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Why James Scott Bell Chose to E-Publish

Today, I’m interviewing James Scott Bell on why (and how) he decided to self-publish his latest book as an e-book. This interview ran in my e-zine earlier this week, so if you’ve already read it, there’s nothing new here. But not everybody reads my e-zine right away.

The e-book revolution is roaring in even faster than predicted by e-enthusiasts. A few facts will make clear what I mean:

A-list novelist David Morrell recently self-published his novel THE NAKED EDGE on Amazon, in Kindle and audio formats only.

A-list marketing guru Seth Godin is due today, March 1, 2011, to self-publish his next book, POKE THE BOX, simultaneously in hardcover and e-format.

In January of this year, self-published e-novelist Amanda Hocking sold a reputed 450,000 copies of her books on Amazon. She is 26 years old. Less than a year ago, she posted her first novel on Amazon. Now, she’s a superstar.

In view of these, I wasn’t surprised when one of my writing buddies, Jim Bell, recently self-published a new e-book, COVER YOUR BACK. The book contains a novella and three short stories. If the words “film noir” and “femme fatale” ring your bells, then COVER YOUR BACK might well be a book you’d enjoy.

Jim has not abandoned the world of traditional publishing. His venture into e-books simply allows him to do things that he couldn’t have done with a paper-and-ink publisher that thinks a year is a short period of time.

I asked Jim to tell me about his venture in an interview for this e-zine. Here’s a blurb about him and his writing:

JAMES SCOTT BELL is a bestselling thriller author and served as the fiction columnist for Writer’s Digest magazine. He has written three popular craft books for Writers Digest Books: Plot & Structure, Revision & Self-Editing and The Art of War for Writers. Jim has taught writing at Pepperdine University and numerous writers conferences. On June 4th and 5th he is teaching a seminar in Los Angeles for novelists and screenwriters. Information can be found at www.jamesscottbell.com

On to the interview. Let’s see what motivated Jim to take the e-plunge.

Randy: You recently self-published your first e-book, after more than a decade of publishing paper books with a number of traditional royalty-paying publishers. What prompted you to take the plunge into the e-book market?

Jim: Because there is absolutely no downside to it, and plenty of upside. The e-market is exploding and I had several stories and a novella that didn’t have a home. E-book publishing allows me to bring new material to my readers, and introduce me to others. I’ve always admired the old pulp writers of the mid 20th century, who had to write a lot for a penny a word, but created some of the best suspense ever. That’s what I always wanted to be able to do, and now can via e-publishing.

The nice thing is that the royalty for these works is great and I get paid every month.

Randy: Let’s talk a bit about the process.  You decided to write a novella and three short stories.  You wrote them in Microsoft Word just as you normally do.  Then what happened?  How did you take the book from a Word document to its final published form on Amazon and the other online retailers?

Jim: I hired a person to do the conversion for me. There are many people out there who will do this, and the cost is relatively low. You should be able to find someone for between $50 – $100. It may be a bit more if the document needs more work. I toyed with the idea of doing it myself, but was advised by others to let a professional handle it. So I provided the Word document and the person I hired converted into a format for Kindle, for Nook, and for Smashwords, should I expand to that.

Randy:  Many fiction contracts have “non-compete” clauses in them.  Tell us about those and what they mean for the already-published author who wants to venture into the electronic self-publishing world but doesn’t want to alienate his publisher.

Jim: Well, publishers are investing money in writers and trying to build them. So a standard publishing contract has a clause that says the writer cannot sell a book that might compete with the one they’re publishing. Usually there’s language about potential “harm” to the sales of the contracted book. That could mean that a self-published e-book, at a low price point, could be viewed as competition with the published e-book, which might have a higher price point.

On the other hand, a low priced, self-published e-book can be seen as a marketing tool for the other books. This should all be discussed with the publisher, and a written understanding hammered out.

Randy: Any predictions on the near-term future of publishing?  As we speak, Borders is circling the drain and Barnes & Noble is battling to reinvent itself, while dozens of previously unknown writers are earning thousands of dollars per month.  Where do you see the world of publishing going in 2011? What are your plans to deal with the massive change?

Jim: I do think the traditional publishing model is undergoing great stress now. There are fewer distributions points, less revenue coming in as consumers turn to lower priced e-books. The old guard will have to be experimenting with new ways of doing things, but that’s hard for a big, established business to do.

Meantime, there will be a veritable tsunami of original material self-published. Most of it will be bad. A writer still needs to sweat and strain and get better. The old model provided a filtering system. But for those who learn to write well, the self-publishing avenue has great potential.

I don’t think anyone can predict what the landscape will look like in five years. I have been surprised at the rapid rise in e-readers (as was predicted by one Randall Ingermanson). As a writer I’m taking advantage of the opportunity. Others will do the same. And word of mouth will continue to help the best works get the attention they deserve.

Randy: You probably couldn’t have traditionally published your novella WATCH YOUR BACK and you almost certainly couldn’t have published your short stories in paper format.  Tell us a bit about those stories and why you wrote them.  Isn’t it enough to be a successful novelist?

Jim: I love the short story and novella form. It used to be we had a thriving short story market in this country, lots of pulp and slick magazines. But that all dried up except for a couple of little magazines, through which it is impossible to make a living. And yes, short story collections are rarely published in print form.

So, here is a way for me to write short form suspense fiction and publish it. As I said, there’s just no downside to that. I can provide entertainment for readers at a low cost, and everyone’s happy.

Randy: I bought COVER YOUR BACK last week and read through it in a day. Great read! Lots of fun for those who like darkish fiction. What advice do you have for someone contemplating writing exclusively for the self-publishing market?

Jim: First, always be about getting better as a writer. That should never stop. I started in this business 20 years ago and have kept on studying the craft all that time.

Second, be sure to have your story vetted by several “beta” readers, and even consider paying a freelance editor to go over the manuscript. Readers do notice if the text is sloppy.

Third, hire a good cover designer. You have to make a good first impression with your book cover.

Finally, make some long term plans. What kind of writing will be your specialty, your “brand”? As you build readers, they are going to expect some continuity in your work. That’s not to say you can’t be flexible and try new things, but an audience is grown largely by coming to rely on the type of story you produce. Think of Stephen King and John Grisham. Even they did not deviate from their genres until they were well established in them.

Randy: Great advice, as always. Thanks for telling us about your adventures on Planet E, Jim!

If you’re interested in checking out what devilish games Jim plays on his lead characters, have a look at the Amazon page for WATCH YOUR BACK. Priced at $2.99, it’s a darned good deal.

(Standard full disclosure: The above link contains my Amazon affiliate code.)

Interview With a Nigerian Novelist

In September of 2007, I received an e-mail with a Nigerian return address. Based on my past experience, I jumped to a conclusion you can easily guess.

The sender informed me that she had discovered my Snowflake method in late 2006, written a novel in January and February of 2007, signed with an agent in April, and sold the book to Hyperion in July.

The surprising thing to me came after that. The surprising thing to me was that there wasn’t anything else in the e-mail, except a thanks to me for creating the Snowflake method.

I wondered if this e-mail could possibly be legitimate. I wondered how anyone could believe that an unknown author from the Third World could sell a first novel to a major publisher after working on it for only a few months. I wondered when I’d get the invitation to help launder $100 million in crooked money.

But it turns out that it was legit. Completely. The author, Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani, had done exactly what she’d said. Her novel, I Do Not Come To You By Chance, told the tale of a young man who works for a Nigerian scammer. I knew Adaobi was for real when I read the review of her novel in The Washington Post.

I recently interviewed Adaobi for this blog and found myself absolutely inspired by what she’s done. Here is the interview. Enjoy!

About The Author
Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani was born in Enugu, Nigeria. She earned her very first income from winning a writing competition at the age of 13. As a teenager, she secretly dreamed of becoming a CIA or KGB agent. She ended up studying Psychology at the University of Ibadan, Nigeria, instead. At present, she lives in Lagos, Nigeria. I Do Not Come to You by Chance is her first novel.

About The Book
We’ve all seen the scams — those infamous 419 emails (named after a section of Nigerian law), that invade inboxes daily with a plea: “Dear Friend, I’m a retired barrister. I alone know the existence of this ten million dollar deposit. I am looking for your assistance…” But there are real people writing these emails, even if what they say isn’t true. In Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s vivid, often hilarious, debut novel, we learn how one young man gets sucked into the 419 world, losing himself in the process.

Q&A

RI: Your novel is about a young Nigerian man who is hired to work for a Nigerian scammer. What prompted you to write this novel?

ATN: I grew up knowing that I was blessed with the gift of writing, but I had no plans of doing anything with it other than loads of lengthy letters to friends and penpals. Then in 2001, one of my mentors told me that I was supposed to do more with my talent. Finally, in December 2006, I decided that it was time to write my novel. So I lay flat on the floor and thought. I’ve always had a fascination with human personality and the science of why people do the things they do. I decided to scheme my plot along that line. One thought led to the other, and the scamming theme was born.

RI: You wrote the novel not long after you came to my web site. Tell us about your process for writing and how long it took you to go from your initial idea to selling the novel to Hyperion.

ATN: I came upon your site in one of those pre-novel-writing periods of Googling to find out how on earth one even starts writing a novel in the first place. Unlike what I’d been reading from many other writers, your articles demystified the whole process for me. You made it sound so easy. You made it sound so possible. Especially your Snowflake method, which explained the process of putting flesh to concepts and building up until they eventually became a whole book. You also gave time frames that made it clear that I didn’t have to spend my whole life writing one book! With my mind having been liberated, I started clicking away at I Do Not Come to You by Chance in January 2007, finished in February 2007, and that draft, though not perfect, was good enough to attract a contract with one of the industry’s best — my agent, Daniel Lazar of Writers House, New York — in April 2007. After extensive revisions, we sold to Hyperion in July 2007.

RI: Some of the scam victims in your novel have interesting names — Rumsfeld, Albright, Condoleezza, and Letterman. Tell us how people in Nigeria feel about those names.

ATN: Nigerians generally tend to be amused by my use of those names — names which, to us, were once ultimate symbols of the West. But then, mischief aside, why should I have chosen John or Jane, when Rumsfeld and Condoleezza sound more interesting? I try to infuse as much entertainment as possible into every single word I write, right down to my choice of characters’ names.

RI: Publishers Weekly and the Washington Post both gave you strong reviews. What sort of research did you do for this novel?

ATN: Most of my ‘research’ entailed chats with friends’ friends, or email exchanges with scammers who had tried to lure me with those emails. Apart from that, growing up amongst the Igbos of Eastern Nigeria meant that most of the sights and sounds described in my novel had happened right around me. My descriptions were mostly from personal observations of the 419ers and their lives.

RI: Despite living in Nigeria, you sold your novel to an excellent US publisher. What are the prospects of non-US residents for selling a novel to a major US publisher?

ATN: No one can tell exactly what the prospects are until more people living in Nigeria actually started trying. At present, I’m the only Nigerian in decades (and one of the very few in Africa) to have a novel published internationally while still living in my home country. Most of what I learned about getting an agent and having my novel published internationally was from researching online. Few people here seemed to have the slightest idea. When I meet home-based writers and ask why they don’t have any publishers outside Nigeria, it often turns out that they never even explored the possibilities. I constantly have to explain to them about agents, and about the goings-on between the period of signing a book deal and when the book hits the stands. To many here, the process sounds like Hindustani because they are so used to the Nigerian way of finishing your writing today, sending to the printers tomorrow, and having your novel ready the day after.

RI: What project are you working on now?

ATN: It’s a secret, Randy!

* * *

Randy sez: Now, is that cool, or what? Adaobi didn’t sit around fretting about whether she had to spend years of angst to write a novel or whether she could ever find an agent or whether she had a chance to get published . She sat down and wrote her novel. She got an agent. She published her book. Just like that.

OK, she has talent. Check out the Amazon reviews of I Do Not Come To You By Chance. She’s a good writer.

But Adaobi didn’t mess around waiting for the universe to deal her something wonderful. She took action. Something wonderful happened when she did. Almost nothing ever happens unless you take action. There’s a lesson hiding in there somewhere, no?

My Interview With Margie Lawson

I have an interview today on Margie Lawson’s blog.

Margie interviews me on my forthcoming book, WRITING FICTION FOR DUMMIES, which will be hitting the shelves in only a few weeks.

If you leave a comment on Margie’s blog, you’ll be entered into a drawing for a free copy of my book (to be shipped in a few weeks when I get copies). You’ll also be entered for a drawing for one of Margie’s six courses on writing. (I love her teaching, so any of her courses is well worth it.)

Interview With Tosca Lee

Not too long ago, I did an interview with Tosca Lee. Tosca’s latest novel HAVAH got a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly. PW doesn’t give out many starred reviews, so that’s quite a feather in Tosca’s cap. HAVAH is Tosca’s second book, and it’s a novel about Eve, the primordial mother of all mankind in the Genesis story. (HAVAH is Hebrew for Eve.)

I doubt very much that the reviewer for Publisher’s Weekly believes in a literal Eve. But everyone can understand guilt. HAVAH is a novel about a woman who lives a very long life, carrying the guilt of introducing evil into the world.

HAVAH is beautifully written (although it does not have any exploding helicopters — I have discussed this failing with Tosca and she’s sorry.)

About Tosca Lee: Tosca Lee earned her BA in English and International Relations from Smith College. She also studied International Economics at Oxford University. She has held the titles of Mrs. Nebraska-America and Mrs. Nebraska-United States and was first runner up to Mrs. United States in 1998. Tosca works as a Senior Consultant for the Gallup organization, training managers and leaders worldwide. Her first novel, DEMON: A MEMOIR, gained her critical acclaim. Her most recent novel, HAVAH: THE STORY OF EVE, earned a starred review from Publisher’s Weekly. Visit Tosca’s web site at www.ToscaLee.com, and read more about her books at www.havahstoryofeve.com and www.demonamemoir.com.

Tosca Lee, author of DEMON and HAVAH.

Here’s a photo of Tosca. There is a stereotype that says that beauty queens are not very bright. Like most stereotypes, that is balderdash. I’ve known Tosca for a bit more than a year now, and I consider her brilliant. (Sadly, she is not very good at math — but many intelligent people lack that pesky “math gene.”) In high school, she was (like most of us writers) considered a geek. Want to know what her friends called her? Read on . . .

Interview With Tosca Lee

Randy: What was your high school nickname and how did you earn it?

Tosca: My friends used to call me Weird Tosca. I think it was a nice way of saying, “We love you, but you’re a goofy nerd girl.” I never quite fit in — bi-racial kids into ballet and poetry weren’t as in vogue in Midwestern football country in the 70s and 80s, you know? I read Arthurian fantasy fiction and idolized Red Sonja, watched Thundarr the Barbarian on Saturday mornings, and honestly believed Luke Skywalker was going to whisk me off in a borrowed X-wing one day.

Of course, I’m not that way today.

I was yesterday, but not today.

So far.

Randy:  At first sight, a novel about a demon doesn’t have a lot in common with a novel about the primordial mother of all mankind. What’s the common thread that drives your writing?

Tosca: I’ve wondered this myself at times. But there is indeed a common thread: both books examine stories so ingrained in our culture as to be cliché (angels and demons, Adam and Eve) from unlikely perspectives. DEMON tells the story of the time before creation to the present day — as well as the love story of God with humans — from a demon’s point of view. HAVAH examines the story of Eve from a fresh perspective as well: hers. We already have the Biblical narrator’s take, the church fathers’ take, the medieval societal take on this woman’s life. But we do not have hers.

If you assume that demons and Eve are possibly real, then it seems to me that their perspectives, whether you like them or not, merit examination.

Randy:  Tell us a bit about your first novel, DEMON: A MEMOIR.  When you first pitched this novel, what was the reaction from publishers and how did you deal with that reaction?

Tosca: You mean after they pelted me with holy water?

Well, let’s just say that as a former technical writer and beauty queen from Nebraska without a theology degree I would have fared better proposing a football book on the merits of the I-formation.

Ultimately, I don’t think it was the subject matter that scared them. And I never really considered whether it would when I was writing it (though it scared plenty of my friends). The main issue they had with it was that it was written as a monologue. They wanted a more traditional structure complete with other characters and dialogue. I had no idea how to accomplish that.

Randy:  I’d like to follow up on that.  When you finally sold DEMON, your editor Jeff Gerke made a small but critical suggestion.  Tell us the story on that, and why it made the book better.

Tosca: After Jeff took DEMON to committee only to receive the same feedback — that it needed dialogue, other characters — he suggested I try rewriting the first 40 pages in such a way that the demon is telling his story to someone else. And so Clay, the Bostonian everyman and DEMON’S protagonist, was born. Now the reader had someone to identify with other than the demon. It also made the entire story richer for its parallels in human existence. After submitting the new first 40 pages, the committee took the book — as well as an orphaned one-page prologue on the story of Eve — in a multi-book deal.

Randy:  Your new novel HAVAH tells the story of Eve, the mother of mankind.  One might think there isn’t a lot to say about Eve.  Tell us why you wrote this book and what sort of research you did.

Tosca: The bones of the story are lean in scripture, it’s true. But her image, as painted by history, church and convention, has caused unending commentary and affected women for millennia. And even though Adam is called the “original sinner,” Eve retains the evil seductress stigma to this day.

That intrigued me.

I have to think that any one of us in a similar position might have done the same thing she did — probably would have at some point, I daresay. A reader just today wrote to me and said, “I am Eve.” And indeed, we all are.

In a strictly narrative sense, if you believe in a literal Eve, then the woman was as human and fallible as any of us, even if she had the benefit of a first-hand relationship with God, of perfect genes, of an unfallen world. And anyone human and fallible, who can claim to know God first-hand, who has undergone the transition from immortality to mortality… has a story-worthy perspective.

So I wrote it for those reasons, and because I hate two-dimensional, cliché characters. Just as I hate red-horned evil “muhahahaha!”-laughing demons, I hate the concept of a simple-minded “oh, that’s pretty, I think I’ll eat it anyway” Eve. If the woman was real, there was probably some interesting rationalization that happened there. Some very horrific guilt — not to mention the physical consequences of life outside paradise. How have we missed this? I can’t imagine living with myself after such a terrible mistake and disruption of, oh, the world as we know it. I can’t imagine living with new separation from a God I loved intimately. Or the horror of the first human death — of anyone, let alone my own son — at the hands of another son, no less. Of living nearly a millennium with it all.

Or being married more than 900 years.

The research was appallingly daunting. Theology and scripture, apocryphal and pseudepigraphic texts, the Midrash, Mesopotamian geography and history, ancient agriculture, horticulture, flora and fauna of the Levant. Basket weaving — I wish I were kidding on that — textiles, pottery, ancient arts like fire and tool-making. Childbirth. I read What to Expect When You’re Expecting. But I have to tell you, one hasn’t lived until one has read the Pentatuch As Narrative.

Randy:  HAVAH isn’t exactly G-rated.  In fact, the book comes with a warning on the content.  What’s the warning, and how do you think the Christian reading public will respond to the somewhat “spicy” flavor of the book?

Tosca: It’s been cited PG-13 by some reviewers and carries a “contains mature imagery” note on some sites. But so does the Song of Solomon.

The fact is, I’m pretty sure Adam and Eve did it. By “it,” I mean I’m pretty sure they had sex/did the chicken/the wild thing/hooked up — on more than one occasion.

Granted, I don’t write their intimate life in explicit detail. The book is put out by NavPress, a Christian publisher with a reputation for sound theology and the standards readers expect in Christian fiction. But you cannot separate scripture from human experience — an experience that includes pleasure and beauty (as well as depravity, too). Scriptures were written about and for humans.

At the end of the day, I don’t understand this suspicion of the sensual. The world is sumptuous, earthy and seminal — or was designed to be — and the marriage relationship is meant to be gorgeous.

If only all life were like that.

Randy:  Demons and sensuality. I’m told that some readers were hesitant to read your books — particularly DEMON — because of the subject matter. What do you say about that?

Tosca: If you do not believe in God, demons or Eve, it’s pretty much a non-issue. But if you are a Christian, demons and original sinners inhabit your world. We can cover our eyes — in which case they’d still exist — or we can examine what we believe to be there.

Ultimately, if demons and sex are offensive — as well as child sacrifice, orgies, or gory executions . . . then we dare not crack open the cover of the Bible.

Lucky for us if we do, love and grace and redemption lurk within those same pages.

Randy:  What’s next for Tosca Lee?  What are you working on right now and why?

Tosca: I’m thinking about that now. You know, Jeff Gerke just put a bug in my ear that just won’t die and is scaring me to death. I really wanted to write an “easy” book this next time around but this idea wouldn’t be easy. I won’t say what it is yet; I haven’t even mentioned it to my agent in the event that I chicken out.   Oh! And a movie. Drrr — I almost forgot. DEMON is getting optioned for film. If all goes as planned, it should start shooting next year.

Randy: Good luck!

Postscript: After the interview, I asked Tosca about that idea for her next book and she told me more about it, off the record. I love it! I hope she writes it.

If you’d like to know more about Tosca’s books, here are the Amazon links to DEMON: A MEMOIR and to HAVAH: THE STORY OF EVE.