Thursday, November 14, 2013

Remembering "Awesome"

I was twelve years old when I first saw Niagara Falls. I remember looking out at the water crashing over Horseshoe Falls and thinking that for the first time, I truly understood what "awesome" meant. The value of that discovery was short-lived, though; within a few years, "awesome" would have evolved into a designation for a new ice cream flavor, a solid test score or a plan to meet up after school.

It nagged at me from the beginning, the loss of that word. Though I'm something of a preservationist, I'm also a fan of clear communication. I do understand that the commonly accepted meanings of words sometimes evolve, and sometimes that serves a societal purpose. Sometimes, it does not.

"Awesome" was converted from a word with a unique meaning that conveyed something powerful into a shorthand reaction interchangeable with a dozen (or more) other words--and we no longer had a single word to clearly convey what "awesome" once meant. Sure, we can find workarounds--say "awe inspiring," for instance. But we had a perfectly good word for that, and it got broken.

I've been thinking about that word again recently, since general misuse and the gatekeepers of our vocabulary joined forces to steal "literally" from the English language. In essence, the word has been redefined to mean, "literally" or "not literally." Which, of course, means that it conveys nothing at all. It's as if we've decided that the word "warm" now means either "warm" or "cold"--at the user's discretion and without any designated context to help determine which opposing thing the speaker is trying to convey.

However language evolutionists might argue that updating the meaning of words aids in clear communication, the type of updating we're engaged in today does no such thing. Rather, it creates a rule of thumb that says that words don't actually have to mean a particular thing, and that a person speaking that word might mean anything at all. For example, she might mean "literally," or she might mean "figuratively."

Meanwhile, we've lost the use of a perfectly good word that made a clear and important distinction. The old "literally" served a purpose; the new one, by virtue of its conflicting meanings, cannot. And, once again, we'll have to find a multi-word workaround to express what "literally" used to say with crystal clarity.

Apparently, we've also redefined "evolution of language" to include "devolution of language."

Friday, July 19, 2013

Another Overnight Success Story Years in the Making

I “met” Thunder Levin minutes before his meteoric rise to fame (we’re all hoping fortune is soon to follow). I encountered Levin entirely by accident: I’m stalking late 80s heartthrob Richard Grieco*, and Levin wrote and directed Grieco’s most recent movie.

My research included the intriguing discovery that Levin’s AE: Apocalypse Earth (The Asylum’s “mockbuster’ answer to Will Smith’s After Earth) had climbed onto the list of the 50 most active movies on IMDB. In my book, this was already a pretty significant win, but it doesn’t begin to compare with what happened to Levin just weeks later, when a little film he’d penned by the name of Sharknado set Twitter on fire and drew news coverage from channels as far-flung as Good Morning, America! and The New Yorker.

It turns out that a little thing like 5,000 Tweets per minute can have a big impact on a writer’s career, and Thunder (who is also a director, though he didn’t direct Sharknado) now has a new agency representing him and bright prospects ahead. And I’m very glad he does—he’s witty, intelligent and well-informed, which is basically my checklist for people I’d like to see capturing more public attention. And, I happen to know that he has a little project called 2176 in development that I’m interested to see on the big screen.

I suspect that most of you never heard of Levin before last week, but that doesn’t mean he came out of nowhere. In fact, his earliest director’s credit dates back to 1992, when he was just 27 years old. My point isn’t to say, “Man, this guy’s old!” (he’s a year older than I am), but to drive home the fact that—like most people who suddenly catch the public eye in the creative arts—Levin has been building the foundation for years.  Decades, even.  And although I haven’t asked him, I’d wager that he never expected Sharknado to be the vehicle that brought his big break.


The moral of the story is one you’ve heard a thousand times before (and probably at least 500 of them from me): you never know when the first crack in the door is going to appear, or when the right piece of work is going to catch the attention of the right person or when the life-altering opportunity is going to come along. You might never expect that it will arrive on the tail of a flying shark, but sometimes it does. And the only way to get to that moment is to keep building the foundation in every way you can, doing what you were meant to do, finding a way to make it pay and being ready to move quickly when you see that sliver of light along the edge of the door.

*No, not that kind of stalking. I'm hoping that Richard will agree to be the subject of my next, "no, really, there's a lot more to this guy than you realize" biography.  So far, he's kind of a tease.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Who Stole My Phone Booth?

I wrote this article in 2005, for a website called CoolStuff4Writers. Though I've obviously written much more significant pieces in my career, this one received a resounding response--probably because so many of us feel like imposters while we're out there in the world doing what we do best. The article archives went offline a few years ago, and I though it was lost forever, but recently re-discovered the original draft on an old back-up drive...so, here it is.

Unthinking, I answered my cell phone in Wal- Mart. We were buying supplies for the Daisy Girl Scout meeting that night and I was absorbed in the variations of color and shape in the sequin packets when I found myself absently saying hello to a musician who's been making appearances on the Australian equivalent of the Billboard Top 40 for more than thirty years.

I was a teenager and Rick Springfield was a superstar when I decided, more than twenty years ago, that I was going to write his biography. I guess that makes me living proof that teenage dreams come true...but somehow I thought it would be different. I thought I would pack the lunches and distribute the milk money and sort the homework and drop off the kids, and then I'd transform from "Mom" into "Biographer to the Stars" like Wonder Woman spinning away Diana Prince. I'd buy the right clothes...except that when I went out to do that, I stepped out of the dressing room to hear my mother laughing. "I wouldn't wear the Velcro gym shoes," she said, "they kind of mark you as a soccer mom." I'd fly off to Los Angeles to do interviews...except that when I did that, I had to call home three or four times a day. I'd meet the coolest people...except that I already knew the coolest person, and I didn't have to fly anywhere to see her.
I wanted to be a superhero. I really did. But I couldn't find my phone booth.

My daughter was everywhere, and when I stopped and thought about it I realized that there was a simple reason for it: I wanted her there. Being a mom was an important part of who I was, and my daughter was just about the most important thing I could imagine. In an earlier age, that might have meant making a choice, but the logistics were manageable. The issue was one that apparently existed only in my own mind, an idea that it was somehow unprofessional to be a mother.

When I'd been teaching, I had never given it a thought, blithely standing before pre-law students with a bunny sticker on my jacket and calling home during the break to say goodnight. But the "Biographer to the Stars" I envisioned wouldn't wear Velcro gym shoes, not even to the grocery store. She could fly away on a moment's notice without having to worry over childcare, and she would never be hiding a chocolate handprint behind her lapel. She would not reach into her bag for a pen and come out with a crayon, nor would there ever be a My Pretty Pony in the pocket of her dress coat. Not even a very small, unobtrusive yellow one.

The news flash that shouldn't have been a news flash is that most people are parents. On the loading dock behind the EFX Theatre at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, I interviewed an actress/musician who had just released her first solo CD. At the end of the interview she took my hand and led me to her dressing room saying, "I have to show you my son." In Los Angeles my interview with a record producer with more than two decades of success behind him was interrupted briefly while he made sure that his teenage daughter had sunscreen on before she left for the beach. At a concert in Chicago the bass player brought his four-year-old son out to play the drums. I began to suspect that many people had Velcro gym shoes hidden in their closets.

Not long afterward, I realized that just as many people kept them on a mat in plain view of the front door.

I happily tucked that knowledge into my pocket alongside the glow-in-the-dark plastic alien and took to the road again, this time secure in the knowledge that the glamorous people I met along the way would understand--and maybe even approve--when I reached for a business card and came out with a gap-toothed first grade portrait instead.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Why I Love Websites that Pay Writers Like Crap

What I really want to talk about is capitalizing on your strengths.  Based on my own, I really do love websites that pay writers like crap.  I'm not saying you should love them.  Most people who make their livings as writers either hate them or, at best, have a love/hate relationship with them:  they provide an easy way to get writing work, which is better than flipping burgers, but the pay is probably worse.  More established writers lament, not without justification, the way these sites deflate market rates.

The reason I love these sites is the flipside of the reason most writers hate them.  They're very lucrative for me.

See, I know my strengths as a writer, and two of them are that I'm very fast and that I don't agonize.  So while I agree in theory that it's an insult to offer a professional $8 or even $17 for a 500 word article, my hourly rate cranking out these articles often exceeds my standard freelancing rate of $50/hour.  

A friend recently suggested that I was somehow cheating the system; he believed that the agencies that used these sites intended to pay writers minimum wage or less.  Because they didn't know how fast I was, he felt that I was sort of tricking them into paying me more.  But I don't think those clients care how much I'm making an hour.  I think they want a decent-quality article for a few bucks, and that if I can provide that they don't care whether it took me two hours or two minutes to produce.  

I know there will be writers who think I should refrain from making $40-60/hour on these sites because they're not lucrative for most writers, and I'm not even going to address that here. We can talk about it in the comments or another post if you wish, but I've written quite a bit already about writing for cheap/free and why my views differ from conventional wisdom in the industry.  

What I'm getting at here is that what constitutes a "good gig" for one writer isn't necessarily what pays off for another, and that rather than thinking in terms of a black and white generally accepted hierarchy, anyone who wants to make a living as a writer should figure out what his or her strengths are and then find the market or the job or the niche that makes those skills most profitable.

For me, content production sites are easy work that isn't especially interesting or demanding, but offers flexibility and quick payment.  I wouldn't want to do that kind of writing all day every day, but a few hours a week provides a nice little supplement with very little investment.  

What's your secret strength?

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Self-Publishing Fiction - A Whole New Ballgame

Back in 2008, I wrote about self-publishing fiction, and my view was pretty negative. I wasn't a self-publishing naysayer by any stretch--in 2001 I made a significant profit on a self-published non-fiction book. At the time, though, it was pretty rare for a self-published book that didn't fit a specific niche with an easily-targeted market to generate a profit.

That hasn't changed.

Though self-publishing models are rapidly evolving and opportunities expanding, the bottom line is that most self-published books just don't sell a whole lot of copies. Some of the reasons for that include:
  • A wariness about quality that makes some readers hesitant to take a chance on a new-to-her author if the book is self-published;
  • Actual quality problems with a lot of self-published books--a self-published book isn't required to pass through an editor, and many don't.; and
  • Writing a good book is the easy part compared with marketing and promoting your book amidst a sea of other titles.
One big thing has changed, though: the risk. Back in 2008, print on demand options (POD) were newer and more limited. The cost per book was higher and depending on the company you used, you might have a minimum order. That meant, in most cases, shelling out cash to get started.

Depending on the service you use, that may still be required. But there are other options, options that don't require you to invest a dime up front. When it comes to print books, even those options have drawbacks: your cost per book will still require pricing that's outside the typical range of a large publisher. For example, if I were to publish a 200 page romance novel through CreateSpace, Amazon's self-publishing POD division, I'd have to price the book at about $5.50 just to break even on Amazon.com. $5.50 is in range for a book like that, but if you want to actually turn a profit, you'll have to mark it up even further--and that's only for sales on Amazon.com. In the expanded distribution network that makes your book more widely available, the break-even price is about $8.15--far too high for a book of that length and type to be competitive, even without building in a profit.

So why have I changed my mind about self-publishing fiction? It boils down to Kindle Direct Publishing, the Amazon option that allows you to upload a book directly to the Kindle store. That's it. If you're just publishing the e-book for Kindle, you don't even need an ISBN. No up front costs, a little bit of formatting, a quick upload, and your book is available in the Kindle store.

Of course, no one will see it, let alone buy it. But it's there, quickly and for free.

And then the games begin.

I uploaded my romance novel, Homecoming, to the Kindle store on January 9. The day I uploaded the novel, I posted about it on Facebook (where I have a relatively small number of friends--I don't use Facebook for marketing), but didn't do any other promotion. A handful of people, undoubtedly all friends and relatives, bought the book over the next few days. And then nothing.

From what I've read, it seems that's the end of the cycle for many self-published novels. More for the sake of experiment than to revive this book, I agreed to the 90-day Kindle exclusive and offered the book free for 24 hours.

In that 24 hours, 1352 people downloaded the book.

"So what?" you might be saying. "You didn't make any money on those books." That's true. But that was okay with me, for a couple of reasons. One was that I have another romance novel almost done, and I figured that giving one away for free would be a good way to build an audience for that one...and the next, and the next. The other was that I suspected--though I was only guessing--that making the book available for free would make it more visible even after the free download period ended. That turned out to be true: the book started appearing in "people who purchased this book also purchased" and such, and strangers started to buy it.

It was only a handful of strangers; it was still nothing to set the world on fire. But an interesting cycle started. Because sales of most books in the Kindle store are so low, it only took a handful of books each day to boost my sales ranking. Oh, I didn't make it into the top 100 or anything; the highest ranking I've reached thus far was about 16,000. But that's apparently high enough to once again increase visibility. And that increased visibility draws a couple of additional sales, which in turn bump my sales ranking.

Right now, with no more effort than I've just described, I'm making about $12/day on the book. I'm not quitting my day job yet. But the sale numbers are increasing slightly every day, and even at $12/day this book is on track to pull in a few hundred dollars a month. That's certainly enough to have made it worthwhile to invest the five hours or so it took me to get the book formatted, uploaded, my account created, and formulate my strategy. And that's before factoring in the impact on sales of the next book, which will be available mid-February.

More to come as I see whether the numbers taper off or continue to grow, and how adding books to the mix changes things.

Friday, January 13, 2012

What I've Learned about Kindle Publishing Thus Far

Over the past few days, I've been paying close attention to whatever data I could gather regarding sales and ranking. Though this is conjecture based on incomplete data, it appears to me that of the 478,000+ books currently available in the Kindle store, nearly 400,000 don't sell any copies on the average day and another 40,000+ sell about two copies.

On the first day Homecoming was listed, I reached the top 8% in terms of sales ranking after selling just five books.

In a sense, this isn't surprising. We know that most self-published books, even in these days of easy and inexpensive self-publishing, don't make money. We also know that most people who write books and put them out there haven't given much thought to marketing and don't really know how to promote their books (or don't have the time to invest). And finally, not every book is going to sell copies through this one outlet every day.

This cuts both ways for those considering self-publishing to Kindle. On the one hand, it appears that you're not really in competition with 478,000 other books--at least, not if you plan to do some strategic promotion of your book rather than simply relying on browsers finding it in the Kindle store. On the other, it means that the vast majority of books--particularly fiction books that fall into broad genres like Romance or SciFi--will never be seen by the typical shopper. Even the edge that should go to new publications is lost because sorting by publication date yields several pages of not-yet-released books...so even if your book was published two minutes ago, it's likely to be several pages deep in the listings.

It's early in the game, and I will be doing quite a bit more monitoring and playing with different variables, promotions, etc., but thus far my conclusion is very similar to the one I offered about self-publishing in hard copy back in 2008: it can be successful if you have a niche topic that people are searching for, if your audience is concentrated, if your name or brand is already known or if you have the time and skills (and possibly cash) necessary to conduct your own marketing campaign. If not, only one element of the analysis has changed: if you use a system like Kindle Direct Publishing, it won't cost you anything to test it out.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Self-Publishing Fiction Revisited

Back in 2008, I wrote a long post about self-publishing fiction, why I'd always been against it and why I was nonetheless considering it.

In the intervening years, I never did self-publish that novel (despite a very successful history of self-publishing non-fiction) and I also didn't make much of an effort to get it published through traditional channels.

Usually, ignoring things doesn't make them better, but in this case that turned out not to be true. For authors considering self-publishing, we're living in an entirely different world from the one we lived in four years ago. That's true for a number of reasons: the growing popularity of e-books, the increasing availability of POD arrangements that don't require a huge investment from the author up front and, most recently, Kindle Direct.

So, I decided last week to take that old romance novel and make it available on Kindle Direct. The process was unbelievably easy; I set out to get it done mid-afternoon yesterday and it's live on sale right now.

In the next couple of weeks, I'll be writing a lot more about the process of uploading, marketing, and whether or not I'd recommend this route for publishing fiction--right now it's too early to tell anything except that getting a book formatted and listed is a breeze.