Archive | March, 2009

An Offer They Can’t Refuse

I had thought I was done blogging about writing conferences, but had a conversation last week with one of my loyal blog readers, Camille Eide, who happens to be in my local critique group.

Camille is one of three finalists in a really great contest being run jointly by the Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference and a large publisher, Zondervan. The winner of this contest for unpublished writers will get a $10,000 contract from Zondervan. Pretty cool!

Anyway, Mount Hermon is running a very special deal now, and Camille told me all the details, and I thought it would be fun to do an interview with her about it. Here ’tis:

Randy: What do you write and how long have you been writing?

Camille: As far as fiction, I’m writing inspirational contemporary romance, or romantic drama. Think of a Nicholas Sparks love story with a strong faith inspiring theme. And maybe a happier ending. Love Worth Fire is the story of a bitter young widower whose second chance at love means marrying a dying woman. I’ve been writing all my life, but I began writing a novel and seeking publication two years ago.

Randy: You went to Mount Hermon last year after writing for about a year. Was that a good decision? What happened there?

Camille: It was a life-changing decision, one that confirmed my suspicions about being a writer. I blogged about it when I returned, including how I got to sit beside the sleeping Snowflake Guy on the plane ride home.

[Randy interrupts: Yes, on the plane home, I was Xtremely thrashed after too many nights staying up late talking to writers. I have never gone to bed before midnight at a conference, and it's not unusual to see the clock strike 2. So after I read Camille's chapters on the plane, I told her, "Get an agent," and then promptly conked out.]

Camille bravely continues after Randy’s interruption: So I went to my first large scale writer’s conference hoping to sponge up all I could about the craft and connect with people in the industry. I did learn and connect, much more than I had hoped. And I got a huge boost to my writing career. My novel was not finished, so like a good newbie, I had no delusions about pitching it. But after getting back surprisingly good critiques, this burning knot formed in my gut (which I knew couldn’t have come from the excellent food they serve) and I knew I had to pray down some nerve, take advantage of the opportunity and talk to an editor, which I did.

The editor asked me to send the entire manuscript when it was finished. Which was cool. So I got a little cocky and approached a couple of others and they asked for it too. If not for those requests, I probably wouldn’t have had a conversation with Randy on the flight home that convinced me I needed to get my act together and get an agent. I would probably still be debating whether I should shred or flush the novel. Or both. But, as it turns out, I finished the thing and entered it in a publishing contest sponsored by Mount Hermon and Zondervan. My novel made it to the final three (winner of the publishing contract to be announced at 2009 Mt Hermon). And it landed me an agent. I’ve decided not to flush it.

Randy: Mount Hermon is giving a great deal right now. Tell us about it.

Camille: Mount Hermon Christian Writer’s Conference, coming up April 3-7 2009, has made a tremendous offer. If you have never been to this conference, and if you register to attend by April 1, and if you mention on your registration form that someone already registered (like me or someone else you know) invited you, you will receive $200 off the price of the conference!

The regular cost varies according to your room choice, it ranges from $845 and up, so minus $200 if you take them up on this offer and attend this 5-day conference for $645. This includes EVERYTHING: tuition, materials, accommodations, excellent food, snacks between sessions, and all the editor/agent appointments and high quality workshops, morning tracks and keynote evening sessions you would expect from a professional writer’s conference. The morning mentoring tracks are awesome too (10 students-to-1 teacher, intense daily critique sessions) but you need to sign up for those ahead and pay a little extra.

Check out the conference here: mounthermon.org

But even though it’s a professional conference, the atmosphere is casual, serene and inviting. Mt Hermon is a sprawling, secluded campground nestled into a gorgeous redwood forest and includes scenic hiking/running trails. The evening sessions are awesome, beginning with a sweet time of worship (I love it when hundreds of people from various places and backgrounds worship the Lord together . . . makes me think of what it will be like in heaven). The setting is beautiful, peaceful and inspiring! Of course, the company isn’t bad either. You’ll meet editors, agents and writers from every facet of the media. I made some great friends with whom I still keep in contact. It really is an awesome conference. I came away from it last year full, excited, changed and inspired.

If you sign up, I or the person you mention will get to share in the savings too. If you have never been to Mt Hermon and you register by APRIL 1 and give the name of the person who invited you, that person will also get $200 off our conference cost. I think this is a huge offer on their part, and certainly makes going to a high quality Christian writer’s conference more affordable for us all.

Are you up for it? I had the most amazing time last year. I hope you will consider going with such a huge discount being offered. It is well worth the price! Let me know if you decide to go on my invitation. I would love to see you there.

Randy sez: Thanks, Camille! I am already reviewing the manuscripts of the folks I’ll be mentoring at Mount Hermon and starting to get that “this is gonna be great, I can hardly wait” feeling in the pit of my stomach.

Folks, if any of you decide to take Mount Hermon up on this offer, remember to mention that Camille Eide sent you. Don’t tell them I sent you, because I’ll be a faculty member, so I am not paying any fees that Mount Hermon could refund. Whereas Camille is paying her way, and if you get a $200 discount through her referral, she’ll get one too. If you are already going to Mount Hermon and if you influence one of your friends to go who’s never been before, BOTH you AND your friend will get a $200 discount. This is a terrific deal.

Also, Mount Hermon, like many writing conferences, has a scholarship fund that can provide partial help to those in financial need.

You may be wondering if it isn’t too late to sign up. Nope. Every year at Mount Hermon, there’s at least one person who signed up for the conference THE DAY BEFORE IT STARTED, and I’ve seen it happen once or twice that somebody decided to go THE DAY OF THE CONFERENCE. At that late date, things are usually all full, but right now there are some openings. I hope to see some of my loyal blog readers there!

This year is an anniversary year for Mount Hermon, so they are planning to show some photos of events from years past. I have a gnawing suspicion that some photos from the infamous “Shaving Babbitt” scam which I ran six years ago may surface. However, if I can get my hush money payments in on time, maybe they won’t show those shots.

Answers to A Few Questions

Barbara asked:

Do either the Kindle or Sony have speech capability? And, if so, is there a way to vary the rate? After “listening” for over twenty years to do my reading, I listen at a rate that others consider “gibberish”. I read Chip’s article, very informative. Let me know about speech with these devices.

Randy sez: The Kindle does. I don’t know about the Sony. The Kindle has a quite nice text-to-speech feature that will allow you to have it read aloud any e-book you own. The speech quality isn’t as good as a human actor, but it’s good enough that the Author’s Guild got after Amazon for it, because this seems like it’s encroaching on the rights of an author to sell (or not sell) the audio rights to a book. Amazon has backed down. Now the feature is available only for those e-books that the author allows it.

The Kindle also plays audiobooks directly, just like an MP3 player. (There’s a jack for a headset in the top of the Kindle.) It comes with 1.5 GB of memory, which is not huge, but it’ll hold a fair number of sound files.

Karen wrote regarding my last blog post about opportunities for brand new writers:

Since I’m going to be in your mentoring group at Mt. Hermon, this is good news for me! But the idea about it being a good time for new writers to break in seems odd. Wouldn’t publishers be hesitant to risk investments on new, untested writers and rather spend their money on writers that already have an established following?

Randy sez: Even if a writer has an established following, there is no guarantee that his or her next book will earn out its advance. I read an article on the web just today that asserted that 90% of all books fail to earn out their advances. This does not mean that 90% of all books lose money. I am told that a book can break even or make a profit, even when it falls far short of earning its advance.

But even in good times, most publishers invest in new writers. I’m not a publisher, but I can guess at the reasons:
1) Since new writers are new, they don’t have be lured away from some other publisher (which costs money).
2) Since new writers are new, they don’t generally get a big advance, which means the book costs less to produce.
3) All best-selling novelists were at one time unpublished, and every publisher would like to find the author of The Next Big Thing (and lock that novelist into a multi-book deal at a bargain price).

To be sure, not all books by first-time authors sell very well, but neither do most books by multi-published authors. I know far too many veteran authors who aren’t selling nearly as well as they deserve.

I have no crystal ball to see the future. Neither do I have any publishers telling me their secret plans. All I have are twenty years of watching the industry through thick times and thin times. And the one constant over those twenty years is that unpublished writers ALWAYS believe this is a terrible, crappy year to get published, whereas every year, a surprising number of them sell their first novel.

Generally, the ones who break in are the ones who were putting their butt in the chair and writing every day for years and years and years AND then taking the action required to sell their books. (Getting critiqued, learning from other writers, going to conferences, pitching their book to editors and agents, and NOT QUITTING when things looked tough.)

Because let’s face it: Things almost always look tough. I have seen a few fat years when it seemed like any idiot could get published. But most of the years I’ve been watching this crazy publishing game, it’s looked like a hard, hard year to get published.

This is a sermon I’ve preached many times: Nothing happens unless you take action.

The corollary to that is that when you take action, something good might happen.

Sam the Plumber on Writer’s Block

I forgot to mention in my last post that my latest “Sam the Plumber” column is now officially online. You can read “That Blocked Up Feeling” where Sam tries his best to solve my writer’s block, in a way that only Sam would ever think of.

I have now officially read an entire book on a Kindle! This was a Word document of a novel by my editor friend, and I think it was at least as nice to read it on a Kindle as it would be to read it on paper. For one thing, I didn’t have to print it out. For another, I didn’t need a bookmark, because that pesky Kindle remembers where you quit reading and starts you up at that place when you reopen it. The Kindle has one advantage over a book–you don’t have to hold it open. That’s always an issue with books that have tight margins (most paperbacks)–the book has to be held open or it wants to close. I generally am quite careful with my paperbacks to not apply too much force so the binding doesn’t crack. With my Kindle, I don’t have to be careful. The thing lies flat without being held open.

Chris asked about the Kindle:

1) Can you make annotations that are tied to specific text on a page?

2) Can you export annotations? Or do you have to manually get those annotations back to the author?

For Question 1, the answer is yes. You can insert annotations at any point in a document. You can later delete them if you want.

For Question 2, I don’t know. Since typing on that teeny weeny keyboard is pretty slow, I wouldn’t care to do a lot of annotations, so I haven’t done much with this feature.

Ivye noted that Kindles don’t have service outside the US. Yes, if you mean that you can’t tie into the Sprint network. But of course you can get most of the Kindle functionality using the hookup to the USB port on your computer. There are a few things you can’t do, and it’s a little more work to do them on the computer, but since Sprint doesn’t work in my neighborhood, I’m living with those limitations quite fine.

Daniel noted that Chip MacGregor has recently posted some comments on the Kindle and Sony e-book reader on his blog. This is true, and I read those comments and forgot to put a link to them in my last post. Thanks, Daniel. Chip notes that the Sony is cheaper and he predicts that the Sony will win unless Amazon opens up the Kindle a bit. Just a day after Chip’s post, Amazon announced that it would be making available a free application for iPhones and iPod Touch users so they can read Kindle books. The iPhone can also access the Kindle store wirelessly. (For the iPod Touch, you have to use your computer to get to the Kindle store.) Chip is once again seen to be prophetic in his insights. If you’re not reading Chip’s blog, you’re missing out on some great insights from a guy who’s been around the block in publishing circles many times.

More random thoughts on writing conferences: Since I just returned from one writing conference and will be going to another in early April, they’re much on my mind. It strikes me that this might be a particularly good year to go to a major conference. The reason is that the downturn in the economy is likely to discourage some people from going. So there’ll be fewer students at any given conference to compete for the attention of the agents and editors. I expect that my mentoring group at Mount Hermon this year will likely have fewer students in it, so I’ll have more time to devote to each one.

A lot depends on your personal economic situation, of course. I regard a conference as a medium to long-term investment for a writer. If your short-term financial situation is bleak, then now is a bad time to go. But if things are stable (i.e., if you still have your job or your spouse still has his or her job and if your income is no worse than at this time last year), then this might very well be a great year to go to a good conference. (Many of us have investments that are half what they were last year. That’s actually irrelevant to how well we’re doing financially. What matters to most of us right now is our income stream, not our savings. The main exception is those who are retired who live off their investments.)

The world economy is doing horribly right now, but publishers are still buying books. (I’m negotiating a deal for a book right now. More on that when I get it signed.) Publishers are tightening their belts, and cutting staff. But they’re all in business for the long haul, and many of the contracts they’re creating right now are for 2011 or later, a point at which the economy will be in a different place. I think we all hope that 2011 will be a better year than 2009, although nobody can predict that.

If I were a publisher making deals right now, I think I’d be looking hard at new writers who can be contracted inexpensively. (It’s a rare thing for a new writer to get a huge deal or even a medium size deal. Most new writers get small contracts.) I’m not a publisher, and I don’t know their strategies, but I suspect that they’re not eager to tie up a lot of capital right now when liquidity is tight. So my guess is that they’re going to be more cautious about the megadeals than the small fry. Bottom line: This may well be a good time for new writers to break in. It’s hard to know for sure, but we’ll see.

I’ve heard that an old Chinese curse says, “May you live in interesting times.”

We do. My hope is that we all get through it soon.

Thoughts On That Pesky Kindle

I was gone for several days last week to the Florida Christian Writer’s Conference, and am just now digging myself out from the things that piled up while I was gone. The conference was a lot of fun. I taught for six hours on internet marketing for writers and was up very late most nights critiquing the web sites of some of my students.

Being a west coast guy and a night owl, I had trouble falling asleep before 1:30 AM, which was kind of a bummer because I had to get up at 7 AM to make it to breakfast before my 8:30 AM classes.

Aside from massive sleep deprivation, I really enjoyed it all and met a lot of interesting writers. I actually fell asleep and almost fell over one evening during a terrific talk by Calvin Miller, which showed just how thrashed I really was.

When I got home Sunday night, my newly ordered Kindle was waiting for me. I didn’t get a chance to even unwrap it until Monday night, but have been playing with it off and on since then. Here are a few random thoughts on the Kindle.

The Kindle I got is version 2.0, which appears to be much slicker and more polished than version 1.0. At $359, I consider the Kindle still too expensive. However, it’s definitely a fine machine if you have the money and if you need it.

The Kindle connects to the world in two ways:
1) via a wireless connection to the Sprint network (you don’t pay anything extra for this–Amazon pays the Sprint tab).
2) via a USB connection to your computer

The power cord is actually the USB cable, which connects into an electric plug that has a USB connector. It’s a clever idea and it means that you only have one cable for the device.

The Kindle has a built-in web browser that lets you view web sites over the Sprint network. Since the Kindle’s graphic display is still limited to 16 shades of gray, you’re best off viewing sites that are mostly text. Note that the Kindle graphics uses “electronic ink” which uses very low power, so you get a long battery life. The resolution is about 200 dots per inch, which is twice as good as most computer monitors, so the display is very easy on your eyes. It is not backlit, so you can read it easily in direct sunlight. But you’ll need a light to read in the dark, just like a regular book.

You can also connect wirelessly on your Kindle to the Kindle Store (which is really Amazon) where you can buy e-books. You use the Amazon One-Click technology to buy them, and they download direct to your Kindle. Since every Kindle has a unique ID, Amazon knows who you are when you connect to the store. If somebody bought you the Kindle as a gift, then you have to register it with them so that it will recognize your Kindle when you connect to the store. It’s all quite seamless.

One downside of using Sprint for connectivity is that you can’t connect if you’re outside the Sprint network. My house is in a cell phone dead zone. None of the cell carriers reach my house, so when I’m at home, I can’t use the Kindle to connect to the outside world. :( However, I can still log on to Amazon and buy books there on my computer, then download them direct to my computer and then move them to my Kindle via the USB connection. So I’m not exactly helpless, even in the dead zone.

The Kindle lets you read several different kinds of files. You can transfer them to your Kindle just by plugging in the Kindle to the USB port on your computer. Your computer thinks it’s a USB flash drive and you can drag files into the “documents” folder in the Kindle and that’s all you have to do. Here are the kinds of files you can transfer in this way:

1) You can read the special .azw files that Amazon uses which have digital management rights built in. This enforces copy protection, so you can’t buy a book on Amazon and give it to someone else; it will only display on your Kindle. Normally, you don’t have to drag these into your Kindle from your computer, because when you buy a book on Amazon, it automatically downloads to the Kindle wirelessly within 60 seconds. But if you’re outside the Sprint network, you can log on to your Amazon account and download the book and then drag it to the Kindle.

2) You can also display plain text files (with the .txt extension) directly on your Kindle.

3) You can display unprotected e-books in .mobi or .prc format (the so-called Mobipocket format). There are a lot of these books on the web for free (more about this later).

4) You can play Audible format sound files (with the .aa or .aax extension). This means you can play any audiobook from Audible.com or other audiobook sellers directly on your Kindle. The Kindle has built-in speakers that are “good enough” and it also has a headphone jack.

5) Likewise, you can play .mp3 sound files.

6) Some of my loyal blog readers have been wondering about Word .doc files or .pdf files. You can’t display these DIRECTLY on your Kindle, but Amazon will convert files in this format to Kindle format for you FREE. All you have to do is email the .doc file or the .pdf file to your Kindle (each Kindle comes with its own email address). When you email the document, it goes to Amazon, which converts it to the Kindle’s special .azw format, then forwards it to your Kindle wirelessly. At the same time, Amazon sends you an email on your own computer, notifying you that the .azw file is available for download to your computer, which you can then transfer to the Kindle via USB. It may sound a little complicated, but it’s actually not. It’s quite slick and easy to use. The file formats you can transfer this way are: .doc, .pdf, .html, .jpg, .gif, .png, .bmp, and .zip. This is actually pretty good, since these are most of the common formats for text and simple graphics.

I will confess that I didn’t get the Kindle in order to save a few bucks on books that I buy on Amazon. That is a nice side benefit, but what I really wanted is a nice reading tool for Word .doc files. I constantly get requests for endorsements from my author friends, and sometimes they want to send a Word .doc file. (This is a lot cheaper than sending paper, and it’s also quicker.) The problem is that I end up not reading the manuscript because reading a novel on a computer is torture. As I have been learning in the last couple of days, reading it on a Kindle is a real pleasure. I’m currently reading a novel by a friend of mine (my former editor who’s also a novelist) and I’m well into it.

I often get requests from author friends to read their manuscript before it’s ready for endorsement or even ready for the editor. I always say I’ll try to read it, but very rarely do I find it possible. My eyes just aren’t that good, and reading on a computer is hard for me. The Kindle is going to make it possible for me to do that now. Ditto for book proposals or other documents.

So this is the real reason I got my Kindle–to read unofficial books long before they get published. My understanding is that a LOT of editors these days have bought either the Kindle or the Sony E-book Reader for exactly this purpose. It’s a lot easier to take a Kindle on the subway than to take 30 manuscripts.

By the way, the Kindle also has a text-to-speech feature that will read the book aloud to you. It’s a pretty good text-to-speech reader. The male voice seems a little smoother than the female voice. I was talking with Vicki Crumpton, an editor friend, at the Florida conference. She had her Kindle shipped direct to the conference and was showing it around. We agreed that the digital voice is remarkably good, but it’s not something you’d want to listen to a whole novel with. It just isn’t nearly as good as a real human voice.

The Kindle has a tiny QWERTY keyboard on it, so you can type (very slowly). So you can annotate your books with notes, and place bookmarks. I’m told you can even do email but haven’t tried this. If you delete books from your Kindle that you bought from Amazon, you can always redownload them from Amazon (it takes less than a minute by wireless connection), so you don’t have to worry about “losing” them.

I recommend getting a cover for the Kindle, since otherwise the screen is going to get dinged up when you put the machine in your backpack or purse. Amazon has a nice leather cover for $30, and there are many other options.

One of my writer friends mentioned to me yesterday that you can get a TON of free e-books from www.FeedBooks.com. I looked and was delighted to see a lot of great classics that aren’t copyrighted. If you love Jane Austen or Dostoevsky or Mark Twain or Dickens, then check this place out. They have many many e-books in formats suitable for any e-book reader (even a plain PDF format that you can read on a computer).

I don’t think that Kindles will replace paper books, any more than the web has replaced newspapers or magazines. What has happened is that the web has taken market share from newspapers and mags, but there is still a place for paper. I do think the Kindle and similar e-book readers will take market share from paper books, and in the future, e-book sales will be a substantial fraction of an author’s sales. Since e-book royalties run about 25%, and since e-books typically sell for less, this should be a wash for the author. But authors may see more sales because of the cheaper format, so we may see more revenue because of higher volume. I don’t feel threatened by e-books at all.

One of my loyal blog readers, Marcus, asked about newspapers and magazines. There are a number of these available for the Kindle. They download to your Kindle wirelessly as soon as they’re available (typically before you could get delivery of the physical product). I haven’t tried any of these yet. There are also about 1000 blogs you can subscribe to. Again, I haven’t tried these, so can’t comment on them.

As I noted above, the prices for a Kindle book on Amazon are a bit less than for the paper copy. I just bought a copy of CONSPIRACY IN KIEV which was recommended by an editor friend of mine. The Kindle version is priced 60 cents less than the paper version. However, shipping would have cost me another few bucks for the paper copy, and I’d have had to wait a few days for it. So it made sense to buy it on my Kindle.

Amazon lets you read several sample chapters first, before you buy, and of course you download them wirelessly. I did that in the parking lot of the UPS store when I drove into town today. I went into town specifically to test how the Sprint service worked on the Kindle. It worked fine. Of course, I could have downloaded it on my computer at home and then transferred it via USB to the Kindle, but I wanted to verify that the wireless option works well.

So that sums up most of what I have to say. I think I’ll use my Kindle in the following primary ways:
1) Reading pre-release books by my author friends
2) Reading classic novels that I can get free off the web
3) Reading new release novels when it makes sense to get them electronically instead of paper copies

I still like paper books. The problem is that I have thousands of them. They take up a lot of space. They cost me time, energy, and money every time I move. It’s hard to pack more than two or three when I travel. The Kindle is going to help me minimize those problems. I hope to read some of those classic novels that I never read in high school because my “enlightened” school decided that those old writers were no longer “relevant”. Many of them are available free, and the Kindle will make them a lot more readable than my computer does.

Here is one thing I’d like to see on a Kindle: folders.

The Kindle will hold 1500 books, more or less. That’s a lot of books. Right now, when you load books to your Kindle, they all go into the “documents” folder. A folder with 1500 entries can take a while to navigate through. Far better to have folders within folders within folders, like you do on your computer.

Jeff Bezos, if you’re listening, I hope you’ll get your team to add folders to the Kindle real soon now. It’s a fine machine. It costs quite a lot, but it does what it promises, and then some. Since Apple Computer seems to be in no hurry to produce an e-book reader, the Kindle looks to me to be the next best thing. I expect to get a lot of use out of mine.