The Nameless Horror

AYLB Review From @dotcomaphobe

The charming, sexy Jon Harrell reviews ALL YOU LEAVE BEHIND thusly:

I just read a new novella by this fella named Sean Cregan. I have to admit, I really enjoyed it. The Levels is an excellent set piece. Having not yet read the novel by the same name, I found this very easy to get into. I’ll be posting a review on Amazon forthwith.

What I really enjoyed about it, though, is the writing. The author’s previous novels (the Alex Rourke stories) were good, yes. The plot was fast-paced and the third act was always thrilling (and fun) in each of those novels, but reading this latest work shows just how far the author has come in writing both dialogue and action. For starters, I believe Cregan is English, but I didn’t notice a single extraneous “u” in the entire piece. But to be a Brit, it must be damned difficult to conceive of American conversational tones, and Cregan does an admirable job. The action sequences were tight and sharp, avoiding that trap of over-analyzing every angle-of-fire blast and feint-parry-thrust. I didn’t have to wade through the character’s plan of “how the fight would go down” and then have to watch it as well. The action was really more reaction; I saw instinct instead of rote script.

Overall, a very enjoyable read. The afterword was great as well; I was really interested in hearing his take on why he chose the same set piece for this one.

Oh, and it comes with the first three chapters of Murder Park, the next Cregan novel (slated for release in January 2012, if I’m not mistaken).

In the interests of disclosure, I should point out that Jon, as well as being charming and sexy, is one of the two friends who provided the main character’s name, so he’s not an unknown reader, and he’s one of those who responded with a “Yes please!” when I did a shout out on Twitter to see who’d want a freebie reviewy copy of AYLB. However, it’s a genuine review, and he liked it enough to then buy a copy, bless him.

Of particular interest to me is how the story stands up when you’ve not read THE LEVELS, since it shares the setting (apparently, perfectly well), and how good my Americanisation is these days since I made the effort to spell the whole thing in US English (unlike “Americanisation”) as well as, obviously, getting the turns of phrase used right (apparently, perfectly well too. Hooray!).

(Talk of extraneous “u”s, incidentally, is a long-running in-joke about us Brits on the gaming board where he posted this, where I know him from; the Amazoun variant misses that ouut.)

I’m not going to habitually post everything everyone says about AYLB, but this is the opening bout of feedback and it seemed worth mentioning. And, y’know, shout out from a mate, all that.

This Is Plot Country

Once again, for what feels like the hundredth time this year, I am plotting out a book. Notebooks have been sullied with hideous, cryptic scrawl. Post-it notes have been assembled and plastered to the dining room wall like so much neon pink bat guano.

(Not that I’m suggesting you normally plaster your dining room walls with bat guano. I certainly don’t and I’ll hurl anyone who claims otherwise to the flock of specially trained housebats I definitely don’t have.)

I can’t plot for shit. Relatively speaking, it’s a weak point of mine. I get halfway through writing a book and only then realise I’ve actually missed the whole point of the damn story and I can’t remember what it was I was intending to do with most of what I have got.

I do it in speech, too.

In my later years, I’ve tended to plan more, because this means I make all my stupid plotting errors early on, before I’ve actually gotten 50,000 words into a novel. It saves a lot of time, but it does involve building up massive layers of post-it notes all over the walls. My record for a single book is a shade under 100, starting from the initial who/where notes, to the answers to the string of “why” and “how” and “what would be awesome here?” questions I ask myself as I go along.

Anyway, so it begins.

ALL YOU LEAVE BEHIND Out, New Direct Store Site, & No Twitter Spam

The time is upon us, the green moon of Galan is eclipsed*, and the first, brand spankingly new Cregan novella, ALL YOU LEAVE BEHIND, is out and available at Amazon (linkage below). Not only that, it’s also available, along with the rest, directly from me at the new store/bibliography page as a read-on-anything bundle for all devices short of an abacus.

So what’s the book? Let’s quote myself, because damn if I don’t just love the sound of my own voice.

All You Leave Behind Chase is a runner, a courier working the lawless housing project known as the Levels. Part smuggler, part delivery guy, he’s never failed to deliver a package in the five years he’s been working. Good thing too: he’s got a wife, two young kids, and his job is the closest you can get to regular, steady work in a place like this. It’s a lot to lose.

And that’s exactly what he risks when one of his packages starts to ring. Forced to open it or continue drawing attention to himself, he finds a cell phone, a gun, and the remains of a bomb inside. The stranger on the other end of the line tells him it was going to go off when he delivered it. He’d have been killed, his family left to fend for themselves, just to take out the recipient.

But now, the stranger says, he’s been saved, and he’s got a weapon, and he can set everything to rights. If he wants to.

Who’s the stranger? Who was willing to kill Chase and why? And how does he know any of what he’s been told is true? All questions Chase will need to answer, and fast, if he’s not to lose everything he holds dear.

ALL YOU LEAVE BEHIND is just over 20,000 words long and as well as one of my terribly classy afterword ramblings, also includes an exclusive rough cut three-chapter preview of MURDER PARK. Because I’m a cock-end, I’m planning on running three-chapter previews of MP in each novella as and when they’re completed, but with the next three chapters each time. Oh ho ho.

Edit to add: It’s also not a ‘series’ book, either. Come to that, THE LEVELS and THE RAZOR GATE don’t follow one another as such; they just happen to be set in the same city. There’s no need to have read any of them before reading any of the others. Ever.

You can buy ALL YOU LEAVE BEHIND direct from me as the aforementioned read-on-anything bundle of Kindle, ePub and PDF if you want to avoid the ‘Big A’ and its evils, or from Amazon UK/Amazon US if you want to go all corporate. Both cases, $2.99 or your local equivalent thereof. If you’ve read my witterings on the subject then you’ll know I hope it’s worth it, and dread that it’s not.

You can read the first quarter for free if you want a taste.

I’m aware that Kindle releases mean that the author in question may have a tendency to repeatedly spam their Twitter feed and every other goddamn place on an hourly or daily basis. I won’t be doing this. If anything that actually seems newsworthy - “Holy shit! 1,000 copies in the first hour??” - happens, well, that’s one thing. But you won’t, I promise, be seeing endless “Hey! Buy my book!” shit coming from me over the next couple of weeks. By all means RT this announcement, send all your friends here, do whatever, because you’re lovely and no doubt highly attractive people, but I’m not going to be filling the Twitternet with desperate pleas for attention.

Not book-related ones, anyway.

*Bonus points if you know the movie that quote comes from. Along with “RAMMING speed!”

Brief Further: Ebooks, Mosby, Linkage

Steve Mosby says some things about what I posted yesterday. (It’s also worth chasing in his/my Twitter feed for the multi-way conversation we had with Al Guthrie and Simon Logan.) His point that the attractiveness of the 99c price (Al cites his own hoofing great (and as anyone who’s read any of Al’s stuff knows, richly deserved) sales figures to give you an illustration of how well it works when it works) only exists because it’s in comparison to more expensive books. As soon as everyone’s at 99c, there is no advantage.

The ebook market is a gold rush at the moment, and like any gold rush, most of us will chase it and come away with nothing while a few will become very successful indeed. Those of us who chase it too late will get nothing because the territory has been prospected out.

As I said while chatting (well, tweeting) to Al, I suspect that like any bubble phenomenon where you’re not certain you’ll be one of the lucky few, the only way to win is not to play. In chasing the hope of glittering sales and a slot in the top 100 of whatever, it’s easy to forget that what we do should have some inherent value.

It doesn’t matter if I could sell 500,000 copies if I only priced them at 10 cents a throw; my work, I hope, is worth more than that. I’ll happily give stuff away for nothing, knowing that’s what I’m doing, and knowing that everyone else knows that. But deliberately devaluing the only thing I create, that I put massive amounts of effort into creating, and tacitly admitting that it’s basically worthless? I’d be risking shitting on my future - and no one I’ve heard expects the magic 99c boom to last forever - for immediate gain in the present. I understand the lure of Big Numbers, and I know the arguments for future readership and visibility, but I still pretty much don’t get it.

tl;dr version (from memory, details and exact tale sketchy):

Old story about a woman talking to Pablo Picasso over lunch and asking him to sketch something on a napkin. He whizzes something off and she asks to keep it. “That’ll be $20,000,” he says.

"But it only took you thirty seconds!" she says.

"Ah yes, but it took me twenty years to only take thirty seconds."

Price, Insanity And The Race To The Bottom

I’ve been terribly quiet recently (working and/or installing a shower), but here’s my two cents (which at 35% means only 0.7 cents of it are mine, but hey) on ebooks, value and pricing. Specifically as it applies to you and I, knocking our shit out for people to buy via Kindle and Nook and LCD equipped penguin and whatever the kids read on these days. If you’re not, incidentally, into economics or maths, this post is probably going to be very dull. And if you find discussion of money vulgar, you’re going to hate this. Sorry.

When I release the first Cregan novella into the wild next week or thereabouts, I’ll be doing so at the $2.99 mark. Why so?

  1. Three bucks is about the price of a single issue comic. And while a comic has to pay artist, writer, letterer (maybe), inker and colourer (maybe), and editor, and I don’t, the amount of storytelling space in a 24-ish pages of comic is a fair bit smaller than that of a 20,000 word novella. The overall amount of contributed work feels like the same (as, I should say, a reader of comics; fucked if I know how much work actually goes into them). That’s my real-world peg mark, and it seems reasonable to me, but it’s by far not the most important thing. I mention it first to clear it out of the way.

  2. I’m aware that you may have more flex going through a 3rd party (Smashwords et al.), but if you go direct to Amazon, you have a fixed bottom price of 99 cents. Anything you start off down at that end has nowhere else to go. You give up all downward wriggle room. This seems crazy.

  3. Most importantly, I’d certainly say the thing is worth three bucks. It’s a decent amount of reading entertainment, but it’s not a full day’s eyeballing. By comparison, in the Starbucks in which I’m writing this, a tall (Starbucks-speak for their smallest listed size; I believe such a thing as a “short” exists, but you have to ask for it) latte will cost you £2.15. That’s the exact exchange rate price of that $2.99 book.

    The same price for both a mass-produced commodity consumed by the tonne in minutes, and a thing I hand-carved over a period of a couple of months of blood, sweat and tears. Tell me I’m wildly over-pricing myself here. Go on. I’ll wait. No? The thing’s sure as fuck worth more than a dollar.

Someone - and I apologise for losing the link - said a few months ago that writers trying to make cash self publishing (and this is self-publishing; the whole “indie” thing really ticks me off) need to stop thinking first in terms of sales numbers, and start thinking first in terms of income. The two, obviously, are connected, but there’s a tendency to factor things the other way round and think “how can I hit the #1 mark on the Kindle charts?”

Maths time. I can write - in theory, at least - six of these a year. The rough equivalent of my Headline deal in terms of annual income after my agent’s percentage is ~£9k (about $13.5k in your crazy colonial moon currency). This is not, obviously, a fortune (though there are foreign rights etc. on top of that), but in part because my outgoings are very low, and in part because Future Wife also works, this is a tight but liveable wage.

At ~£1.50 income per $2.99 book sold (70% of £2.15), I would need to sell 6,000 per year to earn £9k. Six books a year, that’s 1,000 copies, conveniently fitting the “you only need 1,000 true fans to earn a living” model I’ve seen touted in other media. But because that’s six books a year, every year (the reality of which is highly optimistic since I’ll be working on actual writing for print and having a new baby as well, but hey, shut up), each, in theory, needs to sell 1,000 across its entire marketable life, in total. Since we can’t budget for an entire life in something that will be around forever, let’s go very cautious and say “over three years”. That’s 333 of each book per year and I get to eat and pay the bills. Not an unrealistic aim, even if that number’s likely to be somewhat optimistic in reality, at least to start with.

OK. So. Everyone knows people sell more at 99 cents (about £0.71 here). It’s a Widely Believed Fact! And true, I don’t doubt. Here are my problems with this budget pricing, and they’re big ones.

  1. At Amazon rates, you have to sell seven times as many copies to make the same income. The chances of that actually happening are laughably, laughably small. Hilariously so.

  2. Even if you’re with some wonderful third party (that you’ve had to pay up front for the privilege, but hey, let’s not get into that) who give you 70% or 80% or even 100% of your cover price, unless what you’re selling is extremely short (I put HBJC up at that because it’s a short story), you are massively devaluing your own work, and especially if what you’re flogging is an 80k word novel. You’re basically tossing it straight into the bargain bin because no one would want it otherwise. “Buy this, it’s cheap!” rather than “Buy this, it’s good!”

    You’re pandering to a dangerous kind of hysteria that sees the stuff that we produce as a commodity with almost no inherent value. Any kind of industry that drives its prices down as close to zero as it can get, and which has no other revenue stream at all, dies on its arse. How long do you think superstores would stay in business if all they had were their loss leaders on the shelves?

  3. But wait, you cry. What about building readership? Eh? Eh? Mr Fucking Clever Clogs, you forgot that. People will take a punt on an ultra-cheap book, and then they’ll come back for the others. Bullshit, I say. What? Three bucks is too much of a risk? For what section of the book-reading public? I’ll reiterate: this is the same as the cost of a cup of coffee. And of so many of those cheap smartphone apps you and I purchase like candy. Neither of which are exactly boutique luxuries forcing their sellers into penury and an early grave because the majority of people can’t afford to fritter away their hard-earned on them.

    OK. You’ll pick up more sales. You will. But I take exception to the idea that this will give you readership, because it’s a basically cast-iron solid fact that the more they buy, the less people actually get round to reading everything they have. Hell, it’s hard enough with paperbacks. The number one gripe regular ebook buyers I know have is that they pick up stuff on a whim - because it’s very, very easy, especially if you own one of the actual devices and not just the software (as far as I know, anyway; I just have the software, but everyone I know who’s bought a Kindle or other ereader has splurged on stuff, wowed by the ease of it all) - and end up with a TBR list a mile long that they will never, ever get through because there will always be stuff that they do know and do want to read coming out.

    Hell, I read on my phone (I do a lot of waiting at bus stops these days, and it’s a device I have on me all the time), and I’ve bought three books (FWIW, two of Simon Logan’s collections and Nick Mamatas’s ‘Move Under Ground’) and I have a sample of fourth by a mate. I’ve had them for a couple of months at least, and I have managed to read one of these and start on a second. Someone going nuts on 99 cent ebooks? They’ll have a huge stack of the things, and the chances of them actually reading yours, out of those they do get round to, are small.

    You will not build a readership because no one reads that fast, except voracious book lovers who you probably wouldn’t have to sell yourself to at bargain bucket prices in order to entice. The occasional promotion might help, but fuck it, you might as well give a load of the things away rather than whore yourself out at the bum end of the market in the hope that more people will like you for it.

We’re not, ultimately, a production line operation. We are individual craftspeople, producing bespoke and highly individualised items. Even the closest we get to factory-produced goods - the “co-written” Pattersons of this world - are more akin to a small workshop than a mechanised industrial operation. We should take pride and have confidence in what we do. 99 cents for a book you’ve poured heart and soul into? Jesus, have some self respect. You’re good people, y’know.

The value of what we produce, and the effort we put into it, should be mirrored in the prices we charge. (And yes, I’m aware that most of the shit clogging Amazon’s KDP offerings isn’t worth 9 cents let alone 99, but let’s stick to the good stuff here.)

Taking part in the race to the bottom is an exercise in cannibalising our own industry to the benefit of no one. Apart from giants like Amazon, who happily claim 65 cents from every unread ebook they’ve done nothing to produce and have to do almost nothing to stock, even as those who actually put the work in on them go to the wall.

Don’t get sucked in.

Digression: I am aware that print publishing has batshit economics (sale or return? And then paying the stores who can give your goods back to put them out on display? What the ever-living fuck? Selling stuff at a loss to supermarkets in the chase for numbers? Bringing out the overpriced chunky version before you’ve enticed people in with the reasonably-priced regular version? Really?). And I’m also aware that there have been some exceedingly strange pricing decisions made by publishers with their ebooks, though these are getting fewer.

In print, I would, for the record, bring out the paperback and ebook first - and they’re reasonably priced for what they are and what they give you - with the ebook being a shade under the cost of the paperback (knock the extra material and labour costs off, and there’s your price).

I would stop offering stuff on sale or return, because it’s insane (and I hope those terms don’t get offered to warehouse operations like Amazon and the Book Depository, because it makes even less sense there).

I would copy the DVD business and bring out your hardback, expensive, boxed, lovely special edition six months after the paperback, filled with as much extra side material and bonus goodies as the author and the publisher can come up with, and I would price it as a collectors’ item. Only the real completist fans need buy such things anyway.

And I would think about doing package digital editions of them too - the ebook, the extras, video interviews, images, whatever you can cram into them. So long as doing so didn’t devalue the collector-ness of your hardcopy special editions.

Then I would ride away into the sunset, having saved publishing from itself.

On a dinosaur.