Five Years as an Indie Author

March 17, 2016

Five years ago today, I uploaded my first novel to the Kindle. I caught the bug instantly and have indie-published every title since.

ibmpcxt3 Back in 1986, I hammered out my first short story at the keyboard of an IBM PC XT. By 1991, I was looking to publish, so I wrote letters to several magazines, asking them for their writer’s guidelines. I made sure to include an SASE with each letter, so I would get a response. Once I had those guidelines, I could format my stories in the way that each editor wanted, and maximize my chance at getting accepted.  It took money and time, but that was the business.

Have you ever heard of an SASE? That’s a “self-addressed, stamped envelope.” In other words, a form of extinct communications technology. And in those days, if I wanted to submit to a magazine in Great Britain or Canada, I also had to include “international reply coupons.” You can think of those as a particular species of carrier pigeon.

I have vivid memories of letters, envelopes and stamps spread across my dorm room floor. That was 25 years ago.

Five years ago, after reading of the success of Amanda Hocking and J.A. Konrath, I was itching to try self-publishing. It was clear that the ebook market was flooded with readers and starving for writers, and the first writers who had jumped in were doing very well. I knew the ereader craze might be a fad… and that’s why I wanted in. I wanted to be a part of it, especially if it didn’t last. I was afraid that if I missed it, I would be kicking myself forever once it was gone.

So I uploaded Outrageous Fortunes in March of 2011, and started getting a nice check every month. I was hooked. Since then, publishers have continued to punish writers with deadlines, complicated contracts, occasional bankruptcies, and lately, censorship. For five years, I have been open to the possibility of pursuing a contract with a traditional publisher… but less and less open, year after year.

And the technology has continued to provide delightful surprises. How far from those SASE’s have we come? This far:

15bPCuX3YZHkcMJcsiz95EehKNzWJqbqF6

That 34-character-string is an address for a bitcoin wallet. My readers can pay me directly with it (if they know how). No stamps, no checks, no envelopes, no postal service, no banks, no governments. Human to human, anywhere on Earth, instantly.  The path between the reader and writer is now clear of all intrusive debris.

Today, not many of my readers know how… yet.  But as William Gibson said, “The future is already here. It’s just not evenly distributed.”


It’s okay, officer. I’m a writer (part 2).

March 7, 2016

Here’s my second post on how fiction writers can do research online without being tracked by the Man.  Last time, I shared my favorite private search engines, but now it’s time for the biggest hammer in the toolbox: Tor.

I use Tor a lot. Tor is… well, give this a try:

The people at the Tor Project describe it like this: “Tor is free software and an open network that helps you defend against traffic analysis, a form of network surveillance that threatens personal freedom and privacy, confidential business activities and relationships, and state security.”

If you’ve heard of Tor at all, you probably heard that criminals use it.  But actually, criminals don’t need Tor (because they’ve already hacked your wifi and stolen your identity, and surf the web masquerading as you).  Tor is for non-criminals who need anonymity online, like thriller writers researching how to kill people.  See “Media,” below?  That’s you, writer!

who-uses-tor

The software itself is called the Tor Browser Bundle, a modified version of the Mozilla Firefox browser.  You can download it for Windows or Mac (or for true badasses, Linux) right here.

There’s also Orbot and Orfox for your phone, so you can get your murder-and-mayhem research done on the road.

There’s not much learning curve to Tor. Just download and go. I’ll end this post with a scene from Sneakers that has nothing to do with Tor in any technical sense… except using Tor always reminds me of it:

“They got the satellite in Tokyo. These guys are good.”


It’s okay, officer. I’m a writer.

February 25, 2016

Here’s an issue that comes up all the time on Facebook and in my writer’s group. Question: How can I research online all the murder and mayhem I put in my stories without landing on some law-enforcement  watchlist?

I’ve done web searches on stuff that would curl your toes. If you write science fiction, mysteries, or thrillers, you need hard info on terrorist plots, hate groups, rogue states, weapons of mass destruction, end-of-the-world scenarios (and how to bring them about), not to mention blood spatter patterns, corpse decay rates, poisons and how to get them, explosives and how to get them, the sound of a Colt 1911, the kick of an AK-47, and how to whack someone with a bear trap or corn cob or whatever.

Luckily, I’m not just a writer. I’m also a privacy and free-speech advocate. I believe anyone on Earth should be free to use the internet anonymously, without being snooped on or persecuted by third parties.

Here are my favorite tools for searching and using the web safely:

Duckduckgo.com 

This is not an Asian fusion restaurant. This is a cool search engine… that’s NOT Google. Duckduckgo doesn’t keep logs, so searches you do there are not saved or stored. “We decided to make a bold move and not collect or share any of your personal information.” They describe their privacy policies in an outstanding tutorial here.

ddg_billboard2

Startpage.com

But what if you really want to do a Google search? If you can’t let go of Google, try Startpage: “When you search with Startpage, we remove all identifying information from your query and submit it anonymously to Google ourselves. We get the results and return them to you in total privacy.” Startpage is my all time favorite search engine — not just because they piggyback on Google, but because of their amazing proxy feature.

Startpage-proxy-drawn

Each search result on Startpage comes with a “Proxy” button. If you click it, the target website is accessed by Startpage’s web proxy, and the results are passed on to you. That means you can read the ATF’s website, for example, but the ATF never gets your IP address. They see Startpage as the visitor instead of you. Links on the proxied page are proxied as well (as long as they’re on the same domain), so you can surf all the ATF’s pages, and they will never know you were there.

I’ll also mention search.disconnect.me as the newest of my three favorites. It works like Startpage (without the awesome web proxy), but you can choose whether to piggyback on Google, Bing, or Yahoo.

Now you can unleash well-researched chaos in your fiction, without freaking out the authorities!  In my next post, I’ll show you Tor.


Novelists Don’t Collect a Paycheck

August 4, 2015

And that means we writers need day jobs. I still collect a paycheck from my career teaching math, science, and economics. But the essence of a paycheck is this: you are being paid for your time, whether per hour, or every two weeks, annually, whatever.

And you can only be paid for your time once. Then it’s gone.

Robert Kiyosaki, in his once-trendy but now all-but-forgotten pop-finance book Rich Dad, Poor Dad, proposed that wealthy people don’t get paid for their time. They get paid for owning “assets” — stocks, bonds, real estate, intellectual property — things that pay you just because you own them. (You can reject Kiyosaki as overhyped, but his book made a huge impact on me.)

As I was reading it, I was floored by the realization that a novel is an asset. (Specifically, intellectual property.) A good novel behaves as if it were a share of valuable stock, paying the writer royalties exactly as a stock share pays dividends. I started viewing my body of work as if it were an investor’s portfolio.

Suppose you’ve published a couple of novels and are earning a little, say a dollar a day, in royalties. Congratulations, you’re a small-time indie author. Now, a good income stock might pay dividends of one percent per share per year, so to get that same dollar a day from a stock portfolio, it would have to be worth over $36,000.

Now, you can’t cash out! But it’s interesting… because which would you rather do? Scrape together leftover pennies from your paycheck to buy assets a little at a time, Kiyosaki-style? Or be an artistic, tortured, wild-eyed novelist?

I vote novelist. Much more fun. Oh, and if you use your author royalties to buy assets, you ace the class.


How to Succeed When You Don’t Have a Clue

July 4, 2015

I’ve been around the block enough times to have accumulated a few successes and failures – in writing and elsewhere – and some of those have surprised me. Stuff I thought would work, didn’t – and some of my long shots came through. So I wrote this list. There are plenty of “How to Succeed” lists on the internet… but at least mine is only three bullets long.

1) Reject “knowledge.”

The world is much more complicated than we think. Theories about how something should work are nice for making us feel less overwhelmed, but if you fly by theory, and can’t understand why you aren’t getting anywhere, throw the theory away. What’s more: don’t replace it with another theory.

“Imagination is more important than knowledge.” — quotable physicist Albert Einstein

When smart people fail, they often spin their wheels in endless analysis. Dumb people don’t bother with this — and that is the advantage in being stupid. Most failure is random, and burning time trying to track down the imperfection in your technique (polishing your resume yet again, revising your novel yet again) doesn’t pay as well as just taking another random shot. Dumb people can clean the floor with intellectuals, as long as they’re persistent.

2) Don’t give up.

I’ve taught mathematics for years, and I can report from the trenches: intelligence isn’t what gets good grades. Persistence does. A+ math students push through confusion, get over frustration, and keep on going. The students who fail are the ones who never learn how to climb over that wall. A lot of my job is helping students manage their frustration, so they don’t give up.

When I’m hammering away at troubleshooting a computer, I’m always open to being surprised. I’ll try anything — even stuff that seems illogical — because too frequently, that is the stuff that works. Aside from taking good notes (so you don’t repeat yourself), what pays here is creativity. Are you crazy enough to keep trying new things? If not, and you are truly stuck, you’re shackled by theory — see #1.

Change one variable — even randomly! — and try again.

3) Google it.

I know that some think the internet makes us less intelligent. I’m amazed by this opinion, because from what I’ve seen, the internet adds thirty points to the effective IQ of billions of people. This is on my short-list of reasons I’m excited about the future of the planet. If you can use a search engine, you’re as competent as any expert was thirty years ago. Actually, you’re as competent as all of them.

“I google everything!” — quotable hacker Samy Kamkar

(I don’t mean Google literally — that’s insane. Have some self-respect and use something more private, like Startpage or DuckDuckGo.)


What readers pay, what writers make

December 18, 2014

I thought it would be fun to break down the dollars and cents of an ebook sale. Who gets what? What’s Amazon’s haul? What does that legendary 70% royalty really add up to?

Suppose you live here in Washington State in the bucolic Pacific Northwest, and you buy Outrageous Fortunes from Amazon.com (the numbers for other ebook retailers would be similar).

The price is $2.99.

But you notice that your credit card is charged $3.30. That’s the down side of Washington State: a sales tax near ten percent. So you have blessed the people in Olympia with 31 cents, so they can keep the schools open and the buses less late.

So Amazon kicks the $0.31 to Washington State, sends 70% of the $2.99 to me, and keeps the rest — $0.94 — for itself. Amazon’s cut, then, is a little less than a buck.

My 70%, on the other hand, is a hefty $2.05. This is a comparable dollar amount to what an author with a traditional publisher’s contract might receive for the sale of a $15 to $25 book — and there’s your indie revolution that Konrath and others have written so much about.

Hold on, there’s another player involved, and that’s the American government way over in Washington D.C. As long as I’m a sole proprietor, the IRS helps itself to 28% of my royalties, or 57 cents of that $2.05. That leaves me with a post-tax royalty of $1.48.

(The U.S. Government also gets a cut of the $0.94 that went to Amazon, since most of it ends up as income for Amazon employees or vendors. I would estimate 10% to 30%… let’s call it 20 cents, leaving Amazon with $0.74 and giving the U.S. Government a total haul of $0.77.)

The final breakdown of an ebook sale:
$0.31 to Washington State
$0.74 (roughly) to Amazon
$0.77 (roughly) to the United States
$1.48 to me.

All from the $3.30 paid by the reader. I think a better definition of “royalty percentage” would come from what I actually receive divided by what the reader actually pays, or $1.48 / $3.30 = 45%.


The Writing Process Blog Tour Continues

March 26, 2014

Thanks to Claire Gebben for inviting me to this tour. Claire was born and raised on the southeast side of Cleveland in Moreland Hills, Ohio, and penciled her first novel at age ten. Her writing has appeared in Shark Reef, The Speculative Edge, Soundings Review, The Fine Line, and ColumbiaKIDS e-zine. The Last of the Blacksmiths is her first novel.

Now, on to me.

What am I working on?

Hair of the Bear is the sequel to New World. It’s in the final editing stages and will be available Real Soon Now. These books take place in a fantasy wilderness derived from American folklore and lumberjack tales, a rich cultural source almost totally untapped by fiction writers. Lucky me!

Ninja Girl will be available shortly thereafter. The draft is finished and needs editing. It’s about a teenaged girl who discovers that she has super powers. She learns that ninjas throughout history have always been women, and she’s introduced to a secret society and its quest to save the world from another secret society. But she still has to survive high school. It’s borne of my love for Joss Whedon’s work, of course.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

I have a science-fiction writer’s taste for implications — pushing ideas as far as I can to see what new insights arise — and a thriller writer’s taste for danger and a pounding pulse. My characters are usually faced with mind-bending scenarios, which they struggle to deal with so they can avoid being killed.

I often write about power. My characters are often enormously competent — flawed, of course, broken sometimes — but talented and capable in some way, and they often find themselves granted enormous powers. Perhaps through technology or magic. Then we get to see what they do with that power. Will they fail? Abuse it, destroy themselves? Or will they rise to the challenge?

Why do I write what I do?

I draw a lot of inspiration from writers I love, both novelists and screenwriters. Awe can be motivating. But I think I draw more inspiration from writers who stink, or maybe from good writers who blow it. Nothing sticks in my imagination like witnessing a poorly executed idea. I’ll worry that thing like a toothache, and twist it and twist it and twist it, until I have my own story to tell.

How does my writing process work?

Some writers don’t plan much, because they are afraid that if they take the time and effort to plan a novel, their creative energy will be used up so when they sit down to write page one, they won’t want to do it.

You know what uses up my creative energy? Writing the draft. When I type “THE END,” I’m pretty much done. I sure can’t turn around and rewrite if the draft doesn’t work. So I plan and outline a lot, with notes and index cards on a corkboard. And rather than deplete me, the act of planning charges me up. By the time I start a draft, I’m ready to explode. And when I finish, I’ve got something that’s pretty close to being right.

#

That’s it! Now, if I had done my job right, I would have found a couple of writers to link to next… but no luck. Writers are often too busy to blog, so I’ll just pass the buck to my partner this week, Stephanie Lile.


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