Are Bloggers the New Gatekeepers?

Read the first chapter online
This week, I was interviewed by Jane Friedman on her Writers Digest Blog, "There Are No Rules."  The title of the interview is "Are Bloggers the New Gatekeepers in Publishing?"

Please stop by and give it a look. In it I discuss my recent self-publishing venture involving my 2001 novel, An Uncommon Enemy. Those who have been following my progress on this project will already know how a review and excerpt of the novel on the Kindle Nation blog sent sales of the ebook soaring into the bestseller range a few weeks ago. 

An Uncommon Enemy's success stands in contrast to the sales figures for its sequel, The Second Glass of Absinthe, published as an ebook and a mass market paperback by Macmillan the same week. How does a self-published book out-sell its New York-published counterpart?

Price may be one factor. Enemy's list price on Amazon is $2.99.  Absinthe retails at $7.99. That's a hefty price differential.  Still, the decisive difference may be that I, as the publisher, took the trouble to increase my book's exposure to the reading public.  No one can buy a book if they don't know it exists.

I want to thank Jane Friedman for the opportunity to share my views and my experiences on this interesting new topic of digital publishing. Her blog is filled with the latest information on all aspects of publishing today. I am now a regular reader and believe writers can learn valuable information on all aspects of the trade. Be sure to visit There Are No Rules

And STAY TUNED...the trade paperback version of An Uncommon Enemy is in the works.


Happy Birthday, Victoria Woodhull!

On this day in 1838, a woman was born who would change American history forever--Victoria C. Woodhull.  She would become the first woman to run for the U.S. presidency, but that is only one in a long list of "firsts" for this remarkable woman.

Born into poverty in Ohio and given little formal education, she married at fourteen and gave birth a year later to a handicapped son. Her new husband proved to be an alcoholic, incapable of supporting her, so she was forced at the tender age of fifteen to become the primary breadwinner for herself, her child, and even her husband, whenever he managed to be on the scene.

She supported herself as a spiritualist--a popular and lucrative career for a woman in the mid-Nineteenth Century when women's options were few.  Just after the Civil War, she met her future husband, James Blood, in St. Louis.  They fell madly in love, divorced their current spouses and quickly married.

Blood was an intellectual and a social radical. He tutored Victoria in all manner of political discourse of the day and recognized not only her astonishing intellect, but her amazing gift for oratory.  They moved to New York and together with Victoria's younger sister, Tennessee Claflin,  started a radical newspaper, Woodhull & Claflin's Weekly.  They opened the first women's brokerage house on Wall Street.

Victoria began speaking out on women's issues, particularly suffrage, and was the first to address the Judiciary Committee of Congress on the issue of whether women were "persons" within the meaning of the newly passed Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the constitution. (A topic still inciting controversy to this very day.) She became famous--some would say, notorious-- for her advocacy of the notion of Free Love.  She knew through her own hard experiences in life what many women's rights advocates of her time did not: that women needed much more than the vote to achieve a fair and equal place in American society.  They needed a full bank of rights--liberalized divorce laws, fair property rights, in short--equal protection under all the laws.

Available on Amazon
This is just a short introduction to the life of this amazing woman.  I found her so fascinating, I included her as a character in my next novel, Séance in Sepia (coming in October 2011).  To learn more about Victoria, there are several good biographies available.  My favorite is: Notorious Victoria, by Mary Gabriel.

A comprehensive website to visit is http://www.victoria-woodhull.com/


The Victorian West Welcomes Sarah Johnson

Readers of historical fiction may already know Sarah Johnson. She is a reference librarian at Eastern Illinois University, but she is best known to the literary world as the editor of the Historical Novel Review, the magazine of the Historical Novel Society, a position she has held for the past 11 years.  She has written two books surveying the field of historical novels, covering over 7,000 books--a resource to both librarians building their collections as well as lovers of the genre.

She reviews novels and interviews authors on her excellent blog:  Reading the Past
Today she has been kind enough to visit my site and share her personal definition of the Victorian West novel and her choices for the best representations of this sub-genre.

Reading the Victorian West: A Few Personal Picks
By Sarah Johnson

I’d like to thank Michelle for the invitation to write a guest post for her blog.  Although I’m a native Yankee now living in Illinois, I’ve spent many a summer vacation driving around and visiting historic towns out west.  To me, the phrase “Victorian West” presents a fascinating study in contrasts: rough-and-tumble frontier settings meet up with high society manners, elegant dress, ornate Victorian-style architecture, and classic small-town politics.  Reading historical novels with these settings lets me envision how people lived and interacted at this exciting point in time.  Here are some of my favorites.

Richard Wheeler (who I see has recently contributed a guest post here himself) is a superb author of historical westerns.  Whether he’s writing biographical fiction that reveals the human side of famous western personalities or sprawling epics about mining boomtowns notched high in the Rockies, his novels illustrate the diversity of the Western experience, and they’re remarkably free of stereotypes or clichés.  Second Lives, which may be my all-time favorite western novel, not only showcases Denver at the height of the Gilded Age but also serves as a brilliant character study of down-on-their luck men and women hoping for a new shot at life.

Among other Colorado-set novels, Ann Parker’s Inez Stannert mysteries set in 1870s-80s Leadville, beginning with Silver Lies, center on a strong woman striving to make her way in a man’s world.  A straight-talking saloon owner who can deal cards with the best of them, Inez also gets to show her vulnerable side, and her romantic interest, the Rev. Justice Sands, gets my vote for sexiest minister west of the Mississippi

Leadville’s most famous celebrity couple, Horace and Baby Doe Tabor, figures in many historical novels (John Vernon’s All for Love may be the best known), but what of Horace’s long-suffering wife, Augusta?  Jane Candia Coleman’s magnificent first-person novel Matchless (alt. title Silver Queen) demonstrates not only her independence and fortitude, roughing it as the first woman in Colorado’s silver mining country, but also her wisdom in knowing how to stay afloat during the era’s big reversals of fortune.  And while we’re spending time high in the Colorado mountains, I can’t resist mentioning Michelle’s own Never Come Down, an entertaining multi-period romantic drama set in the ghost town of Leap Year. I love novels that unravel genealogical connections, and the suspenseful plot kept me guessing.

Moving further West, Cecelia Holland’s duology Railroad Schemes and Lily Nevada follows one of her most fascinating fictional creations, bookish gambler’s daughter Lily Viner, as she teams up with an Irish outlaw on heists along the rails in 1850s Los Angeles and later becomes a famous actress in San Francisco.  Nora Simms, the prostitute heroine of Erika Mailman’s Woman of Ill Fame, establishes her independence in a very different sort of way, aiming to climb society’s ladder one customer at a time.  This unabashedly bawdy tale stands out thanks to Nora’s witty narrative voice and joyous, unbridled greed. Mailman presents Gold Rush-era San Francisco as an ethnically diverse, colorful place with opportunity and risks aplenty, especially for those in Nora’s profession.

Women kept up with social proprieties even in isolated 19th-century frontier towns, and Jeanne Williams’ Lady of No-Man’s Land appealed to me because of its resourceful heroine, a Swedish immigrant who uses her talent for sewing to make a living in a new and unfamiliar country.  Kirsten Mordal, only seventeen when the novel begins, endures many hardships, including the death of her sister, brutal weather conditions, treacherous outlaws, and the knowledge that the man she loves is already married.  It’s not a depressing story at all, however, but one of strength, patience, and triumph.  You can’t go wrong with any of Williams’ western novels, particularly if you like reading about strong women overcoming adverse circumstances.

Likewise, one doesn’t think of the plains of north Texas in the late 19th century as the pinnacle of high society (and it wasn’t), but Clay Reynolds’ The Tentmaker depicts the growth of a western town from its earliest beginnings as a gathering of handmade tent-shelters to a full-fledged settlement with a saloon, general store, and even a madam-with-an-attitude.  Victorian virtues didn’t always trump the lawlessness of the rowdy frontier, but I had a great time watching these colorful characters attempt to establish a civilizing influence on the gritty and violent western landscape.


Reindeer Games

The ebook revolution has been nearly fifteen years in the making, but sometimes the success of one invention requires the invention of another.  Builders had the method to create skyscrapers long before they had the initiative to do so.  Tall buildings could not meaningfully exist before the invention of the elevator.  Sure, people were capable of walking up and down thirty flights of stairs but it was scarcely desirable or practical to do so.

Books could be read on computer screens for decades, but it was not an enjoyable experience. The last two years have seen the introduction of a variety of ebook readers that not only mimic the traditional experience of reading a paper book, but now in many ways enhance, even exceed that experience.

Adjustable text sizes eliminate the need for those #$%&-ing reading glasses. Online page syncing allows the reader to simultaneously read the same book on multiple devices--Kindle at home, smart phone with Kindle app on the lunch break? No more sitting in that dentist's waiting room thumbing through year-old copies of People Magazine. (Only to learn the depressing news that the same Lindsey Lohan stories are printed every year.)

But the Kindle, Nook, and iPad were not the first portable reading devices.  I bought a Rocket eBook back in 1998.  It cost a staggering $499 (remember these are 1998 dollars, too), but I was so excited that I sold my first novel to a royalty-paying ebook publisher that I could not wait to embrace the future of reading. The Rocket eBook was a nice reading device, not very different from the Kindle in size and page appearance.  It was much heavier, I recall.  Battery size and weight have aided the new generation of ebook readers.

The various writers' groups I belonged to back in those days gave the ebook concept a collective cold shoulder.  Few of those groups would grant me "published author" status--I was not allowed to join in any reindeer games--because they informed me with confidence that "Ebooks are not Real books."

That now seems like such a quaint notion, especially given the fact that ebooks have out-sold hardcovers for the last several months. What the next fifteen years will bring to my home library, I cannot even imagine...but I bet it's going to be fun. (she said, as she composed this blog on her iPad.)


The Victorian West Welcomes Richard S. Wheeler

Richard S. Wheeler is the author of more than 60 published novels.  He is best known for his historical novels, for which he has won five Spur Awards plus the Owen Wister Award for Lifetime Achievement in the literature of the American West.  He also writes mystery novels under the name Axel Brand.

I have had the good fortune to know Richard for nearly a decade. He graciously agreed to read and blurb my first Eden Murdoch novel, AN UNCOMMON ENEMY, before I ever met him. His generosity to his fellow authors is as big as his wonderful talent.

I want to share his thoughtful essay on the tumultuous state of publishing today and why he feels the current and coming changes will benefit that industry and all those involved in it.

A Rosy Future    by Richard S. Wheeler

Available now on Amazon.com
The more I consider the future of American publishing, the more delighted I am. American publishers are gradually getting rid of various problems that have been the bane of their existence, and also evolving new channels to sell their product.

Their real product is intellectual property, not physical books. Printed books are only one of several media by which intellectual property can be transmitted and sold to customers. The onslaught of the digitized world has great and positive implications for publishing. Books can now be delivered weightlessly in a variety of digital and audio formats, all tailored to each customer's preference.

Technology is swiftly eroding the return system that has afflicted American publishers, but not those in other nations, since the 1930s. Ebooks and POD books are not returnable. Consignment distribution has meant that huge parasitic chains, like BN, have been able to stock their entire stores at minimal cost; the actual burden has been on the publishers, with BN delaying payment for its merchandise more or less indefinitely, at enormous cost to publishers, simply by returning books and using the credit to order new ones.

The transportation costs of moving books are enormous. Paper is heavy. The return system operates at high cost. All those heavy books have to be shipped, examined, warehoused, and resold or remaindered. And the accounting will be greatly simplified. Books delivered electronically are not only weightless, they are not subject to return, and that will be true of audio delivery as well. The enormous cost of hauling paper around, and warehousing paper, will be greatly diminished.

Another prospect is local printing in local bookstores, which also mitigates transportation costs. Customers can have the title of their choice manufactured in a few minutes, in cozy stores that feature display copies and covers more than actual titles, and trucking companies, UPS, the postal service, or FedEx won't get a nickel out of it, apart from delivering supplies to local stores.

Authors will benefit not only from higher royalties but also because the traditional reserve against returns will no longer be necessary in some cases, and authors will be paid promptly instead of having to wait several years. Publishers will be able to produce small editions profitably, which could revive mid-list titles and specialized editions. And that means that many fine authors, currently shut out of commercial publishing, could be profitably published.

Existing accounting is so complex that it eats deeply into publishers' budgets, but the elimination of consignment distribution will radically reduce accounting costs, and simplify royalties.

I am not worried about the collapse of the chains. That will not sink publishers, and will, after some initial difficulty, result in a far more rational and economic system of selling publishers' intellectual property in all forms. The chains are parasitic, burdening publishers with the cost of stocking those huge stores, and the publishers are well rid of them.

The industry is suddenly going light: much of that heavy paper, many of those semis full of books, most of those burdensome warehouses, most of the cost of packaging, including cover and jacket design, will disappear. Press a few buttons and an audio book will be transmitted to your personal listening device, including your computer. No more CDs to make and sell and mail.

There may be some chaos as the chains collapse, but the future of American publishing is as rosy as it gets.

[Reprinted from A Curmudgeon's Diary with permission.]


A beautiful bookstore; a day spent among friends...plus Absinthe!

On Saturday, September 4th, the Kansas City chapter of Sisters in Crime and the I Love A Mystery Bookstore hosted an Absinthe Party to celebrate the paperback release of The Second Glass of Absinthe.

I hope all in attendance had as much fun as I did. In addition to showing some of the absinthe-inspired works of art created by Manet, Van Gogh, Degas, and Picasso, I demonstrated the absinthe ritual and handed out little samples of the Green Muse to anyone curious about whether the fabled libation might enhance their creativity (as those 19th Century artists and poets claimed).



A few weeks ago, I re-published my 2001 novel, AN UNCOMMON ENEMY.  Originally published (and nearly forgotten) in the tragic week following September 11th, I believed the story deserved a second chance. The moral and political controversies raised after Custer’s attack on a peaceful Cheyenne camp on the Washita in 1868 were not so different from the questions faced by America in the wake of 9/11. I felt the issues posed still resonate, so I hoped the book might somehow find a new readership. 

I never imagined what would take place last Thursday night.

Kindle Nation, a blog for Kindle users, favorably reviewed the novel and posted its first chapter online. Within hours, the Amazon sales ranking jumped from #124,000th to #127th in the Kindle store.  By the next morning, AN UNCOMMON ENEMY was the #1 Western novel across ALL formats on Amazon, paper or pixel.  Number One!  The raw power of a single very influential blog to move an otherwise forgotten novel in this totally-new publishing landscape is striking. 

I also learned another lesson.  Bookstores--and the publishing industry itself--tend to force all books into narrow genres and all readers down narrow aisles.   Bloggers need not follow such dictates or conventions, and can allow their readers to self-sort their book selections without restriction.  The Kindle Nation blog, for instance, is ecumenically focused on all Kindle readers, regardless of book genre.  Think of the effect this had on my sales when Stephen Windwalker, of Kindle Nation, summed my book up this way: 

"If it weren't for my efforts to be genre-agnostic, I probably would not have gotten hooked on this novel. But the fact is that it can't be pigeon-holed in a genre; it's just a great story, well told, with totally unexpected, astonishingly well-imagined characters."

Kindle readers, who might never walk down the Western aisle of a Barnes and Noble, or read a western-themed magazine reviewing books of interest, were instantly exposed to my cross-genre novel.  (Which is more a general “historical novel” than a true “Western.”) For a brief moment, it did not have to compete for their attention with 120,000 other volumes lining the shelves and capping the ends of any bookstore.  

Bottom line: AN UNCOMMON ENEMY found an uncommon friend, for which I am very grateful.