Wednesday, November 11, 2015

When and Where You Should Be Giving Your Book Away for Free

If you are a new self-pub author, or even if you are an established self-pub author, the idea of giving your book away may at first strike you as counter-intuitive. You're trying to sell books, right? But here's the thing, no one knows who you are or how great your writing is, and when you're competing with lots of other authors, many of whom are well-known and already have a following, actually getting people to read your book at all is your first priority.

But not just anyone. You need to find your readers: the people who are fans of your genre, who are interested in your subject matter, who will be excited to find your book and will gladly spread the word to their friends and peers that they should read your book, too. To help you get your book into these highly valuable readers' hands, there are online resources you need to use where giving your book away works for you: NetGalley, Goodreads, and blog tours. Remember, you need to find your readers and engage with them. This is known as "building your platform."

NetGalley is a site that allows publishers (including self-published authors) to make their books available for free to readers who have indicated interest in your genre and who understand that their participation is hoped to result in a positive review (if in fact they enjoyed the book) posted on either Goodreads or Amazon or both. Usually this is done immediately prior to or simultaneously with your book's launch. The book is made available as an electronic "ARC" (advanced reader copy), and the publisher controls who they invite to read the book, and whose requests to read the book they grant. There is a wide variety of readers on NetGalley. Anyone can sign up to be a reader, and the audience there runs from highly professional bloggers who have hundreds of followers reading their book reviews, to people in the industry, to your standard hobby reader and fan.

With NetGalley, there is a risk that a reader who can't stand your book (there are always a few) will disregard NetGalley's suggestion that in this case they send a note directly to the publisher, opting instead to thank you for the free read with an aggressively negative review on Goodreads and/or Amazon. This risk comes with the territory, and if you're self-published you should have a thick-ish skin already. Don't let the odd "this book sucks!" get you down. If anything, it just makes the many more enthusiastically positive reviews feel that more authentic. NetGalley is free for readers, but costs $$$ for publishers to access and use the platform. If you can afford it, I would recommend you hire a book PR/publicist group with experience in your genre to manage your NetGalley presence for you. They already have some favorite readers upon whom they rely to post well-written reviews for the books they liked, and they may already have a "do not grant request" list of readers to avoid. I hired Wisdom House Books to handle my NetGalley account, and they kept me up to date on activity with regular reports and kept track of it all much better than I would have done on my own. Spreadsheets give me hives.

You can also engage readers directly through Goodreads' giveaway feature. Readers browse the giveaways regularly, and I've had fantastic experiences with the Goodreads readers as far as posting feedback and reviews. These folks are avid readers--huge fans. You want to get your book into their hands. Pestering readers in your genre to read your book is generally frowned upon (duh), as is plugging your book in the various discussion forums. Instead, just give your book away through the Giveaway tool. It's extremely easy to set up a giveaway, then watch your numbers for how many people have shelved your book as "to read" skyrocket, then ship the books out as soon as you get the list of winners from Goodreads. It really could not be easier. Just make sure you already have print copies of your book on hand and ready to go (signed is nice!), because you need to mail them out pronto as soon as the giveaway ends. Browse through the current giveaways on Goodreads now if you've never had a look there before. You'll get a good idea of what kind of blurbs people write for the giveaway, how people time their giveaways (launch anniversary; as a pre-launch of the sequel interest-builder; on the anniversary of a historical event that features prominently in your book; to celebrate winning a prize recognition--you get the idea). Be sure to plug your giveaway on your blog, Twitter, Facebook, and anything else you've got going. It might even be a good time to spend a little money advertising a Facebook post about the giveaway.

Along these same lines, consider doing your own "friends and family" giveaway on Facebook. Friends and family can be weird for self-published authors. Some feel like they should be given a free copy of your book just because (ignoring the fact that it costs you money for printing and shipping and the artwork, layout, editing, advertising...) and at the other end of the spectrum some will buy three copies just to watch your Amazon rank bounce up. Most friends and family who get your book for free, if they like it, will sing the book's praises loudly and often. Let them be your biggest supporters.

Lastly, but by no means least, you can reach out to book bloggers to do a blog tour. Of all of the giveaway options, this is the route that gets you the most directly and personally in contact with the people who like to read what you like to write. Again, this is an opportunity to hire a book publicist/PR group to set the tour up for you, make a pretty banner for you to put on your blog, approach bloggers they know and have worked with before, help with plugging the blog tour, etc. Naturally, they'll want copies of your book to send to the reviewers, and they may in turn review it themselves, send you questions for an interview, invite you to a livechat, or other means of putting you directly in front of readers. The blog tour was by far the most fun I had in getting to know my readers, and getting a view into reading fandom out there was both energizing and incredibly fun.

Well there you have it. There are some very important times to give away your book, particularly if you're a new author starting out. Please comment below on your own adventures in deliberate (as opposed to pirated) book giveaways--I love to hear from fellow authors.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

DMCA Self-help for Self-published Authors (and others!)

I am currently being trolled on Twitter by a guy who is outraged--outraged, I tell you!--that I had the gall, nay, the hatred for humanity, to send DMCA takedown notices to content aggregator websites asking them to remove pages offering unauthorized free downloads (i.e., pirated copies) of my book. His argument meandered from "DMCA takedown notices are ineffective and you want your books pirated anyway" to "you're an idiot" to "DMCA is the source of all evil in the universe and you--YOU evil author!--are responsible for 'destroying society' with your abusive DMCA takedown notices." The fact that, without some amount of compensation authors would no longer be able to write books for him to steal, did not register with him at all.

In some cases, the websites politely replied and apologized. In others, there was no reply, but the page eventually came down. I go through this exercise every few months and happened to tweet about it. Enter troll.

There are actually many directions to go with this topic. The troll, true to form, chose juvenile mocking and ignorance (meanwhile raising my profile on Twitter and gaining me new followers--thanks! :-) ) More interesting directions would be:

--An exploration of data showing whether ebook theft helps or hurts new self-published authors (there is too little data to come to any solid conclusions, esp wrt new authors).

--A discussion on ways to improve the DMCA (the DMCA covers a lot of ground besides takedown, but that would take more inches of blog post than I'm interested in going into, and many intelligent and informed professionals in the field (read: not trolls) are already discussing this very topic on the interwebs--personally I think fine-tuning and expanding the fair use exclusions from copyright ownership are the way to go, but that's just me).

--a post to my fellow indie authors explaining how the DMCA takedown notice works and how they can self-help from piracy--if they so choose--by using this important tool in protecting their (painfully meager) livelihood.

Naturally, I'm going with the third option. First, I'll discuss how the DMCA safe harbor procedures and takedown notice came into effect, then I'll walk you through doing your own DMCA takedown notices (with a little help from Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America). In a subsequent post I'll have a brief discussion on the places and ways that you want to give away your book for free.

First up, a big fat disclaimer:

This blog is not legal advice, and you should not treat it as legal advice. I don't know you or your particular circumstances, my license is retired, and if you want to know about your particular legal rights and risks under the DMCA, you should talk with a lawyer.

What is the Digital Millenium Copyright Act?
The DMCA was written to solve a problem for website owners who wanted to be able to let third parties post content for others to enjoy. If a person posted something to the website, and another someone came along and contacted the website owner in writing to say that the content was infringing their copyrights and should be removed, the website owners were finding themselves caught in the middle and frequently sued by both the alleged infringer and the alleged copyright owner. The courts held early on that when a third party posted infringing content to a website, the website owner itself became an infringer by continuing to "publish" (one of the exclusive rights of copyright ownership) the infringing content on the internet. So website owners were left with either leaving the content up and risking being held liable for infringing, or taking it down and risking being held liable for tortious interference with contract, breach of contract, or whatever the person/business whose content was wrongly removed could come up with. Something had to be done, or the websites we all know and love where we can post and share content wouldn't be able to afford to stay in business.

Among other things, the DMCA addressed this problem by creating a "safe harbor" for website owners. Now if a copyright owner finds infringing posts of their content out on the internet, they send the website a "takedown notice" where they swear under penalty of perjury that they own the rights to the content, that the content has been posted without their permission, give their personal address and phone number for contact (yeah, that part creeps me out a little as an indie), and ask the website owner to take down the content. The website owner then must remove the content and also give notice to the party that posted the content of what has happened.

That party then may send a "counter-notice" swearing under penalty of perjury that the content is not infringing and that they have a legal right to publish it--and if the website owner receives a counter notice, they must restore the content within 10 days unless the copyright owner promptly runs to court to sue. If you are a copyright owner and an infringer has opted to commit perjury and keep your content up, your next and only remedy is to sue the infringer (who may well be a sad and lonely dude in the Ukraine who could give a shit), but you may not sue the website owner, because they have complied with the DMCA's safe harbor rules and are now immune.

In many ways, this is a crap deal for authors. It's a small tool to use, and the infringer may laugh in your face and keep posting your content with impunity (and you may or may not be bothered by that) knowing that, as a self-published indie, the chances of you suing are as slim as the standard Amazon review. Prior to the DMCA, when website owners were themselves on the hook for publishing infringing content, the website owners were much more cautious in removing potentially infringing content. Now with the DMCA safe harbor, they could care less, and since more content = more traffic = more revenue, the website owners have a financial incentive to have as much content on their sites as possible--infringing or not.

Nonetheless, I have had pretty good results in filing DMCA takedown requests, for now it's all that authors have to try to combat theft of their books, and while there will always be pirated copies of my book out there, you have to hunt it down, and--fair warning--more than once when I clicked on a link that purported to offer a free download of my book, my professional-grade Malwarebytes app blocked the site for detected malware.

DIY DMCA Takedown Notices
So, you've googled your book and found a few pages where your book is being offered for free download and you'd rather it wasn't. First, check that this isn't a paid subscription service that is legitimately offering your book through your aggregate ebook distributor (e.g., BookBaby, Smashwords). Once you're really sure that this is actual piracy, poke around the website until you find the link labeled "DMCA". If you can't find that, try "Safe Harbor" or simply "Legal." As part of the safe harbor rules, the website has to have a page with their safe harbor information--who you send the notice to--and they have to tell you what must be included in the notice. They may also include, in SCREAMING CAPITAL LETTERS, lots of warnings that you are subject to penalty of perjury for making any misrepresentations of fact in your notice. This page will also tell you exactly what to put in your takedown notice--include everything.

For more nuts and bolts on the actual letter, here's a great blog post from the nice folks at Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America: The DMCA Takedown Notice Demystified. You can send it by regular email, with the text in the body of the email.

You do not have to have filed your book with the U.S. Copyright Office to be able to use this process. Your copyright ownership becomes exclusively yours the moment you create a work that is in the scope of the copyright protections.

There have been plenty of lawsuits against entities who use the DMCA takedown notice procedures abusively--i.e., not bothering to find out if the material is allowed under "fair use" exceptions; filing takedown notices to address an issue that DMCA doesn't cover; filing bogus takedown notices as a form of harassment. These are not you. DMCA, like most laws out there (the patent system, Medicaid, the Freaking Tax Code) is susceptible to being gamed and used abusively by entities with a whole lot more resources than you or I have. Businesses and individuals hire people whose sole job is to find something that might be infringing and automatically shoot out a DMCA takedown notice. Some have takedown notices generated and sent automatically with no humans involved whatsoever. This is definitely not what the drafters of DMCA had in mind when they wrote it, although I'm sure some of the folks who commented in committee hearings raised the possibility. Courts are issuing decisions to rein in some of the abuses where they can, with the 9th Circuit (the federal appelate court that includes California in its region) issuing a ruling last month on the duty to ensure there's no fair use prior to filing a notice. On the other hand, it turns out that federal perjury is really really hard to prove, so the chances of anyone being slapped with that one are pretty slim.

I hope you have found this helpful, and I'll post more about copyright issues for indie authors in the future. If you are an indie author, you will be entering into lots of contracts and licensing agreements with a variety of entities to assist with book design, book layout, editing, marketing, and distribution. All of these transactions are loaded with legal terms that you owe it to yourself and your work to become familiar with. They are also loaded with intellectual property provisions that can affect your ability to safely publish your work. Study up and read thoroughly before signing any dotted lines/clicking on "I Agree."

Feel free to share your own DMCA experiences or insights below, and happy writing.

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

I'm a Featured Indie Author!

Indie Author News keeps a curated list of top Indie Authors and supports the rest of us trying to break out by offering Dirt. Cheap. promotional opportunities. I decided to take them up on one of their indie author promotional packages, and I'm amazed at the exposure I've gotten. In the last week I've gained about 200 followers on Twitter, met a ton of new authors, and seen my book promoted as a "Featured" book and an interview pushed out to their 87k+ Twitter followers and dubbed "amazing". Wow. The whole thing has left me a little breathless.

Here's a link to the interview. They asked some fun questions.

As fun as this has all been, the proof in the pudding will be seeing an increase in sales. But all of the exposure ain't bad, either.

To my fellow indie authors--what promotional tools have you found to be most helpful?

Monday, August 17, 2015

Guest Post on The Book Rat: No More Heroines

If you have not yet met Misty at The Book Rat, you're missing out. This powerhouse of lit fandom keeps a very active blog focused on all of her favorite books: "urban fantasy, paranormal romance, magical realism, sci-fi, and fairy tale retellings." She also hosts events dedicated to Halloween, Jane Austen, and fairy tales. If you are an author or reader of any of these, you will love this blog and the opportunity to get to know so many of the authors--The Book Rat is very generous in sharing her space with authors and introducing new works to her readers.

Misty and I talked about what I should post about while I was on my vacation in Oregon, and I ran a few ideas by her, mostly because I was pretty certain she'd find my first idea--a critique of the use of  the word "heroine" when discussing female heroes--too dry, too feministy, too ... dull. But no! She loved the idea, and made her own contribution to the theme.

Here's a link to the post:

I hope you enjoy it, and I hope you enjoy meeting The Book Rat.

Monday, August 10, 2015

Blog Tour Round-up!

What a week!

Six blogs in seven days, with interviews, excerpts, reviews, and much more. I am so very grateful to the amazing team at Wisdom House Books (aka The Owl House) for putting together such a winner of a blog tour for Gwendolyn's Sword, and I am especially grateful to the fellow readers, authors, and bloggers from around the globe who gave their time and blog space to participate in the Blog Tour.

All last week was like Christmas every morning, waking up to see the new post and then sending them out to all of my social media channels. Here in one place you can visit all of the tour stops and meet the gracious hosts. If you enjoyed Gwendolyn's Sword, chances are each of these hosts have more recommendations for books you'd be interested in. I was especially delighted to see the frank feedback and the excitement over the refreshing take on women lead characters in historical fiction.

Without further ado:

Travel to the enchanting Emerald Isle to meet Irish journalist Aoife Lawlor and read her review on her blog, Fred Weasley Died Laughing: "This was an action-packed feminist adventure, ...."

Zip over down under to Book Frivolity, where hilarious blogger and historical fiction/fantasy fan Kristobelle provides an excerpt and a thorough book analysis. Her discussion of the book's play between historical fact and fantasy, quite honestly, gives helpful criticism as I write the sequel.

Join ElianaS at ItsYouandEverything for a scene analysis and a discussion of the belief systems in conflict in the book's 12th c. England setting.

Writer A. van Eeden's review is interspersed with a series of lyrical and evocative pics of medieval settings and characters. His debut novel will be coming out soon, and if his reading list is any indication of his interests, I'm pretty confident I'll want to read it!

Fellow writer TeaSippinNerdyMom strikes a Blog Tour trifecta with a thoughtful and original author interview, an excerpt, and a full author bio!

Last but not least, head over to SpontaneousOutpourings for a critical review where Skye Adams gave me some good news and some bad news--but mostly good news.

Readers, it's your turn: I want to hear from you. What have you read this summer that you just loved? What historical fiction/fantasy blogs do you follow? Who are your favorite women with swords, real or fictional?

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Even Writers Get Vacations...Sort of

There's been very little posting on the blog for the last few weeks because the family and I have been on extended vacation in Oregon, a much nicer place to spend July than in central Texas. Unfortunately, we are heading back at the end of the week, just in time for Triple Digit August. Thanks to my vivid writer's imagination, I'm doing a great job of pretending I'm not actually leaving Oregon any time soon.

So that hubs could get some work done, we're in a house with wifi, which means I've been getting some work done every now and then, too. And I've got some exciting news that I can now officially announce (because I have the official banner with dates and everything).

Remember my earlier post about the importance of investing in your own writing and hiring a team of professionals for your book? The pro's at Wisdom House Books have done something that I absolutely could not have pulled off by myself. I don't have either the contacts or the bandwidth to put together a book blog tour. And if you're a self-published author, as I am, this kind of publicity is critical to finding your audience and connecting with your readers. I feel so fortunate to have found the talented professionals that I found at Wisdom House books. They also did the book interior design and layout, and the rocking cover design exactly to my specifications.

Here's the beautiful banner they made for me:

I'll be adding this to its proper home at the top of the blog after I get home, but I'm too excited about this not to pre-announce it now. As the tour is ongoing I'll post links on Twitter and Facebook, and then a tour recap post here thanking all of the tourists.

Some other fun I've been having over my vacation is watching the book reviews from the Goodreads giveaway winners come in. Reviews have been positive, and they've also given me insight into some of the aspects of 12th c. England and what is known about women's lives and the role of religion from that period that I should take some time to illuminate here for my readers. I did so much research for Gwendolyn's Sword, and only so much of that background could be included in the Historical Notes section at the end of the book. But there's more to know about this period that is perhaps surprising and different from what we would assume must have been the reality. I'm looking forward to busting a few middle ages stereotypes with these future posts.

Finally, the good folks at Wisdom House Books also pointed me toward various contests that I entered last spring. Over the next several months finalists and winners will be announced. Fingers are crossed that I'll have more good news to announce in the coming months.

Happy summer, readers!

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

Join a Book Club!

Yes, I know we all have ridiculously full schedules. We're working, we have deadlines, family obligations, volunteer obligations, not to mention maintaining our physical and mental health and well being. Well, file this suggestion under that last, often over-looked chore--maintaining your wellness.

We have lots of digital pathways open to us that allow us to dip in, on our own schedule, from the convenience of our own kitchen table or sofa, to online book reading communities. Like this blog! And look, here you are reading about reading! So easy! There's also Goodreads, as well as a huge number of blogs/vlogs and book review sites and communities for every genre and interest--too much to shake a stick at.

And yet, reading books is a communal experience. As the famous line from "The Dead Poets Society" goes: "We read to know we are not alone." So while all of the above digital communities are invaluable in enriching the reading (and writing) experience, I want to make a plea right here and now for the importance and irreplaceable value of meeting with other fans of reading, face-to-face, on a regular basis.

I belong to a book group that I started about a year ago by posting a message to my neighborhood listserve describing the kind of books I'd like to read and the timing (one book and one meeting per month), and now get to be a part of a regular meeting of ten like-minded readers from all walks of life and generations. We meet at a nearby restaurant that is neither cool nor trendy--so there's always a table large enough for us available. And the restaurant has a fine offering of table- (and wallet-) friendly wines and a full bar if something more adventurous is called for. No one has to cook or clean up, so all we do is sit and discuss the book we've all just read.

As a writer, this regular window into readers' minds, with people I have grown to know well and whose opinions I value, cannot be replaced. I get to hear their impressions of different styles of writing, how different characters strike them, the little things that they liked or didn't like about a story. This is great information. They all know that I'm a writer, and that I'm listening closely to their impressions. They don't mind at all. I have *not* suggested my book to the group, partly because we don't read books in the genre that I write, historical fantasy, and partly because that would just be weird and self-serving. But I do rely on my experience as a writer to add to the conversation in the group--the challenges of constructing character, the temptation to rely on easy plot ploys to get oneself out of the corner one has written oneself into--that sort of thing.

As a reader, I get so much more out of the reading experience by discussing the books with these folks. They bring up interpretations and connections that I sometimes missed entirely. They help me to see the layers of meaning, because different layers stood out to them than registered for me. They remind me that story-telling is essentially a communal experience, down through the many ages and cultures of humans. After a year, our little group has gelled. We are extremely informal. We are reading books I wouldn't have picked on my own (also great and necessary for a writer!). My appreciation for the craft of story-telling continues to grow.

So...if you aren't already in a book club, consider starting one. It's easy, free, and takes only a tiny bit of your time to manage. You get to decide what you want to read and the schedule, and then ask if there's anyone out there who would like to form a club with you. But more importantly, it connects you to books and story-telling in a communal way that can't be duplicated through any online platform or forum.

Are you already in a book club? I'd love to hear about it! How did your book club get started? How long has your club been reading together? What do you read? How are your meetings run? Tell me in the comments below!

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Trials and Tribulations of Writing My First Sequel

You might think that once you've done the hard work of writing the first book of a series, the other books just follow naturally when you sit down to write them. You might think that having your characters already known and mapped would make it easier to pick them up again when you set out to write the next part of their adventure. You might also think that authors never wish they could bend space and time to make a few minor tweaks in the book that's already published and out there to reposition the threads of plot and character arc just a teensy tiny tad.

You would be in good company if you thought all of these things. Until I set out to write a sequel myself, it's what I thought as well. Now I know better.

Don't get me wrong. I love love LOVE my characters, which is a good thing since I'm going on seven years now of having them in my head. But I've learned that having your characters already fixed in ink limits your options for what you can do with them in the next story. Now I have to work to stay true to who they are. Working within the confines of historical events adds another layer of restriction to the story. I know I'm going to get there, and I've already (thank goodness) remembered how to do it: let the characters lead the way. I've found that anytime I try to force the story by throwing events at my characters for them to react to, I lose my way. But if I look at what's happening in the world around them and then ask them what would they do, they're happy to let me know.

Here's what the window beside my desk looks like:

Those are sticky notes with the names of secondary characters, plot beats, historical events, cultural/historical details and other items that I need to make sure are included or resolved. This isn't a full list, just the things I wanted to keep front and center in my mind. I've got the first few chapters about done, and I have the events for the next few chapters already laid out in my mind. We're about to leave on a long family road-trip that will have us driving cross country for three days each way. My amazing husband is going to do most of the driving so I can sit beside him with my laptop open, typing away. I'm looking forward to our family vacation, but I'd be lying if I said I wasn't almost as excited about the time to write coming up.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Massacre at Abergavenny

Photo by Charles Taylor, courtesy of

When researching a specific time and place in preparation for writing historical fiction, some events stand out in your memory and nag at the back of your thoughts. The event may be a few years off from your own story, it may involve people who you have not included, but it nags at you anyway. And like the gravitational pull the boulder in the middle of the trail has on your mountain bike, the event pulls your story toward it somehow. It's that compelling. It will not be ignored.

The Massacre at Abergavenny is one of those events. J.E. Lloyd had this to say about it in his History of Wales:

"The border warfare was at all times savage and unpitying, but it did not often witness perfidy and barbarity of this deep dye; small wonder was it, men thought, that misfortune should beset the path of the lord of Abergavenny."

In December of 1175, William de Briouze, 4th lord of Bramber, stepped into his inheritance as the lord of Brecknock. Already a wealthy landholder, the younger William took up his role while his father, William de Briouze, 3rd lord of Bramber, still lived. Aged either 22 or 31 years old, already a father himself with his wife of nine years, the twenty-year-old Maud St. Valery, young William decided to make a statement for himself during that Christmastide.

The young lord invited three Welsh princes to his castle at Abergavenny under the pretense of hearing a royal ordinance as to the bearing of arms. The princes, their accompanying sons and attendants all handed over their arms as they entered the castle--a sign of trust and peaceful intentions that was generally observed as a rule when entering a castle on the host's invitation (as opposed to a siege). One wore one's sword on the road while travelling, but in taverns, churches, and a host's home, swords and weapons were deposited for safekeeping for the length of the stay.

In this case, once the guests were all assembled inside the great hall, the doors were barred and every single man was cut down. William and his attendants then hopped onto their swiftest horses and sped south a few miles to the country of Seisyll ap Dyfnwal, one of the slain. De Briouze arrived ahead of the news of the slaughter, found Seisyll's wife, executed the youngest son, seven-year-old Cadwaladr, in her arms, and left the wife and mother to a fate unrecorded in the historical legend.

As is often the case in savagery, blood vengeance directed the perpetrator. William's motive is said to have been revenge for the murder of his uncle, Henry FitzMiles, allegedly murdered by Seisyll while visiting Siesyll's castle. But more than that, it has been suggested that William sought to eliminate the leadership of the Welsh lands that surrounded him, to weaken and destabilize the local families and thus ensure his own family's security. And as is often the case with blood vengeance, further acts answered the earlier acts. Abergavenny Castle was burnt to the ground by the Welsh men of Gwent in retribution for the massacre carried out there just a few years later; the picture shown above shows the ruins of the subsequent castle built on the earlier castle's ashes. English reinforcements arrived afterward to restore order and William himself escaped capture, but the Welsh carried the day in the end.

William de Briouze's ignominious career carried him in his later years into King John's court, where he became one of the chief suspects (aside from the king himself) in the disappearance and suspected murder of the young Arthur of Brittany, the king's strongest rival for the throne. King John, being John Plantagenet, later changed his favorable feelings toward de Briouze. Eventually William's wife and son would die of starvation in the king's custody, most likely in Corfe Castle, and William himself would die penniless and fallen, alone in exile.

If this tale brings to mind the stories of George R.R. Martin, you are not alone. Game of Thrones is fantasy fiction at it's pseudo-middle-ages goriest, but Abergavenny still resounds through the historical record as an especially dire moment of Norman brutality in the Welsh Marches.

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Switching from CreateSpace to IngramSpark

One of the first things my support team told me that needed to be changed post-haste when I hired them was to switch from CreateSpace to IngramSpark/LightningSource for paperback distribution. They gave two reasons to support their recommendation: the quality of print books from IngramSpark, they said, was superior and allowed for higher quality graphics and images, and bookstores would never ever buy from CreateSpace because of the financial model, whereas IngramSpark gave the needed price discount for bookstores and allowed returns.

As to the first reason given, I've now received my first shipment of books from IngramSpark, and I can see that the cover image is noticeably sharper and the colors are a little truer. My cover is matte, and the colors are dark and brooding, and they definitely came out better in the paperback from IngramSpark.  Paper quality seems to be comparable (I used cream), but the ink print in the IngramSpark book is a deeper black that just looks nicer. As an independent author, I'm very sensitive to the need to make my book look as polished and professional as a regular trade paperback. I do think IngramSpark (and working with a professional book designer, of course) has helped me to have a product that can sit proudly on any shelf.

As to the second reason, Ingram provides the 55% discount (40% to bookstores) and the books are indeed returnable. I found a very helpful blog post on the subject here from Giacomo Giammatteo of the Alliance of Independent Authors that provides multiple analyses and some very helpful math. Mr. Giammatteo confirmed what my advisors were telling me as far as bookstores being more willing to stock books under the economic scenario given by IngramSpark. Nevertheless, I have to admit that I remain skeptical, as an independent author, that this could actually happen. I'm not sure if any independent authors have been picked up by bookstores without having been picked up first by an agent and a large-ish publishing house. But I'm glad to at least have the possibility of it happening.

Here is where I miss CreateSpace--not enough to override the other factors, but just the downside to be aware of. The paperback has only been available for a few weeks now, so I have no idea if there have been sales or not (although I'm guessing not since my publicity is just now starting to ramp up), because IngramSpark doesn't report them to authors until the end of each month. I will only find out about sales on a monthly basis, within a week of the month-end. This may not be a big deal for a regular publisher, but for an independent publisher like myself who is investing in different promotional campaigns and needs real-time information to see which campaigns are getting traction in the marketplace, this leaves me flying blind. Fortunately I still have my ebook available for Kindle readers on Amazon directly (I am also distributing through BookBaby to non-Amazon ebook outlets), and Amazon does provide near real-time sales reporting (24-hr delay). It's like trying to watch an entire living-room full of dinner party guests through a keyhole viewer (not that I have experience in that...), but it's something.

As to some of the other differences--needing to buy my own ISBN's and the fees, IngramSpark was still affordable enough to make the shift. Ultimately it came down to wanting to be taken more seriously as an independent author, and taking the steps I needed to to have the most polished product possible, at the most economically attractive terms for buyers.

Has anyone else made the switch? How did it go for you? Did your book get picked up by any bookstores?

Monday, June 8, 2015

Isabel of Gloucester--John's Poor Kept Woman or Independent Countess?

Picture of a Roman woman, but I like to think 
Isabel may have looked something like this.

For the most part, the historical record of western civilization up until the last fifty years or so has been overwhelmingly written by men, so that we might call it "exclusively" written by men.

This matters for a lot of reasons. And many people have pointed this out already.

It is inevitable that we carry our preconceptions with us when we interpret a long-ago person's motives or priorities based on the scant evidence available to us. Given the battle women still fight today to be taken seriously by our government when we discuss violence against women or discrimination in the workplace, by our colleagues when we speak at a conference or publish a book, it is not unreasonable to wonder whether a female-dismissing perspective on women's lives in history might not be subject to contemporary social norms and assumptions about women more than actual historical evidence.

Let's look at Isabel of Gloucester, the first wife of Prince John. As I have researched this woman, hoping to do her story justice in the sequel, I have been repeatedly struck by the dreary assumptions made by historians and writers who have considered the few established facts of her life. Over and over, I read about how she was a victim of the crown, how tragically empty of love her life was, how she lost everything only to die shortly after finding real love.

Here's what is known about Countess Isabel. As part of a deal between her father and Henry II, Henry disinherited Isabel's two older sisters, and her father agreed that she would be betrothed to John when she was only three years old (around 1176). With significant holdings in both England and the Welsh Marches, Countess Isabel of Gloucester was quite the loaded heiress. John Lackland made good on his father's promise of marriage as soon as Henry II died and Johns older brother Richard had the crown (and no one has accused John Lackland of being a "gold-digger," that I've come across so far).

However, no sooner was the ceremony completed than Baldwin, Archbishop of Canterbury, declared the marriage void for consanguinity and placed all of Isabel's (now John's) lands under interdict (essentially, the churches and people were cut off from the body and recognition of the larger church whole). Resourceful John took the matter up on appeal (so to speak) with Pope Clement III. The pope found a way to settle all matters by allowing the marriage to continue, provided that Isabel and John never entered into sexual relations.

After this, Isabel's life is full of murk and shadow. We know that John gave her an allowance and set her up in housing in Winchester. John had his marriage with Isabel annulled after ten years, in 1199, when he succeeded Richard to the throne. John then kept Isabel under the crown's "guardianship" so that he got to hold onto her lands, of course, although he ended up giving them to her sister's son, anyway. We also know that Isabel was required to look after John's second and much younger wife during John's disastrous reign. Her lands were restored to her by her nephew's death without issue in 1213. After that she married twice before dying in 1217 at the relatively young age of 44 (cause of death unknown).

That's a lot of gaps and unknowns.

This is where writing historical fiction-fantasy gets fun. I see no reason to assume that Isabel led a lonely and unsatisfactory life. Women's lives are full of secrets, off-the-record negotiations, and connections and friendships that are disregarded by the record-keepers as immaterial to the great flow of history. But what if Isabel's life was full and more influential of events than anyone gives her credit for? What if...Isabel had secretly bribed Pope Clement III to forbid sexual relations between her and her husband because she found the man so utterly detestable? What if...Isabel was a stunning beauty who enjoyed a discreetly managed romantic relationship that the gossips and court recorders politely ignored? What if...Isabel and her sisters (one of whom was married to the extremely well-connected Third Earl of Hertford, Richard de Clare) stayed close throughout their lives and supported one another with affection and strings pulled as needed? What if her third and final husband, the one she got to choose herself, who happened to have also been John's chamberlain, had been her lover all along, during all those years of guardianship?

What do you think? Are there other women from history who you suspect may have been more in control of their destinies than history gives them credit for?

There is no reason to assume that these possibilities could not also be true, and this is just one case of many. Stay tuned for the next installation in Unsung Women of the Middle Ages: Matilda de Braose.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

Just Read: Neverhome, By Laird Hunt

Well-researched historical fiction about a woman fighting for the Union army during the American Civil War?

Yes, please.

"I was strong and he was not, so it was me went to war to defend the Republic."

Thus begins this gripping tale, told in the protagonist's unfussy, matter-of-fact, earthy voice. In completing his extensive research to write this novel, Laird Hunt reviewed the first person account of a woman who had disguised herself as a man so that she could join the ranks of soldiers and fight in the Civil War on the Union side. Although the protagonist in Neverhome is entirely fictional (and the story is cleverly structured around the narrative of The Odyssey), Mr. Hunt clearly went to pains to bring as much historical authenticity to his account as possible. Everything from the details of diet, the layout of roads and towns, forgotten turns of phrase, social conventions of the time, to historic battles and the worse details of the war that nearly tore our country apart forever resonate with time-shifting detail.

But this story runs much deeper than that. Behind the battles, the violence, and the gore, another story lies submerged like the outlines of a forgotten city beneath the waves. This story is much more sinister, and its violence ultimately eclipses the war altogether.

Neverhome is a fairly quick read, suggested by my book club partly for that reason (we'd had an unusually long run of unusually long books). Given my predilection for stories about strong women, I was thrilled to discover this book. Like its main character, the prose is unadorned and direct, yet subtle and layered. And I have to give a double thumbs up to Mr. Hunt for choosing to write this story from a woman's perspective. The main character could just as easily have been a man, but by making the protagonist a woman, additional themes and conflicts were available for the author to explore--and he does so deftly. Mr. Hunt also refrained from employing most of the usual cliches about strong women, which I was also happy to see.

One of the members of our book club posed an interesting question to the women readers about whether we thought the fact that the author was male affected how he told the protagonist's story; i.e., would a woman have written it any differently. It was an interesting question. I believe anyone can have a go at telling any person's story, if they try to do so faithfully, regardless of how vast the gulf in space and time, or in anatomy and social norms, between the author's own experiences and those of their character. Having said that, when my reading partner asked this question, I realized that there were details about Ash's work at disguising herself that were left out, most notably having to cope with monthly menstruation while concealing her gender. This did not detract from the story, but given the amount of attention the story gives to the physical strains of her time away from the farm and the efforts she undertook to conceal her gender, monthly cramps and bleeding warranted a mention.

Overall, a highly worthwhile read and a cleverly crafted story in the best of the storytelling tradition.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

You Can Do THAT With a Sword?

Sword vs. Belgian FN rifle: sword loses, right?

Not necessarily.

In this brief but extremely informative video, lindybeige, one of my two favorite YouTube sources on the correct use of and defense from a variety of non-firearm weapons, demonstrates how a scimitar sword could be used effectively in close quarters against heavily armed opponents. As he points out, part of the problem for the Belgians was the extreme power of the weapons their soldiers carried, which would have penetrated not only their attackers, but also multiple innocent bystanders. The soldiers were simply not armed correctly for the conditions that they were in.

Watch the video and see what you think. I invite your comments below.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Why Not Invest in Your Own Writing?

That's a snap of one of the inspirational pictures, quotes, drawings and other bits that I have hanging around my desk to keep me going when I want to say, it's too hard, maybe no one wants to read my stories, maybe I'm fooling myself, maybe my stories are just ... not that good. The route of the self-published author is paved with self-doubt. We don't put the self-doubt into our tweets ("5* on Amazon!") or our FB posts ("Check out this great review from BestReviewerEver...") or on our Goodreads bios ("[Author name] loves to write stories that inspire...."). But it's there, nagging us, giving us sticky feet and toes, whispering in our ear that it's all for naught.

But I'm here to tell you, it's real, it's a thing, and it can affect your writing in the most fundamentally negative way: by sucking the joy out of the thing you love the most--telling stories.

I have my first novel out (woohoo!), it has received uniformly positive reviews from readers (WOOHOO!), and now that I'm writing the sequel, I find myself facing deeper self-doubt than when I wrote the first book.

So I hired a professional support network.

That's not what they call themselves, but it's what I call them. They cheer me on, navigate the ever-shifting world of self-publishing, keep me up-to-date with the current sales platforms, make my book gorgeous, and cheer me on some more.

I didn't get into this business to become a whiz at social networking. I'm not now and never will be a master of marketing. I can bang out the formatting and layout requirements to a manuscript with the best, but I can't make it look like the pro's do. I'm a writer. I tell stories. I spend hours and hours on the research, and then it has to soak for a bit while the story starts to take shape, and then I research some more and start to write. After that, I need to hand it over to the professionals.

I felt bad--really bad--about hiring my support network. And then it occurred to me that this is exactly what the pro's do. Publishing houses put a real investment into their books. Some make it big, some barely make a ripple, and that's just the nature of the business. Why had I had it in my head that I should be able to achieve success while literally nickle and dime-ing myself? I read posts on the author networks and blogs bragging about not spending any up-front funds on getting their books published, and I think, why is that a great thing? Are they really achieving the success they want? Is that what they figure their book--their future career as a writer--is worth?

I read an article recently (got to run pick-up the kids but I'll post a link to it in an update) saying that the days of self-pubbed authors being able to just show up without a marketing plan and a professional team of helpers are over. I believe it. I have learned a lot going through this process with my support team, but I'll be honest: part of what I've learned is the power of choosing to respect myself and my work as a professional. Of course the self-doubt is still nagging me, sometimes even more insistently now that I have real "skin" in the game, but didn't I already? And isn't my future worth giving the best shot I can? Good lord, what did I invest in graduate school in my first career before it began to pay off?

So, here goes, stronger than ever, and yes, the sequel is on its way. Success is a twisty twisty road, but I'm hanging on.