Monday, December 23, 2013

Thomas Edison—Good Guy or Bad Guy?

Thomas Edison was a much more complex person than generally realized. The Wizard of Menlo Park was a character in the Steve Dancy Tale , The Return. In researching this iconic inventor, I learned that he was single-minded when he got something stuck in his head. This worked exceptionally well for solving a puzzle like finding a proper filament for his light bulb, but didn’t work so well in his personal relationships. His fixated behavior also didn’t enhance the business side of his groundbreaking discoveries. Edison made enemies. Sometimes, as with J. P. Morgan, he made enemies out of longtime friends and supporters.

Portraying real persons in fiction can be risky. The author has an obligation to reflect their character and actions honestly. After all, they are generally defenseless to an assault by the mighty pen. There is another problem with historical characters.  In fiction, if you deviate too much from the common image of an historical character, you can disrupt the flow of the story. As the reporter famously said in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Kindly Genius?
Or Intense Competitor?

In The Return, I tread carefully around Edsion’s image as a gentle genius, but I also dropped hints about his peculiar personal behavior and his ability to be just downright mean. I had a story to tell, and I included Edison in a Western to show that at the same time people struggled to settle a raw frontier, other pioneers in New York City were reinventing the world.

Nonfiction, of course, is completely different. In a history book, it is important to tell the unvarnished truth about people and events. When I was approached to assist with Glenn Beck’s new book, Miracles and Massacres, I accepted because Beck insisted that this book would tell it like it really was. It was a fun experience, and the final product is unique. It explains underplayed episodes of American history in an engaging story format.

So, was Thomas Edison a good guy or bad guy? Get the book and decide for yourself. As Joe Friday used to say, “Just the facts, ma’am, just the facts.”

Note: The Dragnet character Sargent Joe Friday never said, “Just the facts, ma’am, just the facts,” but as noted earlier, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

Sunday, December 22, 2013

Examiner.Com reviews The Return

I had a pleasant surprise today when I received notice of a new book review for the Steve Dancy Tales. Diane Scearce at reviewed The Return.

Scearce writes, “The reader can be assured The Return is as fast-paced and entertaining as the books leading up to Dancy’s latest adventure … The Return is a lively, old-fashioned style Western—clever, entertaining, and full of period references to give it authenticity. Best paces his stories so well readers will find it difficult to put down.”

western adventure novel

Friday, December 20, 2013

Panel Speaker at the Tucson Festival of Books

I've been invited to be a panelist at the 2014 Tucson Festival of Books, which will be held March 15 and 16. The Festival will be held on the campus of the University of Arizona.

I'm honored because this is the largest book festival in the Southwest. At the moment, I'll be on four panels, but the agenda won't be finalized until the first of the year. If you are in the vicinity—or not—you should plan on attending. 120,000 people attended last year. It's a fun event and a great opportunity to meet and hear your favorite authors. You can see who has already committed by visiting the Tucson Festival of Books website.

I hope to see you there.

James D. Best panalist

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A great first sentence does not a page-turner make

Every novelist wants a memorable first sentence. There are innumerable lists of great and dreadful first sentences. (#95 at the great link is a hoot.) Writers seem to always struggle for the perfection—searching for uniqueness, and then honing each word until it demands attention.

Perhaps Charles Dickens started this obsession with the beginning of A Tale of Two Cities, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

(One of my favorites is my score-settling first sentence in The Shut Mouth Society, “Amos Cummings cursed his editor.”)

James D. Best

Despite first sentence mythology, the greatest first sentence in history will not make a page-turner. Readers often blow by the first sentence with nary a thought. The most important aspect of a genuine page-turner is chapter endings. The end of a chapter is the natural point to put aside a book, so to deprive readers of sleep, each chapter needs to end with a teaser. A cliff-hanger is not necessary; in fact, a string of these can be tiresome.  All that is necessary is a hint of mystery, discovery of a fact not disclosed to the reader, a character startled by a revelation, an imminent threat by an antagonist, or anything else that prompts the reader to flip the page to see where the story will go next.

Here are a few chapter endings from The Shopkeeper.
I glanced at the shop door, closed to the outside. “Unfortunately, the world has a way of intruding.”
I didn’t make excuses but looked at each man sequentially. Finally, Richard said, “Okay, we’ll tell you everything we know.”
I took a deep breath and reminded myself that I could not win this battle by remaining indoors.

If you want to write a page-turner, focus on chapter endings. They should not be over the top. The idea is to entice, encourage, tempt, compel, or even bribe the reader to continue reading. If you need further examples, watch the early seasons of the television program 24. The writers were masters at bringing the viewer back for the next episode.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Hollywood at its Worst

Us Old Guys Don't Like Change
I rented Man of Steel last night. When I saw it in the theater, I was disappointed. Actually, more than disappointed. My first words to my wife were, “I hated that movie.” My wife felt differently, so I decided to give it a second chance. I still hate the film.

Man of Steel is a prime example of Hollywood’s penchant for CGI over storytelling. We don’t need characters, just eye-popping explosions with booming sound effects. I’m a fan of Amy Adams, but in this film she came across flat. And Perry White? What was that about? His role contributed nothing to the storyline. This darker Superman moves in the direction of an anti-hero, so perhaps that explains his complete lack of humor. The bad guys and gal were unmemorable, which is crucial to storytelling.

When director Zack Snyder met with his CGI geeks, I’ll bet the conversation went like this:
“We got some really terrific stuff,” the head-honcho geek says. “We put together thirty sequences of Superman and Zod crashing through buildings so you can pick the ones you like.” 
After watching the special effects, Snyder slaps the honcho guy on the back and says, “Nice work. We’ll use ‘em all.” 
“Okay, what about the fanciful creatures on Krypton? We’re over budget.” 
“Just slap something together. Maybe adjust some of that flying dragon stuff you used before. Just get something quick and cheap.”
The CGI was intended to appeal to the younger, hearing-impaired market, but some hacks also tried to wrench the plot around to appeal to women. One of the major themes of the saga is Lois Lane trying to discover the identity of Superman. But some Hollywood genius said women want romance, and they’re unwilling to wait for a sequel. Simple. We’ll discard that useless bit of tinsel and rewrite Lane as the strong champion and savior of Superman, and that way they can flirt from the gitgo.

I could be wrong, of course. Man of Steel may be a classic. A smart retooling of the saga for a modern worldwide audience. The movie did gross nearly $300 million in the United States alone. However, it cost somewhere around a quarter billion dollars. Even with foreign box office and home rentals, that does not qualify as a blockbuster.

I might be a curmudgeon, but I liked the original Superman better. I preferred the humor and light tone and creativity. The domestic gross was three times the budget, so they must have got something right.

Friday, December 13, 2013

How do you express civic pride when your namesake shot himself in his private parts?

I loved to ski, and my favorite mountain is Mammoth, California. When a friend owned a condo, I also skied the perfectly groomed slopes at Deer Valley. Deer Valley is skiing as life style, while Mammoth Mountain is skiing as sport. As I get older, my preference seems to be sliding toward lifestyle.

When I was talking about our winter ski plans with my brother-in-law, we got to talking about Lee Vining, a tiny village of about 200 hardy residents just north of Mammoth. The town is named after a miner who founded the encampment in 1852. By 1857, Vining was the town’s leading citizen, owning the sole sawmill that provided crucial timber for shafts and buildings.

Perhaps Mr. Wayne had not heard this story.
The town wasn’t named after Vining because of his pioneering spirit or philanthropic Last Will and Testament; it was named after him because he shot himself to death in nearby Aurora, Nevada. The story I heard was that he was drunk in a saloon and somehow the pistol tucked in his waistband went off. Everybody jumped because no one knew where the shot had come from or where it went. Vining just stood there a minute and then stumbled outside. There, he fell into the street and bled-out from a fatal wound to his most private parts.

Granted, this is a wretched story with a sad ending, but the silver lining is that in 1953, the town honored their fallen champion by naming the town after him. Actually, Lee Vining Creek and Lee Vining Canyon have served as the eastern gateway to Yosemite National Park for nearly a century.

I’d love to be remembered down through the ages with my name plastered on a town, mountain or post office, but Vining’s price seems steep. Maybe I’ll just try to win the lottery so a grateful UCLA will name a building after me. 

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Is This Re-gifting?

Amazon has an under-publicized program called Matchbook. By enrolling in this program, a publisher can offer a Kindle book at a steep discount to buyers of the print format. You can see the books in the Matchbook program here.

Think of the possibilities. You can buy books as Christmas presents and then download a Kindle copy for yourself. Kinda like two for one. This might be a great idea, but you may not want to buy your great aunt Sex Love Repeat by Alessandra Torre. Maybe Johnny Carson by Henry Bushkin would be more appropriate. Or perhaps she would prefer Tempest at Dawn, since all of my books are enrolled in the program at 99¢ for the second copy in Kindle format.

It's only two weeks until Christmas, so you may want to use my great idea to finish off your shopping list.

Monday, December 9, 2013

A Writing Cheat Sheet

Many seem to believe if they just got a proper set of instructions, they could be a good writer. Many famous writers like Mark Twain, George Orwell, and Elmore Leonard have even provided aspiring writers a list of rules.  Here is a Writing Tips PDF that collects rules from George Orwell, Edward Tufte, Strunk and White’s, and Robert Heinlein. I especially enjoyed Evil Metaphors and Phrases. These clichés are definitely cringe worthy, if I can be allowed to use yet another cliché.

(Here is my collection of writing advice.)

There's a problem with all of these lists. If hard rules were all that was necessary to become a great writer, then we’d be awash in breathtaking literature.  We have writing tips, rules, and guidelines aplenty, yet they don’t seem to convey the masters’ magic. What gives? All of the rules are good writing advice, but first there must be compelling content.

I used to golf until I realized I pretended to enjoy the game. Prior to making this discovery, I took a lesson with two friends from a teaching pro. We spent about two hours on the range and putting green. Lots and lots of tips and advice. My head was swimming. I couldn’t get my grip right for fear my backswing was too fast. 

The all-day lesson included a round of golf with the teaching pro. We presumed he would critique our play as we went along. No way. On the first tee, he told us he wouldn’t comment on our play until we were ensconced in the clubhouse for refreshments. He said we should forget everything he had told us. Forget it all. His advice was meant for the driving range and putting green. He reiterated that as we played this round, we were not to worry about grip, swing, or stance. We should concentrate on one thing and one thing only—keep our eye on the ball. Simple. Keep focused on the primary basic of all the basics. It was a fun round of golf with one of my lowest scores.

My point is that when you write a first draft, forget the rules. Focus solely on the story. Telling a great story is the real magic the masters have mastered. Don’t pull out the rules until you start the second draft, then use them ruthlessly on the third and fourth draft. Hone and polish your manuscript until it’s as bright and shiny as a new penny.  (Sorry, I couldn’t resist closing with an “Evil Metaphor.”)

Friday, December 6, 2013

Hero or villain?

Several book reviews have criticized Steve Dancy as barely better than the bad guys.


I believe vile villains make a story work, so I've invented some highly reprehensible characters. There has to be some tough-as-nails criminal around for Dancy to dispatch or he couldn't be a hero. Now, I also prefer flawed heroes, so Dancy is certainly not perfect. Besides being a tenderfoot, he can be a dunderhead when it comes to romance. He is especially ill equipped for the lawless frontier until he has survived a few nasty episodes.

So, what gives? I can think of only two reasons why people would think ill of Mr. Dancy. First, he is rich and prefers to buy his way out of trouble. It’s unusual for a western hero to be wealthy. Most fictional frontier gunmen own a saddle and a horse, and part of the mythology is that their lack of possessions makes them free. But surely readers don’t hold Dancy’s wealth against him. After all, television's Paladin lived pretty high on the hog, and he earned his piles of cash by less than reputable means. Dancy, on the other hand, came by his wealth honestlyhe inherited it.

Steve Dancy
Gunsmoke TV series Opening Sequence

So if it's not the money, it must be something else. I suppose it could be that Dancy has never had a one-on-one stand-up duel in the middle of the street. When faced with a gunfight, Dancy always searches for an edge. He wants the other fella off balance, unaware that he is about to be shot. Now, that’s closer to how it actually was in the Old West. I remember reading about a study that concluded that most gunfights during that era occurred inside of three feet and most often in a saloon. The epic one-on-one gunfight did occur, but it was not the norm. (The stand-up duel may have faded from popularity after our United States Vice President killed a former cabinet member on the shores of New Jersey.)

Wyatt Earp and Bat Masterson were two famous Westerners that lived long enough to die of old age. Both were cautious when it came to gun trouble. Earp liked to sneak in the back door of a saloon and coldcock a troublemaker from behind. The practice even got him fired once from the Dodge City force for “police brutality.” Masterson counseled that if you got in a gunfight, you should shoot your opponent center chest … and more than once. 

Steve Dancy has numerous gunfights in every book. It’s the nature of the genre. I like him and most of my readers like him as well, so I can’t let him get shot dead. After all, I need him for the next book.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Opening a story—First, grab their attention

It was a cold and windy night.

Laura Borealis has published a blog article on TheTen Worst Story Openings. As I've mentioned previously, I open each of the Steve Dancy Tales with a number that is actually the sequence number of that particular novel in the series. I don’t know if that’s good or bad, but it's merely the opening word. I normally jump into the middle of a conversation. My intent is to make the reader curious about what the characters are talking about.

As an example, here are the opening lines of Leadville. The idea is to convey that something is about to happen and it is vitally important.
“Days or weeks?” I asked.
“Days.” Jeff Sharp squinted at the telegram as if it hid additional information. Rubbing the back of his neck, he added, “He can’t make it. It’s a six-day ride.”
“If Captain McAllen says he’ll be here in three days, we’d better have a room ready for him.”
Here is an example from my latest work, Jenny’s Revenge. The idea here is to start the book with tension and tell loyal fans that Steve and Virginia are together.
I recoiled. “Six dollars per night?”
“Yes, sir.”
“May I see the suite?”
Virginia squeezed my arm. “It will be perfectly fine.”
I never took my eyes from the clerk. “I’m sure, but I’d like to see it just the same.”
Are these great openings? I don’t know. I only know that I like to get the story moving from the gitgo. How about Borealis’ terrible openings? I agree with them all … except every one of these rules can be violated on occasion. In Tempest at Dawn, I simultaneously violated #1, #2, and #6. The opening lines of my prologue are:
Anxiety woke me before dawn. Rolling to my side, I pulled the heavy quilt around my exposed ear. Was I ready? Had I prepared sufficiently? Would the old man reveal what I had come here to learn? He was stubborn and had frustrated many before me.
The prologue was my agent’s idea and I believe it worked for this novel. A few reviewers disagreed, but they appeared to object because they had heard the oft repeated rule to avoid prologues. Generally, this is sound advice, but prologues can perform a positive function if they don't violate other guidelines of good writing. For example, show instead of tell still applies.

I don’t remember violating any of the other seven“Worst Story Openings,” so there appears to be a lot of work ahead of me.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Late Christmas Shopping … No Worries

If you're behind in your Christmas shopping, I have a suggestion. Actually, it’s the same suggestion I make every year about this time … gives books for Christmas. You can shop from your dining room, match the taste of the recipient, and accommodate their preference for print, e-book, audio, or large print. You can even write a personal note on the flysheet that won’t get thrown out with the Christmas cards.

Everyone has special interests and most people enjoy a book that lets them delve into their hobby, sport, or another world while sitting in the den with their feet up. 

Match your recipient’s special interest with a unique book and your extra thought will show you cared. Here are a few book categories on Amazon.

And this is just a sampling. You can find books on nearly any subject. This doesn't mean you need to buy online. You can shop in the comfort of your home and then support your local independent bookstore by buying or ordering there. That would be a neat flip on people who rifle through a bookstore and surreptitiously buy their books with a smartphone.

A book is better than an electronic gadget that will be obsolete before the next holiday season rolls around. It’s safer than clothing that may not fit your loved one’s taste. A book can be displayed on an open shelf, as opposed to a kitchen appliance that might end up behind a cupboard door to be forgotten. Best of all, a book is simple to have shipped across the country or the border.

Of course I have a bias for books … especially if you choose to give one of my books. You can make the recipient happy and me happy. What could be better than that?

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Historical Fiction—Doing it Right

I write historical fiction. I chose this genre because I enjoy the research and a historical novel can last forever. My first book was a nonfiction computer technology book that was obsolete before Wiley could get it on bookshelves. After that experience, I vowed never again to write a book that had a three nanosecond shelf life.

(The Shut Mouth Society is a contemporary thriller, but it still has a strong historical theme around Abraham Lincoln.)

I enjoy history. History is the big, ongoing story about how we developed as a world and as a nation. History is a gazillion stories about people who lead, hindered, or stood around as stuff happened. Every one of them has potential to be an interesting story.

In nonfiction, events should be factually accurate. Historical fiction, on the other hand, can go places where nonfiction dare not tread, but it should stay true to the tenor of events. Although historical fiction may be free of the rigors of documentation, it remains subject to the precepts of storytelling. That means historical fiction, like all fiction, must have a beginning, middle, and end and remain interesting throughout. That’s always a tough assignment, but especially difficult when telling about real events.

A few months ago, Chuck Sambuchino wrote “How to Write Historical Fiction: 7 Tips on Accuracy and Authenticity.” I agree with all seven, but would add an eighth: don’t let research interfere with telling the story. This is not original with me, of course. It is usually stated: don’t let your research show. It’s tempting to drop a factoid into a storyline. Interesting tidbits can add spice and intrigue. They may do just that, but unless the information moves the story forward, it should be cut. The prime directive of storytelling is to never take the reader out of the story. A fascinating sidebar does exactly that. In fact, the more fascinating, the more likely it will distract the reader away from the story. Good writers should cut everything extraneous to the storyline.

Adhering to an accurate timeline can also ruin a story. Tempest at Dawn is my novelization of the Constitutional Convention. In my first draft, I presented speeches in their proper historical order. My book was as disjoined as the actual convention. When someone gave a speech, it took days for an opponent to craft a rebuttal. All kinds of other subjects were discussed in between. By remaining faithful to the actual sequence of events, the critical elements of pacing and tension were lost. I decided to write a historical novel about the convention to bring life to the characters and intrigue. Exactness was defeating my purpose.

There are many top quality history books on the Constitutional Convention, so I decided to tell a rousing story that was true but not completely accurate. In my first major rewrite, I adjusted the convention sequence so speeches were immediately followed by rebuttals. Since I only included the controversial or emotional speeches, the book suddenly took on energy. I also discover that the adjusted timeline made alternate opinions more easily understood.

I resolved the ethical question with a Historical Note at the end of the book that explained I had reordered speeches for clarity. A simple solution to keep the story moving.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Books that drove me mad

Kimberly Turner published a piece on Lit Reactor titled, “7 Horrifying Ailments Named After Literary Characters.” I believe she missed a few, but then Turner wrote about real ailments. Here are a few phobias I developed from reading books.

Marathon Man made me afraid of the dentist.

Ever since Psycho, I lock the bathroom door when I shower.

The Ghost and the Darkness made me fear tall grass.

2001: A Space Odyssey convinced me computers were out to get me.

Apollo 13 made me afraid of the number 13.

The Da Vinci Code kept me away from art museums.

The Shining made me avoid long, empty hallways.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Banned authors clobber the banners!

western fictionI was unaware that my favorite library once banned a book by my favorite author. In 1885, the Concord Free Public Library banned The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. You should never slight Mark Twain. He responded immediately to the ban by declaring:
“Apparently, the Concord library has condemned Huck as ‘trash and only suitable for the slums.’ This will sell us another twenty-five thousand copies for sure!”
Too bad Twain is not around to chasten those who still want to condemn Huck. Nowadays, they want to ban the book for using the n-word. Ironic, since his intent was to expose and ridicule racism.

Flavorwire has published 10 Famous Authors’ Funniest Responses to Their Books Being Banned. The moral of the story is to never attack someone who knows how to wield a keyboard. My favorite is Ray Bradbury’s reponse.
“… it is a mad world and it will get madder if we allow the minorities, be they dwarf or giant, orangutan or dolphin, nuclear-head or water-conversationalist, pro-computerologist or Neo-Luddite, simpleton or sage, to interfere with aesthetics. The real world is the playing ground for each and every group, to make or unmake laws. But the tip of the nose of my book or stories or poems is where their rights and my territorial imperatives begin, run and rule. If Mormons do not like my plays, let them write their own. If the Irish hate my Dublin stories, let them rent typewriters. If teachers and grammar school editors find my jawbreaker sentences shatter their mushmild teeth, let them eat stale cake dunked in weak tea of their own ungodly manufacture. ”

Libraries that are architectural wonders

Monday, November 18, 2013

11 Things Writers are Tired of Hearing

BuzzFeed listed 10 Things Writers are tired of hearing. Add cute animations and some acerbic replies and you have an interesting article. Here are the BuzzFeed’s 10 and my personal answers.

     1.     Do you make any money doing that?
             Yes, but I’m still struggling to make more than minimum wage.
     2.     When does your book come out?
             Darn … last year.
     3.     Oh, I have a great story for you…
             I only have enough time on this planet to write my stories.
     4.     You should write about me!
             I’m glad you haven’t noticed I already did.
     5.     Cool. You know, J.K. Rowling is a millionaire.
             Yeah, but she went to school at Hogwarts.
     6.     What’s your novel about?
             About 72,000 words.
     7.     You have your MFA? What’s that do?
             Actually, I have an MBA. It taught me how to make money so I could write.
     8.     Have you ever considered being a journalist?
             I write fiction, which means I lie for a living. Wait a minute …
     9.     But what’s your real job?
             Not writing. I enjoy it too much for it to feel like work.
   10.     Really? Nobody reads books anymore.
            You obviously don’t have grandchildren bugging you to buy them chapter books.

Okay, so here is my #11 thing I am tired of hearing: When will the next Steve Dancy book be out? 

Actually, I love to hear that, but I tend to over-promise, so I cringe when people ask a second and third time. It takes way too long to get a book from first draft to print-ready.  And if I haven’t worked on it for a few days, the query makes me feel guilty. 

Honest stories filled with dishonest characters.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

What makes a good TV series?

Bonanza, 4th Longest Running Series
What makes a good television series? You probably already guessed that I would say writing. Some might say exceptional characters, but writers define those characters. In fact, the characters are usually defined prior to casting. Actors audition to fill predefined roles. Actors? Without a quality script, even great actors phone it in.

Television writing is a team contact sport. A series can employ over a dozen writers and everyone knows you can’t manage writers. They always want to do something creative and a television series promises continuity. Writers are egotistical. Writers are inflexible. Most writers are slow and disdain deadlines. Television writers want celebrities to mouth their words, not the words of the writer sitting next to them. A room full of writers magnify these flaws exponentially.

Simpson's Writing Room
So again, what makes a good television series?  Not writing per se, but skillful management of a writing team. This is a tough job. The lead writer needs to define hard boundaries, yet encourage craftsmanship and creativity within those boundaries. 

Do you want to see a small example on how this is done? Read Writing for Bonanza: Seven Rules From 1968. Rule #7 summarizes the rules nicely: "What we do want is Western action and Western adventure, concerning a worthy and dramatic problem for the Cartwrights, and strong opponents. We want human drama built around a specific locale and specific period in the country’s history; simple, basic stories as seen through the eyes of Ben, Hoss, and Little Joe Cartwright, and Candy.”

After reading this article, it’s obvious that a key element of managing writers is clarity. Firm rules, stated firmly. Then let them have at it. 

Monday, November 11, 2013

How do you think Westerns have evolved in film?

Robert Duvall is one of my favorite Western actors. (Others on my list include John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, Tom Selleck, Gene Hackman, Sam Elliott, Steve McQueen, … oh never mind, there are too many.)

Duvall starred or had a major role in Lonesome Dove, Open Range, Broken Trail, True Grit, Joe Kidd, Lawman, and The Great Northfield, Minnesota Raid.

Recently in an interview, he was asked, “There have been some takes on the western genre recently, with Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained and The Lone Ranger. How do you think Westerns have evolved in film?”

He answered: “Well, if that's what it's evolved into, I don't know what to say (laughs). That's all I'll comment on at this point.”

‘Nuff said.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Yeah, this skit has it about right.

Many years ago, in what seems like a prior life, I wrote a nonfiction book on enterprise computing. At the time, I was a Chief Technology Officer for a Fortune 50 company. Since nonfiction is all about credentials, I had no trouble finding an agent and publisher. I was pretty happy. I had a Boston agent and Wiley & Sons as a publisher. This was going to be good.

I wanted to title my book Dinosaurs and Whippersnappers. I thought that would be a catchy title for a book about managing computer professionals. Unfortunately, my editor disagreed. In fact she disagreed with everything I wanted to write. She insisted that focus groups had determined that books with the word Digital in the title were in high demand. Against my wishes, she re-titled the book The Digital Organization. She also wanted the book to be about corporate America, insisting that I leverage my familiarity with a celebrity CEO. I also couldn't criticize any inane technology fad because Wiley had surely already published a book that claimed the craze would blow away all prior technology, reduce the corporate labor force by half, and eliminate childhood illness. 

None of this was good advice. By the time the book was eventually published, technologists were sick and tired of books with Digital in the title, my celebrity CEO had lost his luster, and all of my technology advice and references were woefully out of date. Business leaders, however, still had to manage computer professionals and my chapter on this subject kept the book alive in some MBA programs.

What brought all of this ancient history to mind? A hilarious skit by Mitchell and Webb. Way too close to my personal experience. Take a gander. 

The irony of all of this is that Wiley is still marketing The Digital Organization. Traditional publishing moves at a glacial pace, so this technology book was already obsolete by the time it hit bookshelves in 1997. Yet Wiley continues to offer a Kindle version for $49.95. Not many authors recommend against buying one of their own books, but I suggest you give this one a pass.

By the way, this experience taught me a lesson. Never write a book that has a shelf-life of six nanoseconds. This is a big reason why I write historical novels. They last forever. Even the contemporaneous books of Mark Twain, Jane Austen, Raymond Chandler, and Louisa May Alcott are now read as historical novels. I may not be of their caliber, but I sure want to write in their genre.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Publishing Trends Viewed from an Omaha Armchair

The digital revolution continues to roil publishing, so here are a few of my recent observations. I suspect at least three of these five are correct. It’s your job to figure out which three.
  1. Shift from books to e-books is leveling out
  2. Content becoming more profitable than e-reader devices
  3. Amazon continues to innovate ahead of traditional publishers
  4. Traditional publishers are adapting
  5. Indie-e-books are a saturated market

Can traditional publishers fight off the pesky indies?

Shift From books to e-books is leveling out

For the prior five years, my printed book sales as a percent of total sales have declined. Until this year. In 2013, the ratio of print, e-book, audio, and large print sales have all held steady with 2012. In fact, in recent months, I have seen a slight resurgence in printed books. I suspect this means that the e-book phenomenon has reached a mature state.

Content becoming more profitable than e-reader devices

Amazon appears to be shifting its e-book strategy, with increased emphasis on content rather than on selling Kindles. Device prices have dropped as technology-prone readers have for the most part already purchased Kindles. Now, the big money is in selling content and annual device upgrades. Amazon has taken a couple of subtle steps to nudge e-book prices up, or more precisely to inhibit low or zero priced content.

Amazon continues to innovate ahead of traditional publishers

Amazon has recently started two new programs. The Matchbook feature allows publishers to offer a steeply discounted Kindle version to print book purchasers. This is doubly clever. Matchbook encourages book purchases through Amazon rather than competitors who cannot offer a similar deal on the market-leading Kindle. Matchbook also adds revenue without cannibalizing either format, while at the same time furthering Kindle domination. The second program is called Kindle Countdown Deal, which allows publishers to program discounted e-books for a limited time. The trick here is that Amazon "counts down" the remaining discount days to build urgency into the buy decision. Both of these are attempts by Amazon to increase their control over e-book discounting.

                                         Traditional publishers are adapting

Even a battleship can eventually turn. Traditional publishers are flexing their promotional muscles and showing contract flexibility with their bestselling authors. Mid-list authors aren't getting any better treatment, but they seldom made money for traditional publishers anyway. Few care if they jump ship. It looks like it’s turning into a build your platform first world. By the end of the publishing digital revolution, it’s possible traditional publishers will be more profitable. 

Indie-e-books are a saturated market

First giving away books for free quit working, now it’s hard to sell e-books at 99¢. When there are tens of thousands of e-books published every month, it’s hard for any particular author to get noticed, despite whatever financial shenanigans are employed. As more and more indie-authors experience weak sales, a growing number will pursue other endeavors. This will reduce supply until we reach market equilibrium. In the meantime, indie competition will be a slugfest.

Monday, November 4, 2013

If you bought print copies of my books from Amazon, get a Kindle version for 99¢

Many people are unaware that Amazon has a program called Matchbook. If the publisher enrolls their books in the program, Amazon purchasers of print books can get an Kindle e-book version for a steep discount. The price for Matchbook must be between zero and $2.99. All of my books have been set at 99¢. This means if you have ever bought one of my print books on Amazon, you can now pick up a Kindle version for less than a dollar. 

Here is a link that will display all of your eligible titles.  

You'll see all the books you've purchased that are enrolled in this program, but I'm sure you'll jump on my books first. If not, maybe second? Anyway it's a good program, especially for people who have made many purchases through the years, but have only recently acquired a Kindle. 

Happy reading.

Friday, November 1, 2013

Catching Killers

January Magazine publishes a series titled “Five of a Kind," and one of the articles in the series is Bill Crider's, “Sleuths in Spurs” about Western mysteries.

He writes, “People are reading mysteries from just about any time period you can name. Except one. Nobody's reading mysteries set in America's Wild West.” Bummer. But not entirely true. My own Western mystery, Murder at Thumb Butte, has not knocked anyone off the NYT bestseller list, but sales are pleasingly steady. The audio version narrated by Jim Tedder and the large print edition have also sold well.

Crider not only summarizes “5 of a kind,” but goes on to lists many other Western mysteries. He forgot Murder at Thumb Butte, a traditional whodunit with a Western theme. To make up for his absentmindedness, here is a synopsis:

102 Amazon Reviews for 4.4 Stars
254 Goodreads Ratings for 4.1 Stars

In the spring of 1880, Steve Dancy travels to Prescott, Arizona to gain control of a remarkable invention. But on his first night in the territorial capital, his friend, Jeff Sharp is arrested for a midnight murder at Thumb Butte. Dancy launches a personal investigation to find the real murderer, only to discover the whole town wanted the victim dead. For help, he turns to another old friend and associate, Captain Joseph McAllen of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency.
Can Dancy discover the true killer before his friend stretches a rope on the courthouse square?

If you like mysteries, don’t forget about crime dramas on the American frontier. Crider’s article can guide you to almost 50 good detective yarns.

He concludes his article by writing, “Western mysteries are all around, and anyone who refuses to read them because they feature horses and Colt revolvers is missing some wonderful reading.”

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Guns and Horses: Getting it Right

Western writers are like other fiction writers in that they have super powers. They can bend time, compress space, and sweep away boring people, mundane tasks, and toilet needs.  Writers can magically have their characters do and say whatever’s necessary to incessantly move the story forward. Instead of wielding a wand, writers brandish a keyboard. No wonder so many writers are egotistical.

Hollywood films
The exception: John Wayne got guns right
There is one major difference between Western writers and other authorsthey need to get guns and horses right. Western enthusiasts will suspend disbelief in every other aspect of a written story, but not guns and horses. Odd, because Western movies enjoy forbearance that a novel does not. A film can run a horse forever, fire eight shots from a six shooter, or shoot with precision from horseback. Western readers, on the other hand, tend to be sticklers for accuracy about these two areas when they occur in print. That’s why I use gun and horse specialists to proof my Westerns.

What brought all this to mind was a Cracked article about “6 Stupid Gun Myths that Everyone Believes (Thanks to the movies).” The piece deals mostly with modern guns, but a few of the 6 myths relate to nineteenth century guns. For example, a dropped Colt Peacemaker could go off. That was not a myth in the olden days. Reputedly, it happened to Wyatt Earp when he sat in a saloon chair. That is why Westerners often kept the chamber under the hammer empty, making their pistol a five-shooter. 

“Shotguns Are Room-Clearing Murder Factories” applies equally to the Western double barreled shotgun. Marshals who held off a lynching party with a shotgun looked threatening, but could only kill two vigilantes before reaching for a pistol. As Wild Bill Hickok and Bat Masterson attested, the myth that "Deadly on the Gun Range = Deadly in Real Life” is apropos for gunfighters in the Wild West.

The article is a fun read, but unfortunately many of the movie clips have been disabled due to copyright issues. Too bad. The clips that work do a fine job of illustrating Hollywood gun myths.

Honest westerns filled with dishonest characters.

Monday, October 28, 2013

I'm not one of them!

Some people are visual. I'm not one of them. But I appreciate good design, even if I'm incapable of drawing a straight line with a ruler. In school, I took drawing and drafting. I received a dubious C in both. (I did better in English and history.)

Writing and design come together in book covers. Every book, even an e-book needs a cover. And people really do judge a book by its cover. (See Judging a Book by its cover.) I'm always interested in cover design because book covers are so key to book sales. Flavorwire has done a fun piece on 75 Vintage Dust Jackets of Classic Books. Here are a few examples that struck my untutored eye.

James D. Best

James D. Best

Not included in the Flavorwire article, but still one of my favorites.

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