Scouting for talent with Kindle

In another effort to challenge traditional publishers, Amazon has announced a program to test and market e-books before they’re published.

Called Kindle Scout, the program allows authors to place their unpublished work before a focus group of readers. If they like your book, Amazon may offer an advance and royalties through a five-year contract.

It’s crowd-sourcing for the unpublished author. And the key word here is unpublished. Only e-books that have not seen publication in any form except blog posts are eligible for Kindle Scout.

Authors thinking about selling their e-books through competing channels such as iBooks and Barnes & Noble’s NOOK should read the fine print. Kindle Press acquires worldwide publication rights for e-book and audio formats in all languages. The e-book is automatically enrolled in Kindle Unlimited and the Kindle Owners’ Lending Library.

On the plus side, giving away a previously unpublished e-book enrolls the author in Amazon’s marketing program.

Amazon is looking for e-books in these categories: Romance, Mystery & Thriller, Science Fiction & Fantasy, and Literature & Fiction. Action & Adventure, Contemporary Fiction, and Historical Fiction will be accepted within the Literature & Fiction category. To apply for the program, the author must be 18 or older with a valid U.S. bank account and a U.S. Social Security number or tax identification number.

Should you jump in? Only with eyes open. You can review the Kindle Scout guidelines here.

Kindle Scout

Stonewalled . . . and a glimmer of hope

When I pitched a review of Peak Season to Bill Kline, he respectfully declined. Lehigh Valley Business, the journal in Bethlehem (Pennsylvania) he edits, doesn’t deal in fiction. But if I could find an except from the novel with a commercial theme, he’d run it.

And he did. (Always a stickler for readability, the subheads are his.) You can view the excerpt as a PDF and, in three weeks, the original online.

Bill and I go back. I worked with him when he served as copy chief of the Pocono Record in Stroudsburg, Pa. He created the paper’s first Sunday edition and made it a showcase. His content and design pushed the conservative newspaper into the modern world. During the early 2000, we both worked in the Valley. He served as a sports and Sunday editor at Allentown’s Morning Call  while I worked in public relations for an agency in Bethlehem.

LVB and I also go back. I wrote numerous articles for the publication when it was known as the Eastern Pennsylvania Business Journal. It’s now a diverse and colorful journal, online and off, led by an editor who isn’t afraid to stretch.

 

Peak Season excerpt LVB 8-17-15

For indie authors, publish or perish

There’s a saying in the academic world—publish or perish. It means that if you want a tenured position, you must publish your research, or your dream of advancement will perish.

Writers who want to share their work face the same dilemma.

Years ago, people wrote books and sent them to editors who hired others to read through the pile of manuscripts in the hope of finding the next Updike or Jong. When editors ceded that job to agents, they followed the same procedure, acting as editorial screens to deliver works with literary or commercial potential. It was a respectable system.

Self-publishing wasn’t. People viewed indie authors with the same credibility afforded Donald Trump. Even the name of printers who handled the work, vanity presses, spoke volumes about DIY status. And for good reason. If a professional, an agent or editor, didn’t vet your work, you could bet the writing would look as amateurish as the cover design.

Joanna PennToday, indie publishing—uploading your work to e-book brokers and print-on-demand houses like Smashwords and Amazon—has gained a small measure of respect. Some proponents, Joanna Penn of the Creative Penn among them, count the followers of their blogs and podcasts in the thousands. Some writers like Bob Mayer, the former Green Beret and Area 51 series author, sell tens of thousands of units.

Self-publishing is not that onerous, they say. Gone are the days of loading up the station wagon with cartons of books and flogging them to libraries and stores. POD services print and deliver books as readers order them. Yes, with indie publishing, you won’t get the marketing, distribution or stamp of credibility offered by a traditional publisher. But if you’ve queried hundreds of agents with no takers, you need another option.

swiftwaterbigThrough the end of the eighties, that wasn’t necessary. When I last pitched a novel, I landed a series of agents who did the heavy lifting. A decade later, when I wrote my first non-fiction book, the Spirit of Swiftwater, I took the manuscript directly to the publisher, an academic press that wanted to start a business imprint. For the second book, the publisher called me.

Those were the days.

For Peak Season, my debut crime-fiction novel, I queried seventy-six agents and editors. Nada. For Mr. Mayhem, the first of the Brinker novels, due out this fall, I queried seventy-five. Zip. So I declared independence.

That proved simple but not easy.

Publishing is no longer a question of DIY vs. traditional. Today we choose between sharing our work and giving up. That means authors must not only learn how to write, we need to develop skills in editing, proofing, design, social media, marketing and distribution. Add persistence to the mix and we have the ingredients for a new system that, like the old, offers satisfaction but doesn’t guarantee success.

From a gatekeepers’ perspective, the traditional system makes sense. In this name-brand culture, editors and agents look for a sure thing. Paid on commission, agents don’t need to take a chance on the unknown. New authors present too much risk with too little guarantee of reward.

My advice to emerging writers is to ignore the stigma of indie publishing. If you want someone to take a chance on your work, there’s only one place to look . . . in the mirror.

Brave new (digital) world

Everything old is new again . . . thanks to a little help from my friends.

My new website launched today. In the words of Crosby, Stills and Nash, it was a long time coming.

Checking the Internet Archive, affectionately known as the Wayback Machine, my first website went live in 2002, back in the day of dialup service. It was designed by Tom Thornton, a true artist and a gentleman if ever there was one.

The next iteration, the version we just replaced, went online in 2009 with an update a few years ago by a blessing of a designer, Robyn Dombrowski of Creative Heads in Sarasota, Florida. For her fortitude, she gets the patience-in-the-face-of-ignorance award.

After six years, we discovered the custom features of the site didn’t play well with WordPress anymore. The site didn’t look like the home of an author, either, since we’d designed it to sell marketing communications services to corporate clients.

The new site emphasizes my shift in focus from nonfiction to fiction, specifically to a series of crime novels I’m developing around two characters, former detective CW McCoy and a defrocked journalist known as Brinker. The website incorporates new ways to share stories about them and the publishing industry through social media links and an e-newsletter called Behind the Book. And wonder of wonders, the new contraption is responsive, which means the site should adapt to any browser or device that taps into it.

It was a long time coming but we’ve finally caught up with the digital age. Here’s to good friends and guidance . . . and another decade on the Web.

Jeff Widmer

V is for verb

The leader declared war on passive verbs.

Noreen Wald, aka Nora Charles, author of the Ghostwriter and Kate Kennedy series, vowed to stamp out all forms of the verb to be. Her fervor had inspired the Wednesday Critique Group, an offshoot of Noreen’s class in writing fiction, to the point that its members adopted a vigilance Paul Revere would envy. As we read our work aloud, we’d slash and burn to invigorate our prose.

Now an obsession with active verbs can deliver a crisp manuscript, or drive a writer nuts. Active verbs speed the story but call attention to the writing, and sometimes pull the reader out of the scene. Passive verbs put those readers to sleep. With all due respect to our instructor, what we need is balance.

It’s not always possible to find alternatives to the word is. Sometimes sentences sound less pretentious with passive verbs, and sometimes they have a better flow. The question is (and I use that word advisedly), when do we permit passive verbs and when do we pop for active language?

Does the answer require a mechanistic approach—as a former president once said, does it depend on what the definition of is is?—or does the choice grow from the writer’s intent, which changes from sentence to genre to type?

In P is for Peril, Sue Grafton’s character Kinsey Millhone hears a woman calling to a dog. “She emitted a piercing whistle, and a young German shepherd came bounding over the hill, heading in my direction at full speed. I waited, bracing myself for the force of muddy feet, but at the last possible second, the whistle came again and the dog sprinted off.”

The passage ripples with tension as Grafton propels the prose with active verbs.

In Edwin of the Iron Shoes, Marcia Muller tackles a less straightforward task. She needs to convey supposition as well as continuing action. Leaving the scene of a murder, Muller’s character Sharon McCone wants to rejoin her employer. “The ambulance had pulled away and the crowd was dispersing. Across the street, a light burned in the front windows of Junk Emporium. Hank was probably waiting for me. . . .”

And we burn to read more of the story.

In Laura Lippman’s Baltimore Blues, Tess Monaghan writes the equivalent of her New Year’s resolutions in a student composition book. Keeping those resolutions has proven a challenge, so Lippman conveys the character’s frustration and resignation through a mix of active and passive language: “Tess slapped the notebook closed, filed it on a shelf with twenty-two others—all blank except for the first page—set her alarm, and was asleep in five minutes.”

Like Grafton and Muller, she uses language that embodies emotion as well as information. Had she stuck with passive verbs, we’d have nodded off in ten.

One more example and I’ll let you go. In To Darkness and to Death, Julia Spencer-Fleming conveys both action and reflection as one of her characters, the Rev. Clare Fergusson, searches for a missing woman: “Clare forced herself to keep her steps even, her head moving methodically as she climbed up the increasingly steep slope. She was, she had to admit, too impatient to be a naturally good searcher.”

As we are, too often, with passive construction.

So, do we need an iron rule about banishing passive verbs forever? Or can we allow the function and emotion of the scene to drive the choice?

For print titles, the ‘e’ in e-books stands for envy

The move to e-books is looking like a stampede.

Online retailer Amazon.com said today that it’s selling more electronic books than printed versions. The company says it sells 105 e-books for every 100 physical copies it sells.

Next Tuesday rival Barnes & Noble will ratchet up the competition when it introduces a new generation Nook e-reader to compete with Amazon’s Kindle.

barnes-noble-nookB&N chief executive William Lynch told the Wall Street Journal that despite a late start his company has captured 25% of the digital books market. It has also grabbed a good chunk of the market for electronic magazine subscriptions. “We’ve also sold more than 1.5 million magazine subscription orders and single copy sales on the Nook newsstand.”

The irony of Tuesday’s announcement (or maybe the marketing strategy) is that it happens during the week of BookExpo America (BEA), which bills itself as the largest publishing event in North America. It has traditionally promoted paper copies. This year BEA will co-host a session on electronic publications with the IDPF Digital Book Conference 2011, at the Javits Center in New York City.