Maybe that's why I've never actually sold a book? Interesting theory. I guess I'd better reject this mountain of manscripts so I have more time to think about it....


I'd intended to answer a bunch of questions today, darlings, but this took a lot longer than I expected, so I'll answer one more quick question and call it a day.

Cindie G. in Reno writes:

Am I being rude if I ask to see my contract?


Oh, hell, yes, you unmannered bitch!

Your contract is right in this pile under me (I'm keeping it warm), along with all your royalty statements and foreign-rights agreements, and you'll never lay your rude, grubby, little writer's-fingers on them!

If you ever need to see anything in that pile (and I'll be the judge of that), I'll certainly show you.
Like that would ever happen! I mean, don't you trust me? If you can't blindly trust your agent with your money, contractual obligations, career and future, who can you blindly trust?

(Raise paw. Lick. Lick. Lick.)

Are you still here?

Bgent Pion Steve:

That's all the time Sydney has for questions today. She'll be back soon to badly answer more of your questions about agents, writing and publishing. So even though, she still has more in her mailbag, she'd be glad (well, not really, but I know saying so makes you feel better about your pathetic self) to see questions from you. Send them to me, her Bgent, at

Also, be aware that Sydney is not taking on new clients at this time. She's got her paws-full abusing -- uh -- servicing the ones she already has. She will however accept bribes, via the donate button below, or you can butter her up by buying one of her tee-shirts or other items from her Cafe Press store. (Sydney has heard a rumor that some of you are worried she will be offended if you wear one of her shirts, what with the "Bad Agent, No Catnip!" slogan. Sydney only laughs her little cat laugh at this. She doesn't even really like catnip! Just don't mess with her Greenies!

Anyway, she knows you don't mean it.

she will smother you in your sleep!)

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Support Your Favorite Magazine (But HOW?)

Most of my life, one of my greatest joys has been walking up to a newsstand and browsing the magazines.

When I was a kid, it was a world of wonders far from my small-town existence: the futuristic super-technology of Popular Mechanics and Popular Science (and long-defunct magazines like Mechanics Illustrated and Science and Mechanics, which bought my first professional writing sale back in the 70s), the world-spanning photography of Life and National Geographic, the distant-but-glamorous California car-culture represented in Hot Rod and CARtoons (the first magazine I ever sent a submission to), the sneaky and brilliant subversion of Mad Magazine, the glimpses at all those strange an scary movies I never got to see in Famous Monsters of Filmland, the fiction, writing and art of The Saturday Evening Post.

I'd always read science-fiction, but it was my discovery of Analog Magazine in the 70s that really brought me into the genre and showed me that it was an actual community, and not just a bunch of books with paintings of rockets and aliens on the cover. Later, a newcomer, Issac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine (now Asimov's Science Fiction), showed me a different side of science-fiction, more playful, sometimes less serious, but often more socially relevant.

Then came the combined lowbrow titillation and highbrow writing (yes, I actually did read the stories and articles) of Playboy, the in-depth coverage of news and culture in Time and Newsweek, and the more in-depth (more like "in-over-my-head" most of the time, but I loved it) science coverage of Scientific American.

Let's say it up front. I love magazines. Always have. Always (well, as long as they survive) will. Helping them survive, that's today's topic.

This morning at the grocery store I spotted the "Mythbusters" special issue of Popular Mechanics magazine that I'd been hearing about on Twitter, and had to pick it up. I quickly read the Mythbusters cover story and a good bit of the other content, and enjoyed it all quite a bit. (If you like Mythbusters, then you've got to have this issue, but it's good reading anyway. After a boring slump of many years, PM has turned into an excellent magazine again.)

Then (we get to the real subject of this post) I did something that I've meaning to do for a while, and which I should have done a long time ago: I got on their website and subscribed. Really, this was a no brainer. I pick up the monthly magazine on the newsstand more months than not, at $3.99 and issue, and the blow-in card in the magazine was offering a rate of $12 a year.

Yes, you got that right. A buck an issue. 75% off with postage thrown in for free.

I report this, not as a sales pitch for PM (though if you subscribe, good), but to illustrate the crazy nature of the magazine business, why it's so difficult to keep a magazine going these days, and why it's so hard to know how to best support the ones you love.

How can they offer the magazine so cheaply? Surely a dollar barely covers printing and shipping costs, if that. The answer (disclaimer, my info on the magazine business is second-hand and somewhat dated, but I think my information is essentially correct here) is that it's still CHEAPER than selling you an issue on the newsstand at $3.99 a cut.

I know you're scratching your heads here, but it's apparently true. They have to discount the magazine for wholesale in the first place, then the distributor gets a huge cut, and then they actually have to PAY to get the magazines positioned in major retailers. Even then, many of the magazines shipped aren't sold and are stripped for credit. And finally, any money that DOES arrive through the distributors is painfully slow in making its way back to the publisher. I've been told that most mass-market magazines lose money on every copy sold at retail.

So why do we have magazines at all? The answer, in most cases, is advertising. Popular Mechanics is an example of a classic advertiser supported magazine. Much, if not all, of their profit margin comes from selling ads, not magazines. This is true of most of the magazines you see in the grocery store or mass-retailers like Target or Wal-mart.

And advertisers like numbers. A magazine sent to a newsstand may or may not sell, but to advertisers, a subscriber is like gold. This is an audience they can measure and analyze, and figure out if they're getting their advertising money's worth. That's another reason magazines like PM are so happy to offer steep discounts to advertisers.

This plan works best though, for magazines with mass appeal and large circulations. There's a second-tier of magazines aimed at more specialized audiences, that still have lots of ads (for which they depend on heavily for income), but still depend on sales income to keep the lights on and the presses running. They can't discount subscriptions as much. They also can't afford big premiums to get their magazines out there, so they're harder to find.

A couple of examples of this that I often read are the infotrivia magazine Mental Floss (my mother-and-law has been giving us gift subscriptions for years, so I haven't had to worry about this one) and the technology/hobby magazine Robot.

Still rarer at those magazines that depend almost entirely on income from purchases and subscriptions. The previously mentioned Analog Science Fiction is such a magazine, as is Asimov's. For that matter, this is true of pretty much any fiction magazine you could name. (And there aren't many any more. Scott Edelman's late, lamented Science Fiction Age and sister Realms of Fantasy were the last fiction magazines I can think of with substantial ad income.) They can't discount their subscriptions at all, but they desperately count on those subscribers for their survival. Naturally, these are usually the very hardest magazines to find on newsstands, usually completely missing the mass-market outlets.

Obviously what I'm saying here is: if you enjoy a magazine, you should really subscribe. You support the magazine in a big way when you do so.

But what I'm also saying is, there's a flip-side to this, a Catch-22. One reason magazines still like to be on newsstands, even though it costs them money, is that its a way of reaching new potential subscribers. If people don't see their magazine, know why it would interest them, or even know that it exists, then they won't become subscribers.

This is where some of the fiction magazines in that last category have run into trouble. They aren't visible enough to get new subscribers, and their existing subscriber-base is (slowly) shrinking. Some subscribers slip away, or forget to renew. And even with the most loyal subscribers, they get older and yes, pass away. There's also the issue (no pun intended) that while catering to their graying, established subscriber-base, they may also be losing their ability to appeal to the younger subscribers that they desperately need to survive.

So the problem is, when you subscribe, you stop buying the magazine on the newsstand. If not enough people buy the magazine on the newsstand, it won't get stocked. If it doesn't get stocked, then it has a much harder time getting subscribers. You see the problem.

Okay, it's still better to subscribe. But there are other things you could do to support a beloved magazine. Tell a friend about it, or share some of your back-issues with someone who might be interested, rather than throwing them in the recycle bin. Sponsor a subscription for your local library (check first to see if they have such a program, and how it works). Give gift subscriptions to friends and family members.

Or maybe you could write a blog post peppered with subscription links, like this one. (grin)

So, what magazines am I subscribing to these days?

Well, Popular Mechanics and Popular Science, both of which have gotten back to their entertaining and informative roots in recent years. Mental Floss I've mentioned. I should subscribe to Scientific American, even though I liked it much better when it was written more like a scientific journal, and less like a soft-boiled version of Discover.

I really also should subscribe to Make, though I don't buy every issue at newsstand, and the subscription discount isn't huge. On the other hand, Make on the newsstand is an astounding $14.99 an issue, putting it in a category all its own, so any discount is welcome if you're interested, and I guess I am.

I'm a little ashamed to admit that I don't currently subscribe to any of the fiction magazines like Analog. I've subscribed to them off-and-on over the years, but somehow I seem to find far more time for reading (and writing) novels than short-fiction these days. Still, I should at least subscribe to Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine. I know I'm missing some good writing there, and I suspect I'm a little more likely to read mystery/crime short fiction for some reason.

Really, if money were no object, I should subscribe to all of them, just as a gesture of support to the genre. Maybe when the next best-seller check rolls in...

I might also be more likely to read these on my new Kindle, however the Kindle versions of these magazines are reportedly still a bit SNAFUed, with formatting problems, late arrivals, and subscription rates that are actually higher than the print editions.

Such is the brave new world of magazines, the direction where these hearty survivors may have to head in the years to come. It will take longer for photo, illustration (and ad) heavy magazines to find their way onto ebook readers in a big way. The technology isn't there yet.

But ebook readers are a hot item this year, and seem to be A wave of the future, if not yet conclusively THE wave. Like I said, I recently got a Kindle, and I just subscribed to my first magazine on it, The New Yorker. It isn't quite the same I'll admit. Those artful covers don't look the same in puny black-and-white form, and the subtleties of the cartoons are sometimes lost in the translation. But to me, The New Yorker is mostly about great writing, the words, and that makes it a good fit to the Model-T ebook readers we've got now.

It's also a magazine I've never subscribed to before, so I'm just not as aware of what I'm missing.

But if magazines do go all electronic, and if those ever-shrinking news-racks do completely disappear from our grocery stores and bookshops (if the bookshops themselves even survive), I know the things that I will miss: The excitement and anticipation of approaching the racks, stacked high, thick, wide and deep with colorful covers, all begging for attention, peeking out row-after-row like schoolchildren in a yearbook picture. The heady smell of fresh paper and ink. The Easter-egg-hunt excitement of looking for a new issue of a favorite magazine, or the thrill of finding something new and outside my experience. The slightly-guilty pleasure of flipping through the issues, one-eye peeled for a clerk come to tell you to "buy it or beat it!"

Those glory-days are mostly behind us now, unlikely to return. But if you love print magazines, and I do, there's still hope to keep them going a little longer. At least we can help keep our favorites alive to make the transition to electrons and epaper. Don't let them slip away without a fight.
FOLLOW-UP, September 2, 2009

In the last few days, the New York Times has run a trio of articles in their business section detailing the latest numbers out of the magazine industry. It confirms much of what I said about, but some of the numbers surprised me.

Some factoids:

Industry wide, sales are down, though a few individual magazines have showed gains. Many magazines have show increased subscription sales, but these generally weren't enough to compensate for slides at the retail. Women's magazine were especially hard hit. One (probably unfortunate) exception is All You, a magazine by Time Inc. sold in Wal-Mart stores.

Not surprisingly, given the economy, finance and luxury lifestyle magazines were down.

What shocked me was how much some well-known magazines depend on subscriptions. Ladies' Home Journal sells only 4.8 percent of its copies on stands. Better Homes & Gardens sells only 2.5 percent there!

Overall, sales have fallen 1.9 percent in the last year, which isn't that alarming. However, single copy sales have fallen 12.3 percent, which is of more concern. And while the articles mainly talk about the top magazines in the business, I'm more interested (and concerned) about smaller specialty magazines (including those that print short fiction). Anecdotal evidence is that the little guys have been very hard-hit in the last couple years, either pushing them out of business, or for all intents and purposes, completely off newsstands.


If you enjoyed this article or found it informative, your on-line donation in any amount will encourage us to do more like it. Thanks in advance for your support.


Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Dead On Arrival, a Novel Autopsy, or: "The Why Incision"

One little fringe benifit of my new Amazon Kindle is that there are quite a number of free, or nearly-free books in the Kindle store. Some of these are older works that have lapsed into the public domain.

But others are much more recent, including some past best-sellers and award-winners that are being offered up free to promote still-working authors or ongoing series. That whole, "The first one is free, little boy," thing

I downloaded a few of these "free books" the other day. One is an older book by a best-selling author I've never read. The second is a genre award-winner, first in an award-winning science fiction series I've long meant to read.

The third was a wild card, apparently a thriller by an author unknown to me. But it had a decent cover, the premise sounded interesting, and the price was right, so I decided to give it a try.

It's book number-three in this group that I'm blogging about today. No, I haven't read all of it. According to the Kindle's little "gas meter" readout at the bottom, I read about a quarter of it, but that was enough to tell me everything I needed to know about this book.

On closer examination, despite the rather professional presentation, this appears to be a self-published book. The author is a professional in a technical field somewhat related to the subject matter of the book, and this may be a first novel. Or not.

If it is a first novel, it's a pretty good one.

For a first novel.

Or to be honest, for a second or third. It's not a bad effort. It's just not quite up to professional standards. The author may have tried to sell it to major publishers, but if they did, it almost certainly got bounced for reasons that quickly became obvious to me as I read it..

No, I'm not going to tell you the author, or the title of the book. It's easy to find, and if you poke around a bit, you can probably figure out what book I'm talking about, but that isn't the point. I'm not here today to criticize a book, or savage an author whose worst crime is turning out a book that almost made the cut.

I'm here to see what we, as writers, can learn from a book that was, as it turns out, dead on arrival.

Like I said, it's not bad work in a lot of ways. To be honest, I've seen a lot worse writing over-all between the covers of books from major publishers. Based on that, you could argue that this book didn't sell simply as a matter of chance. It just didn't land on the desk of a less-descriminating editor on an off-day.

But I don't think that's it. Badly-written books often get published, even turn into best-sellers. But usually this happens because they have less-obvious virtues beyond their obviously rough prose. (Unquestionably and completely bad books do get bought and published on ocassion, but you can write this off to chance and politics. Sh#t happens.)

This book had most of the obvious virtures, but few of those less obvious ones, and therefore it just wasn't going to sell to the major house. As far as they were concerned, it was the worst thing that a book can be, after being flat-out terrible. It was mediocre.

I'm sure editors (or at least the assistant editors who are reading slush) see these every day. Based on my little experience in reading slush, they can be the most frustrating of manuscripts, because they don't give you any obvious reason to stop reading, but they don't reward your patience either.

Which, and this important, is a lesson on how editor's read. Unless they have some particular reason to look on your manuscript with enthusiasm (they've published you before, you're a writer known to them, you're a major award winner, you're really good in bed and demonstrated that to them just the night before, you're on the cover of Entertainment Weekly, etc.) they aren't just looking for a reason to stop reading (which most slush manuscripts readily supply in the first page, if not the first paragraph), they're looking for a compelling reason to go on.

If they don't find it in a page or two, then odds are, they're going to be out of there, even if you've otherwise done nothing wrong.

I know, some of you by now are saying, "that's not fair!" To which we respond, "boo-hoo." Publishing isn't fair. Get over it.

"But wait," you say, "readers aren't like cynical, evil, editors! They'll hang in until I get to the good bits on page 75!"


Certainly, they may not kick out as quickly. After all, the very fact that a book is published between two professional covers and sitting on the shelf or rack at a real bookseller gives them some reason to believe there's good stuff in there. And heck, if you've paid good money for a book, you're less likely to (But wait, this was essentially a free book, and a Kindle book as well. Epublishing appears to be a rapidly growing part of the business. What then? We'll get back to that later.)

Certainly, most casual readers have been preserved from the horror that is slush, and therefore aren't as jaded as a publishing professional will be.

But readers can be harsh too, and less forgiving of your missteps. An editor will sigh, put the manuscript aside, and (usually) instantly forget your name, if they ever noticed in the first place. Readers are like jilted lovers. They can be bitter and vindictive, and remember you till the end of time, cursing your name to their friends and writing bad reviews on Amazon of books they haven't even seen. Thank the editors who save you from such readers.

Let's get back to our cold, clammy, book on the slab.

Remember I said that I actually read a quarter of it. That seems pretty good, and in a way, it is. I didn't throw it against the wall long before that time. (Okay, it was on my Kindle which I wasn't about to throw against the wall. But I would have deleted it with prejudice.)

But while I'm not an editor, I'm far more critical than the typical reader, and a bit more jaded. Much earlier in the book, I had a pretty good idea that I was on the slow-train to nowhere. I kept reading simply to verify my suspicions, and to see what I could learn along the way.

Okay, let's talk about the specific problems with this book, which is trickier than if I just came out and gave you the title and the link. But like I said, I want to preserve the author's dignity (they came that close!) and heck, there are elements to their book that may yet find them an audience in spite of its flaws. I wish them well, and certainly don't want to stumble them up.

Okay, remember I said that this was apparently a thriller? Allow me to elaborate...

As I said, the book had a pretty nice cover that would have looked at home on an airport book-rack. Simple, striking, attention-getting, iconic, and tied to the premise of the book. The book had a catchy title too, to go with the cover design. Two words. Memorable, with a bit of word play. Good title.

In other words, a nice, professional, package in keeping with an aspiring best-seller. Though there was nothing explicit about it, it looked like a thriller. (Pretending for a moment too, that I was just an average reader, and not the person I am, the package might have given me a good deal more patience with the book than I otherwise would have had.)

The blurb was pretty good too. It spelled out the concept, which intrigued me. Without being too specific, think Michael Crichton (in his "Jurassic Park," "Timeline" phase) crossing into "Di Vinci Code" mythic pseudo-mysticism.

(Marketing lesson to take from this: even on an ebook, the package is important. It sets reader expectations, and you want to set those high, then deliver.)

Sounds commercial enough, right? It is. There's no reason somebody couldn't write a slam-bang thriller based on this concept. This book, unfortunately, is not that thriller.

First of all, and I can't stress this enough even though it should be obvious. A thriller should be thrilling. That means there is stuff. Happening. All. The. Time.

Every page of a thriller should be exciting. Every page should build the reader's interest. Every page should ratchet up the suspense. It should be packed with shocks, surprises, mystery, and twists.

This book. Not so much. Barely at all, actually.

Let me tell you too, something about thrillers especially (though it applies to books in general). Get down to business. Do not announce to the reader that they should "hold onto a post or handrail as the train is about to leave the station." Throw them on the train while it's at full speed, land them off-balance and on their asses before they know what's happening. And make them love every minute of it!

Okay, our subject book doesn't totally fail in this respect. The book does have an opening, and a hook. It does start with something which is, if not action packed, at least puzzling and unusual enough to be interesting. That puts it ahead of at least 90% of slush books right there. But while weak is better than none, it is still less than good.

Again, trying not to give too much away, the book opens in a familiar, high-security, setting, one that any reader will recognize, one that is mundane, but still open to the possiblity of violence, intrique, and Bad Stuff Happening.

Our protagonist is there, but he is behaving most strangely. Trying to avoid identifiable specifics here. Think: showing up to a wedding in a gorilla costume strange. He meets characters who remark on this strangeness, seem suspicious of it, and yet are strangely not surprised by it.

Okay, all this strangeness draws the reader in. What is going on? Is this guy trying to get away with something? Or is somebody out to get him? Are bad things about to happen?

Eventually something does happen, though in a rather anti-climactic fashion. Turns out our hero is a security consultant, and he has been trying to penetrate the high-security situation in order to test it. He's succeeded in his task, making us glad he is on our side, but also making us wish it had happened in a more exciting and interesting fashion.

The initial interest really doesn't pay off. If an editor had gotten this far (and they might have), this is almost certainly where they'd have put it aside. A typical reader would be vaguely disappointing, possibly without knowing why. They'd likely plug on, hoping that things would get better.

Sadly, they don't. The job is done and we never go back to it or us it in any of the quarter of the book I read. Make sure you have all your belongings. We're moving on here. Don't look back.

Next scene introduces us to our protationist's situation. We're told about his business. We meet his family/co-workers. We see where he lives and works. It's all colorful enough in that TV-series-pilot kind of way, but rather cool and bloodless. We glance along the surface of the characters without even getting a hint that there's anything underneath. Clearly the author has thought this all out and planned it well, but it's all completely artificial and calculated. There's nothing genuine or organic about any of it.

Mind you, it's all smoothly and professionally written. The character tags are there. It's clear who is who, where we are, and what is going on. Again, well beyond the typical slush level. It's just that none of it sparks. None of it is compelling or interesting in more than a superficial way.

We move on. A mysterious messenger shows up with a package. The package has a job offer in it, but the potential employer is mysterious as well. They want him to do strange things as part of the hiring process, and he being a suspcicious security guy, does not play along. Instead, he investigates.

Okay, now we have a little mystery, a little interest here, and this is a good thing. Don't get used to it. Like the opening, the pay-off is weak.

The investigation involves a neighbor, who May Be Important Later, but is completely forgotten in the part of the book I read. It also involves some other people who will at least reappear at the end of the book (I peeked), but who don't show up again in that first quarter of the book.

Mainly this investigation serves to impress his future-employers (you knew he was going to take the job, right?), since they're quite happy to discuss with this near stranger all the secrets of their ancient and powerful, yet totally secret organization that is having trouble with the launch of their web site.

This doesn't seem credible or make a lot of sense, but it's necessary to the plot.

You can tell. This is when you realize that the author has designed your novel experience to the last detail. You are sitting in a little car, and you can hear the clanking of the machinery moving you deeper into the ride.
Clank. Clank. Clank.

That is to say that the events of this book do not arrise naturally from one into the next. They were all planned, in advance, and you are expected to hold on and ride the shiny rails all the way to the end.

This is not, in itself, an unforgivable crime. Writers, especially thriller writers, do this all the time (so does Disneyland, but never mind...). It's how some people write, and that's okay, with a couple of qualifications. Unlike Disneyland, where you know you're on a ride (and even there they work to help you ignore the fact), the machinery should never draw attention to itself.

Second, the scenery should flow as seamlessly as possible from one point in the journey to the next. Where there are gaps or seams, they should be disguised, smoothed over, or LOOK, A UNICORN! (The author should distract the reader from the discontinuity.)

Finally, as in Disneyland, the experience should be exciting and enjoyable enough that they're happy to ignore the glimpse of the machinery, the slightly-fake explosions, or the fire-exit door clearly visible in the back of the jungle scene.

Not so in this book. No, it wasn't terribly distracting, but you could never, ever, stop hearing the click of metal wheels rolling over steel rails, and the author offered few distractions or rewards to help you in the task.

So, Our Hero takes the job and after a few detours, is whisked away to the Secret Organizations' headquarters. Yes, there is some minor strangeness along the way, but far less than you'd expect working for Donald Trump, much less this kind of outfit. There are some new characters with colorful tags to identify them (but again, no sign of depth behind the tags).

Let me take a little side-road here. There's another thing about this book, related to the "riding on rails" effect. It's the "everything has its place" effect. There's a neatness to this book that the reader cannot help but notice. Characters are introduced, and you just know they're there for a reason. They may have a secret, a hidden agenda, an Important Plot Function, or they may just have tap-dancing skills that the hero will apply later, but they are there for a reason.

This can be useful to a writer, when the reader realizes that a character is important, but doesn't know why or how. Are they what they appear to be? Are they friend or foe? Do they have a machine gun under those priestly robes? Stuff like this keeps the reader involved.

But there's not much of that here. We just dump in some guy or gal. Remember them. We'll use them later.

I'm going way out on a limb here, but I notice from their bio that the author is (among other things) a computer programmer. I know just enough about programming to be dangerous, but one thing I know is that in programs, you declare things before you use them. Program variables, subroutines, things like that. If I had to venture a guess, that's the way this author approaches these characters:


Declare Protag: Sam Savage (class) PI
Declare Sidekick: Bobby (class) NERD
Declare Antag: Vick Olive (class) MOBSTER
Declare MiscChar: Willie (class) DOORMAN
Declare MiscChar: Beth (class) BARISTA

You get the idea.

Anyway, we rejoin our visit to the Ancient and Secret Organization already in progress. This is the part of the book where you've just got to weep for the missed opportunities to tweak reader interest, establish some sense of foreboding, and build suspense.

As our hero is shown around, are there secrets withheld? Questions left unanswered? Uneasy silences? Unmarked doors with scary looking guards? Dangerous looking artifacts half-glimpsed beneath dusty tarps? Insincere smiles that seem to mask lies and fear? Do and of the people he meets react with anger or suspicion? Must our hero sneak about after hours, steal a file, or bluff his way into a secure area (as he has already demonstrated the skills to do) in order to learn more?

No, no, no, and no to all of these. No, the hero is taken on a very. Long. Tour. A tour to establish what the place is, and what it does. There may be secrets there. Probably are. But the author doesn't as much as hint at this.

Instead, he's taken on a detailed tour. Our Hero(and by extension, the reader) is told everything, from soup to nuts about the Secret Organization. People -- people who don't even know who he is, or what he's doing there -- fall all over themselves to reveal information.

Lots and lots of information. History, backstory, proceedures, on and on, like an employee orientation at an insurance company. VERY much like an employee orientiation at an insurance company. And yes, this is just as exciting as you imagine it to be.

Okay, by this point, my saintly patience is wearing very thin. This is the point where I looked down at the little meter and notice: I'm a quarter of the way through.

Think about this. I am a quarter of the way through the book, and all we have done is introduce our hero and introduce the high-concept premise on which the book is based. And we are not even through introducing the premise.

Also, still looking at the meter, we have been told a couple of times that Something is Wrong at the Secret Organization, something he has been hired to find. Something that could threaten the entire existance of the organization (which at this point we aren't sure is good or bad, and so aren't sure if we should care, or why). But a quarter of the way through the book, we don't have a clue what this problem/threat is.

Refer back to what I said earlier: Any book, but especially a thriller, has to get down to business.

And if for some reason, you can't immediately get to the main business of the book. then you'd darned well keep the reader entertained, interested and involved with some secondary business until the main business comes along.

And incidently, when you switch gears from the secondary business to the main business, you can't leave the reader feeling like you've been wasting their time until then, or that you've mashed together two unrelated things and left them to wonder why they're in the same book. No, the secondary thing must lead into or relate (thematically or otherwise) the main business in some way. No, this isn't that easy to do, which is why you're almost always safer cutting straight to the main business in the first place.

So as I said. Patience -- gasp -- wearing -- choke -- thin... At this point, nothing at all is keeping me reading except a desire to verify some of my suspicions, and morbid curiosity as to how far the author could get into the book without ever establishing their central problem.

To be honest, if this had been a printed book or manuscript, this is the point where I'd be flipping to the last page. But it was on the Kindle, and having had mine for just a couple weeks, I couldn't figure out how to flip quickly to the end. So I just kept reading.

For about two more pages.

What threw me out? We'll, remember when I said that every new character in this thing very clearly has a purpose?

Well, a new character is introduced.

A woman.

The Most Beautiful and Perfect Woman in the World, Who Every Man Desires But None Can Have.

Can you say, "love interest?" I knew that you could.

Again, this is full of lost opportunties. Not only is it obvious that this is the love interest, but there is no "meet cute," as they say in the romance game. They do not spark or conflict on meeting. They do not argue, despite a hidden attraction. They are not kept apart by her posessive and possibly abusive boyfriend.

No, despite the fact that our hero makes a complete ass of himself staring and drooling and leaking other fluids (okay, figuratively), she takes an instant liking to him, and within a few paragraphs, they've set up a date.

At this point, I develop a burning, overwhelming desire to find a "flip to end" function in the Kindle. There must be one, and if I can't find it, I will write one myself.

Soon, my determination bears fruit. (It all has to do with those little "location numbers" at the bottom of the screen.) I skip to the end. The Secret Organization is still there, though it has apparently been purged, or reformed, or some such. About what I'd expected. Of course the hero has hooked up with the obvious love-interest. Of course our hero lives happily until Wednesday. (Who believes in "ever after" any more?)

The end.

Only, not quite.

This being a basically free book, so it's of course a come-on to get you to buy an upcoming sequel. There's a short sample of said book at the end of this one. (One instant realization. That threw the meter off. When I bailed out before the central problem, I was more than a quarter of the way into the book!)

Nothing wrong this idea on the face of it. Good marketing in the ebook age. Lots of people are doing it.

Trouble is, this book will leave nobody burning with desire for a sequel. It didn't leave me with a burning desire for the last three-quarters of the book. That's a marketing lesson in itself. The fisherman will catch nothing unless the bait is good.

But I'm curious again. I take a look at his sample of the sequel. Has he learned anything? Does it look any better?

Actually, its possible the author did learn something. It opens with a historical prologue that's pretty interesting. Bad stuff is happening, and someone is checking in with the Secret Organization, leaving something with them. Clearly, this person expects to die soon. Very soon.

And... Wait for it... The person is revealed to be a Very Bad and Well-known Person from History!

Okay, that's a much stronger opening than the first book. We might be getting somewhere.

Flash to the present, where our hero is...

Busy explaining the same damned premise that introduced the first book, in the most uninteresting way possible, to the least interesting person possible.

This goes on for several pages before my mind goes blank. Possibly I stopped reading, or deleted it, or screamed, or something. I have check, and my Kindle is still fine, so that's a good thing.

We who do not learn from our mistakes, are doomed to repeat them. Or better yet, we can learn from other people's mistakes and not make them at all.

And thus the autopsy endeth...

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Free Kozy Kover for your Kindle

Chris here:

When Steve got his Kindle, he wondered if I could knit him a cover for it. Sure, he had a water-resistent sleeve he bought, but he wanted something with a little more padding and some more color. I've been knitting and experimenting, trying to make a colorful knitted cover for the Kindle. Now I have a couple Kindle Kozies to give away.

Free. Honest.

For a chance to win a Kozy, just send me an email at with "Kindle Kozy" as the subject line. When we have the first 50 names we will draw a name for a free Kozy - we'll even pay for shipping! And when we have 100 names we'll give away another Kozy! And after that we may even give away more. Anyone who signs up is eligible, and the earlier you sign up the more drawings you'll be eligible for - your name will stay in the pot for each drawing. We'll also give you another entry for anyone who signs up and tells us the referral came from you. The more friends who sign up, the more chances you have.

These Kozy Kovers are made to fit the Kindle 2, but they also fit the original Kindle 1. And if we draw the name of someone with a DX, well, send us the dimensions and we'll make one special to fit your DX!

As for the names and addresses we're collecting this way: We will only use the list to announce forth-coming books, appearances, and the like. We won't share them, we won't sell them, and we won't annoy you with frequent messages. We just hope you'll like our books and stories and try them on your Kindle - but there is no obligation of any kind.

You could be a winner!

Chris York

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Prediction, Speculation, Observation: ebooks


Prediction: Many new players will enter the ebook reader market in the coming year, from new models from older-players like Sony, to new players like Plastic Logic, to cheap LCD-screen models from no-name Asian companies. Many will fall by the wayside, but it's ultimately good for the consumer.

Speculation: Amazon will face increasing pressure to open their Kindle store to other hardware platforms. They claim they don't want to be a hardware company, but I'm not so sure, at least in the near term.

Of course, there are other reasons they want their platform closed until the ebook market and its relationship with publishing is well established. Until pricing and rights-management issues are ironed out, Amazon may not want to further muddy the waters by throwing things open.

The next year could be telling.

Observation: The ereader market isn't just about fiction, or even books.

Those of us in the fiction world have a tendency to think publishing and bookselling are all about fiction, but that has never been true. But the fledgling ereader market isn't all about books either. Far from it.

Look at the newspaper industry, for instance. Print newspapers are way down the road to extinction, and nobody has figured out how to make the web pay. A subscription-based model using ereaders has got to look attractive from many standpoints, and Amazon is eager to sell the idea.

The economics are easy to support on an individual basis. (I just traded a $500 a year daily regional newspaper for a $299 Amazon Kindle and a $168.77 annual subscription to the New York Times. And it's one of the more EXPENSIVE Kindle-available newspapers.)

From a corporate standpoint, it's more complicated, as graphics heavy ads don't work on Kindle or Sony Reader, and most newspapers have a lot invested in print infrastructure. But expect many papers to start offering deals on ereader hardware as part of subscription packages anyway. It's a survival issue.

Print magazines are in almost as bad a fix. Slick paper and pretty pictures are keeping the big players alive for now, but it can't last, and web competition has hurt everything from porn to specialty and hobby magazines. They'll push the next generation of ereader hardware.

Prediction: Despite the rumors, don't expect Apple to introduce a dedicated ebook reader. The word "dedicated" is no longer in their corporate dictionary. (No pun intended, if you've been following current news about their censoring a dictionary on the iPhone). If they enter the ereader market (Steve Jobs doesn't seem to believe there is one), it will be one feature on a much sexier and more flexible device.

Speculation: Barnes and Noble has announced an ebook bookstore without an ebook reader to go with it. It isn't even compatible with the two major players, Amazon Kindle and Sony. What's with that?

I'll tell you my best guess. If an exclusive Sony agreement doesn't appear in conjunction with some new model that includes wireless, expect them to start lining up non-exclusive partnerships in the coming year with Plastic Logic and other newer hardware players, as well as chasing more open platforms like cell-phones, netbooks, and PCs.

B&N knows they can't go head-to-head with Amazon on their own, and becoming a hardware company isn't in their skill-set. Instead, they'll use their long-relationship with publishers to make them comfortable in a way that Amazon never can, while they chase niche markets and try and end-run of Amazon.

All things considered, I don't think this is a bad plan.

Observation: Hasn't anybody noticed that this would be a great time to return to the old book-club model?

Yeah, I know, that seems crazy. Book clubs are so over, right?

But would you sign up to a commitment to buy a certain number of books (that you were probably going to buy anyway) over the next year or two if a shiny, new, Sony (or other brand) ebook reader with wireless were part of the deal? Even if it had the club logo and website on the case?

Yes. I think you might.

At least some of you might. The people who are early adopters of ebooks tend to be older, heavy readers. Exactly the folks who used to join book clubs.

Somebody do this please.

Then send me money.