Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend


When I attended the Tucson Festival of Books as a panelist, I also joined the audience in a number of other sessions. One of the best sessions was a panel discussion of the book, The Searchers: The Making of an American Legend. This is a fantastic book that every Western enthusiast should read.  It’s really three stories, perfectly interweaved. A factual description of the abduction of Cynthia Parker; A historical critique of the novel, The Searchers by LeMay Alan; and an intimate look at the John Ford classic film The Searchers, starring John Wayne. The theme used to unite the stories is how history turns into legend until myth is stronger than facts. A fascinating read on many levels.   


John Wayne

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

From Bestselling Indie-Novelist to Also-Ran

Western fiction action adventure suspense

I self-published The Shopkeeper in 2007. It seems like a lifetime ago, but in indie-publishing terms, it was an eon. I stumbled into indie-publishing by accident. At the time, I had a New York agent with a major firm, but he declined to represent my Western because he said the advance would be less than a decent down payment on a small Korean car. He explained that his 15% wouldn’t be worth his time.  Okay, I decided to self-publish the novel. The Shopkeeper found an instant audience and it was consistently in the Top 20 bestselling books in the Western genre, and at Christmas it often ranked as the #1 Western.

In 2007, most indie-books were nonfiction. In fact, self-published novels were so rare; I pretty much had the field to myself. For a couple of years I was the bestselling indie-novelist in America.

Alas, good things never last. Today I hear there are 30,000 indie-books published each and every month, with most of them being fiction. My lonely world suddenly became very crowded. What happened? The Kindle. It was also introduced in 2007, but it took a few years to get rolling. Those were my years, when print dominated genre fiction.

I would lament the good ol’ days, but I sell more books than I used to. It’s just I can no longer claim bestselling status. I’ve published six novels and two nonfiction books, four of them Steve Dancy Tales. As of this writing, all four of the Steve Dancy novels are ranked at less than 30,000, with the seven year old The Shopkeeper ranked at #75 in Kindle Westerns. My novels for the Barnes and Noble Nook are doing better than I expected as well. (The Shopkeeper is ranked at under 4,000 overall.) More important, actual sales are better than they have ever been.

The moral to the story is that progress isn’t necessarily scary or harmfuljust different. e-books brought indie-authors vast numbers of new readers. Yeah, the ubiquitous device also brought competition, but with an expanding market, there’s room for everyone. Besides, savvy readers weed out the charlatans that crank out a book after book that they price at less than half of a cup of coffee. It seems newbie indie-authors flame-out more frequently than want-to-be actors in Hollywood. There’s some great stuff out there in the indie world, but to compete in this crowded market requires study, effort, and a love of writing. Good novels don’t just happen. Authors write and rewrite them until readers want to flip the pages all the way to the end.

So here’s a piece of advice from an ol’ fogeyif you want to sell a lot of books … write a darn good one.

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Vacation over—Darn


I’ve returned home after an extended vacation in Pacific Beach, California. I made good progress on Jenny’s Revenge, but I keep forgetting how much work it is to bring a novel to the bookshelves. Lots more work to do. While I was gone, Steve did pretty well on his own.  After a couple day promotion for The Shopkeeper, August is turning out to be one of the best months ever for the Steve Dancy Tales. At one point, The Shopkeeper reached the 80th best selling e-book in the paid Amazon store. Pretty good for a 7 year old novel. Maybe I should go on vacation more often.

Now I have two big projects. Finish Jenny’s Revenge and do my 2013 income taxes. I was in the middle of a move last April with my records stored deep in a cave known only to the moving company. Taxes! I hate paperwork. I hate little pieces of paper. I think my phobia comes from my early years in management. I never went home until the In Box was empty. Paper, paper, paper. I thought man’s worst invention was the copier machine. It destroyed productivity. When carbon paper dictated the number of people to received memos, distribution was highly selective. Copiers were bad enough, but with email, at the tap of a key anyone can send copies to as many people as they wantat nearly the speed of light! I think I’m beginning to like texting.

Is there a point to this posting? Nope. Just grousing as I return from vacation to contemplate an disagreeable task. Soon, I’ll be wading through boxes of little pieces of paper so I can catch up with the rest of the world in almsgiving to the 16th Amendment. I’d rather be writing. 

Thursday, July 31, 2014

Working Vacation?

Great fiction
Yours Truly on an overhead wave.(Who're ya gonna believe, me or yer lyin' eyes.)
Writing and surfing and sun and good food and better friends. How could I have a better vacation? (Is it a vacation if you're already retired?) Jenny's Revenge is going well, the surfing so so. All the rest of it is perfect. The peacefulness of our getaway is about to expire. My daughter and her grandkids arrive tonight. Then it will be kinetic, noisy, and loads more fun. The energy level in our condo will leap 200%. Okay, that's a gross understatement. Anyway, I better get to writing, because starting tomorrow I'll only have snatches of time for the following week. Then we'll return home to Omaha, where I have vowed to focus on the next Steve Dancy Tale.
  
Great fiction
Three novels for $9.99



Monday, July 28, 2014

Ask the Author at Goodreads



Goodreads has added “Ask the Author” to its website. The new feature allows readers to ask questions of authors, and I have enabled Ask the Author on my Goodreads account. So ... if you have questions, fire away. I’ll answer anything except questions about the plot of Jenny’s Revenge. Jenny’s story remains secret for now.


Jenny's Revenge
Steve Dancy Tales
Honest Westerns ... filled with dishonest characters.


Friday, July 25, 2014

Publishing advice for a relative


A relative asked for advice on how to publish a math book he had written. I've included my answers below in the hope it might help other aspiring writers.


I would strongly suggest traditional publishing for a math book. You are correct that traditional publisher have access to the proper sales channels. In fact, academia seldom buys self-published books, so traditional publishing is your best, and possibly only, option.

James D. Best publishing advice
Many people say you must have an agent to traditionally publish. This is true for fiction and popular nonfiction, but not always required for specialized nonfiction. Some publishers accept non-agented manuscripts. My suggestion is to seek an agent and a publisher simultaneously. To find out how to do this, spend a few hours in a library with Jeff Herman's Guide to Book Publishers, Editors and Literary Agents. Read the articles about how to write query letters, book proposals, select an agent/publisher, etc.










Here are a couple of publishing clichés that became clichés because they are often true:
Fiction is published based on the author’s platform, and published nonfiction is based on the author's credentials. 
Nonfiction is sold with a book proposal; novels are sold as a complete manuscript.
This means you should stress your math credentials in your query letter and book proposal. Book proposal formats vary, but they all include a sample chapter, Table of Contents, a section on the author, and a section on the target market.

Don’t worry about a publisher stealing your concepts. Also, if the agent you query is listed in Herman’s book, you don’t need to be concerned about him or her stealing your ideas either. You will need to use your judgment with friends and colleagues.

All of this means you should not wait until your book is complete to your satisfaction. Hone one chapter until it is as good as you can make it and include the other sections required in a book proposal. Then send query letters out to publishers and agents simultaneously. Don’t send a proposal or manuscript unless you get a positive response from a query because it will just end up in a slush pile destined to be read by an intern … someday … perhaps. If you use this approach, you will have plenty of time to complete the entire book to your satisfaction. In fact, publishers assume nonfiction books are not complete at the time of contract signing. A standard clause is a book delivery schedule.

Which brings us to terms and conditions. The sad truth is that unless you are famous or have committed a high-profile felony, you have little influence over the T&Cs, which include royalties. This is true if you negotiate the contract yourself or have an agent negotiate it on your behalf. These contracts are boilerplate for the most part. The agent’s job is to secure the biggest advance possible. My agent also negotiated out a first-rights clause for a second book, but he was able to get little else. Ancillary rights are demanded by traditional publishers. Wiley even insisted on the theatrical rights to my computer management book. (I was thinking of a musical.)

The primary benefit of an agent is to get your manuscript moved to the top of the pile. Agents also know the interests of different publishers and can keep you out of cul-de-sacs. If you query publishers directly, use Herman’s book to select publishers that specialize in your subject or market. 

Nowadays, traditional publishers are paying higher royalties on e-books, but nowhere near the direct payments to independent authors. Traditional publishers pay an advance, so they are concerned first with earning back the advance. Indie-authors higher royalties reflect the fact that they receive no advance and pay publication costs.

Traditional publishers will take care of “cleaning up a book.” Wiley assigned an editor and 3 line editors to my book. They also insisted on control over the title and cover. It’s been many years since I published The Digital Organization, and things may have changed, but basically the publisher calls most of the shots.

As for my books, if you are interested in history, I recommend Tempest at Dawn. If you like action/thrillers, then I would recommend The Shopkeeper or The Shut Mouth Society.



historical fictionAction thriller suspense


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Westward Ho!

classic Western fiction
My granddaughter catching her first wave

Tonight, I head west. At least until I hit the Pacific Ocean. My plan is two weeks of surf, sun, and debauchery. Okay, the debauchery part was hyperbole. At my age, an hour in the water exhausts me. I’ve come to associate an afternoon sea breeze with naps. Surfline says the waves are tiny, but the weather is warm, the winds calm, and the surf glassy. I can’t wait to get my TSA/airplane ordeal completed and slide my key into the door lock of my condo. Tomorrow morning I'll take a walk to the bakery for twice-baked almond croissants and check out the waves from my balcony as I eat breakfast and sip coffee.

Since I’ll also be working on Jenny’s Revenge, I may get into some debauchery after all. Jenny’s shenanigans have surprised me, and I don’t think she is up to any good. I can’t wait to see what she’s up to next. Whatever it is, it won’t be good for Steve or Virginia.


Tuesday, July 15, 2014

A Train to Nowhere

This past weekend we spent a mini-vacation in Breckinridge with our daughter’s family. The Breckinridge Summer Fun Park thrilled the grandkids, but made my back sore. After a half dozen runs on the Gold Runner Coaster and a few races down the Alpine SuperSlide, this ol’ gent was ready for something more sedate.




I had never taken the two and a half hour ride on the Leadville Colorado & Southern Railroad because the train came along after my Steve Dancy Tales. In Leadville, the second in the Steve Dancy series, trains had not yet arrived in the ore rich town. A sub-plot in the book involved the Santa Fe and Denver & Rio Grande competition to lay the first narrow gauge track into Leadville. This feud between the two railroad companies had started years earlier in New Mexico. In The Return, Steve and his friends comfortably ride to Leadville on the winning Denver & Rio Grande line.

The Return, A Steve Dancy Tale by James D. Best
Leadville Colorado & Southern Railroad

Leadville by James D. Best
Denver & Rio Grande


The predecessor to the standard gauge Leadville Colorado & Southern train came along about a decade later. The tourist attraction travels for about seventy-five minutes, stops at an authentic water tower, and then reverses direction. I knew the train didn't use restored period cars, so I wasn't expecting an authentic frontier experience. Beyond resting my back from being jerked hinter and yon, I enjoyed the ride and appreciated seats which had been configured for comfortable sightseeing. 

The kids enjoyed the train ride as well, but were happy to get back to the Coaster and SuperSlide. It made me wonder what a frontiersman would think of our modern playthings … or the cost. The mines may have played out, but there is still gold in them thar hills. 

Honest westerns ... filled with dishonest characters.


Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Did Abraham Lincoln say “That’s cool!”

He did. On the evening of February 27, 1860, Lincoln gave a famous speech at Cooper Union. This was a political speech made before New York City powerbrokers. The purpose was to help secure his nomination to run for president. Here's a snippet.

“We hear that you will not abide the election of a Republican president! In that event, you say you will destroy the Union; and then, you say, the great crime of having destroyed it will be upon us! That is cool. A highwayman holds a pistol to my ear, and mutters through his teeth, ‘Stand and deliver, or I shall kill you and then you will be a murderer!”


I used this speech in a prologue for The Shut Mouth Society. Many readers have questioned whether Lincoln actually used modern slang. Luckily, there’s documentation aplenty.

This phrase brings up a point about writing historical fiction. I have an exceptional editor who highlights words or phrases not appropriate to my time period. (For example, she informed me that Winston Churchill invented the word underbelly.) But “That’s cool” taught me something additional: historical writers shouldn't use phrases readers believe are modern, even if they're historically accurate. When a word or phrase strikes the reader as incongruous, it takes them out of the story--a mortal sin for fiction writers. So my advice is to rephrase anything that even appears unfit the period of your story.

mystery thriller suspense


There are exceptions, of course. If I were writing The Shut Mouth Society today, I would include Lincoln’s use of the ubiquitously cool slang phrase. Why? Because it revealed one of his personality characteristics and dialogue should always be character revealing.








Just for fun, here's some old, old slang that sounds modern.
Trip the light fantastic – 1632
High jinks – 17th century
In the dumps – 1534
Elbow grease – 17th century
Nose out of joint – 1581
Plain as the nose on your face – Shakespeare
Sing a different tune – 1390
Play fast and loose – 16th century cheating game
Give short shrift – Shakespeare
Fish out of water – 1380
Hocus-pocus –1656
Hair of the dog that bit me – 1546
Shirt off your back  - Chaucer
Cutting off your nose to spite your face – 1658
Lift oneself by the bootstraps – Shakespeare
Without rhyme or reason – 16th century
Proud as hell – 1711
Break the ice – 18th century or older
Add insult to injury – 1st century
Bite the dust – Homer
Mountain out of a molehill – 1570
In one ear and out the other – 1583
Hem and haw – 1580
Win one’s spurs – 1425
Other fish to fry – 1712
Unable to see the woods for the trees – 1546
By hook or by crook  – 12th century
Lock the barn after the horse is stolen – 1390
Donnybrook -  1204, riotous fair in city of same name
Philadelphia lawyer – 1735


Now, that's cool!