Category Archives: Books

…And It’s Gone

BooksI took a look on Amazon today, and was surprised to see that the $713.52 copy of Arcana that I mentioned a little over a week ago is no longer posted. Was somebody really dumb enough to pay over seven hundred dollars for a copy when I normally sell them for under twenty bucks?

My guess is probably not. More likely, the seller came across my blog post and realized I was on to them. Like I said in the previous post, odds are they never had the book in the first place and were planning on ordering a copy at the under-twenty-dollar list price to ship to anybody willing to bite. Then, they could keeping the difference for themselves. I do know that Amazon is trying to crack down on that sort of “selling,” so if that’s what they were doing it would explain why they didn’t want the attention.

But it also occurs to me, on the chance the book actually sold, that maybe I should put up a listing to sell my own used copies for hundreds of dollars. It’s not like I don’t own a stack of them, and I could honestly pitch them as “signed first editions.” You know, because there’s only one edition and I’d just sign the book before shipping it out.

“Blade Runner” Was a Totally Different Story

Back in October I saw the new Blade Runner 2049, the long-awaited sequel to Ridley Scott’s science fiction classic. I enjoyed it a lot, and I think that they did justice to the original – which is a pretty tall order. I will say that the reviews were mixed in part because you need to be familiar with the original film in order to fully appreciate it, and some of the perpetual fan questions like “Is Deckard really a replicant?” go unanswered – but I found it a nice counterpoint to the big, kind of dumb sci-fi action films that seem to be taking over the genre of late.

At any rate, no matter what you think of the original or the new film, here’s a question for you – what the heck is a “Blade Runner?” We know what it means in the context of the films – blade runners are essentially bounty hunters who track down rogue replicants, synthetic humans originally created as a slave labor force. The original Philip K. Dick story, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, is no help at all – the term “blade runner” is nowhere to be found in the text.

I recently came across this Slate article up explaining where the title came from, and it’s actually kind of bizarre and amusing. It just goes to show the in world of movie adaptations, nothing is anywhere near as straightforward as it appears. The story of the term “Blade Runner” starts with a doctor named Alan E. Nourse who also happened to be a science-fiction writer.

Whatever Nourse’s skills as a doctor may have been, they were outweighed in the scales of history by his other passion: writing about the medical profession and fantastical worlds of the future. Before he was even done with medical school, he was publishing sci-fi on the side: first came short pieces in anthology magazines like Astounding Science Fiction and Galaxy Science Fiction, then he started publishing novels with titles like Trouble on Titan (1954), Rocket to Limbo (1957), and Scavengers in Space (1959). In 1963, he retired from medicine to focus on his writing, but wrote about learning the healing arts in a 1965 nonfiction book called Intern, published under the intimidating pseudonym “Dr. X.” Sci-fi author-editor Robert Silverberg, who knew Nourse, tells me the latter book “brought him much repute and fortune,” but in general, he just “wrote a lot of very good science fiction that no one seemed to notice.”

That changed on October 28, 1974. Sort of. On that day, publishing house David McKay released a Nourse novel that combined the author’s two areas of expertise into a single magnum opus: The Bladerunner. It follows the adventures of a young man known as Billy Gimp and his partner in crime, Doc, as they navigate a health-care dystopia. It’s the near future, and eugenics has become a guiding American philosophy. Universal health care has been enacted, but in order to cull the herd of the weak, the “Health Control laws” — enforced by the office of a draconian “Secretary of Health Control” — dictate that anyone who wants medical care must undergo sterilization first. As a result, a system of black-market health care has emerged in which suppliers obtain medical equipment, doctors use it to illegally heal those who don’t want to be sterilized, and there are people who covertly transport the equipment to the doctors. Since that equipment often includes scalpels and other instruments of incision, the transporters are known as “bladerunners.” Et voilà, the origin of a term that went on to change sci-fi.

The Bladerunner had nothing to do with Philip K. Dick or Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Nonetheless, it would become the title of the film that would make Dick and his work famous in popular culture. The story of how that happened was strange and serendipitous, to say the least.

But fortune smiled on Nourse, as did one of the finest writers of the past 100 years: the obscene eccentric William S. Burroughs. According to literary scholar Paul Ardoin, Burroughs somehow obtained a copy of the second printing of The Bladerunner around the end of 1976. Burroughs was in a transitional stage in his life, having kicked heroin only a few years before and having moved back to New York after a self-imposed exile in Europe. He was rebooting his career with the help of a new assistant named James Grauerholz, turning in columns for pop-culture mag Crawdaddy and soaking up the nascent downtown punk scene. On December 5, 1976, Grauerholz wrote a letter to Burroughs’s agent, Peter Matson, saying the scribe had “liked the book very much, and in fact has begun to consider a film treatment for it.” As far as I can tell, writing a film treatment was something new, or at least quite rare, for Burroughs, but he dove into it with fervent passion. Matson negotiated the rights with Nourse, got the go-ahead, and Burroughs wrote the treatment in less than four months, delivering it to Matson by March 1977. He called it The Blade Runner, adding a fateful space to the titular noun.

Burroughs’s take on Nourse is, to put it mildly, a wild ride. Indeed, it barely has anything to do with The Bladerunner and is as over-the-top as the original was buttoned-down. It’s written not as a screenplay, but rather as a novella-length explanation of the movie to someone named “B.J.” (Burroughs periodically included this mysterious figure as the recipient of his words in other works, as well.) Like many Burroughs texts, the adaptation is highly inscrutable, which is what makes it so entertaining. He doesn’t even get to the main plot of the movie until nearly halfway through, having spent the first portion just setting the scene with the difficult-to-follow backstory of how the world of the film got to be so screwed-up: Overpopulation led to government intrusion into the lives of private citizens, the state’s attempts to control the population begat multiple Health Acts that were received poorly by the populace and led to a bloody civil war in greater New York in which the white middle class battled the poor and people of color, and from the ashes rose a new America where “the unfit” have to undergo sterilization in order to receive health care.

The Blade Runner was patently unfilmable. Grauerholz reported in July 1977 that nobody they took it to was interested, and an alternative arrangement was made with Nourse, whereby the treatment would be published in book form and all film rights would be forfeited. In order to distinguish it from Nourse’s book, a title change was necessary, and although the adaptation would never be a movie, Burroughs and Grauerholz confusingly chose to call it Blade Runner: A Movie. It was first published in 1979 by Blue Wind Press and was never considered a major Burroughs work.

However, a copy of Blade Runner: A Movie found its way into the library of a struggling actor and writer named Hampton Fancher. In the early 1980s, he, producer Michael Deely, and director Ridley Scott were working on an adaptation of Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? and stumbled on a question. “Ridley, after a few months of us working on a draft, when he first came into the project, asked me a question that was so obvious I hadn’t really addressed it before,” Fancher tells me. “What is it that Deckard is, professionally? ‘He’s a detective,’ I said. ‘Well, that was obvious, but what kind of detective exactly, what should he be called?’ I didn’t have an answer, but I’d better get one fast.”

He turned to his collection of tomes. Per Fancher: “That night, I was looking through my books and came across a thin little volume by William Burroughs called Blade Runner. Bingo! Everybody liked it, then later, we needed a new title other than the ones we’d been considering and Michael Deeley, the producer, said, ‘It’s staring us right in the face.’” According to Scott, they approached Burroughs, he said yes, they bought the title of his book for “a nominal fee,” and Blade Runner — a work that otherwise had nothing to do with The Bladerunner or Blade Runner: A Movie — was released on June 25, 1982.

I don’t know if there’s any real takeaway from this, except that it shows if you come up with a really cool title for your story, somebody might decide to license it for a completely unrelated film. This isn’t the only case of that, either. The producers of the 1992 film The Lawnmower Man licensed the title of the Stephen King story of the same name not long after King became a household name, but the movie was actually based on an original screenplay with a working title of CyberGod.

The only similarity with the King story is that there’s one scene where a guy is killed with a lawnmower. King wound up suing the production company when they advertised that the film was based on his story – when all that the company had licensed was the title and the movie was entirely written by someone else. And by the way, before you tell me how terrible The Lawnmower Man was, make sure you’ve watched the director’s cut first. Compared to the theatrical release, which was awful, it’s like night and day.

So maybe that means if you come up with a really cool title, you should keep it to yourself until you know what the people licensing it are going to do with it. Then again, if your name isn’t Stephen King, I don’t know how likely it is that a film production is going to try and exploit your fame in order to drum up publicity.

Check It Out! I’m Rich!

arcana_screenshotWell no, not really. But this listing on Amazon was too good not to share. You can click on the image to enlarge.

Now to be clear, that’s a real listing, not something I whipped up with my mad MS Paint skills. You can check it out right here. Somebody has a used copy of my novel Arcana on sale for $713.52. Besides being an oddly specific number, that’s way more than it costs anywhere else. If one copy is worth $713.52, and I’ve got twenty of them in a box right here plus a few more on my bookshelf, that’s like fifteen thousand bucks. I’m sitting on a small fortune, right?

Amazon will even give you five dollars off your order. What a deal!

In fact, this listing highlights one of the more dubious practices I see on Amazon whenever a new book comes out. Somebody will put up a listing for a used copy – you know, before any copies have been sold and when I know that for sure – for some ridiculous price. Then, the listing just sits there for years. My working hypothesis is that it takes very little effort to list a book, and there are a few collectors out there dumb enough to pay those silly prices on the assumption that the book must be worth something if it’s priced so high and they’ve never heard of it. Then, on the off chance the vendor does make a sale, they buy the book at the regular price, ship it to the buyer, and pocket the difference.

It’s sure nice work if you can get it.

Is Trump Card Non-Fiction?

At one point, a friend of mine commented that with the way things were going, I should be marketing Trump Card as non-fiction. I conceded that perhaps what was really needed was some version of the opening to the film The Men Who Stare At Goats – “More of this is true than you would believe.” But as this article from Slate points out, because of an oddity in how books are classified, a parody Donald Trump memoir by Alec Baldwin and Kurt Andersen is listed under non-fiction. Even though it’s a parody, and obviously not a real memoir by Donald Trump.

This is not to say that Times readers are likely to be confused by the memoir (though who really knows anymore). The book doesn’t conceal the fact that it is a parody, but there are fictional moments within it that could almost be true, knowing Trump. The book is even written to read like him, with ridiculous lines like “Mitt looks like he could be a winner, but he just doesn’t smell like one” actually being painfully plausible.

Andersen, who sees his book as a work of fiction, said he finds the whole situation “hilariously and delightfully meta.” (Anderson’s radio show, Studio 360, is part of the Slate podcast fold.) When asked why the book was on the Nonfiction list, staff members at the Times said that the book fell under parody or humor (though Jason Zinoman, who reviewed it for Slate, might disagree) and that humor falls under nonfiction. Other parodies to have been categorized as nonfiction include The Onion Book Of Known Knowledge, Earth (The Book), America Again, and I Am America (And So Can You!), though “determinations are made on a case by case basis.”

This is relevant for Trump Card because when I was self-publishing it I had to pick a single category, and settled on Humor/Topical/Political. Even though the book is also a parody of the Young Adult Dystopia genre, the book constructed around a satirical look at Donald Trump and his administration. So it’s humor. Does that make it non-fiction? Some of the material in the book about “David Godfrey” and his “Golden Dawn” group supporting Trump turned out to be weirdly accurate if you substitute some names in there from the real occult community. But otherwise? Of course it’s fiction, regardless of how the classifications fall.

Shouting Trump Card

TrumpCard_Front_250wOne of the things I really did not understand about writing when I finally managed to get a book published back in 2009 is that writing the book is the easy part. Marketing the book is the real challenge. I recently read an interview with an author who was asked for tips on marketing books, and not one of their responses was even marginally useful. The recommendations were all basically “make the story as good as you can,” which doesn’t help you at all if you can’t get your book in front of people in the first place.

Don’t get me wrong, whenever you write you do want to make the story as good as you possibly can. But aren’t we already working on this? Maybe the author interviewed was talking about a strategy that I’ve seen some ebook authors use of cranking out as many books as possible without much editing or revision on the grounds that it gives them that many more chances for readers to happen upon their work. I will grant, that strategy can produce some really bad writing, and when people do come upon it they are less likely to be captivated by it – even if the bad stuff does get popular sometimes.

But still, all of that is on the writing side. I’m convinced there has to be some sort of trick to cracking book marketing – some people seem to be good at it and others not so much. Part of it seems to be surprisingly old-school, as I wrote about awhile back – you need to get your book mentioned on the largest media platform possible for it to get traction. That’s old-school in that it’s less of a change to the market than a lot of people think. Twenty or thirty years ago publishers were the gatekeepers, and now it seems that media companies serve the same role.

Over the next couple of months I’m going to be experimenting with some of the book marketing services out there, and I’ll let you know what my results are. The first one I’m trying out is free promotion from Shout My Book. They have paid plans that are not that expensive, and if the free promotion gets results I’ll go ahead a likely do one of those as well. I just submitted Trump Card for promotion, and it should go out sometime in the next week.

Instead of linking directly to Amazon or any other retailer, I’ve retooled the links here and over on Augoeides to point to my book landing pages so I can analyze the traffic more easily. One of my first takeaways is that I get basically zero click-throughs on my fiction from my magick blog, even though it racks up something like twenty thousands hits a month. I do get some click-throughs on my non-fiction magick books, but it seems that Augoeides is totally the wrong market for fiction. That’s one of the reasons I’m trying to do more blogging about writing over here.

But I don’t really know if that’s the answer, either. This author site gets nowhere near the traffic that Augoeides does, and it has to become more popular before I get a good sense of all that. That’s another reason I used the landing page link for my Shout My Book submission rather than Amazon. Hopefully some of the folks who click on Trump Card – which, by the way, is just terrific, will find themselves on this site and like more of what they see.

So the whole point is to find out. If I keep getting a good sense of the traffic from my various promotional efforts, I can focus on keeping what works and not wasting my time on stuff that doesn’t. Not only that, I hope that by sharing those results I can help other authors understand the game of marketing better as I learn about it myself.

Twin Cities Book Festival This Saturday!

tc_book_festivalThis Saturday, October 14th, I will be appearing with Moonfire Publishing at the Twin Cities Book Festival brought to you by Rain Taxi. Click the link for more information about the festival, including directions, maps of the site, and the event’s programming schedule.

The festival will be held at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds and runs from 10 AM to 5 PM. Moonfire Publishing will be at table #205, with information about upcoming titles, current titles, submission guidelines, and more. If you are local to the Twin Cities area, or for that matter just passing through, I hope to see you there!

Blurb-Tuning is a Thing

Stop-Writing-a-Synopsis-SmallWhenever you write a book, you need a book blurb if you want to sell it. Blurbs are short, but word-for-word a lot more work has to go into them than into any other part of your story, except maybe the title. Your title, your blurb, and your cover are often the only things your readers have to go on, especially before you’ve managed to rack up a bunch of reviews.

Ipswich, my long-awaited sequel to Arcana, is just about ready to go. We need to finish proofing the interior and proof the final version of the cover, and I’ll be ready to order copies. One of the last sticking points on the cover has been the blurb, which I have been working on with the folks at Moonfire, and I think we finally have it. Here it is:

Wealthy heiress and party girl Sara Winchester’s eyes are opened to a hidden world of spirits and paranormal occult forces when an experimental psychoactive drug unlocks her dormant mystical powers and senses. With the help of the centuries-old order of magicians known as the Guild, she uses her new abilities to solve the mystery of her mother’s untimely death.

Sara’s investigation leads her to the little town of Ipswich, Massachusetts. There she must face a ruthless killer who can control the spirits of the dead — and the remnants of an order of dark magicians who seek to destroy both her and the Guild. Will her fledgling powers prove equal to the task, or will her soul be trapped forever along with the restless dead of Ipswich?

I’ll be updating the Ipswich page here on the blog with the new version, but I thought it might helpful to share the old one for comparison since it will no longer be posted here. This is what I started with:

Party girl Sara Winchester becomes one of the world’s wealthiest people following her mother’s untimely passing. When an experimental psychoactive drug unlocks her family’s long-dormant mystical powers and senses, her eyes are opened to a whole new world of spirits and paranormal forces. With the help of the magical order known as the Guild, she employs her newfound abilities to investigate the mystery of her mother’s death.

Her investigation leads her to the little town of Ipswich, Massachusetts. There she must confront a killer who can control the spirits of the dead, and the remnants of a rival order that seeks to destroy both her family and the Guild. Will her fledgling powers prove equal to the task, or will her soul be trapped in Ipswich along with the spirits of the town?

I’m not a big “word guy.” I don’t naturally think in language, so to me those two paragraphs basically say the same thing. However, my editor is a published poet who is much better at paying attention to those details than I am. Even if you’re not working with a publisher, it’s very helpful to find somebody who can do this for you. Another pair of eyes is good, and another pair of eyes who is good with the language is priceless.

Taking apart the original blurb: The first sentence is awkward for a couple of reasons. First off, I used “mother’s untimely passing” there because I use “mother’s death” at the end of the paragraph and it would be too repetitive to use “death” in that first sentence. Second, it doesn’t actually communicate that much information. In the new blurb, I just say “wealthy heiress and party girl” which tells you what you need to know without a whole sentence dedicated to it.

I need to keep “psychoactive” because I want it to be clear that we’re talking about some sort of party drug and not a structured medical experiment. But in the new blurb, I turn the sentence around to make it a more active construction. There still is a bit of passive voice in “eyes are opened” but that’s deliberate – I want to make it clear that this is something that happens to Sara, not something that she actively does. Which, by the way, is one of the few correct usages of passive voice.

“Hidden world” and “paranormal occult forces” are mostly used to provide additional clarity and subvert the “whole new world” cliche which is not needed here. And yes, “hidden” and “occult” do literally mean the same thing – but the connotation is dramatically different. Using “paranormal” and “occult” together clearly identifies for the reader what kind of book Ipswich is. It’s paranormal in the general sense, but more “occult” than, say, a paranormal romance.

The new blurb makes it clearer that these are Sara’s dormant mystical powers and senses, not “her family’s.” The point about her family is significant in the story, but it’s not that relevant here. All the reader really needs to know is that her mystical powers and senses used to be dormant, and now they aren’t. The new blurb also changes “magical order” to “order of magicians,” on the grounds that not everyone knows what a magical order is. Adding “centuries-old” reinforces that the Guild is a magical tradition with a long history, which does become relevant in the story.

At the end of the first paragraph, the new blurb changes “investigate” to “solve.” This simplifies the language and prevents “investigate” and “investigation” from being used together. And at the end of the sentence, I can mention “her mother’s untimely death” without it being repetitive.

The second paragraph doesn’t change as much. I replaced “Her” with “Sara” on the grounds that this is a new paragraph, but otherwise the first sentence is unchanged. In the second sentence, I added “ruthless” to “killer” for emphasizing the danger of the situation, and changed “confront” to “face” to simplify the language. The em-dash in the new blurb is also for emphasis.

For the second half of the sentence, I got rid of “rival” because it was confusing (rival to whom?) and put in “order of dark magicians.” “Order of magicians” goes in place of “order” for clarity, and “dark” once more emphasizes the danger. I also have made it clearer that the dark magicians are seeking to destroy Sara herself rather than the blander “her family.”

The first half of the last sentence is unchanged. The second half is revised a bit for clarity. “Trapped forever” emphasizes the danger one more time, and finally, “spirits of the town” are replaced with “restless dead of Ipswich.” That makes it clear that we’re talking about spirits of the dead, not land-spirits or something else, and naming Ipswich once more is good because that’s the title of the book. “Restless dead” also alludes to my back cover tagline, “These Restless Dead.”

So there you have it. If you write book blurbs yourself, I hope that you find this breakdown useful. Clarity is good, short and direct prose is good, and enough buzzwords to identify the genre of what you are writing is good. The more direct and informative you can make your blurb, the better.